Extracting Nectar From a Painted Rose
November 5, 2013
A few years ago, Harvard scholar and author, James Wood, wrote a review of Bart Ehrman's, God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer, entitled "Holiday in Hellmouth." Wood is an eloquent, penetrating, and insightful thinker and his relatively brief review is perhaps the best, most concise, and accessible articulation of what many see as the "problem" with "the problem of evil" and the various responses that have been offered to it. Wood is rightly repulsed by any discussion of the problem of evil that remains within the cold confines of academia. He loathes the "sterile laboratories of the professional theodicists, where white-coated philosophers quite often crush suffering down to the logician's granules of P and Q." For him, as for most, the "problem of evil" is located, not in the ivory tower, but in the intense tension that is naturally felt between the incalculable amount of suffering in this world and the existence of God.
And Wood is personally involved in the problem. In this review, he recounts his struggle to believe in God, even as he was raised in a Christian home. He determined, at one point in his teens, to bi-columnize a sheet of paper and to write down, in one column, reasons for believing in God, and, in the other, reasons against. Unanswered prayer was a "major entry" on the negative side of the ledger, but so were the failed responses to "theodicy:"
Theodicy, or, rather, its failure, was the other major entry on my debit side. I was trapped within the age-old conundrum: the world is full of pain and wickedness; God may be jealous but is also merciful and all-loving (how much more so, if one believes that Christ incarnated him). If he has the power to alleviate this suffering but does not, he is cruel; if he cannot, he is weak. I wasn't consoled by the standard responses. Suffering is a mystery, I was told, as is God's absence in the face of suffering. But this was what I was also told when prayers failed to make their mark: the old "incomprehensibility" routine. It seemed to me that the Gospels, central to my family life, made some fairly specific promises and laid on us some fairly specific obligations; yet that specificity could simply go on holiday whenever God himself seemed to have gone on holiday. ("God moves in mysterious ways.")
Wood is familiar as well with more recent theodicies that set forth the cross, God's own suffering, as the primary comfort for those who suffer. But he is not convinced.
A God whose power has been so drastically limited, and who sounds so like us in our abjection, might be loved, but why should he be worshipped? Twenty-five years ago, as I hunched over my piece of paper with its vertical line, I decided that if God existed, which I strongly doubted, then this entity was neither describable nor cherishable but was a vaporous, quite possibly malign force at the horizon of the sayable.
The free will defense, that now-standard response to the problem of evil, itself gains no traction for Wood. More astute than many who focus on this problem, Wood sees some of the inconsistencies of the free will argument. With respect to a free will theodicy, Wood protests:
This is still the best available response to the theodicy problem. But even at sixteen I could see an enormous, iridescent flaw in this colorless argument: it is that the Bible is full of divine intervention, full of infringements of free will. God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and brings plagues, and spares the firstborn of the Israelites (while conveniently murdering the Egyptians'), and, if you accept the New Testament, anoints his son as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. We pray to him precisely because we believe in the power of such intervention. But when we actually need his intervention--say, to put a stop to a few concentration camps--he has . . . gone on holiday again, leaving people to drone on about the paramount importance of unmolested "free will."
Not only so but, wonders Wood, if free will is so valuable as to be worth the trade for an immense proportion of suffering, why will it cease in heaven? Why does it lose its value when we enter that most valued of places, eternal bliss? At this point, says Wood (and here he is dealing more directly with Ehrman's theses), "the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, 'worth' all that pain and suffering?"
In previous articles, we have focused our attention on this most perplexing of problems. We have agreed with much of Wood's analysis. We have affirmed the incompatibility between the repletion of evil and the character of God. We have noted the universal and personal character of evil and suffering. We have agreed with Wood concerning the depth of its consequences in this life. We have even encouraged a focus on the cross, as God himself takes on the pain of suffering and evil. But this response Wood also finds to be grossly insufficient.
There is another element in this problem that, historically and at present, has received little attention. It is an aspect of the problem that is bound up in a faulty method, and Wood's (and Ehrman's) analyses demonstrate it clearly. The faulty method, which itself leads to improper and errant conclusions is, to put it simply, the method of natural theology. This is not to say that all natural theology is bad or that it is, in every case, useless. But it is to say that the way in which Wood approaches the problem requires that he not be satisfied with the responses to it.
The method of natural theology that gives way to this dissatisfaction begins when one takes a purely "horizontal" look at the world, or certain aspects of it, and then attempts to turn the horizontal on its end and to push it "vertically" into infinity. More concretely, Wood looks around at the world, sees the suffering, the pain, the "unanswered" prayers, and all the attendant miseries, and then tries to push his "read" on those problems into the character of God himself; lo and behold, he discovers that no one is there. The problem, however, is that his "read" on the problems will never fit into infinity, because it is, by nature, inadequate to arrive there. It is not possible to begin with facts that will accept nothing but your own interpretation and to end with God's interpretation of those facts. The latter is automatically excluded by, and should presuppose, the former. And Wood (and Ehrman) chose the former alone.
In his discussion of unanswered prayer, Wood quotes from Samuel Butler's "The Way of All Flesh." According to Butler, the uselessness of prayer is analogous to a "bee that has strayed into a drawing room and is buzzing against the wallpaper, trying to extract nectar from one of the painted roses." To pray, in other words, according to Butler (and Wood) is to pretend that what is false is real; it is completely to misinterpret the world around you. It is to assume that the rose is real, and has real nectar in it.
This, of course, is not how prayer is meant to be understood. But the problem is, as a matter of fact, a problem of interpretation, and the problem runs deep and it runs wide. Wood is like the bee, in that he has looked at the world around him, assuming that what he sees is properly understood by him, only to find out that his interpretation of the world cannot produce real roses and real nectar. This is what a faulty natural theology will always produce. It will produce a god who cannot supply the nectar needed; it will produce a world of our own making, and such a world can never fulfill the purpose for which we began to look in the first place.
There is only one way to disabuse ourselves of a faulty natural theology. It is to begin our "horizontal" look at the world in the context of the "vertical." In other words, it is to stand firmly, knowledgeably and unwaveringly on God's character as given in His revelation as we open our eyes to the world around us. More specifically, the only way Wood, Ehrman or anyone else, will begin properly to assess the problem of evil and suffering (or any other problem) is if we are first convinced of the majestic character of God, in all His glory.
God's revelation in and through creation gives us much of that. It is God's "invisible attributes" that God is revealing in creation -- His "eternal power and divine nature" (Rom. 1:20). The problem is that we, in our sin, suppress that knowledge, so we will not acknowledge "the glory of the immortal God" as it is revealed to us through the things that are made (Rom. 1:23). But the truth of God's majesty is given through all of creation; it is known to all who receive it, and every one receives it.
When, through faith and repentance, the scales fall from our eyes, when our hearts of stone are changed by God to hearts of flesh, not only do we acknowledge what we have always known about God in and through creation, but God's special revelation -- His Word -- more fully details His majesty and glory in a way that creation does not. There we read of God's incomprehensible character, His unparalleled wisdom and knowledge, the riches of His holiness.
Here, then, is a first step in thinking about the horrendous amount and depth of evil and suffering -- think about it as giving us a clue to the depth of its opposite, i.e., the infinite depth of God's holiness, purity and glory. The reason, in other words, that suffering and evil are so deeply, painfully and intricately universal is, first of all, because God's majestic character is so infinitely and profoundly glorious -- and the sin that is ours is such an ugly and wicked affront to that infinite character. So, when Wood, Ehrman, and the rest of us are rightly saddened and sickened by the despicable nature of suffering and evil, the first thing we should recognize is this: How infinitely glorious must God be for this amount of suffering to be the recompense for our attempts to usurp that glory? In other words, suffering and evil are as bad as they are because God's character is as glorious as it is.
One can only begin to think this way if one begins, not with natural theology, but with God's own revelation of who He is. So, when Wood asks, "A God whose power has been so drastically limited, and who sounds so like us in our abjection, might be loved, but why should he be worshipped?," he will only find an answer to that question when he recognizes that the "drastic limitation" of (the Son of) God presupposes His full and comprehensive deity, a deity that is infinite in majesty and glory. He should be worshipped, in other words, precisely because He freely chose, in all His glory, to come down, to humiliate Himself, in order that those who come to Him might be glorified with Him. We don't deserve that glory, but it is infinitely intrinsic to who He is.
It is only into this kind of world, to use Butler's analogy above, that the bee can enter and find the needed nectar, which alone can provide comfort when trials and sufferings persist. Wood avers that Job "was restored to health and prosperity as a reward for his righteousness." But this is to miss the main point. Job was not rewarded until he first recognized the character of God. When God confronted Job from the whirlwind, and reminded Job of His incomparable glory, his proper response was to put his hand over his mouth and repent. When he caught a glimpse of God's glory, even in the midst of his horrible suffering, Job had to acknowledge that he had uttered what he did not understand, things too wonderful for him, which he did not know (Job 42:3). It was the majesty of God that "solved" the problem of suffering for him, and it was his repentance that brought forth God's subsequent favor.
Sometimes, when problems this deep confront us, eloquence can be an enemy. When considering the problem of suffering and evil, Job's response of silence and worship, in the presence of God's infinite wisdom and glory, is the only proper place to begin.
Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).