This is part three in a series of posts about the way Christians have sought to explain suffering and evil in light of God’s goodness. It’s all from Thomas Oden’s book Classic Christianity. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 and Part 2.
In the next section, Oden looks at the way the death of Christ affected human suffering…
How does Christ’s Death Impinge upon Human Suffering?
Christ’s death Negated Neither Our Freedom Nor Natural Causality
Christ’s death did not change the way the world is put together as a natural order of cause and effect. Causality was not banished and the chance that I might harm you was not taken away. That would have paid too high a price for freedom from sin, namely freedom from freedom, a parade of automatons, causal chains without self-determination in a nonhistory lacking freedom.
Christ’s death does not reduce the freedom that risks causing evil and suffering. Rather Christ’s death is proclaimed as the birth of a new freedom amid the complexities of causal chains.
This can be celebrated without attempting to pronounce in detail upon the eternal destiny of each individual. We do well to trust God to care rightly for those who have no heard adequately of divine mercy. The promise is that “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
God Personally Knows the Suffering from Which We Are Saved
But what is meant by punishment for sin? Above all, God knows. For God has felt the full brunt of human violence. Christians know that this has happened as an actual event in human history. God knows fully what we know partially—that sin cannot finally endure in God’s world, that it must be atoned for, paid for, and has been transcended and bound up by God’s love. The cross is the actual event in which that ransom or payment was made once for all. From the moment of Christ’s last earthly breath, the world is redeemed from sin and reconciled to God, and the divine-human account is paid up—a reality in which faith may share.
This does not imply that everything necessarily wills to share in the freedom Christ offers: “If any soul were finally and forever to put aside Him Who has vicariously borne the punishment of sin, it must bear its own punishment, for it places itself under those conditions which brought from Christ’s lips the cry “forsaken”…The alternative is this: to meet the future alone, because forsaken, or to be saved in Him Who was ‘forsaken’”.
The Absurdity of Continued Bondage
How is it possible that one might now continue to remain in bondage to sin, Paul asked in Romans, chapter 6? If actually freed by God from sin, how could one absurdly continue to believe that God is now punishing us for sins already atoned for? To say that is to disbelieve that God has effectively taken punishment for our sins.
The cross has become for Christians a mirror through which humanity may behold both its own sin and God’s willingness to share the suffering that sin creates. Through the cross suffering is, first of all, faced, and borne and, secondly, transcended by the awareness that God confronted, bore, and transcended it. This is Christian theodicy. It is called the good news.