What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)?— Part 2


Continued from Part One

As noted before, Conservative Christians tend not to want to say “I don’t know” when it comes to Biblical or Theological questions. Some of that may be cultural. Having taught in a rather conservative seminary, I have certainly met my fair share of students who don’t like “wishy-washy” answers to questions. This is especially common with students who have received their training primarily from TV or Radio preachers (or from local pastors trained by those same individuals) who treat their own opinions as canon. There is something pretty shameful in this.

Perhaps no greater rejection of Mystery is found in Theology than Theodicy. This area seeks to explain or “justify” the existence of evil and suffering in a world created and maintained by an omnipotent and benevolent God. People REALLY don’t like to answer “I don’t know” to questions of Theodicy. I recall a class that I was leading where Psalm 44 was being reviewed. This is a wonderful lament with a lot of ambiguity. Bad things are happening without any simple answer as to why. One of my students, a pastor, did not like this at all… and went through a whole lot of mental gymnastics to show how that Psalm was consistent with his own view of suffering. (Fine… that is each person’s right.) Theodicy is not a strength of mine, but being an administrator of a counseling center certainly has led me to dwell on some of these issues more than some. After all, when someone asks, “Why is this happening to me?” after (or during) a crisis, it begs a theological answer. Although not always. Often it is rhetorical, saying, “I am in pain, please listen to me and be with me.” Still, when an answer is actually requested, what are some of the answers you have heard to this sort of question?

  • It is God’s will. (Do we know this? Doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer, and a number of statements of Jesus, suggest that many things happen that are NOT God’s will?)
  • It is for your good. (Again… do we know this? Certainly many things have indeed ‘come together for good,’ but does this mean that God intentionally did something harmful? And what about situations where redeeming the past is not really feasible?)
  • It is for your punishment. (This works for those who believe like Job’s friends that God only gives enjoyable things to those he favors, and only miserable things to those he does not. However, since Job’s friends were wrong, and much of history seems to bring doubt to this as well, it seems best to question this.

The Bible gives many different answers:

#1. Bad things happen to bad people (and good things happen to good people). Those who like this simple principle are attracted to places like Deuteronomy 24-25, and Proverbs.

#2. Bad things happen to good people. 1 Peter and much of the Gospels makes it clear that suffering is an expected result of faithfulness to Christ.

#3. Bad things and Good things happen to good (faithful) people. Read Hebrews 11.

#4. Bad things and Good things happen to both good and bad people. Read Ecclesiastes.

#5. We cannot know why Bad things or Good things happen to good people. Read Job or Psalm 44. Note that even though the book of Job gives a limited answer to us why bad things happened to Job, that information was not shared to him or others.

#6. We really shouldn’t speculate too much on why Bad things happen to people, especially as to whether they are bad or good. Read Christ’s guidance in Luke 13:1-4.

I am sure there are more answers given, and more nuanced variations of these, but just looking these over should make one reticent in giving universal answers to evil and suffering. Nevertheless, there are still attempts to come up with universal answers. One of my supervisees was leading a class where he was teaching different models for Theodicy. He listed four. They are Christian views and so do not include other answers like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I forget the titles, but the following are the descriptions:

Model One. Suffering exists because God chose to give us Free Will, and that freedom of choice has resulted in a lot of bad things happening. This does not really address Natural Disasters very well, in my opinion. I guess this is more of a Reformed theologian favorite.

Model Two. Suffering exists to give us opportunities to grow. This was promoted by John Hick.

Model Three. Suffering exists in a condition of mutuality with God. God suffers with us in our pain. This is promoted by Jurgen Moltmann, along with, I believe, some Liberation Theologians.

Model Four. I believe this is called the Anti-theodicy view, and rejects coming up with a justification for evil and suffering. Rather, one should focus more on what is practical— What should I do with regards to the the existence of suffering and evil?

I tend to gravitate to the fourth one. The others appear to me to be too narrow. However, I really don’t like the name. “Anti-theodicy” to me suggests a turning off of the mind to the searching and reflecting on this issue. That may not be the intent.

I prefer the term “Mystery.” I like the term because I believe it points to two truths.

First, the ancient meaning of mystery refers to what is hidden. The reason/justification for the existence of evil and suffering has not been fully revealed. It may not be that we lack the faith to accept the truth. It may not be that we have not studied hard enough. It may simply be that God has not fully revealed it… only giving us tiny bits and clues.

Second, in the more modern understanding of mystery, it is something that drives a quest for truth. Just because we may not have been informed fully on this topic does not mean we throw up our arms and say that it is hidden and so a waste of time to even think about. Logical Positivists would state that questions that could not be answered in terms of definitions or empirical tests were meaningless. This is a rather lazy way to avoid most of the most interesting questions out there. To simply say that the reason for evil and suffering is hidden to us by God and so it is a waste of time to consider the question is, I feel, rather like the Logical Positivists.

Instead of that, we can recognize that God may have kept this hidden from us. However, that truth should not invalidate the question. We can grow greatly in questions that cannot be completely answered; but we should be very cautious of anyone who has claimed to answer it fully.

I believe there are a lot of mysteries in the Bible. We don’t really know what Heaven is like— is it a natural paradise? Is it a bejeweled city of gold? It is a giant room with a throne in the center? Is it a place of leisurely perfection, unceasing adoration, or of meaningful service? Each of these can be argued true based on very limited clues we are given. What is Hell actually like? Outside of being a place you or I (or anyone for that matter) would want to be (or perhaps cease to be), we only have hints. What are the actual boundaries of God’s grace? Do we absolutely know who is beyond God’s grace?

Mysteries are not necessarily to be answered… but they are to be explored. When we are given an ambiguous answer, we are in effect, being told “This is the whole truth. Stop looking.”

Happy exploring.

One thought on “What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)?— Part 2

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)? —Part 1 – MMM — Mission Musings

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