The Death of God
Elie Wiesel was born in the same town as Izidor Ruckel’s orphanage. He was a teenager when the Germans rolled into town forty years before the orphanage. They began the process of rounding up the Jews for extermination. Wiesel survived the holocaust, but his belief in God suffered a moral wound.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Wiesel, Elie (2012-02-07). Night . Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
The death of God is a “modern” discovery but the anguished complaint about God’s inaction and failure to rescue is ancient. Dip a ladle in the Psalms and you can easily pull up a pleading believer asking for relief and rescue.
Psalm 38:17–22 (NET)
17 For I am about to stumble, and I am in constant pain.
18 Yes, I confess my wrongdoing, and I am concerned about my sins.
19 But those who are my enemies for no reason are numerous; those who hate me without cause outnumber me.
20 They repay me evil for the good I have done; though I have tried to do good to them, they hurl accusations at me.
21 Do not abandon me, O Lord! My God, do not remain far away from me!
22 Hurry and help me, O Lord, my deliverer!
God’s Absence Turns Into God’s Non-Existence
The event that turned the absence of God into his non-existence for the West seems to have been the destruction of Lisbon in 1755.
In 1755, the earthquake struck on the morning of 1 November, the holiday of All Saints’ Day. Contemporary reports state that the earthquake lasted between three and a half and six minutes, causing fissures 5 metres (15 feet) wide to open in the city centre. Survivors rushed to the open space of the docks for safety and watched as the water receded, revealing a sea floor littered with lost cargo and shipwrecks. Approximately 40 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown area, rushing up the Tagus river,”so fast that several people riding on horseback … were forced to gallop as fast as possible to the upper grounds for fear of being carried away.” It was followed by two more waves. In the areas unaffected by the tsunami, fire quickly broke out, and flames raged for five days. Wikipedia
The French writer and philosopher Voltaire wrote a poem about the destruction of the city. He asks of Lisbon’s sins were greater than London’s or those of Paris?
The iron laws that chain the will of God”?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
“God is avenged: the wage of sin is death”?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
He turns his attention then to God.
But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he ’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!
O wondrous mingling of diversities!
A God came down to lift our stricken race:
He visited the earth, and changed it not!
One sophist says he had not power to change;
“He had,” another cries, “but willed it not:
In time he will, no doubt.” And, while they prate,
The hidden thunders, belched from underground,
Fling wide the ruins of a hundred towns
Across the smiling face of Portugal.
What you have is an implicit argument against the existence of God based on the problem of evil.
While Lisbon’s churches were filled with worshipers for the festival the earthquake, tsunami and fire killed tens of thousands. What more demonstration would you need that Christianity doesn’t “work” if you understand “work” to mean it provides us indemnity from suffering and loss. What more demonstration would we need that there is something wrong with the relational equation that a personal relationship with God affords us a friend in high places who can be called upon in our time of greatest need.
We Need More Knowledge and Power
In looking at our options today don’t other sources of power offer better protection from such calamity? If by science we come to understand the mechanics behind fault lines, tsunamis and construction couldn’t we simply make sure we avoid building cities in dangerous places and if we do that we construct them in such a way that there would not be a catastrophic loss of life? Or at least on a personal level chose NOT to live in places that are subject to such violent natural calamities?
These seem like reasonable efforts until of course we recognize that Japan, one of the most affluent, rational, powerful and prepared nations in the world was devastated in 2011 from an earthquake and tsunami the legacy of which continues in her nuclear reactor that leaks radiation into the environment.
There’s a fascinating story in the London Review of Books about the flood of ghost sightings and exorcism stories that are being cataloged as a result of this calamity.
A fire station in Tagajo received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. The crews went out to the ruins anyway and prayed for the spirits of those who had died – and the ghostly calls ceased.
A cab driver in the city of Sendai picked up a sad-faced man who asked to be taken to an address that no longer existed. Halfway through the journey, he looked into his mirror to see that the rear seat was empty. He drove on anyway, stopped in front of the levelled foundations of a destroyed house, and politely opened the door to allow the invisible passenger out at his former home.
At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbour would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses, and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she had sat was wet with seawater.
Priests – Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist – found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about ‘the ghost problem’, and academics at Tohoku University began to catalogue the stories. ‘So many people are having these experiences,’ Kaneda told me. ‘It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and I think that their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.’
God of the Gaps in Reverse
In the debate between technology and religion debaters have long complained about the “God of the Gaps” argument. When there is something we don’t understand or can’t explain or can’t control we apply “God” to the situation. Then after a few decades someone comes up with a more scientific explanation so “God” dissolves as the “solution” to that ill only to be forced back into the next level. The prevailing point is that science and technology will in time answer all questions and resolve all our ills.
The problem is that our knowledge and power too seem to continually open up gaps. “Oh grandpa would have been saved if this medical technology were available then” but a lot of help that did him then or that future technology does for us today. The complaint about Christianity’s “pie in the sky bye and bye” seems equally valid for the promise of ever progressing knowledge, power, science and technology. Our 2013 technology didn’t save Japan just like 1755 technology didn’t save Lisbon. What makes you think 2050 or 2100 technology is going to save us from what disaster or ill will plague our children and grand children?
Do we even believe this ourselves? Most of our current stories of the future imagine a dystopian world in which humanity’s pension for brutality and avarice now aided by technology make the world cruel, primitive and unlivable. Will it be environmental destruction? Nuclear war? Scarcity of critical natural resources like water and food? Sentient robots turning on their master? Super-volcanos? Asteroids? A super-virus that infects and kills most of humanity? Our authors and story creators don’t even believe in this technology god that we have put our national faith in.
As we in our comfort have our Facebook debates over God vs. no God and our Youtube debates about how old the earth is a drama unfolds over the Ukraine. After the Olympic party Putin sends his troops into Crimea and the President says he’s “on the wrong side of history”. This is of course a convenient thing for a nation who inherited the benefits of 19th century military conquest from Mexico and the Native Americans and who in the 20th century invaded and occupied numerous Latin American nations and are still tied to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Europeans now offer 15 billion dollars to a country bankrupt by corruption imagining that more money will fix the problem and that in the end the West’s economic strength will prevail, conveniently not emphasizing that there is military might in the West as well. Much better to win by the power of money than by bullets. It was our money not our nukes that destroyed the Soviet Union giving Ukraine its freedom again.
The lesson the Ukraine, if it survives, will take from their time of weakness in the middle might be “we should have kept the nukes we used to have” and all other second tier military powers will take notes as well.
We think this kind of naked aggression is behind us. We have grown so enlightened as to not be so greedy and simple as to use raw military force to achieve political ends. We forget that it is only our huge advantage in military technology and our demonstrated will to use it that keeps petty tyrants within traditional borders, many of which have never fit the moving masses of ethnic and tribal populations. Do we really believe we have outgrown this as a species?
This thought has been thought before. In the beginning of Wiesel’s book he notes how the German use of raw power to exterminate the Jews and take their property seemed unthinkable in such a modern, enlightened century like the 20th.
Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century!
Wiesel, Elie (2012-02-07). Night (p. 8). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Back to God
So now we come back full circle to our hope in an all powerful, all good divine Father because we see that power within human hands so often ends up in misery. But how should such a divine being behave? How might such a being save?
Just as Elie Wiesel hungered for Yhwh to step down and tear down the ghetto wall in Sighet or open the barbed wire gate of Auschwitz so the Jews longed for their freedom from Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman oppression and occupation and I would imagine everyone here longing for an invasive redemption of some sort.
Each imaginative act of salvation, however, doesn’t finally set up a permanent state of peace and well-being. You can find wisdom from the lips of Mr. Incredible
No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!
The Mess Starts With Us
While it is easier for us to see our fault in the Holocaust and the Ukrainian crisis natural disasters were a cause of questioning the character of God or his existence. The more human power we possess, ironically, the more our blamelessness on that front recedes. We choose to live in San Francisco or Tokyo or Lisbon.
We construct the walls that fall on people. Are natural disasters much more than an accelerated version of exposure which can kill us too? What about when our models of climate change tell us our CO2 emission are contributing to the droughts and storms that plague us? Once we claim to be the authors of our fate we become the authors of our calamities as well.
In the Bible our calamity begins with Adam and Eve in the garden. It began with a conversation with a serpent who temped them to exercise their power to chose to rebel and choose to defy and choose to make the world according to their own tastes. The story says that in time one of their sons would kill the other over nothing more than how he felt about his reputation before God.
As equal opportunity doubters we not only doubt the existence of God but also his adversary Satan.
The new “Son of God” movie out now cut out Satan from the movie because during the TV exhibition of the story the Satan figure looked like President Obama.
It seems easy for us to cut out Satan from the picture of evil with so many other evils to blame for our unhappiness and misfortune. Wiesel had the Germans. The Ukrainians have the Russians. The first century Jews had the Romans and today the Palestinians. The God we imagine we want and need fights these enemies for us. Why bother at all with this Satan character?
In the Bible the character of Satan offers us a very helpful and uncomfortable insight into evil and our complicity with it. Part of why we doubt the existence of Satan and why we find his presence in our stories unnecessary and intrusive is because we have a limited and shallow understanding of evil. As we will see in the story of Jesus’ testing, Satan helps us see something about what we imagine good and evil to be and what is wrong with our salvation fantasies. Mr. Incredible was very right indeed.
In this week’s text after Jesus’ baptism he goes to be tested by Satan, just as Adam and Eve were tested in the garden, and like Moses and Israel were tested in the desert.
Matthew 4:1–11 (NET)
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After he fasted forty days and forty nights he was famished.3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, had him stand on the highest point of the temple, 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ”7 Jesus said to him, “Once again it is written: ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur.9 And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ ”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and began ministering to his needs.
Ancient readers of the text have long noted that Jesus gets tempted by exactly the same things that tempts Adam, and tempts each of us.
“Jesus dealt with three temptations– to gluttony, vainglory and avarice. All three recapitulated the one temptation of Adam. ” Gregory the Great
It isn’t that eating (stones into bread) and public relations (an angelic show at the temple) and leadership (ruling the world) are bad things, it is all about how we go about securing these things and what we imagine these things can do for us. Satan isn’t even doubting Jesus’ ontological claims. That’s not what this story is about.
“The clause ‘if you are the Son of God’ is in Greek a first class condition and does not suggest that the devil doubts Jesus’ sonship; rather he wants to find out what kind of son Jesus will be. In each instance the devil tempts Jesus to bypass the suffering that God has marked out for him and to use his power in a triumphalistic, self-glorifying fashion.”
GK Beale Commentary on the NT use of the OT.
Will Jesus be a savior like Mr. Incredible?
Jesus, according to the Gospel stories about him did plenty of saving like Mr. Incredible. He healed the sick, raised the dead, the lame danced the deaf heard the blind saw. He stilled the storm to save his friends and he multiplied food and turned water into wine. He was not lacking power. He knew, however, that none of this Mr. Incredible saving would in fact last. He did not come to be our maid.
Why did the devil want him to do these things for him?
What the devil wanted from Jesus is for Jesus, and us, to misunderstand our problem and the shape of evil and its the solution. The Russians aren’t the problem. The Germans weren’t the problem. The Romans weren’t the problem. We are the problem in how we save ourselves at the expense of others. We are the problem in how we are unable to trust the creator and his goodness. Satan is inviting Jesus to do what is expedient, understandable, reasonable, practical and Jesus refuses. Jesus must trust his Father even again, when his Father does not appear trustworthy.
The Champions Fight To Claim the Future
It is noteworthy that Jesus didn’t debate philosophy with the devil. Jesus and Satan could have had a long, broad discussion about what is evil and what is humanity’s problem. They could have shared how Satan feels God is to blame for Satan’s misery (and maybe Jesus’) and how Satan is at fault for the calamity of the world as Jesus understood it. I’m sure we’d appreciate such a dialogue but that isn’t what we’ve got.
I can imagine that these two, long knowing each other, long well understanding each others positions and reasons have no need to rehearse the arguments. Such a debate presumes a judge between them that they both would submit to. Jesus will submit to the Father and the devil will not so there is no point.
Or maybe we might imagine the court of public opinion, but we all know what that court is like.
What is happening in this story is a sort of a steel cage match for the future of the planet. These are the two champions who meet in some wilderness area for the future of the world. There was a battle that was waged and humanity lost, but now Jesus stands in for Adam and Israel and will face their adversary himself. What is needed in this debate is not more convincing arguments for the world to cast their votes one way or another, but Jesus ability to resist what so tempts us and convinces us will be our salvation. Jesus must hold on to trust and let go of practical expediency.
The Shape of Jesus’ Rescue
Jesus comes in hungry. He’s hungry for bread but he’s also hungry for victory. He knows that his time is short and everyone around him is pleading that he save the world the way everyone imagines it can be saved. Look at what we believe is important to change history: economics (bread), information (reputation), power (political and military). Satan invites Jesus into all three realms.
You can see these three realms in the Ukrainian crisis now. The West tries to use bread as an invitation into our sphere of influence and as a threat. The cameras record the confrontations between unmarked Russian invaders and Ukrainian soldiers that don’t like being shamed by being unable to defend the integrity of their nation. The Russians use their advantage in military strength to achieve their political goals. Satan invites Jesus to exert himself at all three levels to save like Mr. Incredible, but that type of salvation, again, does not last.
All the world’s suffers cry out for Jesus to use his power and rescue them. Jesus will respond to many of these cries but he will also demonstrate that even this miraculous power will only rescue them so far. What he cannot do is capitulate to Satan on this and in this way say that the solution to our misery lies on using power to resolve the things around us that cause us to suffer. We must see that we are the ultimate source of our suffering and that the ultimate resolution of suffering also begins with us.
What we have is a preview here of how Jesus will conquer. Jesus will not conquer Satan for us by acting like Mr. Incredible, but by expressing a greater strength to exerted in faith, hope and love. It will be his trust in the Father’s power, not his own. His faith in the Father’s goodness, not his ability to resolve short term suffering and evil, and faith in the Father’s love for him and his commitment to this world that he denies himself and refuses to take what appears to be the short, expedient path that would in the end not address what lies at the root of our suffering, our inability to trust.
Instead of arguing Jesus quotes from the Old Testament.
For as important as this confrontation is we’d imagine there would be more words. The Biblical accounts are actually very brief and Jesus says very little besides Old Testament quotations. While Jesus quotes and alludes to the Old Testament repeatedly throughout all his words in the Gospels the concentration here is unusual. Why would this be?
Could it be that Jesus was tired and stressed given his forty days in the wilderness so he retreated to the safe haven of the Old Testament? So often when you’re at your ends you need to go back to what is foundational for you, to what is sure. Jesus likewise quotes from the Old Testament at the crucifixion.
Jesus also says more that “no” but as I said before doesn’t debate. There is not debate necessary and no debate would be called for. He doesn’t base his on position on himself but rather on his father as known through the Old Testament. Even when Satan quotes scripture to him he responds with scripture.
What this passage communicates is possibly the strongest argument for the importance to the Old Testament from Jesus than we have in all of canonical stories about him. The Bible is the foundation that Jesus himself chooses to stand upon and in these moments of extreme trial it is the Bible that he goes back to.
The Bible in a Certain Direction
I know that raising the standard of Biblical authority and allegiance in the context of our own culture war draws far from many sides. The Bible has been used as a book to justify outrageous examples of “my well-being at your expense”. What we have here, however, is Jesus use the Bible as a bulwark to help him resist the temptation by the devil to do so and to keep to the path of “your well-being at my expense”. Jesus refuses to use his power in this way and will use the power his power in a different way to bring about a kind of salvation that, unlike the maid’s work, will remain.
When the Bible is employed as a means by which we save ourselves the Bible becomes a tool too easily accessible to our deep commitment to “my well-being at your expense”. This assumption set us up to abandon God, or imagine he has abandoned us. Tim Keller says it this way.
We see ourselves as able to control our own destiny, able to discern for ourselves what is right and wrong , and we see God as obligated to arrange things for our benefit, especially if we live a good enough life according to our own chosen standards.
Keller, Timothy (2013-10-01). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (p. 57). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
Jesus instead employs a different kind of power against Satan and uses the Bible to do so. Theodore of Mopsuestia understands it this way:
“It is not through miracles but by patient, long-suffering endurance that must prevail over the devil. We should do nothing merely for show.
The Path of Suffering
Jesus will forsake his own comfort and need (bread), he will resist the tool of fame and reputation in the way the world uses it to achieve cultural power (angelic demonstration) and he will refuse political and military power as means by which he will rescue Israel and others (the kingdoms of the world). He will instead be subject to the ways we use power to further our own agendas and suffer and die for us. It will be by his humiliation and voluntary suffering that our liberty and the devil’s defeat will be accomplished. His way will be vindicated by the resurrection when no one believed it showing that bread, fame and military use of the sword to threaten death has no grip on the author of life.
Wiesel, a Jew, witnessing the horrified use of “my well-being at your expense” by the Germans both saw the “death of God” and located him in the suffering of the innocent.
And how many devout Jews endured such a death? On that most horrible day, even among all those other bad days, when the child witnessed the hanging (yes!) of another child who, he tells us, had the face of a sad angel, he heard someone behind him groan: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where— hanging here from this gallows.”
Wiesel, Elie (2012-02-07). Night . Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude
So which master will you follow? Satan stands before us as an option, someone who offers a path to the world we want, the world we call good, the world we imagine if we take that power we can create for ourselves. Satan offered this path to Adam and Eve and they grasped the invitation as an opportunity.
Satan’s temptation for Jesus is his same temptation for us. Do you believe that you can save the world through economics, fame and political or military power? Do you believe that unlike Mr. Incredible if you rescue your beloved you can do so by doing harm to no one else including yourself? Do you imagine that the harm you do to others is justified by some greater good?
Once we begin to see the trap of this use of power we can begin to see the rescue. Jesus, refuses to save himself but uses his power to save us. When God says “vengeance is mine, I will repay” he frees us from doing evil when we try to rescue the world for ourselves at he expense of others.
If we are delivered from this evil we are invited into try to participate in his rescue now out of our need but out of his generosity. We now work towards a better world not because we need to save it, but because he has already achieved the ultimate salvation.
What this means is that while good efforts can be made for the improvement of the world by us, if done out of gratitude we are freed both from the self-righteousness of needed to be world rescuers, and from the despair of failing to save the world. This then frees us to forgive, be kind, be generous, love our neighbor not out of an attempt to rescue them, justify ourselves or make ourselves moral or good, but out of their need, not our own.
The Problem of Evil
Jesus doesn’t answer the problem of evil in his temptations, nor is any answer given to him why he himself must suffer beyond our need of rescue. What he teaches us about the problem of evil is how to endure it rather than perpetuating it. There is no answer to “why is Jesus suffering here” beyond “because we have failed and we need him to succeed.”
In our suffering we are not told “why are you suffering”, if such an answer can be given, or if such an answer can be understood by us, and if such an answer would in fact bring us relief, but rather than suffering that is endured for the need of another is suffering that undoes evil. This kind of suffering builds trust, love, endurance and faith rather than another short term mess cleaned up on the for the moment.
The endurance Jesus shows here is an anticipation of the same endurance he will show on the cross. He, there again, will deny his own needs for the sake of the weak, those who couldn’t save themselves.
In Real Life?
How does this play into real life?
What does it take to forgive, again the repeated wrong that has been done against you. Do you imagine you can talk the evil out of a person?
What does it take to help the person who might not deserve your help. Do you imagine you can somehow do something to turn them from their destructive habit? Maybe you can be helpful but if you pit our identity on being a solver you will likely be crushed.
It is the kind of selfless suffering that Jesus endures that actually undoes evil. We fail in this kind of loving very often but what if your salvation didn’t depend upon it, but rather it could be an expression of gratitude from another having saved you.
In this way we see that God is not dead. He does stand with the suffering, but not impotently. He stands with them as he continues the long, slow process by which evil is undone and ultimately show to be futile and short lived. Joy will replace despair. Love will replace selfishness. Glory will triumph over the darkness through the patient, sacrificial suffering of Jesus.