Test-driving Hart’s view of Suffering

Posted: July 5, 2012 by J in Discipleship, Theology

I recently wrote a review of David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea.

I’m interested in exploring Hart’s critique and alternative to the Calvinist view of evil and suffering, from different angles – especially pastoral ones. Does Hart’s approach offer any help in the difficult area of comforting those who suffer and grieve? Does it offer any resources for the sufferer that might make inject hope and strength into the midst of their darkness and despair? How would it affect the way we pray or teach others to pray in times of distress, if we adopted his view?

What I have in mind is, sometimes when a teaching of the church doesn’t seem to work that well for most people, even for believers, that may be a sign that the teaching is faulty. Certainly worth investigating further. And if an alternative teaching seems to work better for Christians, that might be a sign that it’s closer to the mark. Not conclusive, but significant.

I want to ask first what comfort each position might hold out for sufferers.

Those holding the Calvinist view trust that everything that happens to them comes from the hands of God. He controls all. Nothing can escape from his overarching will. Even the evil that God hates, when it happens to us, God has intended it for us, for our good. For God is good. Behind all evil, is the God who is able to, who has promised to, bring good out of any situation, even out of great evil. The evil things happening to us then are no threat to God’s sovereign rule. Though events seems random and grievous, they are really all part of the plan of God. Suffering is ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world’ (C.S.Lewis).

This view holds out comfort at the ‘world-view’ or existential level. All is not lost with the world, as it often seems to be. God has not abandoned us to meaningless suffering. He is very near, and is in control. There is a rational explanation for all of this evil, even though to us it makes no sense. If we can bear to accept it, the idea that a loving God is behind our suffering might help us hold on and not feel lost or terrified.

In Hart’s view, events that happen cannot be simply equated with God’s will. His rule is not completely followed in the world at present. He leaves creatures free to act against his wishes. The evil that God hates, is not his intention for us. For God is good. God is not behind evil. While he is able to bring good out of anything, evil and suffering are not simply to be thought of as his tools. Rather, the evil things happening to us are a real threat to God’s sovereign rule – a threat he will thoroughly deal with. Events seem random and grievous, out of control – and they really are. Futility is the curse the creation has fallen into. But God will rescue us.

This view of the world is much bleaker at one level. The suffering of children really is futile and just plain evil, not working for a greater good. God has given up the world to meaningless suffering. There is no rational explanation for much that happens. It makes no sense to us – and no sense to God too.

Somehow, however, sufferers do say that they find this sort of talk helpful and comforting. It seems to acknowledge their pain and validate their experience in a way nothing else does. It agrees with their instinctive rejection of the evil happening – this thing is wrong!

In Hart’s approach, the actual hope is largely future. God will not leave things as they are – he has brought evil into judgement at the cross, and is extending his rule over the creation once again. Rescue is coming.

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