I’m sure by now you all have seen or heard about the interview of Stephen Colbert by Anderson Cooper where they talk suffering, grief, and Colbert brings up his Roman Catholic faith. It was wonderful to see two men dealing, intimately and together, with vehement hurt and emotional pain. Enough of the hyper-sexualized crap; men and women need to and should be friends in intimate and non-sexual ways, and the Church should be realizing the rich store of resources available in her past to rediscover the beauty of Christian friendship. But I digress.
Colbert was quoted as saying (apparently from Tolkien, and I’ve never read this from him until now): “What punishments of God are not also gifts?” Specifically, this was said by Colbert in a 2015 interview with GQ about his own reflection on the lamentable and tragic death of his dad and brothers. (here). Cooper, in their interview, reads this back to him and asks, “do you really believe that?” to which he simply responds, “yes.” It’s pretty profound and I hope Cooper is receiving the salve and hope he needs to respond to his own grief (I believe it was his mother that recently died). However, I think there are some tricky theological paths to travel here, paths that if not trod carefully and with reverence can end up giving false hope and a sense of peace where there is no peace. Furthermore, I think there’s an equivocation happening that we must be careful to hash out a little more clearly.
What do Tolkien and Colbert mean?
Philosophers and Theologians have wrestled, like Jacob with God, for centuries trying to attain the blessing of a clear “answer” to the question of suffering, evil, and pain (Genesis 32). Why doesn’t God do something? Couldn’t God have just made it all perfect and avoided all this trash, this hurt we creatures experience on a day-to-day basis (especially those less fortunate)? Maybe evil means there isn’t a God because if there were, there’d be no evil. Responses are plentiful: God wanted to create the best world that was “simple in laws and richest in phenomena” and that required suffering (Leibniz); Evil doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a human construction reflecting a human emotion of “I don’t like that thing”; God doesn’t exist (J.L. Mackie and many others); God gave people (including the creatures of the spiritual realm) free will and we abused that, causing destruction and pain (Augustine, Plantinga). There are plenty more. But there’s one that comes very near to what Colbert/Tolkien could be talking about, one that is very dangerous for our conception of God and His goodness, hope in Jesus, and meaning amidst suffering. But before I lay that out I want to set it next to what I think Colbert or Tolkien could be getting at.
I think Tolkien and Colbert could mean a couple things. First, they could mean that “punishments” are God’s direct judgment on us. You did a bad thing and God is gonna take your mom away as punishment. “Who sinned, this man or his parents that they were taken from him at an early age?” It’s straight retributive action. I do not doubt that God can and does act in the world with such punishment (Acts 5!), but not all suffering people experience is because God is actively punishing them. Which leads me to the second thing that could be meant. “Punishment” could mean something akin to what St. Paul got at when he said “the wages of sin is death” in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 6:23a). In this sense, “punishments” are the consequences of a world that is, in C.S. Lewis’s term, “bent.” Something is wrong with the world. Something primordial and ancient in the deep recesses of the creation of all things has gone awry. This Christians call “The Fall.”
It’s difficult to describe something so intangible, but it’s experienced everyday in the most tangible and visceral ways. We all know this. Given this, God nonetheless has acted to put things right. In choosing a people (ancient Israelites) to whom He promised a Messiah (Jesus), God has made Himself known in the coming of Jesus, God’s own Son, God’s communication to us (why Jesus is called the “Word”). Christians claim His crucifixion saved us. It’s weird, it’s gruesome, and I think it’s beautifully true and mysterious and joyful (see Paul in 1 Cor. 1:18). Out of that grotesque figure on the Cross, God brought life and raised Jesus from the dead. This is public truth grasped by faith, bringing us into the community of God’s people (Israel and the Church) to live out a straightened (not bent) way of life and awaiting the straightening of all things.
Because God brought such life and salvation out of such a horror as the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians can be assured that no brokenness or pain is beyond the Spirit of God to redeem and out of which good can be brought. If this good is a “gift,” and such pain is “punishment,” then I think Colbert and Tolkien are proclaiming a paradoxical and joyous truth: suffering can be borne with gratitude and joy (even though it sucks and you feel horrible. That’s the paradox). In suffering like our Lord, we are made perfect, for His “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Weakness and suffering and pain and joy and hope and peace are part and parcel of the Way of Jesus, because beyond it is Life eternal in the renewed creation.
What could go wrong?
But there is something Tolkien says in his letter from which that quote comes, something that I’ve heard in the way people have been talking about this interview, that is theologically dubious and, though seemingly comforting, a false hope.
Tolkien states that such “punishments” are gifts that “produce a good not otherwise to be attained” (quoted here). That last part is massively problematic. Let me try to lay out why I think this. (Note: this isn’t my own private conclusion, but rather I’ve come to see this as what Christian Theology has taught especially in the early Church Fathers who reflected on questions of suffering, evil, and God’s goodness. Maybe it’s slightly mistaken in some way, but I think the overall picture is sound and fits best within the larger tapestry/narrative of Christian Theology found in Scripture.)
David Bentley Hart lucidly challenges bad theology regarding suffering and evil, and with hopeful abandon lays out a Christian Theological response to evil and suffering in his little book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s an amazing book, one that’s brought me to tears multiple times. I cannot recommend it enough, though his writing is a little dense at times. But in such a short book he manages to lay out the beauty, truthfulness, and mystery of the Christian Gospel, the Good News that in Jesus God has come to rescue His creation from decay and death. (though Hart is a Universalist, I don’t think what he says requires one to affirm that position. I’m not a Universalist and I think the theology in his book fits perfectly well with the witness of Scripture)
Having set forth some responses to and positions on the 2004 Tsunami in Asia by various Christians published online, he responds to them: “As incongruent as the various positions were one with another, one common element was impossible to overlook: each man, solicitous as he was of God’s perfect righteousness, clearly seemed to wish to believe that there is a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature’s violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum. This is an understandable impulse. That there is a transcendent providence that will bring God’s good ends out of the darkness of history – in spite of every evil – no Christian can fail to affirm. But providence (as even Voltaire seems to have understood) is not simply a “total sum” or “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind.” (p. 29).
We often try to fit every single instance of suffering into some scheme of God’s in which it is all justified. If we can just get something good out of the suffering, the pain, the loss, then that experience “makes sense” to us. In other words, the suffering has meaning. In the instance of that statement by Tolkien and the ways I’ve heard this interview discussed, the gut-wrenching experience is rationalized or fit into a scheme that makes the pain necessary to some end. And while anytime something “makes sense” to us (“oh ok I can see how that’d be…”) brings with it a sense of control or stability, Hart wants to show how that is actually dangerous, giving a false picture of God and therefore no comfort at all to those who are actually suffering.
The issue is with the understanding that some goods are brought about in a way that they “otherwise could not have been obtained.” In other words, there is some good (Colbert notes the compassion for other sufferers, the awareness of other’s losses) that you couldn’t get, and that God couldn’t give you, apart from such an excruciating experience. There is a truth here that shouldn’t be missed. The human experience of life requires that we move along paths towards goals, and that travel may be difficult. No traveling, no destination, no goal. Between the bottom and top of a mountain is a lot of danger. Our human experience is suffering, and this certainly allows us to meet others in their suffering. That’s fairly straightforward. But let’s not confuse our human experience (the phenomenon of life as we presently experience it) with the way the world should and will be (the life and hope we have in Jesus as New Creations). Sin has distorted all things; nothing is the way it should be. That’s a basic Christian conviction. Therefore, no human experience can be taken as normative (i.e.: your experience cannot be the sole arbiter of what “good” is and what things should be like. This includes things like sexuality, justice, marriage, etc. The understanding of how things should be must be given to us from outside ourselves.).
Humans experience a fallen world. That’s a Christian given of the way reality is. So when Colbert or Tolkien say that to get some good, some moral character or wisdom, by suffering or pain or “change in design” as Tolkien puts it, this must be seen as true to the extent it does not make such an experience necessary to God’s overall plan of salvation. If we go that route, we are in danger of making sense of suffering but ending up with a horrific God. And this is precisely Hart’s criticism of such responses to evil and suffering. We are immediately in the territory of God’s providence and goodness, how God is overseeing all things and bringing them to His good redemptive end. How, in the midst of things, God is good. We must tread carefully and speak slowly, because we’re nearing the edge of human linguistic capacity to speak of things eternal, things not yet seen.
To put it as clearly as I can: God does not need our suffering and it was not necessary for Him in creating to bring evil as well as good. Good and evil do not come as an inseparable pair, even though that’s what it seems like in human experience. Even though we experience our human experience first, before being brought into Christ, this is not what necessarily should be the case. What if our experience, as real and obvious as it is to us, isn’t to be our main guide? The mistake made in thinking that punishments are gifts in this way is to assume that God intended to create a world in which we had to have both good and evil together; that the only way God could get us to “goods otherwise not obtained” is through suffering. But this is to assume our experience is primary, and to try and rationalize and make sense of our experience given God’s providence in a fallen world (a noble endeavor, but gone about the wrong way).
You may wonder: so what? Suffering is a given in human life and we all must deal with it. It will often lead us to ultimate questions; questions of God, meaning, purpose, hope, and death. This all may seem like some tricky theological gymnastics with no connection to actual life. But theology disconnected from life is not theology.
Colbert and Cooper were both, in their particular ways, seeking solace and hope amidst suffering and were exploring this theologically. To think, however, that their wisdom and human understanding could only have been brought about by such suffering (i.e., God had to do it; there was no other way) is to make that suffering intelligible by putting it into an explanatory framework with which we humans can deal. Why am I experiencing suffering? Oh, I get it now: so that God can bring about goods that “otherwise could not have been obtained.” I had to experience this so that I could know…x. This is an explanation with which we finite humans can somehow get a grasp on the processes of an infinite Creator, thereby making sense of our suffering. Or so we think.
To accept such a rationalization is to affirm that God could not have done otherwise when He created. His hands were tied; He had to create a world in which both evil and good exist side by side. And therefore we must experience both, with good coming from evil and “punishments” bringing some goods, like solidarity with others who suffer. But what kind of God is that? Is this the God we Christians worship in Jesus? The God who is beyond time and space, who is not just another “thing” in the universe, but rather Goodness itself? No. God does not need suffering, or death, or decay to accomplish His purposes; such a God would be horrific. Yet we experience them. So what do we do?
Rather than rationalize our suffering into some framework that makes it all “make sense,” better to live in the paradox of our experience with God’s power and providence evidenced in the Cross. Hart notes that, when thinking and speaking about pain and suffering, “one must be careful to draw a clear distinction in one’s language between a recognition of our gracious participation in Christ’s unique victory over death and any attempt to conscript death into a perfect alliance with God’s saving action in history” (p. 80). God’s plan, His will, does not need death and evil; yet he allows it. Why? This is where we must, though the temptation is strong, resist explaining our suffering (in the sense we usually try to, that makes sense to us), and look to the Cross instead.
“Evil can have no proper role to play in God’s determination of himself or purpose for his creatures, even if by economy God can bring good from evil” (p. 74, emphasis added). God can and does bring good from evil. Included in this is our ability to commiserate, to empathize, to be with others in suffering having learned from our experience of similar suffering. Such things are profound comforts. But to think that this is the only way God could bring that comfort about is to trade in false though seemingly rational theologies.
Rather, your and my suffering is literally meaningless. Your and my suffering has no ultimate purpose in God’s plan of redemption, no ultimate control on your life, no ultimate meaning in all things. Because we live in the midst of two “orders,” two “eons”: that of death and decay and old things, and that of life and the New, the Kingdom of God in Christ. To live in-between these worlds is agony, or simply, current human experience. Trying to rationalize the agony away does an injustice to the truth of all things: that God will and has triumphed in the Cross. To see this is not easy; it requires labor. And to stop at “God is bringing about a good that you wouldn’t otherwise get” is to stop our imaginations short of the true and rich scriptural picture of God’s good purposes for His broken creation. Hart puts it this way:
“The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn all at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.” (p. 61, emphasis added).
We all know the world as suffering. We all know good things have come out of such suffering. But don’t mistake this with the way things should be. Look, instead, through the veil of death, through suffering, to the Cross, where such suffering and death have been defeated. By doing so, our suffering can be brought into Christ’s suffering, and therefore glorified (not rationalized). We can look upon evil as having no ultimate ability to determine God’s plan of salvation in all things and our individual lives. Therefore, as Hart puts it, we can “hate these things with a perfect hatred” (p. 101).
The final paragraph of the book brings my heart to a singing crescendo that desires to see Jesus, to see all things, including my own suffering and anguish, made new. I’ll end with it.
“Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days. As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy. Such faith might never seem credible to [a skeptic], or still the disquiet of [their] conscience, or give [them] peace in place of rebellion, but neither is it a faith that [their] arguments can defeat: for it is a faith that sets us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead. Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor anymore pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.” (p. 104, emphasis added)