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A Cross-Centered Evaluation of Responses to Tragedy

I’d like to pick up where I left off on my previous post about Draper’s article entitled “Aurora shooting inspires various perspectives on God and belief.” Toward the end of his article, Draper reports on an informal survey conducted by Stephen Prothero on his CNN Blog. Prothero simply asks people to respond to the question: “Where was God in Aurora?” He breaks the more than 10,000 responses he received into seven categories. I’d like to evaluate these seven responses using the crucified Christ as my criterion.

As those who follow this blog, my sermons or my writings will probably know, it’s my conviction that all of our thinking about God must be anchored in the crucified Christ. This is in fact the third conviction of the ReKnew Manifesto. The reason I believe this is that I have very compelling historical, philosophical and existential reasons for believing that Jesus is the very embodiment of God. (See Boyd, Eddy, The Jesus Legend (IVP Academic, 2007.) As the earliest disciples testify, Jesus is the one and only “Word” (revelation) of God (Jn. 1:1) and the one and only “exact representation of God’s being” or “essence” (hypostasis, Heb.1:3). To see Jesus is to see the Father (Jn. 14:8-9).  The fullness of all that makes God God (theotēs) is revealed in him (Col. 2:9), so we need look nowhere else, and should look nowhere else, to know God’s true character. On top of this, I have solid reasons for concluding that Jesus’ self-sacrificial death reveals the essence of all that he was about: namely, manifesting the other-oriented love that is God’s eternal nature. (For more on this, see my reflections on the Christocentric Movement.)

Of course, precisely because I’m compelled to believe in Christ, I also believe in the inspiration of the biblical story he’s a part of, a story Jesus himself endorses. And I don’t deny that we can, to some extent, infer or intuit truth about God from nature, music, reasoning, and other sources. But I’m convinced that whatever is disclosed about God in these other sources must conform to, and be interpreted by, the revelation of God in the crucified Christ. I call this “the cruciform criterion.”

To demonstrate how the cruciform criterion works, I’d like to evaluate each of the seven kinds of answers that Stephen Prothero received when he asked, “Where was God in Aurora?”

1) The first group of answers said: “There is no God.”  This answer would clearly be ruled out by the cruciform criterion, for this criterion stipulates that the cross reveals the essence (hypostasis) of God, which of course presupposes that God exists.

At the same time, I’ve found that virtually everyone who rejects belief in God is rejecting a concept of God that bears little resemblance to the God revealed on the cross. Read the writings of famous atheists such as Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre and you find they are rejecting an ugly, micro-controlling deity, not the beautiful, self-sacrificial God revealed on the cross. To the extent that this group is denying the existence of a deity that does not resemble the crucified Christ, the cruciform criterion would lead us to conclude that they are actually correct. The cruciform criterion would actually lead us to conclude that atheism is closer to the truth than many believer’s mental picture of God.

2) A second group of answers said: “Don’t blame God, blame Satan.”  Given that the crucifixion was in part orchestrated by Satan and other fallen powers (1 Cor 2:8), and given that this self-sacrificial death defeated Satan and his kingdom (Col 2:14-15), it’s clear that the cruciform criterion would lead us to conclude that this second group of answers is correct. At the same time, if in blaming Satan this group was denying that humans were also responsible for this tragedy, this answer would have to be regarded as incomplete.

3) A third group said: “Don’t blame God, blame us (free will).”  Since Jesus was crucified by wicked humans, and since Jesus consistently taught that people can choose to thwart God’s will, to some extent (e.g. Lk 7:30), this answer must also be regarded as correct. Yet, as I just suggested, if in placing the blame on humans this group denied that Satan and other spirit-agents were also responsible for this tragedy, this answer would also have to be regarded as incomplete by the cruciform critierion.

4) A fourth group said: “God was behind the massacre, and it was just.”  This is the most fundamental answer most Evangelicals would give (though many would prefer to simply say the massacre served some divine purpose). Now, some theologians have argued that Jesus’ suffering on the cross proves that suffering is the result of God’s judgment. I would argue the exact opposite. That is, precisely because the suffering of the Son of God was for the sin of all people, his suffering negates the idea that others suffer for their sin. It seems to me that the claim that God causes disasters to punish people is tantamount to saying that Jesus’ suffering was not sufficient!

On top of this, Jesus rebuked people for trying to discern the hand of God behind disasters (Lk. 13:1-5). And, most importantly, Jesus’ death on the cross reveals that God’s true character is such that he would rather die for enemies while praying for their forgiveness (Lk 23:34) than to violently crush them. The cruciform criterion would thus lead to the conclusion that this answer is mistaken.

5) A fifth group of responders said: “God was present at the massacre, but with the victims, not the perpetrator.”  In the light of the fact that Jesus sided with all humans by becoming a human, sided with all sinners by becoming our sin (I Cor. 5:21),  sided with all victims in becoming a victim, and sided with all who were oppressed and afflicted throughout his ministry, the cruciform criterion would lead to the conclusion that this answer is absolutely correct. Not only was God present with the victims, but in as much as the cross reveals God’s suffering as an act of war against evil, the cruciform criterion implies that we should affirm that God was present in this tragedy fighting against the sinister wills of at least one human and possibly innumerable spirit agents to minimize evil and to bring good out of evil.

6) A sixth group of responders said: “Which God? (a personal, human-like God is a myth).”  One might suppose that this response could be dismissed as quickly as the first response that denied God existed. But I actually think this response reflects a lot of insight. In asking “Which God?,” this response is asking the exact right question! For the word “God” is hopelessly opaque until given specific content. As I suggested earlier, if we resolve that the cross is the only reliable way to fill in what we mean by “God,” then I think we have to regard atheism to be closer to the truth than many forms of theism.

At the same time, when this answer goes on to add that “a personal, human-like God is a myth,” the cruciform criterion would lead us to conclude that this answer is completely mistaken. (It also leads me to wonder what alternative reliable source these people relied on to get their revelation that God is not “human-like.”) In fact, since the crucified Savior was fully God and fully human, he teaches us that God’s essence (hypostasis) is so human-like, God can become a human without thereby ceasing to be God. So too, the very fact that God could give us “the exact representation” of his essence (hypostasis) by becoming human proves that God is not only human-like: he is, if anything, more human than we are, at least in our fallen condition.

As an aside (but a very important aside), throughout history philosophers and theologians have defined God’s transcendence by contrasting God with humans and everything else in creation. In this tradition, which has been the dominant tradition in church history, God’s essence is defined over-and-against humanity. God’s transcendence is his unknowable “otherness.”

With all due respect, I submit that if we accept the cruciform criterion, we must conclude that this venerable tradition is moving in the exact wrong direction. The cross should lead us to define God’s unknowable “otherness” by his unfathomable capacity to not only come close to us, but to wholly identify with us, with our sin and with our punishment. Whereas fallen human reasoning is inclined to think of God’s transcendence in terms of his bigness, the shocking revelation of God on the cross reveals God’s transcendence in terms of his capacity to become small and to become what is antithetical to himself – our sin and our God-forsaken judgment.

The cross thus reveals a God who is far more beyond our capacity to comprehend than the traditional view of a God who merely contrasts with us and the finite world. And the cross reveals that this incomprehensible transcendence does not contrast with, but is rather synonymous with, God’s unlimited, other-oriented, self-sacrificial love.

7) The seventh and final group of respondents said: “Who knows? It’s a mystery.”  The cruciform criterion could lead us to give either a resounding “yes” or a resounding “no” to this answer, depending on what is meant by the term “mystery.”

If the people who gave this response were claiming that we can’t ever surmise why tragedy hit this particular theater at this particular time, or why one person was murdered while another was spared, I believe the cruciform criterion would lead us to affirm the first answer. This is the mystery that surrounds the contingency of every event in history, and it’s reflected in the particularity of the cross.  Why did the Son of God enter the world and allow himself to be crucified precisely when he did and where he did?  And why were certain people involved in the crucifixion and not others? So too, why did Jesus minister to some and not others? We can’t know, not because God’s character and will are mysterious, but because an answer to these questions would require us to exhaustively know every variable that affected the course of events throughout history.

Consider this: if we accept that humans and angels have free will and thus exercise a degree of “say-so” that influences how history unfolds, then a little reflection reveals that there are innumerable variables extending back to the beginning of time that to some extent influenced things leading up to every particular contingent event in history, including the particularity of the cross. As finite humans, however, we can never go further than to scratch the surface of this line of influences. And this is why there is a virtually infinite sea of mystery surrounding every particular event that comes to pass. (I flesh this out in Is God to Blame? (IVP, 2003) and, more thoroughly, in Satan and the Problem of Evil (IVP, 2001).

Of course, Scripture teaches that Jesus’ death was predestined and thus foreknown from before creation, or at least from the time of “the fall” (depending on how one interprets passages like Rev. 13:8). But there is no reason to think any of the particulars surrounding this event were predestined (e.g. exactly how it would be carried out and by whom). People who think too linearly can’t imagine how an event could be predestined without all the details leading up to it also being predestined. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, this claim is simply misguided (see, e.g. my essay in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, eds. Bielby, Eddy (IVP, 2001). Among other things, it mistakenly identifies how things in fact turned out with how things had to turn out. For all we know, had any decision or chance event in the past been slightly different, the details surrounding the crucifixion (as well as every other subsequent event in history) may have been somewhat different. Hence, the cruciform criterion confirms the unknowable mystery surrounding the Colorado tragedy as well as every other event in history.

On the other hand, if the people who gave this response were claiming that God’s involvement in this tragedy is “mysterious” because God’s character or will is mysterious, then our criterion would lead us to a give a resounding “no” to this response. For our criterion specifies that God’s character and will are fully revealed in Jesus, especially as he gives his life on the cross. To claim that God’s character and will continue to be opaque after God’s full self-disclosure in Christ simply means that we do not fully trust Jesus when he says, “if you see me, you see the Father” (Jn 14:9).

Why good and evil occur so randomly is indeed an impenetrable mystery. But this is not a mystery that attaches to the character and will of God: it’s rather a mystery that attaches to the unfathomable complexity of a creation that has been caught in the crossfire of a cosmic war. As followers of Jesus, our job is not to figure out why things happen the way they do, but to respond to whatever happens in a way that imitates Jesus and that manifests God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).

Image by Cea. Used in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr.

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