The Suffering God
The forecast called for patchy fog, so I packed my camera and tripod in the trunk of my car as I set off for my morning workout at the Y in Middletown, Connecticut. My plan was to stop off at a park along the Connecticut River, just south of the Arrigoni Bridge. If conditions were right, I hoped to get some shots of sun and fog on the water. However, when I got there, traffic cones blocked the entrance, and there were emergency vehicles parked in the lot. The entrance to the boat house next door was open, but I saw several TV news trucks pulled up there, with one crew doing a setup by the water’s edge. This can’t be good, I remember thinking.
I abandoned any thought of taking pictures and continued on to the Y. A short while later I was working out on a treadmill when the story was broadcast on the TV mounted on the wall. A local man had jumped from the Arrigoni Bridge the night before. He survived in critical condition, but his seven-month-old son was missing, and police divers were now searching the river. There were audible gasps and groans from my fellow exercisers at this news. The story was horrific on its face, and it had taken place just a few short blocks from the Y.
The news only got worse as details emerged over the next few days. The man was estranged from his wife and had called his mother from the bridge shortly before he jumped. “Just tell everyone I’m sorry,” he said. She could hear her grandson crying in the background. She raced to the scene with another son, arriving just before the police, who had been alerted by her frantic 911 call. She got there in time to see her son climb over the bridge railing and plunge 90 feet to the river below. Her grandson’s stroller was found nearby, empty. A canoeist discovered the child’s body two days later near another bridge 15 miles downstream.
Oscar Wilde once recalled telling a friend that there was enough suffering in one narrow London lane to show that God did not love man. Wilde went on to suggest that “wherever there was any sorrow, though but that of a child, in some little garden weeping over a fault that it had or had not committed, the whole face of creation was completely marred.” One can only imagine how the face of creation is altered when an innocent child is tossed from a bridge by a deranged father. As it happens, Wilde later repudiated his views on suffering as proof that God did not love man. But the suffering itself is undeniable, whether in one narrow London lane or on a bridge in Middletown, Connecticut.
Theologians are much exercised about the “problem of evil,” especially evil that inflicts suffering upon the innocent. Some have acknowledged that evil is only a problem once you bring God into it. If there were no God, there would no problem – at least none that requires you to reconcile evil with God’s existence. If you start with the proposition that God loves those he created in his own image, then you are forced to consider why the innocent have been made to suffer. This really is the question posed in the Book of Job, arguably the earliest biblical narrative. Each of Job’s friends has a go at providing an answer, which essentially involves blaming the victim for the misfortunes that have befallen him. God puts in an appearance at the end to rebuke Job’s friends for their ignorance and also to rebuke Job for daring to question his fate, leaving unanswered the question of why an undeniably righteous man has been made the fall guy.
God’s refusal to explain himself has not deterred theologians from doing so on his behalf. Many seem to think that free will only has meaning if human beings can freely inflict mayhem on one another. I suspect such formulations might ring hollow to the mother of a seven-month-old child who has been thrown from a bridge by her estranged husband – not to mention the countless other victims of domestic violence, murder, persecutions, purges, pogroms, wars and genocide throughout history.
Does God suffer along with humanity? For much of the Christian era, theologians were in thrall to the Platonic conception of a God who was as immovable and unfeeling as the statuary in a Greek temple. If God were the embodiment of perfection, as the Greeks saw it, he was beyond suffering himself and immune from the suffering of others. The main problem with this notion is that it is contradicted by the God presented in the Old and New Testaments. The Lord was not indifferent to the sufferings of his people when they were slaves in Egypt, and he later grieved for the waywardness of the nation of Israel. Based on his reading of the Old Testament prophets, the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel agued that “the most exalted idea applied to God is not infinite wisdom, infinite power, but infinite concern.” The New Testament introduces the view of God simultaneously as a Son who suffers death on a cross and as a Father who suffers the death of his Son.
The idea of a suffering God has steadily gained ground over the last century in the face of horrific carnage during the First World War, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and especially the Holocaust in Europe. A leading proponent was German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, whose work, The Crucified God, was explicitly an attempt to develop a “theology after Auschwitz.” Moltmann himself had been a prisoner of war after fighting for Germany and had been deeply affected by the discovery of the Nazi death camps. For him, the notion of a loving God who is aloof from the sufferings of those he loves made no sense. He wrote, “The only credible theology for Auschwitz is one that makes God an inmate of the place.”
The Holocaust posed formidable theological issues for all people of faith but especially for Jews, who were nearly eradicated in Europe. Philosopher Martin Buber argued in The Eclipse of God that the Lord sometimes hides his face from the world, allowing darkness to reign. Even a cursory understanding of history will provide abundant evidence of evil’s presence – yet it is not due to God’s absence. As St. Paul once told the citizens of Athens, God does not live in temples but is much closer at hand: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” In other words, he is the ground of our being, not some bystander to history; not immune from evil -- if anything, he is sometimes its victim. The meaning of the Christian Incarnation comes down to this: that God willingly takes everything upon himself, and as the flesh-and-blood Son of God even allows himself to be forsaken by his Father. This enables him to say to everyone, “As you have done it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”