I just finished writing an essay on suffering and Jewish lament. The materials I found proved very enlightening on the topic, and I even learned some Jewish theology, both ancient and modern, along the way. When a tragedy comes to the question, “Why does God do this?” there is a Jewish response, or rather, several responses. One answer is that God is not omnipotent. If he were, but did not prevent suffering, then he is unjust, and Jewish Scripture claims God’s justice frequently.
For the fall semester I’m taking a course on early church history, and one of the required textbooks is Bart Ehrman’s Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (2006). It’s a great read so far, and a new take on an old thought has been introduced to me concerning Jesus’ crucifixion and Jewish law. Deut 21.23 lays a curse from God upon those who hang on a tree, and such was the form of Jesus’ death. Here’s where Ehrman picks up:
But how could Jesus be God’s Righteous One if he was in fact crucified? For doesn’t Scripture indicate that the one who hangs on a tree is cursed by God (Deut. 21.23)? Paul began very quickly to think that yes, Jesus was cursed. But he must not have been cursed for his own unrighteous acts, since he was God’s Righteous One. He must have been cursed for the unrighteous acts of others. That is to say, Jesus did only what was right, and suffered for the sake of others who had violated God’s will and stood under his wrath. Jesus took the wrath of God (his “curse”) upon himself for others. His suffering and death, in other words, were vicarious: he died for the sake of others, so that they themselves would not have to pay the price for their own sins. Christ’s death ransomed others from the just payment of death. (Ehrman, 114)
I struggle somewhat with the notion of God’s wrath. In fact, this idea came up (or rather, was avoided) the other night at church. There is a rather beautiful and marvelously well-written (in my humble opinion) song called “In Christ Alone.” I’ve had some trouble figuring out who wrote it, but here are the full lyrics. The second verse says the following: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied/For every sin on Him was laid/Here in the death of Christ I live.” The worship minister at the church I attend change the second listed line to “The love of God crossed the divide,” due to what he calls “bad theology.” I’m not totally sure what this means, as I have yet to discuss it with him, though I truly want to. However, it doesn’t sound like bad theology to me. And here is why.
If Jesus’ death was unjust, and God has a history of hating injustice (particularly against widows and orphans), then why would God not be wrathful, especially against those who commit the injustices in question? So let’s assume God was angry about this, despite the notion that such events were in line with God’s plan. How would God act toward the unjust? Sometimes, it would be a plague, or a disease, or just a straight up tomahawk chop to the head resulting in an immediate death. Here, the punishment was carried out, but against a willing substitute: Jesus.
This puts us in a bit of a bind. If a man took advantage of a widow, and God wants to strike him down, he will do so. But if the widow, in her righteousness, pleads with God to punish her for his actions, will he comply? And does this put God in an awkward place when he is asked to punish an innocent person? Jesus knows he is innocent, yet understands he must do whatever is necessary to fulfill God’s justice, God’s wrath.
I suppose this is the concept of substitutionary atonement, that Jesus simply took the place of someone else’s failures, their sins. So when we sing, “The wrath of God was satisfied,” is it necessarily bad theology to claim that the curse upon one who hangs on a tree is Jesus’ willingness to accept God’s wrath? Is it bad theology to say think that God did not necessarily want to take up Jesus’ offer?
For some, myself included, substitutionary atonement is not the preferred theory. I don’t like the idea that God’s bus couldn’t be stopped, so Jesus pushed mankind out of the way and got pummeled. For if God ran over Jesus, why bother resuscitating him afterward?
Here is where my thought finally kicks in. It’s because the resurrection is God’s answer to suffering. In the eschaton when all persons are resurrected, given glorified bodies, and take their dwelling on the new heaven and new earth, suffering will finally have been answered. For every time that a woman loses her husband, or a father holds his dying child, or a single mom becomes homeless, the resurrection stands at the edge of this age and proclaims, “You shall suffer no more. Come, drink of me, and I will give you rest.”
Suffering exists; this much cannot be denied. But even if our response is that God is not responsible for it all, his answer is calling to us, waiting for us. I trust that when we suffer, God suffers as well. The lost husband, the dying child, and the homeless mother grieve the heart of God, who promises a new body that cannot die in a home that he has rebuilt for us when all things are made new. “See," God says, "I am doing a new thing.” And what a glorious new thing it is.