Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Suffering, the Cross of Christ, and the Goodness of God

Growing up with a theology professor for a father, I was fortunate to have shared the experience of Timothy who, from childhood, had "been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make [one] wise for salvation through faith in Messiah Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15 [ESV, alt. JRM]).  This meant, as anyone acquainted with Protestantism in lineal descent from the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin knows, that I was soaked—and rightly so!—in Saint Paul's "theology of the cross."  As far back as I can remember, I have placed my faith in the crucified and risen Christ alone for "salvation," understood in the sense of spending eternity in the presence of God.

As my knowledge of the faith, not to mention my theological sophistication, has grown over the years, I continue steadfastly to cling to the cross, as did the old Anglican curate, Augustus Toplady, who penned these immortal words in the third stanza of his 1763 hymn "Rock of Ages":
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Over the years, I have often told my students that the one good thing about being McGahey—and, believe me, being myself has often gotten me into trouble, whether deserved or not—is that self-righteousness is not a sin or delusion to which I am constitutionally prone.  To such a man as myself, the Pauline message of the cross is good news indeed.

As the years have passed and the tribulations of life have inexorably reared their ugly heads, however, I have found increasing comfort in another aspect of the theology of the cross, namely, what the cross teaches us about God.  I touched briefly on this in my Good Friday meditation on John Donne's poem, "Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward."  The same thought is broached more fully in an article posted last week by Mark Galli on the website of Christianity Today, which I heartily recommend.

The so-called "problem of evil"—how can a supposedly good and sovereign God allow the suffering and misery endured by so many of his creatures?—has been part of the stock arsenal of agnostic and atheistic critics of all theistic systems for hundreds of years, particularly since the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  In more recent years, the thought of God's assignation of countless multitudes of his human creatures, especially children and people never exposed to the message of Christ, to an eternity of torment in hell has provoked negative reactions from Christians as well (along with the inevitable, vigorous counter-reactions).  This was made evident with breathtaking clarity in last year's kerfuffle over Rob Bell's Love Wins.  Similarly, even more learned theologians like Roger Olson have argued strenuously against Calvinism (which he somewhat tendentiously defines in supralapsarian terms) for its supposed teaching that God actively predestines people to hell.

I would, as a Calvinist, suggest that any "Christian" who does not acutely feel or acknowledge the theological tension here, who fails to grieve deeply and puzzlingly over the prospective destiny of those who die without Christ, and who inevitably reneges on his or her evangelistic responsibilities, simply fails to demonstrate the compassionate mind of Christ given us by the Spirit.  Those of us who do, however, have but one place to look, viz., to the cross.  For, as Galli argues, it is there that we gaze upon the face of God as he has revealed himself to us in his goodness.  For, as I would say, it is on the cross that we see the self-substitution of God for fallen humanity, God himself suffering not only indignity, but the penal consequences of human sin as well.

A generation ago the late John Stott made a startling confession:
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross.  The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross'.  In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? ... [I turn] to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! (The Cross of Christ, 335-36)
At the time I was somewhat mystified by the statement.  I am no longer.  At the time I was studying for my Ph.D. in New Testament, and had been trained well in classic systematic theology, one of whose doctrines is the supposed "impassibility" of God.  I understand, of course, what this doctrine is intended to safeguard, namely, the perfection and "immutability" of God.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that the denial of feeling, emotions—yes, even suffering—to God necessitates both that we anthropomorphize (and anthropopathize) away too much of the Old Testament portrayal of God and that we succumb to an attenuated, Hellenized picture of God as "the infinite iceberg of metaphysics" (Vincent Tymms, cited by Stott, 331).

I don't have the answers to all the questions I, let alone others, have asked about the sovereignty of God and how this (clear) teaching of the Bible intersects with such matters as God's goodness and the eternal state of those who die without Christ.  What I do have is the portrait of the Son of God hanging on the cross in my behalf, placarded before my mind's eye by the proclamation of his apostles, not least Saint Paul.  And that is enough for me to know that my God is indeed good, and that I will have an eternity in which to contemplate his exhaustive wisdom that appears so opaque to me now.

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