Thinking About Suffering with David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is a name I first encountered in an article I read that was critiquing the theology of John Piper. Being persuaded by the arguments contained in that article I wanted to further investigate the name that was cited who had put into words the feelings I have had about Piper’s theodicy for some time. But I soon forgot about that name after I put his book on my Amazon Wish List and moved on to more important things.

As news of the death and destruction resulting from the earthquake in Haiti reached American shores, and bloody images of young children, half-naked and already starving, flickered across the television screen I once again became familiar with Mr. Hart. A blogger had linked to his 2005 article in First Things that was more or less a precursor to his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? A line caught my attention:

Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

It is a striking proposition, is it? Could it really be that we do not have to find redemptive meaning in the deathly sting of the suffering and death we see and experience? That it has no ultimate value and that God does not have some ambiguous relationship with it where he both loathes it and yet deems it necessary for some beatitude of greater good?

There is a long tradition of Christian thought that surmises that God plans evil for our good and that every instance of suffering and pain we experience has some silver lining hidden within its occurrence. It is part of a tapestry God is weaving which in the end will be beautiful, and we will finally see that all those cracked eggs were used to make a wonderful omelet. Therefore, as Piper writes in one of his books,

Suffering is an essential part of the created universe in which the greatness of the glory of grace of God can be most fully revealed. Suffering is an essential part of the tapestry of the universe so that the weaving of grace can be seen for what it really is.

Similarly, John MacArthur claims “God wills evil to exist” because

Without sin and evil, we wouldn’t know that He is as righteous as He is, as loving as He is, and as holy as He is. God allowed sin so that He could display His wrath. Without sin, there would be no display of righteousness, no display of love and no display of holiness.

Hart will have none of this. He writes,

If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the eternity of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity) then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else. Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous—some are created for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment, all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might.

Hart is not anti-providential. He sees God’s goals for good go unthwarted:

Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.

This liberation is from the burden of having to explain how suffering and evil are essentially glorifying to God, how God is sovereignly reconciled with a world that is fallen and horrifying, and from paying the opressively high price of metaphysical optimism. Such a price is named in the rich literature of Dostoevsky. From the mouth of Ivan he asks

Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

Ivan cannot pay it. He will not. It is immoral to accept it. He says,

I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for.

Ivan’s is surely a rebellion. He is not like Thy servant Job who said when all his wealth and all his children were taken from him, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.”

And, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

In all of this, Job does not sin and stays faithful to God in faith. He maintains his integrity. He proves once and for all that he serves God for nothing. And yet he would rather not have been born!

May the day of my birth perish,
and the night it was said, ‘A boy is born!’

That day—may it turn to darkness;
may God above not care about it;
may no light shine upon it.

May darkness and deep shadow claim it once more;
may a cloud settle over it;
may blackness overwhelm its light.

That night—may thick darkness seize it;
may it not be included among the days of the year
nor be entered in any of the months.

May that night be barren;
may no shout of joy be heard in it.

Can the good and righteous man reject the goodness of God’s creation? Job friends don’t think so and go on to rebuke him with their “wisdom” and with their “theodicies” that show God to be just and Job to be in the wrong, a man who is need of repentance. But God vindicates Job and rebukes his friends! He says, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

There is a clue here, says Hart, in Ivan’s rage against God–and perhaps, from my point of view, in Job’s curse of creation. Ivan is not like the village atheist who expects God to create a kind of paradise for his creatures and never allow one instance of suffering to intrude upon it. Ivan is more sophisticated. He knows that is far worse to make suffering and evil intelligible, to make peace with it, to resign to it, to become servile to a “higher harmony” that could not come without it. And it seems that if this really was the way to go about understanding suffering and evil then Job should have ended in three chapters. There should have been no complaint, no curse of his existence, no rejection of God’s creation of his very life. Interestingly enough, Job never hopes for a higher harmony, never claims any metaphysical optimism; he only groans under the heavy hand of suffering and simultaneously wants God’s attention and wants God to leave him alone.

Back to Dostoevsky, what we see in Ivan, according to Hart, is a sense that evil is something we cannot be reconciled with, and that this is actually a very Christian way of understanding evil which teaches that Christ defeats it on the cross. On the cross Christ takes upon our suffering and death, the result of our catastrophic choices that have wounded creation, now in our postmodern environmental crisis, and then in the primordial garden where all falleness and death entered the word. He absorbed it in his body and turned it for our good, our redemption and the resurrection of this groaning, painful world.

This was done as an act of love, a love that is not fabricated in a theater where evil is willed to exist, but a love that is revealed as true and recognizable. As Harriet Beecher Stowe said at the end of the life of a suffering slave in Uncle Tom’s Cabin “Not in the riches of omnipotence is the chief glory of God; but in self-denying, suffering love.” The cross is the only place we can confidently turn to simultaneously see our evil turned to good and evil broken and defeated. Free from the metaphysical optimism that burdens us with world where death is necessary for a “greater good” we can say “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

In seeking comfort in the face of a death of a child nothing more appropriate can be said than what David Bentley Hart concludes at the end of his meditation, “As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.” We can only hope for the day when we see the face of God revealed in the face of a risen child, smiling and full of life.


11 thoughts on “Thinking About Suffering with David Bentley Hart

  1. Chris E says:

    I think where I’d differ is that I find David Hume’s ideas of compatibilism fairly convincing – taken at a purely philosophical level.

    At the same time the way predestination is expressed sometimes come across as a very negative energy reading of God – it almost becomes a form of dare “Can’t love a God like this? Wuss!”

    So the only way I can see of squaring this is the Lutheran approach:

  2. Personally, I like how N.D. Wilson explains evil in his new book, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: “The shadows exist in the painting, the dark corners of grief and trial and wickedness all exist so that He might step inside them, so we could see how low He can stoop. In this story, the Author became flesh and wandered the stage… offering His own life. In this story, the Author heaped all that He loathed, all that displeased Him, all the wrongness of the world, onto Himself. Evil exists so that He might be demeaned and insulted, so that the depth of His love and sacrifice could be expressed as much as is possible in the small frame of history.”

  3. Chris E says:

    Hmm .. that sounds like taking a theology of suffering and recasting it as a theology of glory, especially:

    “Evil exists so that He might be demeaned and insulted, so that the depth of His love and sacrifice could be expressed as much as is possible in the small frame of history.”

  4. Chris, I liked your post on Mrs. Stowe. Her work is facinating… at times terribly bad, but really good at others. I’ll have to read the Minister’s Wooing someday.

    And Darius, that book by Wilson sounds good. Every time I see it cited I want to read more, even if I don’t agree with it.

  5. Joshua says:

    Too much in the word of God seems to say otherwise for me to agree. So many of the prophecies of the old testament show a God who very much does, at least sometimes, cause calamity. The verse from Amos 3:6 keeps popping up in my mind ever since I read it: “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” The more and more I reread, the more I find God’s hand in everything. Like Joseph said, even the things his brothers meant for evil God meant for good, meaning God had set those things in motion.

  6. Joshua,

    That verse can be made to say that God causes all disasters only if it is taken out of the original context. Through the first two chapters of Amos the prophet is revealing YHWH’s intention to judge the nations for their cruelty and in the third chapter (northern) Israel is included in this judgment. The point of the prophecy is to elicit repentance from Israel to turn from its greed and oppression of the poor. This means God reveals his purposes to his prophets so that the people will not conclude that disasters come from God arbitrarily. It is for their covenant unfaithfulness, and repentance through threat of punishment is being sought after.

  7. Thanks, Adam, for this thoughtful post. It certainly goes against the mainstream (Reformed) way of thinking about evil and God’s (dare I say “asymmetrical”) relationship to it. You’ve given me much to think on here.

  8. Jim says:

    Ten years after my nephew’s death, I still wince when I hear the silver lining explanation, or varieties thereof. Bentley Hart is not easy to read, but he needs to be read. His new book (Atheist Delusions) is supposed to appeal to a wider audience.

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