For the past several weeks, I’ve been exchanging emails with a mother of several teenagers—let’s call her Tina—as she’s been going through a messy divorce. She came across an article I wrote for Geeks Under Grace on Christian love and felt she could contact me and help give her comfort and guidance on how to live in Christian love in the midst of her divorce. The divorce was settled recently, and a couple days after her last email to me giving thanks for my prayers and spiritual guidance, I sent her an email to follow up with how things have been going and how she’s feeling. Unexpectedly, she writes back saying she’s been struggling with her faith because some close friends of hers lost their 15-year-old son in a tragic car accident and on top of that, the shootings in Parkland, Florida occurred. She said it’s nearly “put her over the edge” in her faith, and she can’t help but feel extremely angry.
That wasn’t the response I was hoping to get. I was hoping to get a much more high-spirited email saying she’s doing well, but she’s struggling. Reading through the rest of her email, I didn’t know how to respond. How do I comfort her as she struggles with these feelings of doubt and anger? How do I proclaim the Gospel to her? I’ve been battling with how to comfort her for the past several days now.
It wasn’t until today after a chapel sermon on the Concordia Seminary campus given by a fellow seminarian that I knew what to tell her. When I received this email from Tina, I had many thoughts on how to preach the Gospel to her using the theology of the cross (versus the theology of glory), but I wasn’t sure of how to exactly do that. The sermon preached in chapel today helped me to do that for her.
If you’re not familiar with the difference between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross, I’ll give you the basics: The theologian of glory is one who tries to preach the hiddenness of God as well as a glory of the self. One way in which the theologian of glory tries to preach the hiddenness of God—what God hides about Himself—is answering the question of why God permits evil. So, they employ theodicy in this attempt (I address this in the email to Tina, which you will see in a little bit). The theologian of glory also thinks their works matter before God, so they think, “When I do good, God has to bless me” (e.g. the prosperity gospel). This is because the theologian of glory thinks that humans inherently have dignity and are good just because they’re human, but humans being naturally sinful and opposed to God cannot be inherently good or have inherent dignity.
The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, “says what a thing is,” in Martin Luther’s words. So, with the example of God permitting evil, the theologian of the cross says, “God only knows,” because the Scriptures do not tell us why. That is, God does not reveal it us. Since God does not reveal to us why, the only conclusion can be, “God only knows.” So, the theologian of the cross only preaches God revealed, not God hidden. The theologian of the cross says, “You matter and are loved and have dignity because God has given them to you; you are not loved and matter because you inherently have dignity.” The theologian of glory goes beyond the cross and tries to preach what we do not know. The theologian of the cross stops at the cross and depends and trusts only on what is revealed: the God of Israel in His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ.
Those are just the basics, and there’s a lot more to discuss, but it’s necessary to have a preliminary understanding on those distinctions before I share the email I sent to Tina. So, in response to the Parkland, Florida tragedy, this is what I wrote to Tina to comfort her, and I hope any reading this find comfort in it as well, though it will be quite challenging to read, borrowing from my fellow seminarian’s sermon this morning in chapel. The words in brackets are not included in the original email.
Tina, my heart breaks for your sadness. With these frequent shootings that keep occurring in our country coupled with our own personal struggles, it is natural for any Christian to ask, “If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why would He allow this?” This is a theodicy question, and it is not a question that theodicy can provide the answer to. So, I must be frank here.
The study of theodicy itself is troubling. The word comes from two Greek words meaning “God” and “justify,” which the discipline is the attempt to justify God [this is the theologian of glory]. Unbelievers aren’t the only ones who are troubled with the existence of evil in the context of God; it bothers us Christians too. So, we developed a study called theodicy. If you talk to any evangelical/mainstream Christian, they will tell you about God’s justice and sovereignty, pointing at places in the Bible where those are shown. But those are the wrong answers. I have an answer for you, and it is not one you’re going to like.
Is God just and sovereign? Yes. But are those the reasons that the Scriptures say God allows evil? No. When God is being just and sovereign, are the Scriptures using those examples as prescriptions as to why God allows evil? No. So, here’s my answer: We don’t know. [This is the answer the seminarian provided, and it is the answer I have always known as a theologian of the cross.] Why does God allow evil to happen? We don’t know. The Scriptures do not tell us.
Theodicy is preaching “God not preached”—that is, it is preaching what we do not know about God [theologian of glory]. We don’t know why God permit’s evil, so why bother preaching it? What use is there in preaching what we do not know about God? Rather, the task of theology is to preach “God preached,” which is to preach what we do know about God [theologian of the cross]. So, Tina, let me tell you what we do know about God.
James 1:12 [this was part of our reading in chapel this morning], “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” God has promised you the crown of life. And when you endure every trial this life full of iniquity has to throw at you, you will receive the crown of life. But not because enduring the trials has earned you this, but because, as the text says, God has promised it to you. Therefore, because God has promised you the crown of eternal life, you will receive it even when you endure many trials.
Other than that the world is corrupt with sin and, as a result, is falling apart more and more as the Day of the Lord draws near, we don’t know why God permits evil. Perhaps the increasing abundance of evil is necessary until the Day of the Lord comes. That’s my theory at least, but I can’t say that’s really why [for that is the theologian of glory in me]. Others will tell you that God is judging the nation for its sexual immorality and other sins. And who knows? Maybe He is. But the point is we don’t know and we are not in the place to know.
This is unsettling for us; we don’t like not knowing things. That’s what led to our eating of the fruit, after all. We wanted to be gods, knowing good and evil, so we ate from the fruit and fell into sin, bringing the rest of creation down with us. And still today, we want to be gods, so we want to know why God permits evil—we want God to give us an answer [indeed, we demand it]. But God doesn’t answer to us; He’s not providing us an answer, and this drives us crazy. So, what do we do? Instead of repenting before God and asking for mercy, we get mad at Him and yell at Him [and indeed, at one another as well].
But what He has done is given us the crown of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. So, as His representatives on this earth, what ought we to do in the midst of such turmoil and evil? Throw our hands up in the air and yell, “Why, God?!” No, but rather, “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” And indeed, He did. Christ took on human flesh to pay the final atonement for all sin and evil with His body and blood, something which God would not allow us to do (which we see in the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22). The death of Christ on the cross destroyed evil. Thus, we can believe Him when He said, “It is finished.”
And so, as Christ’s representatives, we go out into the world and bring people this good news that it is finished. It is finished in the here and now when a person lays themselves before the cross and receives God’s mercy [and the transformation of the Holy Spirit], and it is finished when the Day of the Lord finally comes.
That is what I wrote to Tina. And yes, it comforted her. I hope it comforts you, too. It is easy for us to lose sight of the cross when such horrible evil happens before us. But we must always put the cross before us, knowing that in Christ, it is finished. The cross should always be at the forefront of our minds that its shape begins to protrude through our foreheads!
One last thought before I end. Yesterday, at my fieldwork congregation, we came to the normal part of the service where the pastor prays for the community and the world. It is also the pastor’s custom to pray extemporaneously, asking the congregation whom or what they’d like to pray for. One of the members asked to pray for the victims and the families who lost people during the Parkland, Florida shooting. Then, quite unexpectedly, another member asked that we pray for the shooter and the shooters in the past, that they may come to repent and know Christ. Such Christian love put me to shame!
So, whilst we pray for all the victims and families involved, I encourage us all to also pray for the shooter involved as well as those in the past (at least those who are still living). After all, God desires that the wicked turn from their ways and live in Him (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). People think it’s unchristian to pray for evil people, but they are highly mistaken. It is very Christian to pray for them. In fact, I would argue it’s quite unchristian not to pray for the wicked. If Jesus could convert the murderer and persecutor Saul, then He can certainly convert such poor souls today. But that’s all I’ll say on that matter.
So, we don’t know why God permits such evil. But what we do know is that Christ died to destroy such evil. It is a now-not yet reality. Christ has destroyed evil when He intercedes in the lives of others, and it is destroyed when He shall return again in glory. As we live these days amidst the turmoil of evil, never lose sight of the cross, which says, “It is finished.”