Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Problem of Suffering, Christian Faith, and the Hebrew Mind

When confronted with the twin realities of evil (destructive human action) and suffering (destructive natural phenomena), the Christian believer often feels under pressure to "explain" them in the light of God's goodness, love and sovereignty. We are in fact at the receiving end of nearly 2,000 years of reflection, philosophy and apologetics within the Western Christian tradition that seek to address these issues and respond to the (atheist) question: how can a loving god allow this to happen?

Those of us who are Christian believers may have our various responses to the questions raised. We may have refined and developed them over the years to a point where we at least feel reasonably satisfied with our own explanations.

It is worth reflecting, however, that the Hebrew mind, revealed in the Scriptures, often approaches the question in a different way. Instead of seeking explanation, we find the writers asking questions without apparently seeking to provide answers.

Taken together, this question-asking approach develops into a type of literature that has come to be described as "complaint". It's not "having a moan", but rather asking "why" in an engaged and personally involved way.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of this type of literature.

Speaking thousands of years ago, the God-fearing Job demanded similar answers to those asked by Stephen Fry and other prominent atheists. His questioning of the character of God is breath-taking and audacious. Think about this series of "complaints" for a while, recorded in the Bible for all time for our edification:

"How then can I dispute with him?
How can I find words to argue with him?"

"Even if I summoned him and he responded,
I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
He would crush me with a storm
and multiply my wounds for no reason.
He would not let me catch my breath
but would overwhelm me with misery."

"He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When a scourge brings sudden death,
he mocks the despair of the innocent.
When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
he blindfolds its judges.
If it is not he, then who is it?

"Why does the Almighty not set times for judgement?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?

"The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
Lacking clothes, they go about naked;
they carry the sheaves, but still go hungry.
They crush olives among the terraces;
they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.
But God charges no one with wrongdoing."

The emotional intensity and challenging, almost accusatory tone of this line of questioning may lead some to see it as the speech of an unbeliever. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evidently, the Hebrew mind allowed for the possibility of challenging questions to be put from a position of faith, as Job did, not only from a position of unbelief. 

In a follow-up post, we'll consider what the Hebrew mind does next with these questions, and how it prioritises wisdom (knowing what to do in different circumstances) over watertight philosophical answers in the face of evil and suffering.

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