Sunday, April 5, 2015

Resurrection Sunday and the problem of evil

This is the Sunday in which we celebrate Jesus of Nazareth's resurrection, the central and most important claim of Christian teaching (cf. 1 Cor 15.14, 17). His apostles and disciples were eyewitnesses of his resurrection, and at the behest of Christ himself, they went about the entire world preaching this message, leading Jews and Gentiles alike to the true worship of God (Acts 2.32-8). Apart from this resurrection, faith and trust in Jesus and his teachings is a colossal waste of time, a misrepresentation of God, and a bitter delusion (1 Cor 15.14, 17).

What I want to emphasize is this: the resurrection of Christ is the solution to the problem of evil.

For most people who do not believe in God on intellectual grounds, the existence and preponderance of evil and suffering in the world provide almost compelling reason to suppose that God does not exist. My friend Peter Lupu, a good traditional Jewish atheist, once was asked: "What are you going to do when you die and you appear before God, and he is going to ask you what you've done with your life?" Peter's response was: "What have you done with your life, God?" If God exists and is good, whence all the evil in the world?

The events of Christ's death and resurrection provide a partial but definitive answer to this question. I cannot tell you with any certain why God allowed that evil should exist in the first place. I don't know; I know he must have had a good reason, but I don't know and perhaps can't know what that reason is. God is far above and beyond the ability of any human person to understand, let alone my own ability. But what God reveals in Jesus Christ and the apostolic testimony of his teaching is this: far from standing idly by, far and aloof from a world of suffering, God entered into it through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and died for the sins of humanity, and rose again for the deliverance of all human persons from sin, evil, and death. What Christ has accomplished is nothing less than this: the deliverance of one human person from all evil and death, but this was done for the sake of all, so that the deliverance of all is likewise guaranteed.

Jesus Christ died, but in virtue of a special union that exists between himself and the rest of humanity, in some way all of humanity is involved in his death. Thus Paul writes: One died for all, and therefore all have died (2 Cor 5.14); Christ has united all of humanity in himself and has reconciled it to God (Eph 2.14-6); whereas Adam's sin accomplished death and condemnation for all of humanity, in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor 15.22) and Christ's obedience unto death leads to justification and life for all (Rom 5.18). The whole world will be made new (Rev 21.5), suffering will be put to an end as God will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21.4), and -- what is most glorious and mysterious of all -- all of creation will be united in some profound way as God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28).

St. Athanasius, writing about the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ, said:

through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death (On the Incarnation, 9).

And Eusebius said also:

The Saviour of the whole universe [ὁ τῶν ὅλων σωτήρ], who loves humanity, having liberated the souls of the human beings from death … removed every tear from every face … impeding the perdition of so many souls of his love for humanity (quoted in Ramelli 2013, 320).

In the present world there is suffering and death and disease and the rest because of human sin and estrangement from God. It is a difficult answer to accept, but this is what we learn. In a way, we might understand the world with evil as embodied and represented in the crucifixion of Christ. But following the crucifixion of Christ came the resurrection of Christ -- to immortality and to life to God (Rom 6.8-10). So also we expect a resurrection and restoration of all things, a dissolution of all evil, a disappearance of all suffering, and a filling of all things with God.

What about hell? It is certainly true that some persons will be punished, and the language used to describe it is not particularly appealing -- darkness, fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth. But even here, we know that God's promise that God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28) cannot be done. God's purpose in everything is to bring all things to unity in Christ; such was the revelation to the apostles (Eph 1.8-9). And we know the Bible says that God's mercy triumphs over judgment (cf. Jas 2.13). The prophet Jeremiah was experiencing the hellish consequences of Judah's punishment by God for their abandonment of the covenant, the very curse promised in the Law upon all who disobey God (Deut 28), when he wrote these lines:

Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone (Lam 3.32-33).

The same lesson is celebrated in the psalms:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever (Ps 103.8-9).

Hell, I think, is the final act of God in defeating evil. It is not without reason that Paul calls it destruction (2 Thess 1.9): the sinful person who opposed God's will and who refused to repent will find herself destroyed. Yet this is in the same way that Saul the accuser, informant, and persecutor was destroyed to make room for Saul/Paul the apostle and slave of Jesus Christ.

In the gospels, we find two different ways of depicting Christ's crucifixion and death scene. Mark and Matthew paint Jesus as desperate, terrified, abandoned by God; Luke and John paint him as victorious and faithful to the end, never wavering with regards to God's love and faithfulness. I think these are the two ways people will find themselves experiencing death and entry into God's kingdom: for the unrepentant, it will be hellish and terrifying; for the faithful, it will be confident and hopeful. But in any case, the truth remains that after suffering the abandonment of God (Mark 15.34) and the curse and death to which humanity was condemned (Gal 3.13), nevertheless Christ rose from the dead. And through his union with us, we too will rise to be with God.

This is what we celebrate on Resurrection Sunday: the resurrection of Christ which promises the restoration of the whole world. It teaches us that no evil is insurmountable, no suffering and pain and punishment is final. God's grace and omnipotent benevolence have the final word over all the powers of evil. It teaches us to look forward, beyond the pains of the present moment, to a time of glorious restoration of all things (Acts 2.38), and to live in the present world in the light of that hope and promise. The resurrection of Christ is the vindication of God in the eyes of all those who object to the evil in the world: he too hates it, and though all of humanity was doomed to suffer it and to die, in Christ that death is taken upon himself, and the resurrection guarantees life for all.

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