The recent discussions of David Bentley Hart on suffering may have seemed a little unbalanced because they omitted to discuss an important category of suffering: that of Christ and his followers.
It is one thing to say that God does not will evil or suffering in general: it’s another to claim that he doesn’t will suffering for his Son or his people.
The well-known text from Isaiah 53 puts it at its most stark: ‘Yahweh delighted to crush his servant with pain’.
The Cross doesn’t seem to fit into Hart’s general description of God’s distance from human suffering. It seems Hart and co. will need to have a special category for the suffering of the Messiah and his people. Can such a special category be justified? Or is Jesus’ suffering actually paradigmatic for all suffering – pushing us back to a traditional Calvinist position that God wills suffering in general?
I want to explore this in two parts: Christ’s suffering, and our suffering in connection with him.
The Suffering of the Messiah
Jesus knew he had to ‘suffer greatly’ (Mark 8:31). This was his calling: it was ‘necessary’ (Luke 24:26), indeed it was ‘written’, i.e. in the Jewish Scriptures (Luke 24:46). Suffering was not incidental to the Messiah’s work, but central. This is repeated over and over in the Synoptics/Acts. It is clearly God’s purpose for his son. What is rarely explained there is why. What was this suffering supposed to achieve?
Paul says very little on this subject: we are largely reliant on John, Hebrews and Peter for direct answers. Peter explains that Jesus’ suffering was ‘for sins’. The context of Jesus’ sufferings is one of sacrifice and atonement. This is difficult for us: the category is so foreign to our culture. But for Jews of Jesus’ day sacrifice was home territory. In their OT Scriptures the suffering of an animal had a cleansing or atoning effect, reconciling people to God. And in 4 Maccabees, this atoning significance is extended to the suffering of martyrs (4 Mac. 17:22). So the idea of a man suffering as a ‘lamb that takes away sins’ (John 1:29) would have made some sense to first century Jews.
It’s not easy for us today to get a sense of how sacrifice ‘works’. Sometimes the idea is substitutionary: the ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac. Other times there is a sharing of fates or pain: Jesus is ‘forsaken’ and ‘handed over’ to the Gentiles – the exact fate which Israel had suffered for the past 600 years (cf. e.g. Isaiah 54:5-7; Ezra 9:6). There is something important about the finality of death: the problem dies with the sacrifice. The death of the animal puts an end to the suffering or guilt or debt of the people. In all of this, we can say that the idea of representation seems to be core. The sacrifice represents or stands for the people in some way.
In view of this sacrificial aspect to Jesus’ suffering we can begin to clarify God’s part in it. The sufferings of the Messiah belong to the category of general human sufferings which Hart says God does not will. The pains Jesus bears are our pains. God did not choose that these sufferings exist or that we should suffer them. We humans chose them for ourselves, and they are inflicted on us by the dark powers that enslave us.
The choice for God was whether we should go on labouring under the power of sin and death forever, or whether Jesus would share it and put an end to it. God chose the latter path.
This suffering is not God’s tool. On the contrary, he hates it and is determined to destroy it. So much so, that God was willing to pay the cost of sending his Son into our sufferings to the point of death.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24
In this sense Jesus’ pains are in a special category: God does not generally will his creatures’ misery, but he did will that Jesus should bear it for them. This is the uniqueness of Jesus and the uniqueness of the cross. It seems Hart’s position is not threatened by the NT teaching on Jesus’ death.
There is another strand of thinking about Jesus’ suffering, largely in Hebrews: that God intended it to shape and teach him. This seems to mainly relate to Jesus learning to be human.
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. Hebrews 2:17-18
There is a clear connection here with Peter’s description of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. Thus the conclusions about God’s involvement, above, apply to this ‘character development’ strand also. It is not that God generally uses suffering as a teaching tool: but in order for Jesus to identify fully with suffering humanity, he had to submit to this unusual, harsh tuition. He had to learn suffering. In this sense, God willed it.
In summary, the NT teaching about God’s involvement in Jesus’ suffering cannot be abstracted and generalised into a paradigm for all suffering. It must be read in the context of salvation history, and in particular of the unique calling of the Messiah.
Tomorrow: God’s will that we should suffer in Christ