What Help Is a Suffering God? -- By: John Ferrer
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What Help Is a Suffering God?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Only a suffering God can help.”1 When he wrote, the full evils of the holocaust had not yet come to light. Nor had the final body count come in for the regimes of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and Lenin. The resurrected Arab–Israeli conflict ala 1948 was still future. And he had not even heard of the “Twin towers.” Bonhoeffer could not have known he was forecasting the popular religious sentiments of the next three–quarters of a century. In broaching the reality of evil and suffering, Bonhoeffer trumpets over the weeping imprisoned masses, echoing their cries saying “Only a suffering God can help.”
God cannot be vindicated by treating evil as illusion. Evil is real, and it is a real problem. In theology and philosophy of religion, a
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separate category is forged for it called the “problem of evil” wherein evil articulates opposition to classical theism. How can there be a good God with so much evil in the world?
Christians have posited various theodicies—defenses of God—including free–will, soul–building, love, and punishment. Yet the problem of evil remains problematic. It does not seem like the kind of problem that is ever resolved fully on this side of eternity. In this existential waiting room we call earth, we have lots of time to squirm and wiggle our way into various worries, doubts, and discomforts. Some, still hoping for rescue or resolution, have clung steadfast to Christian theism but collapse their theology under the felt pressure of this evil–question. A thin line of rescue, they think, is found in the idea that God suffers with us. Bonhoeffer may be right. We can face the evil world, knowing that we are not alone in our anguish. God hurts too. Furthermore, nothing less than a suffering God could dignify and redeem the manifold evil in this post–holocaust era.
I think this maneuver is mistaken. I will argue that a suffering God is a temporary boon to an infinite problem since it removes God from His most rightful status and instead positions Him where human helpers should be. Meanwhile no one else can fill His vacancy. This shuffle leaves His throne unfilled with no one transcendent and sovereign enough to carry out the grand redemption of man. In simpler terms, suffering God theodicies trade the boat to buy an oar, and so they are sunk. “To put it crudely,” as Karl Rahner says, “it does not help me to escape from my mess and mix–up and despair if God is in the same predicament.”2
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