This is part four 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, Part 2, and Part 3.
In this section, Oden brings in the cross of Christ to help us think about these things:
The Mystery of Human Suffering Viewed in the Light of the Cross
The faithful stand in the lively awareness that each of us was there—at the cross. All humanity was there. All sins were representatively being atoned and reconciled. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the black evangelical tradition asks. Each one must finally answer yes or no.
Of the boy who is the main character in the novel Bevis, Richard Jefferies writes: “The crucifixion hurt his feelings very much: the cruel nails, the unfeeling spear: he looked at the picture a long time, and then turned over the page saying, ‘If God had been there He would not have let them do it.’” But the whole point of the cross… is that God was there! For it was God who was on the cross!
Evil Does not Disappear
There is never an adequate theoretical answer to the riddle of suffering because actual suffering wishes most to be solved in practice not in theory. But the cross points to an event in relation to which suffering is transformed from absurdity to renewed meaning.
Even then, suffering remains a continuing mystery even to the faithful, as it did to Job. Paul’s thorn does not go away. The daughters of Eve labor with pain. Rachel weeps. Mary wept.
Christianity does not promise an end of pain, but a word that God shares it with us.
Why the Cross Remains a Meaningful Disgrace
Yet the cross remains repulsive. We turn our eyes away from a public execution. How could it have happened that Christianity could be such an aesthetic and beautiful religion and have such an ugly central symbol?
The answer is that only there do we most fully discover how far God has gone to reach out for us. Before beholding the cross, we were unaware that God was searching for us, reading our hearts, seeking us out, desiring to atone for our sins, ready for reconciliation. The cross is evidence that God the Son comes far out to look for us and is willing to suffer for us as to reconcile us to the Father (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19).
The cross hardly looks like a place where evil is being overcome. Rather it appears to be history’s most massive example of injustice. This is one aspect of the cross that is unavoidable: the brutality of sin. This world is just such a place where such things can and do happen. The innocent do suffer. This we learn from the cross, where the most undeserved suffering and the most deserving goodness meet with devastating irony.
The cross reveals the meaning of history, specially at those points in history where it least appears as though God is truly righteous or where it appears that God may be indifferent to human suffering. The meaning: God suffers for sinners, wiping away their sin.
One of the most amazing facts about the New Testament is that it was written under conditions of radical social dislocation, oppression, injustice, war, written by people who were suffering endangered because of their faith and made more complicated because of their baptism. Yet no book is so filled with hope and joy and mutual support and encouragement. It is virtually free from the bitterness that so prevails in human life. Whatever they had to suffer, they suffered in the awareness of their sharing in the dying and rising Word of life.
The Christian life is a continuing spiritual warfare whose crucial victory is already known and experienced, but whose ancillary battles continue in human history until the last day.
The warfare is deep in the human spirit, appearing in the subtle forms of pride, seduction, greed, and envy. This is not something that can be done away with by means of another march on the capitol, a more searching docudrama, stalwart investigative reporting, a revolution, or a committee for neighborhood improvement, however important those might be. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God” so that “you may be able to stand your ground,” with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, with prayer, with feet prepared for running, and with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:12-18).