Tuesday, May 11, 2010


We need to talk about something here. Reading these stories, from Genesis 3 onward, can break your heart. There's a deep sense of injustice in all this. Why are Adam and Eve, who were by definition innocent and unable to make an informed choice about sin, punished so severely when they disobey? Why did Abel suffer for Cain's failure? The stories will get worse as we go on, until sometimes reading the Bible is enough to make you throw your hands in the air and walk away. How can life be so unfair, especially to those who don't deserve to suffer?

Pay attention and you will find lots of people trying to address this issue with a variety of explanations of life, death, suffering, and all of it. Life is like a tapestry, one such idea goes, and we only see the backside of it. So what looks like a bunch of unrelated, ugly threads from our perspective, from God's perspective makes a beautiful weaving. What seem to us like unpleasant, ugly colors add life and texture and dimension to the picture. Or life is like a symphony, and the notes and chords that seem out of place to us add depth and beauty to the composition.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in the beginning of his masterwork The Silmarillion, tells a creation story of how Eru, the One, gave each of the Ainur -- his angels -- the gift of song, and then called them together to make a beautiful Music. But Melkor, the mightiest of the Ainur, had wandered long in the Void on his own and it came into his heart to fashion his song apart from the music Eru had placed in his heart. As he sang, others around him were drawn to shape their music according to his tones and it threw the Music into a great dischord. But Eru raised up a counter-theme that took Melkor's harsh notes and drew them into an even greater melody. After this happened again, and again, Eru halted the song and told the Ainur that all creation would find that though they might rebel against the will of Eru, in the end they would find that all they did "only redounded to his glory."

If this life is a symphony, the themes are sometimes too bitter to be borne. The notes of this composition break our hearts and drive us to our knees, and rightly so. We must resist the temptation to call evil good. We dare not stand on the shoulder of the highway where EMT's and police officers pick up the pieces and talk about the way God sees beauty here in this tragedy. Even at the foot of the cross, where we know so much good was accomplished for us (yes, God does redeem evil and bring good out of it, but that doesn't change the fact that it is evil to begin with), we need to be careful about dressing up tragedy and making it look like something good. We too often fall into the temptation to deny the reality of pain and suffering by looking too quickly toward the purpose -- real or imagined -- beyond it.

We take great hope in the idea that there is purpose in pain. It helps us to believe that at least from God's perspective, there is meaning in what seems to us so pointless and wrong. We long for a sense of security, a sense that in the end there is more than just a nasty, brutish, short life that winds down with less eternal impact than sands running through an hourglass.

There are two edges to reality when we come up against these questions. The first, and hardest, is that it's too easy to make an idol of our own need in this regard. We are all too willing to make our desires for security paramount and view reality through this filter. So we manufacture meaning and recreate reality in a careful, closed system. We take the great mysteries -- life, heaven, relationship -- and recast them in ways that make sense to us. We imagine our loved ones becoming guardian angels over us, or we picture them in a heaven that looks a great deal like a beautiful childhood memory or an indulgent fantasy of self-gratification. So sports fans talk about that Great Baseball Game in the Sky, or well-meaning, wounded Christians turn from worshipping God toward a cheap kind of ancestor worship in which they have conversations with departed loved ones instead of spending time in prayer. Neither of these pictures of an imaginary afterlife have any basis in a biblical faith. Of course there is grace here for the wounded spirit, and it is not helpful to chide grieving souls who need the comfort of a conversation with dad and a sense that even though he's gone, they can still connect with him at some level. But this is a practice of grief, not a belief rooted in biblical faith.

The second edge is that, confronted with our childish imaginings about death and the heaven, we sometimes abandon any sense of knowledge and we become, at least in practice, agnostic about the afterlife. For the reality is that the Bible is frustratingly silent on many aspects of what happens to us or our loved ones after death; but it does give us a great deal to hang onto. This biblical security is all rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. Where the Old Testament speaks hopefully about death, it does so looking forward to the resurrection of Jesus; the New Testament takes these shreds of hope and weaves them into a solid confidence that because Jesus is risen from the dead, we grieve with great hope -- not hope as the world gives, a sort of enthusiastic optimism (what my daughter calls the optimism of the rabbit who, seeing the shadow of the hawk overhead, says, "It's just a cloud ...") but Christian hope, which is the sure confidence that because Jesus is risen from death everything is changed and death is not the ultimate end of life. I believe the Bible is silent about much of what happens after death so that we will not trust the process, but rather trust in Jesus. I don't know the future, but I know who holds the future.

So while it is unbiblical to imagine heaven as my ultimate self-indulgence, it is also unbiblical to say we cannot know anything about heaven. The Bible gives us a clear vision of being gathered together with the saints around the throne of God. There is communication, there is fellowship, there is joy and peace and music and celebration. We see Jesus face to face.

So don't try to make Abel's death meaningful. Don't try to soften the blow of all the pain and suffering and tragedy in the biblical world or in our own. Part of the tragedy of Cain and Abel -- reenacted in our world thousands of times a day in physical murders, and billions of times a day when I turn from my neighbor and say, "I am NOT my brother's keeper!" -- is that this death, this suffering, this pain is unnecessary and pointless. It is meaningless precisely because it is contrary to God's desire. Abel's suffering is not part of the Grander Good. But in the face of Abel's meaningless death, in the face of unspeakable suffering, in the face of bitterness that drives us to despair, God intervenes. He does not undo evil, but promises that even in the midst of evil, even in the place of pointless suffering, even at the cross, he will be present to redeem and to heal. There is no tragedy so bleak that God cannot work in the midst of it. There is no suffering so dark that God is not present at the core of it.

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