A Guide to Understanding the Bible by Harry Emerson Fosdick
Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most eminent and often controversial of the preachers of the first half of the twentieth century. Published by Harper & Brothers.in many editions in the 1930s. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 4: The Idea of Suffering
The development of a high concept of God in terms of complete power and complete goodness necessarily involved the Biblical writers in a correlative problem concerning the explanation of suffering. John Stuart Mill made the classic statement of the modern theist’s difficulty when he called it "the impossible problem of reconciling infinite benevolence and justice with infinite power in the Creator of such a world as this.’’ (Essay on Theism , Part II, p. 80.) So modern a phrasing of the matter, involving mature ethical monotheism, is far distant, both in mental category and in circumstantial setting, from the questions which the early Hebrews asked about trouble’s meaning. Then, as now, such questions were pressing and acute men faced, not only with emotional wretchedness but with mental bafflement, the apparently senseless incidence of misery upon mankind. At first, however, the Bible represents these questions as asked by men in whose world unity, sole sovereignty, and merciful character had not been dreamed of as attributes of God.
In general, the early Hebrews, like other primitive peoples, explained their happiness or misfortune as due to the favor or disfavor of the gods. Our modern, urban society, with its ubiquitous evidence of man’s control over nature and his own fate, makes much less obvious than nomadic society did man’s real dependence on extrahuman powers. Under primitive conditions man was so at the mercy of wind and storm, heat and cold, drought and rain, mysterious diseases and unpredictable disasters, that the first, natural explanation of his good or evil fortune was sought in the will of superhuman forces. In this sense primitive peoples were and are profoundly ‘religious,’ with a pervasive consciousness of constant and inescapable dependence on their divinities, quite unfamiliar to a modern city-dweller. Whatever good or evil fortune befell the individual or his social group seemed to the primitive mind a conscious expression of favor or disfavor on the part of superhuman powers, and the first explanation of prosperity or calamity was that something must have been done which either pleased or displeased the gods.
Here, as elsewhere behind the Biblical record, is visible the ancient background of the animistic ages, whose haunting ways of thinking persisted long after their specific forms had gone. To the animist the extrahuman powers were unaccountably capricious and whimsical -- uncertain wills, whose reasons for acting were commonly obscure if not inscrutable. The problem, therefore, was not to justify the gods ethically; they were not conceived in ethical terms so as to make that need apparent. The problem of evil, to the primitive mind, was more naïve what could man do so to please the capricious divinities as to win superhuman favor and support and thus insure himself against calamity?
Mainly practical though this phrasing of the problem seems, it was associated with intellectual questioning and bewilderment. Out of the Semitic background from which the Hebrews came, a Babylonian psalm has been preserved, voicing the baffled en- deavor of ancient minds to discover what kind of conduct met the whims of a god:
What, however, seems good to one, to a god may be displeasing.
(A penitential psalm attributed to Tabiutual-Enlil, King of Nippur, as quoted by Morris Jastrow, Jr.: Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria, p. 333.)
That the variations of human fortune were thus due to the caprice of deities and that in their favor and disfavor lay the origin of all man’s happiness and misery, seemed self-evident. From this premise came the momentous corollary that if, for example, a family was fortunate, the gods were pleased with it, and if, instead, disaster befell a household, divine displeasure was the reason. This was the first simple formula in explanation of suffering, and the practical conclusion was that life’s main business lay in so conducting affairs as to win the approbation and avoid the dislike of the superhuman powers.
The conduct of affairs proper to this end, however, was not at first merely or mainly moral. The exigent needs of the primitive community -- rain, fertility of soil and herd, victory in war -- were not obviously associated with ethical quality and behavior. The satisfaction of such needs seemed to depend on the power of those mysterious arbiters of destiny, the gods, whose reasons for giving or withholding benefits were difficult to know. If rain was wanted, therefore, not improved moral character in the people but successful magical practice in the cult was first suggested. So the Zulus in time of drought slew a "heaven bird "that the god, melting with grief, might weep and thus cause rain. Indeed, Christians in Palermo once dumped an image of St. Joseph into a garden that he might see how dry it was, and swore to leave him there in the sun until it rained. (James George Frazer: The Golden Bough; A Study in Magic and Religion [abridged ed., 1935], p. 75) In whatever century such practices occur, we are dealing with primitive religion, and in such practices primitive religion is characteristically dealing with the problem of suffering.
While far advanced, even in its earliest documents, beyond the purely animistic stage, the Old Testament often reflects this primitive endeavor to please Yahweh by non-ethical acts and so to avoid the misery of his displeasure. Thus when Yahweh for no apparent reason sought to slay Moses at a wayside inn, the swift circumcision of Moses’ son stayed the tragedy; (Exodus 4:24-26.)when Saul sought God’s guidance in a campaign against the Philistines by augury and it was withheld from him, the reason turned out to be Jonathan’s eating of a little honey in contravention of a taboo; (I Samuel 14:24-30, 36-43.) and when Saul tried to injure David, David said to him, "If it be Yahweh that hath stirred thee up against me, let him smell an offering." (I Samuel 26:19 [Marginal translation]) Indeed, the whole complex of taboo, custom, and rite, revealed in the Old Testament, went back originally to this primitive desire to do something, however non-moral or bizarre, so to Yahweh’s taste that it would ward off the troubles that he held in his control. However rationalized and sublimated they were in later usage, circumcision, laws of clean and unclean foods, various types of human and animal sacrifice, and all manner of prohibitory taboos, had in their primitive background the belief that disaster could be avoided only through Yahweh’s favor, and that Yahweh’s favor depended on a multitude of actions which had no ethical content whatever. Even so great a prophet as Ezekiel indiscriminately mingled moral and merely ritualistic acts as alike indispensable in the avoidance of Yahweh’s wrath. (Ezekiel 18:5-9; 44:9; 33:25-26)
The first phrasing of the problem of suffering in the Old Testament, therefore, might be put thus: men are afflicted because Yahweh is displeased; he is displeased because of something men have done or left undone; the only solution is to discover what has aroused Yahweh’s dislike and to act accordingly.
The collapse of this original phrasing of the problem followed of necessity from the development of monotheism in Israel and especially from the ascription of high moral quality to God. The divine powers, in Hebrew thinking, ceased being many and became one, and, no longer a being of unaccountable caprice, the one God was seen as steady and dependable character --
The Rock, his work is perfect;
This concept of God as "powerful Goodness," to use Benjamin Franklin’s phrase, far from solving the problem of suffering, restated it in a much more difficult form than it had had in earlier days. Then the search for ways of acting that would please the gods had indeed been baffling, but now a moral puzzle was added to man’s bewilderment. How could God’s powerful goodness be reconciled with the cruel injustice of man’s experience? Though the thinking of our animistic ancestors may seem to us naïve, it remains true that a multitude of whimsical gods, so constituted that they are likely to be pleased or displeased by almost anything, is not incongruous with the welter of man’s joys and miseries, befalling him, at least when superficially observed, with irrational capriciousness. A rapacious man prospers, a generous man suffers tragedy; needed people die young, worthless scoundrels reach a ripe old age; some children are blessed from birth, others are cursed with idiocy or disease; of two families of like quality and conduct, one experiences habitual good fortune, the other continuous adversity. Such facts perplexed the primitive, as they perplex the modern, mind. Life, then as now, often seemed a helterskelter affair of pleasure and wretchedness befalling men with no discernible relation to their moral quality. All this was not ill explained by primitive thought as due to hypersensitive, easily irritated gods, capricious in favor, the occasions of whose good and ill will were only with difficulty known to man. When, however, this diversity of gods was gathered up into monotheism and, for the whimsical nature of the divine powers was substituted the ineffable goodness and justice of the one God, how then could the inequity and cruelty of man’s experience be explained?
The more profoundly the Jews, therefore, believed in God as "powerful Goodness," the more baffling they found the mystery of trouble’s incidence on man. In a new form the modern mind faces a similar situation, when it endeavors to hold a theistic, rather than a materialistic, philosophy. When thoroughgoing materialism is accepted -- a merely physical cosmos, lacking spiritual origin, purpose, or destiny, with man and his esthetic and ethical values only a transient fortuity -- there is no further mystery in suffering. Still difficult to endure, it is not at all difficult to explain. Rather, suffering is what we might expect in a world where all our conscious, and still more our spiritual, experiences are alien and accidental intruders. When, however, theism is accepted and the unity of the universe is conceived in terms not of physical cohesion only but of moral purpose also, then the appalling tragedies of man’s personal and social life become not merely hardships difficult to bear but an intellectual problem difficult to solve. So, of old, as the Hebrews elevated their idea of the character and omnipotence of God, they found the apparent inequities of life not less but more bewildering.
The persistence with which, in religion as everywhere else, old formulas are stretched to cover new situations is interestingly exhibited in the Hebrew handling of this situation. The basic idea of the earlier formula -- all good or ill fortune springs from the pleasure or displeasure of the gods -- was retained but the terms were reinterpreted: the gods became God, and what pleased or displeased God was described in ever more emphatically ethical terms. The new formula, in consequence, was that man’s happiness and misery come from God as the evidence of his favor or disfavor; that one thing supremely pleases God, moral goodness, and one thing supremely he hates, moral evil; that whenever men are fortunate they must have been virtuous and whenever they are wretched they must have transgressed; that all human suffering is thus punishment for sin -- "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right ?" (Genesis 18:25)
For centuries, insistence on this formula seemed to the Hebrews their only way of maintaining faith in God’s integrity. Around the formula powerful influences gathered, the like of which, in every age and among all peoples, have constituted the strength of orthodoxy. The ideas on which the formula was based came out of ancient ancestral traditions; the logic of the doctrine was unassailable once the premises were granted; great prophets, such as Amos, Micah, and Jeremiah, held stoutly to it; and the formula was confirmed and solidified by the final rewriting of the Hebrew historical narratives to illustrate the thesis that every calamity in Israel’s record had been a definite punishment for Israel’s transgression. From such influences came an established doctrine, the orthodoxy of a large part of the Old Testament, that all human suffering presupposes corresponding sin. God is absolutely just; his rewards and punishments are here and now equitably apportioned; all prosperity is award for antecedent goodness; all disaster is penalty for antecedent sin -- such was the Old Testament’s long sustained theodicy.
The modern mind stands in amazement before this thesis, which for centuries seemed to the Jews entirely certain and which seems to us entirely incredible. The backdrop of legend, which in the ancient world made life’s history on the earth seem a matter of centuries, has for us been lifted, revealing a vista of uncounted millenniums of organic life, suffering unfathomable agony long before man was here to sin at all. Moreover, far from judging the major sufferers to be the major sinners, the supreme heroes of the race are in our eyes its martyrs and sacrificial servants who have drunk the hemlock or borne the cross. So obvious, therefore, does it appear to us that suffering is woven into the very fabric of creation and that the mark of rank in nature is capacity for pain, that a difficult tour de force of historic imagination is demanded if we are to understand the Old Testament’s point of view. It should in fairness be said, however, that the reason for this contrast does not lie in the superiority of the modern mind but rather in the long-accumulated presuppositions with which we start and the area of human relationships within which our ideas of justice move. We are concerned about justice to the individual, and that obviously is not done here and now in such fashion that from any person’s good or evil fortune we can confidently argue back to his previous good or evil conduct. Socrates drinking the hemlock, Christ on his cross, Hugh Latimer burned at the stake, Lincoln martyred when he was profoundly needed -- such events, to say nothing of commoner experience, make it impossible for us to say that all suffering is penalty for corresponding sin. In this, however, we are thinking of individual persons, each having status and rights of his own, while the early Hebrews were thinking of something else altogether.
The reason for the plausibility of the orthodox formula -- all suffering is punishment for sin -- was that, at the beginning of its use, the Hebrews were thinking of justice in relation to the social group rather than to the individual. Here, once more, we run upon that determinative matter without understanding which the Old Testament is everywhere obscure, the late and gradual emergence of individual personality out of corporate personality. "It seemed eminently natural, accordingly, to the ancient Hebrew," writes Professor Paton, "that Yahweh should deal with the group rather than the individual, and should bring the punishment of the sinner, or the reward of the righteous, upon his family, his clan, or his nation, rather than upon himself." (Lewis Bayles Paton: "The Hebrew Idea of the Future Life," in The Biblical World, "New Series," Vol.35 , p 340.) Thus, when Korah and his fellow conspirators rebelled against Moses, Yahweh’s first intention was to destroy the entire people. Against this Moses protested, "Shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?" and when the penalty did fall with fatal consequence both on the rebels themselves and on "their wives and their sons and their little ones" but the rest of the people were spared, far from seeming unjust, such limitation of punishment seemed to him merciful. (Numbers 16:20-35) Similarly, when David had broken a primitive custom by taking a census of the people and a subsequent pestilence was interpreted, in accordance with the orthodox formula, as divine penalty, David prayed that the nation as a whole might be spared -- "Lo, I have sinned, and I have done perversely; but these sheep, what have they done?" -- but it did not occur to him that his clan could escape sharing his punishment, for he also said, "Let thy hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father’s house." (II Samuel 24:17.) So, when Pharaoh withstood Yahweh’s will for Israel, all the first-born of Egypt, both of man and cattle, were slain as a penalty, (Exodus 12:29) and "the iniquity of the fathers" was conceived as justly visited "upon the third and upon the fourth generation" of their offspring. (Exodus 20:5) Reward and retribution, therefore, were to the early Hebrews not individual but social phenomena, and only upon this basis could the doctrine of happiness as always reward for virtue and trouble as always punishment for sin have rested so securely and so long.
In any society taken as a whole, enough moral evil can be discovered to furnish plausible basis for interpreting the society’s suffering as retribution. Granted the idea of social solidarity so complete that all members of a clan, tribe, or nation may justly be punished for what any member does, and one black sheep can furnish iniquity enough to satisfy the requirements of explanation when tragedy befalls the group.
A typical Hebrew prophet of the eighth century, for example, would have explained Belgium’s disaster in 1914 as God’s punishment for Belgium’s sin. Only so, in his opinion, could the justice of God have been maintained, for how could a righteous deity permit a people so to suffer if they did not deserve it? To doubt the existence of sufficient sin in Belgium to justify her calamity would have seemed to a Hebrew prophet denial of God’s righteousness. The prophet, therefore, would have discovered sin in Belgium, perhaps lighting on King Leopold’s misgovernment of the Belgian Congo, and so would have justified God in visiting on the nation the consequence of such transgression. The Kaiser accordingly, while hated as the ravisher of the people, would have seemed to the prophet, as the Assyrian king seemed to Isaiah, the appointed minister of Yahweh’s wrath -- "Ho Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, the staff in whose hand is mine indignation!’’ (Isaiah 10:5) Thus having found in the nation iniquity enough to deserve the national disaster, the prophet would have felt that he had vindicated God’s ways to man and had confirmed Yahweh’s sole sovereignty by subsuming alike the suffering of the victim and the cruelty of the invader under the divine administration of justice
In this fashion the established formula -- all trouble is deserved punishment -- was stretched to cover the entire history of Israel. Always it was possible to discover enough sin in the nation as a whole to justify the punishments of Yahweh on the nation as a whole. So ran the argument and appeal of Zephaniah when the Scythians came, of Joel when the locusts came, of Jeremiah when the Chaldeans came. So Isaiah, when Judah lay desolate, saw in the disaster not disaster only but penalty for social sin, because of which "the anger of Yahweh" was "kindled against his people." (Isaiah 5:25) Granting the premise in the prophets’ thought, the logic of this thesis was unassailable. All suffering comes from God -- "Shall evil befall a city, and Yahweh hath not done it?"; (Amos 3:6) God is inflexibly just and, therefore, sends suffering only when it is deserved; all suffering must, in consequence, be deserved punishment; and the sin punished is the disobedience of the nation or of individuals within it, which brings rightful penalty upon the whole people -- such for centuries was the orthodox teaching of Hebrew religion.
This experiment in justifying God’s ways with man was bound to break down when justice to the individual became a vital matter of concern. The suffering of Belgium, as a whole, may plausibly be interpreted as punishment for national sin, but when individual personality is singled out and the character and fortunes of Cardinal Mercier, let us say, are clearly visualized and deeply cared about, then the formula, ‘all suffering is deserved punishment,’ becomes precarious if not incredible. Certainly his suffering was not plainly due to his sin.
The development of Hebrew thought on this question, as on others, was thus profoundly affected by the emergence of individual personality out of the social mass, and this crucial phase of Hebrew thinking was associated with Jeremiah. To be sure, he found the public woes of Israel no mystery; the old formula adequately covered the case as he saw it. The national sins were so heinous and persistent that no collective retribution could be too severe to be deserved. Furthermore, Yahweh had been long-suffering and patient; more speedy and drastic punishment would have befallen Israel had not Yahweh in mercy repeatedly postponed his wrath until he was "weary with repenting." (Jeremiah 15:6) In soundly orthodox fashion Jeremiah thus used the old doctrine to explain the woes of the nation. His individual woes, however, presented to him a mystery, which in turn emphasized the mystery of personal suffering all about him. Through the experience of his own isolated and afflicted life he looked at other personalities, singly seen and individually cared about, and was far too honest not to report what he saw --prosperous sinners escaping penalty and innocent sufferers enduring tragedy. Jeremiah, therefore, who exercised a potent influence on many developments in Hebrew thinking, was among the first, if not himself the very first, to raise the problem of suffering in its new form:
Righteous art thou, O Yahweh, when I contend with thee; yet would I reason the cause with thee: wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they at ease that deal very treacherously? Thou hast planted them, yea, they have taken root; they grow, yea, they bring forth fruit: thou art near in their mouth, and far from their heart. But thou, O Yahweh, knowest me; thou seest me, and triest my heart toward thee . . . . (Jeremiah 12:1-3) Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed ? wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail? (Jeremiah 15:18)
Obviously a new factor had come upon the scene to shake confidence in the old formula. The separate individual to whom personally, apart from all questions of collective reward and retribution, justice was due but was not done, rose into Hebrew thinking with disturbing effect. The dark riddle of innocent suffering here passed into its most baffling presentment, and the unanswered "why -- ?" which centuries afterward sounded from the cross, was raised explicitly by Jeremiah.
The association of this emergent problem with the break-up of the nation at the time of the Exile was further illustrated by Jeremiah’s contemporary, Habakkuk:
O Yahweh, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear? I cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save. Why dost thou show me iniquity, and cause me to look upon perverseness ? for destruction and violence are before me; and there is strife, and contention riseth up. Therefore the law is slacked, and justice goeth forth not unto victory; for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore justice goeth forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:2-4 [Marginal translation]).
Art not thou from everlasting, O Yahweh my God, my Holy One? we shall not die. O Yahweh, thou hast ordained him [the Chaldean] for judgment; and thou, O Rock, hast established him for correction. Thou that art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and that canst not look on perverseness, wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy peace when the wicked swalloweth up the man that is more righteous than he? (Habakkuk 1:12-13.)
In such passages from Jeremiah and Habakkuk we face the perennial glory of the true prophets -- their courage in acknowledging facts of experience that contradict accepted theories. Without blinking or evasion, these passages state the raw truths of experience which the current theology was inadequate to explain. Such perplexed why’s and wherefore’s as Habakkuk, for example, uttered concerning the problem of suffering are the more revealing because the prophet was loyally endeavoring to make the old orthodoxy work. He still could affirm that the Chaldean conqueror was acting under Yahweh’s commission as the agent of divine retribution. While the old formula, however, was in his mind, the old confidence it had once inspired was not in his heart. The wide margin of mystery which it left unexplored and unexplained was to him painfully visible. In particular, he kept seeing the baffling personal injustice involved when "the wicked doth compass about the righteous," and, even when he thought of the nation’s collective problem, his solution was not so much to blame present social tragedy on antecedent social sin as to believe that justice, now denied, would come in time -- "Though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not delay." (Habakkuk 2:3) Even when applied to the national problem, therefore, the old formula under the shock of Exilic disaster began to prove inadequate.
As the years passed, the problem of suffering thus moved into a new phase, dominated by two factors: a high, monotheistic doctrine of a just and merciful God and a growing care about the personal rights of individual people. These two factors, far from simplifying the problem, profoundly complicated it. Belief in many whimsical gods had left large leeway for capricious injustice, and collective retribution had made plausible the explanation of all suffering as punishment. When, however, the religious imagination began visualizing the divine-human relationship in terms of an all-powerful and benevolent God dealing with separate, individual lives, the problem of evil was brought to its climactic difficulty. Was God fairly administering justice to men, one by one? With that question the Old Testament was ever afterward vitally concerned. It has been said that the central problem of the religions of India is suffering, while the central problem of Hebrew religion is sin. Partially justified as such a distinction is, it can easily be exaggerated. Some of the most commanding ideas and most significant theological controversies in the Old Testament, from the days of the Exile on, were associated with the struggles of Judaism over this confusing and often agonizing problem of individual injustice in a world governed by "powerful Goodness."
In this endeavor to reconcile the omnipotence of a good God with the facts of personal experience, four major lines of thought were followed out.
1. Suffering on the part of the individual was explained as deserved retribution for the individual’s own sin. This extension of the old formula to cover the new case was to have been expected; in one realm or another every generation subsumes new facts under venerable theories rather than change the theories to conform with the facts. Such persistence of an ancient piece of mental furniture was seldom more stubbornly illustrated than by the long continuance in Judaism of the doctrine that, in the case of the individual as of the social group, all suffering is deserved punishment. Many faithful Jews, anxious to vindicate God’s justice, saw no way of doing it if personal wretchedness were not exactly commensurate with preceding personal sin. Since Yahweh was flawlessly righteous and since -- there being as yet no confident expectation of a future life -- his justice had to be perfectly administered here and now, there seemed no solution unless all happy and prosperous people had been correspondingly good and all unhappy and afflicted people correspondingly wicked. Under duress of this theodicy, loyal Jews argued back from good fortune to good morals and from ill fortune to evil morals, and thereby found themselves at last in a position where theological theory and the facts of experience were in headlong collision.
This endeavor to make the old theory fit individual suffering, as it had seemed to fit social calamity, was stoutly prosecuted by Ezekiel. His older contemporary, Jeremiah, may first have set the theme which he elaborated; certainly this is true if two verses attributed to Jeremiah were really his "In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge." (Jeremiah 31:29-30) Ezekiel’s argument was a painstaking explication of this doctrine. (See chap. 11, pp. 67ff) Retribution is not transmissible; fathers cannot hand on unexpiated penalty to their sons, even within the family, every individual is so isolated from every other that punishment is strictly apportioned to each member according to his own sin -- such was the new teaching of Ezekiel. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." (Ezekiel 18:20)
In this endeavor to explain all personal suffering as deserved punishment, Ezekiel desired to vindicate Yahweh’s justice. The afflicted and resentful people in exile were tempted to blame their calamitous estate on God’s inequity. Centuries afterwards, Jews still were rebelliously inquiring why God spares the wicked and destroys his own people -- "Are the deeds of Babylon better than those of Sion?" (II Esdras 3:31) This reaction to national distress Ezekiel faced in Babylon itself in the popular complaint that "the way of the Lord is not equal." (Ezekiel 18:25-30; 33:17-20) The prophet, therefore, rose in defense of divine fair play, and asserted that Yahweh’s rewards and retributions, in dealing not only with the nation but with individuals, were exactly just. So far did this Calvin of the Old Testament carry his rigorous logic that he denied the possibility of inheriting evil’s consequence and asserted that absolute justice is done to all individuals here and now in this present world. He denied that righteous lives can exercise saving power -- "Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it [the land], they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord Yahweh." (Ezekiel 14:14. On pre-Exilic story of Job, see International Critical Commentary on Job, pp. xxv-xxvi). To be sure, Ezekiel’s ultimate purpose was merciful; he insisted thus on the individual’s control of his own destiny in order that he might open the door to effective personal repentance and reformation. (Ezekiel 18:27-28). Nevertheless, the consequence of this extreme individualism was to make every sufferer bear not only his suffering but in addition the odium of having sinned enough to deserve it. "I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord Yahweh." (Ezekiel 18:30; 33:20)
Thus the new way of thinking rose vehemently in revolt against the old idea of collective punishment and collective reward as adequately explaining trouble. The individual had become a matter of concern too clamorous to be neglected, and the justice due him too important to be denied. The resultant doctrine became post-Exilic orthodoxy in Judaism, and was with tireless repetition presented from every angle by the friends of Job. At first they tried to be comforting, interpreting Job’s trouble as disciplinary rather than punitive, but soon, with the hard rigor of convinced logicians accepting an unquestioned premise, they were arguing back from Job’s misery to his antecedent and corresponding sin. He must have sinned egregiously, they said, to have deserved such tragedy, and, had he not deserved it, God’s justice could not have allowed it. These friends of Job furnish one of the most illustrious examples in literature of utter logic being utterly wrong.
Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent?
To such insistence on the complete justice of God to every individual Job’s friends repeatedly returned. God, they argued, will not `’pervert justice"; (Job 8:3) he never will "cast away a perfect man," nor "uphold the evildoers"; (Job 8:20) the wicked man, therefore, "travaileth with pain all his days," (Job 15:20) terrors "chase him at his heels," (Job 18:11) and any triumph he may have "is short"; (Job 20:5) the just God allows trouble to fall exclusively on evil men, so that all trouble reveals the precedent wickedness of the sufferer, and to an afflicted person like Job the proper message is, "God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth." (Job 11:6) Indeed, so logically indispensable to sound faith seemed such confidence in God’s perfect individual justice that Job, who denied it, faced the charge, "Thou art destroying religion." (Job 15:4 as translated by John Edgar McFadyen: The Problem of Pain; A study in the Book of Job, p. 100) Thus in the dramatic presentation of the Book of Job the orthodox formula was argued and reiterated against an innocent sufferer.
Aside from its literary excellence, the glory of this ancient drama lies in the intellectual honesty of Job, who, faced on one side with a venerable theory and on the other with plain facts of experience, insisted that the facts must have precedence. He punctured the complacent acceptance of the current orthodoxy with insistent questioning -- "Why ?" and "Wherefore ?" (Job 3:11-12, 20; 7:30; 10:2; 13:24; 21:4, 7; 24:1) The traditional claim that God marks the wicked for condign retribution and the good for appropriate reward Job opposed with a statement of observed fact, "He destroys the blameless and the wicked." (Job 9:22 as translated by Julius A. Bewer: The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, p. 320) His friends had, parrot-like, recited the familiar formula,
Yea, the light of the wicked shall be put out,
but Job impatiently thrust into the discussion a matter of fact,
How oft is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out?
Far from finding life’s fortunes neatly apportioned according to moral character, Job had watched evil men "spared in the day of calamity," (Job 21:30 [Marginal translation]) and the refusal of his friends to see that fact, because they insisted on looking through an opaque theory, roused his indignation to extreme overstatement --
Why are wicked men suffered to live,
This heretical rebellion against a venerable orthodoxy marks Job as one of the great nonconformists of history. His spirit was, indeed, subdued to a humbler and better balanced mood before the drama closed, but his mind, to the end, refused subjection to an old explanation of suffering that did not explain, and in his refusal Yahweh at last confirmed him and confounded his friends.
In the outcome, therefore, the higher levels of the Old Testament rejected the formula that all personal suffering is personal punishment. That sin brings penalty in one form or another, that
. . . they that plow iniquity,
the sober thought of Old and New Testament alike accepted. But while the course of cause and consequence still ran from sin to suffering, it could no longer be confidently traced back from personal suffering to personal sin. All wickedness brought trouble, but not all trouble was penalty for wickedness; sinners in the end suffered, but all sufferers were not necessarily sinners --such came to be the insight of the later Judaism.
2. The persistence of the old formula, however, was revealed in a second endeavor to make sense of the relationship between wrongdoing and disaster. Before surrendering altogether the idea that one could argue not only from sin to suffering but from suffering back to sin, the device of postponed penalty was brought into play. Both with regard to individual and social experience, the old orthodoxy tried to save itself by appending to its statement of the case, "Wait and see." So Habakkuk, acknowledging the appalling injustice of the nation’s miseries, appealed to the future for the triumph of the righteous and the overthrow of the wicked -- "Though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come." (Habakkuk 2:3) Thus the cracking formula was given a new lease of life.
The Psalms -- whether national or springing, as even national psalms must, out of personal experience and conviction -- voice repeatedly the assurance that God’s indefectible justice in apportioning reward and retribution, while not now evident, will be revealed in time.
When the wicked spring as the grass,
Praise ye Yahweh.
. . . . . . .
The wicked shall see it, and be grieved;
So deep-seated was the Jewish conviction that goodness and prosperity, badness and adversity, must always travel as twins, that even when the observed facts denied the doctrine, the evidence of the doctrine’s truth was confidently postponed to the future.
The classic utterance of this attitude is the Thirty-seventh Psalm. The believer in God is there admonished not to fret himself over the good fortune of evil-doers,
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass,
According to this psalmist, patient righteousness will always live to see itself vindicated by prosperous circumstance, while inevitable adversity awaits the sinner --
For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be:
Indeed, the old formula, amended by the codicil of postponed award, reaches in this psalm its amazing climax,
I have been young, and now am old;
Seldom has the truth been better exemplified that we see not only with our eyes but with our mental predispositions and prejudices. Obviously, then as now, the only way in which one could find virtue and prosperity, sin and adversity, so exactly conjoined would be by looking at the facts through the foregone conviction that the sufferer must have been evil and the successful man virtuous, no matter what appearances might indicate.
The inevitable nemesis of such rationalization was popular doubt of God’s justice. The formula by which the divine righteousness was defended was irreconcilable with experience, and the explanation of trouble offered by Yahweh’s apologists did not explain it. Here, as has so commonly happened, the plain man was closer to the facts of life than the theologian, and the more the latter insisted on his sacred formulas, the more the former felt the urgency of his contradictory experience. Malachi found the people of his day denying any fair correspondence between quality of character and happiness of circumstance and saying, "Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of Yahweh, and he delighteth in them; or where is the God of justice?" (Malachi 2:17) The only answer Malachi had to give was the old formula with ‘wait and see’ appended. The righteous, he said, are in God’s "book of remembrance," and the day will surely come, when Yahweh "will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him." Then the allocation of prosperity and adversity will make it easy to "discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not." (Malachi 3:14-18)
Malachi’s indefinite extension of time for the postponed awards of God could not satisfy those who saw no justice done in their lifetime. At last, therefore, the horizons of ‘wait and see’ were extended farther yet, into a life after death. One of the major reasons for the emergence of the hope of resurrection in the Old Testament was its necessity as a fulfillment to the course of thinking we have been tracing. Complete justice was not done within one’s lifetime; generations passed and still justice was not done; but in God’s world justice must ultimately be done; and justice, according to the inveterate formula, must mean the accurate conjoining of prosperity with goodness and adversity with badness -- such was the situation in Jewish thinking out of which came the hope of a resurrected life.
Thus, Job, beating his mind against the mystery of his distress, dared hope for a vindication after death, and Daniel, amid national disaster, with no assurance of universal resurrection, still believed that "many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (Daniel 12:2) Faith in a future resurrection, therefore, was not among the Hebrews an abstract theory, but was forged in the furnace of affliction. It was an appeal from the injustices of time to the justice of eternity.
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet
that is excellent Old Testament doctrine, and such indefectible justice, resolutely believed in, was postponed beyond death when on this side of death it plainly was not exemplified.
As a result of this development, a large area of earthly suffering was withdrawn from the application of the old formula. As any one could see, some trouble, social and personal, was deserved punishment for sin. But what of the rest?
3. In dealing with this problem, the disciplinary effect of suffering was, for some, a welcome solution. Even the friends of Job, stout protagonists of the old orthodoxy though they turned out to be, had known Job’s apparent integrity so well that at first they tried interpreting his disasters not as punitive but as educative --
Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth
Two influences in Jewish thinking naturally converged to make this explanation of trouble acceptable. First, as the idea of God was heightened into nobler meanings, nothing for which he was responsible could be conceived as aimless and, therefore, the suffering which he brought on men and nations could readily be thought of, not as retribution merely, but as purposeful discipline and chastisement. Second, the experienced fact was, then as now, that suffering well handled adds new dimensions to character, that indeed, the noblest attributes of man are inconceivable in an untroubled life. As Henry Ward Beecher said, "Manhood is the most precious fruit of trouble." (Sermon, "Bearing but not Overborne," in The Original Plymouth Pulpit, Vol. III, p. 74) This experience the Jews also had, as witness the passage in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, celebrating the triumph of wisdom in the midst of adversity:
Get wisdom in the fear of God with diligence;
Such a passage reveals profound strength of character, not only unconquered but positively strengthened by adversity.
To be sure, the explanation of trouhle as punishment held the center of the field. From the story of the Garden of Eden, where such natural hardships as earning one’s livelihood by the sweat of one’s brow, contending with weeds, bearing children with travail, and even wearing clothes, are interpreted as definite penalties for the sin of Adam and Eve, the Old Testament is haunted by the idea that adversity is retributive. Nevertheless, too many major achievements had been won through disaster, and too many great characters had shone out like a Rembrandt portrait from a dark background, for the educative meanings of affliction to be missed entirely. "Suffering accepted and vanquished," said Cardinal Mercier, "will place you in a more advanced position in your career, will give you a serenity which may well prove the most exquisite fruit of your life." (Quoted by John A. Gade: The Life of Cardinal Mercier, p. 5) Such an experience was by no means unknown in Judaism and the later Old Testament gives clear expression to it:
My son, despise not the chastening of Yahweh;
The sufferer He saveth through suffering;
"And some of them that are wise shall fall, to refine them, and to purify, and to make them white, even to the time of the end." (Daniel 11:35)
4. Neither the punitive nor the disciplinary idea of suffering, however, carries us to the highest altitudes of Old Testament thought. Suffering can be redemptive -- through that insight the great Prophet of the Exile made his supreme contribution and started on its influential history an idea that has been rightly called "the noblest creation of Old Testament religion." (H. Wheeler Robinson: The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament, p. 179)
To be sure, Isaiah of Babylon did not give up the conviction that Israel in her disasters had been punished for her sins. "Behold, for your iniquities were ye sold," (Isaiah 50:1) he told the people, and even when he comforted them it was by no denial of punitive trouble but by its assertion -- "Jerusalem . . . hath received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins." (Isaiah 40:2; cf. Isaiah 42:24-25) His distinctive contribution, however, lay in his change of emphasis in dealing with his people’s suffering. Instead of looking back to past sins as its explanation, he looked forward to redemptive consequences as its purpose. Thus, while the national disasters were in a real sense punitive, and while, deeper yet, they were disciplinary -- a long suffering God purifying his people in the fires of affliction (Isaiah 48:10) -- the crowning fact about them was their vicariousness. Suffering endured for the sake of others God used in the redemption of the world -- this profound truth the Great Isaiah saw clearly for the first time in our Jewish-Christian tradition and stated it in the inspired "poems of the Servant of Yahweh." (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12)
Presupposed in these poems was a fully developed, ethically serious monotheism, which included all mankind in its scope and set the redemption of all mankind as its purpose -- "Yea, he saith, It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6) In this divine purpose to save mankind, the prophet saw the sufferings of Israel playing an essential part. To be sure, at the time the prophet wrote, the nations scorned Israel and the interpretation of national disaster as penalty added disgrace to the catastrophe. But, said the prophet, even the heathen will yet see in Israel’s sufferings another meaning altogether and will say, "He was despised, and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and Yahweh hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.’’ (Isaiah 53:3-6)
In making possible this interpretation of suffering as redemptive, one cannot be sure what factors, in the prophet’s mind, made the largest contribution. The redemptive effect of substitutionary suffering was not new, as a fact, in Israel’s history, although as an idea it had never before been clearly stated. Moses was represented as identifying himself sacrificially with his people’s lot until he desired no good fortune of his own apart from theirs --"Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin -- ; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written" (Exodus 32:32) -- and from such beginnings an illustrious record of vicarious suffering had brought the national history to Jeremiah, who, only a few years before Isaiah of Babylon wrote, had lived and died in voluntary self-giving for the salvation of his people. Indeed, he had consciously recognized his afflictions as serving a divine cause, so that he could say to God, "Know that for thy sake I have suffered reproach." (Jeremiah 15:15) Moreover, the saving efficacy of good lives in a community had been an implicit corollary of the old sense of social solidarity, as is picturesquely evidenced in Yahweh’s consent to Abraham’s argument that if there were even ten good men in Sodom it should not be destroyed. (Genesis 18:22-32) How much more saving would the lives of good men be when they suffered for others willingly and innocently! Still further, the persistent association of sin with commensurate adversity naturally suggested the idea that adversity itself was expiatory. In later Judaism it was plainly taught that suffering propitiates God, even more than burnt-offerings, since the latter are a man’s property while the former are borne in his own person, and that "chastisements wipe out all a man’s wickednesses." (Berakot 5a as quoted by George Foot Moore: Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol I, p. 547) If suffering is thus in itself expiatory for the individual, why may it not be so for society, especially if it is voluntarily chosen or innocently and patiently endured? Never before the Great Isaiah, however, had these facts of experience and foregleams of idea fallen together and caught fire. In him they became flamingly explicit in some of the most exultant passages in Scripture, where appalling disaster was transmuted into spiritual triumph because it was seen as redemptive.
One motive in the prophet’s mind is self-evident. The national tragedy had been so dreadful and the interpretation of the tragedy as deserved punishment had added to cruel suffering a dishonor so intolerable, that the very bearing of the disaster demanded a new interpretation that would substitute constructive purpose for dour penalty, exalted meaning for disgrace. So the prophet glorified the sufferings of the true Israel; punitive they were but, as well, a martyrdom whose saving effects would redeem the world and exalt the very Israel once doomed by them.
But it pleased Yahweh to crush him:
What this reinterpretation of Israel’s tragedy did for those who understood and believed it is plain. Their minds had faced backward toward preceding sin as their disaster’s cause. The Great Isaiah turned their faces forward toward redemption as their disaster’s purpose. In their thought of their tragedy a primary emphasis on future outcome and meaning was substituted for the old, exclusive emphasis on past transgression. Hope instead of hopeless self-recrimination was put into the center of the picture.
To be sure, the prophet did not do this lightly, speaking smooth things to comfort his people. The Suffering Servant was not the whole of Israel but the saving minority, the faithful remnant whom opposition could not tame nor any bribe seduce, who with patient, uncomplaining willingness had taken on themselves the punishments that should have fallen upon others. The very presentation of the Suffering Servant, therefore, charged the people with guilt and faced them with shame. Seeing how the true Israel had suffered in their stead for sins which they had committed, they were called to penitence and through penitence to pardon and healing. The "poems of the Servant of Yahweh," were first of all ethically challenging and demanding. But they were comforting as well. Their moral appeal rested not so much on God’s penal justice as on his redemptive power exercised through the substitutionary sacrifice of his people; their distinctive interpretation of suffering was cast into terms not of retribution but of salvation.
To be sure, the prophet gave no explanation of such substitutionary sacrifice, offered no theory as to the way in which the sufferings of Yahweh’s Servant operated to save the world. Of this, however, we may be sure: if we could have seen into his mind, we should have found there no such Western legal theories as have shaped and conditioned our more modern ideas of atonement, but rather should have found the persistent background of conceptions involved in social solidarity. Behind the fifty third chapter of Isaiah, in which the true Israel is personified and the Suffering Servant’s willing, uncomplaining assumption of punishment due to others is dramatically described and exalted, lies the ancient concept of corporate personality. (Cf. chap. II) According to that, the sin of one could be the curse of all, and now the Great Isaiah announced that the sacrifice of one -- the Suffering Servant -- would be the redemption of all. Moreover, the Great Isaiah enlarged the corporate group to include all mankind, one inter-related human family within which the sufferings of the true Israel could be applied to the good of the whole race. The passages on the Servant of Yahweh, therefore, are poetry, expressing insight rather than formulated doctrine, but the insight has turned out to be one of the most consequential in history. If suffering, sacrificially borne for others, is redemptive, then suffering itself is redeemed. In the Old Testament pain and sorrow started as disgrace -- all adversity was the dishonorable symptom of preceding sin; but now the Great Isaiah lifted suffering out of its ignominy. It could be redemptive. Like the trespass offering upon the altar, it could be a holy and saving sacrament, (Isaiah 53:10) so that Israel’s troubles needed no longer to be regarded merely as the evidence of God’s punitive displeasure, but could be glorified as the agency of his saving grace toward all mankind.
The amazement which the prophet felt at his own daring insight still breathes in the written word. He saw that he had had revealed to him a complete reinterpretation of his people’s sufferings, which exalted what once had been merely terrible and made spiritually hopeful what at first had seemed infamous. No wonder that he wrote in poetry! No wonder that he began his mission with the resounding words, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God"! (Isaiah 40:1) No wonder that he foresaw the incredulity with which many would hear his message, and ascribed to the Eternal an idea which seemed so to outreach the mind of man ~ "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Yahweh. nor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts!" (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Nevertheless, when the Old Testament had interpreted some suffering as punitive, some as disciplinary, and some as redemptive, the residue of mystery was still baffling. Why God, combining endless power with complete goodness, should have made a world in which disaster indiscriminately falls with tragic incidence on good and evil, remained in large measure an unanswered question.
In India, belief in reincarnation had already stepped into this breach. If all souls now on earth are reincarnated existences, the doctrine that personal suffering is always deserved punishment can be made to work. On the basis of transmigration, whatever befalls one here can be attributed to unknown sins committed in previous, unknown incarnations. Had Job’s friends held this doctrine, their problem in explaining Job’s disasters would have been simplified; they could have located the wrongdoing, for which he was being punished, in a previous existence, safely sheltered from his recollection and, therefore, from his denial. The Hebrew mind, however, was far too factual and realistic to try this easy retreat into the obscurities of preexistence. True to their racial characteristics, they could find no satisfaction in a solution so theoretically metaphysical and so entirely beyond the testing of actual experience. Rather than explain the mystery of suffering by such a method, they left it a mystery.
Toward the close of the Exile and afterwards, Persian influence powerfully affected Israel, and a dominant feature of Persian religion was the explanation of human good and evil as the reflected consequence of a profound division in the superhuman world. There, so Zoroastrianism taught, a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness opposed each other; while Ahura Mazda exercised sole sovereignty as the one true God, he was withstood by Angra Mainyu, a power, like God himself, without beginning, the creator of all evil and the perpetual foe of God and of good men. (See H. V. Williams Jackson: "Ahriman" in Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings) The problem of evil was thus carried back to a precedent, continuous conflict in the cosmos, with God and his attendant hosts of angels contending against the prince of darkness and his devils. Here was an explanation of evil ready at hand for the Jews to accept, and the wonder is that, within the confines of the Old Testament, its influence is so slight.
The Hebrews, like all early peoples, believed in angels and demons. To the primitive mind the world was populous with spiritual agents who gradually fell into two groups, one favorable, and the other unfavorable, to man, and these were later definitely classified as angels and devils. Before the molding influence of Persia affected Israel, however, Hebrew demonology and angelology had been inchoate and unorganized. It was only after Zoroastrianism had affected Jewish thought that angels appear, as in the Book of Daniel, in a hierarchy under ruling archangels, and demons possess in Satan a sovereign chieftain. While, however, Zoroastrian angelology and demonology thus influenced Jewish thought, so that one might almost call Satan a native of Persia naturalized in Judea, and while in later Judaism and in Christianity this influence had a florescent development, its effect within the Old Testament bulks small.
Indeed, so far as Zoroastrianism’s main thesis was concerned, asserting a continuous conflict between two principles in the universe symbolized as light and darkness, we have in Isaiah of Babylon an explicit denial: "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am Yahweh, that doeth all these things." (Isaiah 45:7) Nowhere was Jewish monotheism more uncompromising than here; it refused to explain life’s moral and practical evil by limiting the sole sovereignty and responsibility of God. Whatever else might be the explanation of the mystery, it was not to be found in blaming a prince of darkness, a kind of second deity and god of evil, as though by thrusting back the problem to such a personage the problem itself could be even a little solved. Hard though it must have been to say it, the Great Isaiah, facing Zoroastrianism’s division of power between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, insisted that the one God alone was the responsible creator of the world, with its light and its darkness, its good and its evil.
Accordingly, in none of the great passages where the Old Testament wrestles with the problem of suffering does demonology play a significant part. In only three connections is Satan even mentioned in the Old Testament -- once as evilly disposed to Job but doing nothing without God’s permission, (Job 1:6:12; 2:1-7) once as tempting David to take a census, (I Chronicles 21:1) and once as the symbolic adversary of Israel (Zechariah 3:1-2) -- and nowhere are the tragedies of individuals or of nations fathered on him as though by that device the ultimate responsibility of God could be mitigated in the least. In the Book of Job, for example, while Satan appears as one of the dramatis personae in the prologue, the entire argument proceeds without the slightest reference to him, and the ultimate responsibility for the cosmic problem is clearly placed on God -- "If it be not he, who then is it?" (Job 9:24) Here, once more, Jewish thought refused an easy escape and faced, in its full, unqualified difficulty, the mystery of evil in a world whose God is both omnipotent and good.
This unresolved residue of mystery is the ultimate problem of the Book of Job. The fact that some calamity is punitive, that some is disciplinary, and that some may be explained by a future vindication, is clearly recognized, as we have seen. That the Book of Job never speaks of suffering as possibly redemptive is typical of the neglect with which the Great Isaiah’s insight was treated for centuries. Even had that insight been present in the writer’s mind, however, Job still would have faced an unexplained remainder of mystery, and his virtue would still have been, not that he solved the problem but that so candidly he recognized its insolubility. Job successfully resisted the temptation to construct a complete theory of God’s justice; he had the courage to stop where his evidence ended; no ingenious metaphysic, as in India, or mythology, as in Persia, beguiled his mind into a solution that solved nothing. This candid acknowledgment of insufficient light for the understanding of God’s ways with man is a perpetual memorial to the intellectual honesty of the unknown writer of the ancient drama.
His way of dealing with the resultant situation was typically Jewish in its religiousness. He fell back on a profound, interior experience of God. Concerning the divine administration of affairs he felt endless perplexity but of God himself he felt sure -- so sure that he could, as he said, "give free course to my complaint" and "speak in the bitterness of my soul,’’ (Job 10:1) as only those can who are at home in prayer. The consequence was a profound conviction that, while he did not know all the explanation of suffering, there was an explanation, and that beyond the solutions he could see lay not chaos and aimlessness but order and purpose. In the drama this attitude is educed by a vision of the natural universe -- immense, orderly, mysterious, magnificent -- before which Job is humbled. In that experience he finds not an explanation of evil but an assurance that there is an explanation; he issues from it not with a solution of the mystery but with a confidence in God which lights him through the mystery All this is typical of the Old Testament, and in this Job is the religious Jew par excellence, resolving his difficulties by religious experience, not philosophical theory. Not the explanation that is clear to him but the God who is real to him is his final resource --
I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear;
Alongside the Book of Job stands the Seventy-third Psalm -- both of them important as portrayals of personal difficulty in dealing with the problem of evil. The psalm is intimately auto biographical. In it are vividly pictured the fear and faith, the doubt and trust, the cynicism and buoyant hope, between which at least one Jewish mind was torn as it tried to believe in God’s justice in an unjust world. The writer begins with the victorious confidence which in the end crowned his struggle --
Surely God is good to the upright,
but straightway to the psalmist’s memory recurs the long and bitter conflict that preceded his spiritual triumph. His feet had almost gone out from under him, he says; envious resentment at the "prosperity of the wicked" had brought him to the rim of utter cynicism --
They are not in trouble as other men;
In the face of such rank inequity, disillusionment possessed him and he cried,
Surely in vain have I cleansed my heart,
Then he went into the sanctuary and found insight and illumination. His cynical doubt seemed to him stupid and brutish. His soul, which had been "in a ferment," (Psalm 73:21 (marginal translation) achieved peace, stability, and hope. Part of his solution lay in the ultimate ruin of the wicked, whose prosperity he had envied and whose arrogance he had resented; when he considered their "latter end," he foresaw them falling on their "slippery places,’’ cast down to destruction, and "become a desolation in a moment." (Psalm 73:17-19) But deeper than this unsatisfactory solution, this mere postponement of justice to a later day, went the real answer to the psalmist’s question. Unlike the wicked, he possessed the intimate and sustaining companionship of God. Why should he envy them ? Their goods could not compare with his good Even while their prosperity continues, he cries,
Nevertheless I am continually with thee:
Here, as in the Book of Job, the problem of evil is left an intellectual mystery but with a triumphant soul transcending it and carrying off a victory in the face of it through the inward awareness of a divine fellowship and the experience of an unconquerable hope.
Such endeavors to interpret suffering as we have traced, however, no more met with unanimous acceptance then than they would now, and of this the Book of Ecclesiastes is the evidence. This vivid and daring essay is as much concerned with the problem of evil as is the drama of Job or the Seventy-third Psalm, but with an approach and an outcome altogether different. To every attempted explanation of suffering he had heard, this writer gave a skeptical reply. He tossed aside the formula that suffering is deserved penalty and asserted instead a senseless, indiscriminate inequity in life -- "All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event unto all." (Ecclesiastes 9:2-3) He had only scorn for the hope that just awards, now denied, would be rendered in the future, whether before death or afterwards -- "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; and man hath no preeminence above the beasts: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man, whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast, whether it goeth downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21) If ever he thought of using pain and sorrow for purposes of personal discipline or of redemptive service, cynicism smothered the idea and, instead, he "commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be joyful." (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
Here within the canon of Jewish Scripture, as in the Rubáiyát of Omar Kháyyám, popular futilism and pessimism were given forceful and fearless utterance. Here the creed of those who cried, "Where is the God of justice?" (Malachi 2:17) found an eloquent voice, and the spiritual insights by which the seers of Israel had tried to illumine the age-long problem of evil faced derisive denial. The very search for a solution to life’s problem was to the writer only "a striving after wind," (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14) and in the end, seeing wickedness in the place of justice and evil men where the righteous should have been, (Ecclesiastes 3:16) he "hated life," (Ecclesiastes 2:17) denied all moral government in the world, and concluded that although a man, in the intensity of his search, "see no sleep with his eyes day or night," he will never understand what life is all about. (Ecclesiastes 8:14017 [quoted phrase as translated by Julius A. Bewer: The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, p. 333]. Later hands added to Ecclesiastes a few notes of positive faith.])
Here, as elsewhere, the Old Testament defeats all endeavors to force upon it interior self-consistency and harmony, and in its inclusion of many points of view, even though at odds with one another, it remains true to life. In the Old Testament’s treatment of the problem of suffering are some of the most notable expressions in literature of ethical insight into the meaning of retribution, profound faith in the ultimate justice of God, personal courage in accepting trouble as self-discipline, spiritual understanding of vicarious sacrifice, and religious experience of a trustworthy God; and, accompanying all these, the refrain of the disillusioned also, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
No line of developing thought ever ran directly from the Old Testament into the New; always the inter-Testamental period had to be traversed; and, while original contributions were not often made there, an influential redistribution of emphasis commonly occurred. With regard to the idea of suffering, the most notable effect of the era between the Testaments sprang from its accentuation of the apocalyptic hope. So vivid and obsessing did the expectation of an imminent Messianic age become, and so did the imagination of judgment day with its awards fill the popular mind, that the solution of the problem of life’s injustice was seen mainly through apocalyptic hopes. Of this emphasis the Book of Enoch was typical --
Fear ye not, ye souls of the righteous,
In one form or another, every suggestion made in the Old Testament concerning the problem of suffering is to be found somewhere in the inter-Testamental books. Thus the Psalms of Solomon taught that "the Lord is gracious unto such as patiently abide chastening"; (10:1-4 as translated by H.E. Ryle and M.R. James: Psalms of the Pharisees, p. 99) Second Esdras labored over the unsearchableness of God’s ways and the limitations of man’s intelligence; (II Esdras, 4:7-11; 13-25) and Fourth Maccabees, exalting the sacrifice of those who became "as it were a ransom for the sin of the nation," said that "through the blood of those pious men, and their propitiatory death, Divine Providence saved Israel." (IV Maccabees, 17:19-21 as translated by W..R. Churton: The Uncanonical and Apocryphal Scriptures, p. 595) Dominant, however, over the rest, and orienting them in one constant direction, was the final arbitrament of judgment day and the expected vindication of God’s justice in reward and retribution.
In the New Testament these ideas, which thus had run a varying course in Jewish thinking, continued still to be the reliance of those who pondered the problem of suffering. They were, however, reorganized in the New Testament, so that, for reasons not easy at first to be sure about, the total effect was distinctive and original. Ideas, like people, being more than mere individuals, must be seen socially grouped to be understood, and the principle of their grouping often brings out results not to have been predicted from the separate ideas themselves. No one in the Old Testament or in the inter-Testamental period could have guessed the consequence that would emerge when old and familiar ideas of suffering were associated with the cross.
1. That some human pain and torment are punitive the New Testament clearly saw. Long before either the idea of natural law or any word to express it was known to man, the reign of moral law, stated in terms of cause and consequence, of sowing and reaping, was plain to the insight of the Bible. There is an inevitable relationship between the beginning and the ending of any course of behavior; he who travels a road must face the outcome of it; he who picks up one end of a stick picks up the other; there is in this universe something which discovers and sits in judgment on our spiritual mistakes -- this was the clear conviction of the New Testament. In the Christian scriptures, however, the battle won in the Book of Job against the assumption that this explanation is adequate to cover all suffering was taken for granted. While the New Testament constantly argues from sin to consequent trouble, it never argues from trouble back to preceding sin as a necessary formula of explanation.
Indeed, Jesus earnestly denied that one can assume previous wrongdoing because of present calamity. When the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen persons, the still popular theodicy of early Hebraism marked them out as especially wicked, but Jesus protested: "Those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem ? I tell you, Nay." (Luke 13:4-5)
Far from expecting the nice adjustment of happiness to moral merit and of adversity to sin, which once had seemed the indispensable condition of faith in divine fair play, Jesus saw the vast impartiality of nature’s processes -- God "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust." (Matthew 5:45) When in a parable he described two houses on which alike "the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew," (Matthew 7:24-27) one denoted a wise, and the other a foolish, life but on both of them with equal incidence the storm beat. That men face trouble with different qualities of soul and come through it to different issues was manifest but, as Jesus saw life, some trouble falls on all without regard to moral character. This impartiality of disaster’s incidence had been a stumblingblock to the writer of Ecclesiastes, and that "all things come alike to all" (Ecclesiastes 9:2) had been the bone of his contention. Jesus, however, seeing the fact as clearly as the ancient writer saw it, welcomed the unbending administration of the universe. In this regard he seemed to feel, long before men knew it, the steady inflexibility of God’s cosmic method, its austere disregard of ethical considerations, its vast background of procedure without thought of human merit or demerit -- a dependable, impartial training-ground for souls.
In the Fourth Gospel, written in Hellenistic Ephesus, where reincarnation was a common idea, as everywhere among the Greeks, Jesus is represented facing the old question of suffering as penalty -- "As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither did this man sin, nor his parents." (John 9:1-3) As the Master saw it, life’s cosmic setting was utterly unlike the old theodicy’s imagination of it. Rain and sunshine, storm and flood, falling towers and tragic personal afflictions, came with equal impact upon both good and evil men. Jesus did not naïvely expect God to pay fair wages on a Saturday.
In the New Testament, as a whole, the crucifixion made this attitude imperative. Three crosses were on Calvary. One bore a flagrant and blasphemous criminal, another a penitent thief, the third the Christ. Golgotha was a terrific exemplification of the pessimist’s saying, "All things come alike to all." In the light of it, whatever remained of the old theodicy, which deemed all suffering just punishment for the sufferer’s sin, was doomed. On the central cross a character, "holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners,’’ (Hebrews 7:26) was crucified, and such suffering was obviously not retribution. While, therefore, punitive trouble was a terrific fact in early Christian thinking -- "He that soweth unto his own flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption" (Galatians 6:8) -- it never was treated as an adequate statement of suffering’s cause.
2. That some trouble is disciplinary was similarly taken for granted. Even Jesus, we are told, "learned obedience by the things which he suffered." (Hebrews 5:8) The roll call of faith’s martyred heroes, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, ends in an exhortation to the contemporary church (Hebrews, Chaps. 11-12) to bear gladly its afflictions, not as punishment, but as chastening. Far from being an occasion of shame, in the writer’s eyes, the church’s sufferings were a cause of hope, since their explanation lay not behind in past sin but ahead in future good consequence --"All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness." (Hebrews 12:11) This conviction that an untroubled life is uneducated, that to deal with tragedy is to handle reality and to deal well with it a great gain, that no softlycushioned life ever can be wise or strong or good, runs throughout the New Testament. Not sporadic and occasional, but constant and fundamental is this treatment of affliction as opportunity, not disgrace, an indispensable implement for building faith and character, rather than a means for their destruction.
Here lies one of the major reasons for the difference in mood and feeling between the Jewish and the Christian scriptures. The New Testament does not contain a single idea about suffering whose premonition, and in some cases whose classic exposition, is not to be found in the Old Testament. Taken as a whole, however --the "poems of the Servant of Yahweh"excepted -- the typical Jewish treatment of trouble looks backward to antecedent conduct as the explanation, while the New Testament habitually looks forward to the high spiritual uses of affliction. In this regard the cross had done its work. There the most infamous torment had turned out to be the most effective agent in serving God’s purpose for the world. The early Christians, therefore, intuitively treated suffering not as ignominy to be endured, but as opportunity to be used, and their typical attitude was positive and triumphant, as when Paul said, `’We know that to them that love God all things work together for good." (Romans 8:28)
However clearly, therefore, abstract ideas about suffering may be found paralleling each other in the two Testaments, the resultant seeming identity is misleading. There is throughout the Christian scriptures a positive enthusiasm in the midst of trouble -- "I overflow with Joy," Paul wrote, "in all our affliction" (II Corinthians 7:4) -- which is distinctive. Not the negative endurance of trouble but its positive use, not its explanation in the past but its purpose in the future, occupies the center of attention. Trouble is something to be strongly seized upon, so that no matter what befalls a man the love of God being in his heart -- it will issue in his good, will discipline him, not destroy him, and will finally find him wielding as a shining sword the very weapon of affliction lifted against him.
Thus, when Paul found himself in prison, his mind turned not to queries concerning the justice of his being there, but to the uses to which his imprisonment could be positively put: "Now I would have you know, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the progress of the gospel; so that my bonds became manifest in Christ throughout the whole pretorian guard, and to all the rest; and that most of the brethren in the Lord, being confident through my bonds, are more abundantly bold to speak the word of God without fear." (Philippians 1:12-14) Especially characteristic of Paul though this attitude is, it is the common quality of the New Testament as a whole, from the time Jesus’ beatitude rested on the persecuted and afflicted, (Matthew 5:10-12) to the later days when Peter wrote, "Insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice." (I Peter 4:13)
3. The Old Testament’s conviction that the ultimate issue of the human drama would be ethically satisfactory was carried over into Christian thinking, and there gained new dimensions and horizons. The one unifying factor that put sense into the strange and varied developments of Jewish apocalypticism was the urgent demand of the Jewish conscience that, one way or another, the cosmic process should not in the end be ethically unsatisfactory. What kind of outcome would be ethically satisfying was not in detail agreed upon, and one picture of it after another cluttered the apocalyptic imagination between the Testaments. In general, however, the Jews, carrying over their traditional association of goodness with prosperity and of badness with adversity, regarded as inadequate any solution that did not finally apportion endless reward to the righteous and endless retribution to sinners.
That the hope of an ethically satisfying outcome to creation should reappear in the New Testament was inevitable. The early Christians did not suppose the cross, for example, to be the end of the matter. The conviction which the Great Isaiah held with reference to the suffering Servant of Yahweh, Christians held with reference to Christ -- "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied." (Isaiah 53:11) That is to say, ultimately the human drama would work itself out, under the guidance of God, to a denouement which would justify the cost of the process and satisfy the claims of equity. Moreover, this belief in an equitable outcome to man’s tragic experience was naturally phrased in the New Testament, as in the Old, in terms of adversity for the wicked and prosperity for the righteous in the world to come. When, therefore, the ideas of suffering as present punishment or as possible discipline failed to cover the case, the ancient appeal to patience was still in reserve -- the injustices of time would be righted in eternity, and the scales, here unbalanced, would there hang even.
In no regard is the attitude of certain passages in the New Testament more troublesome to modern minds than in this insistence that eternal bliss for the good and eternal torment for the bad would be an ethically satisfying finale for the universe. When Jesus represented Abraham in Paradise saying to Dives in torment, "Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things: but now here he is comforted, and thou art in anguish," (Luke 16:25) -- as though such reversal of circumstance, issuing in a permanently divided humanity, some in bliss and some in torture, would be an ethically adequate ending to the human story -- he spoke in the traditional manner of Judaism, but the modern conscience remains unconvinced. Unless our best ethical ideas are false, such a denouement would be appallingly unsatisfying and universal anni- hilation would be far better.
Two considerations, however, tend to illumine this matter. First, in every creative thinker there are bound to be, of psychological necessity, not only his own original insights but, as well, the traditional backgrounds of idea from which his insights start their pioneering, and along with this latter element go the familiar mental patterns and phraseologies of his day. Were it not for this traditional actor in the creative thinker, he could not speak to his own generation at all. When Jesus, therefore, pictured the finale of the universe in terms of the contemporary mythology, with fire, worms, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for sinners, and bliss for the righteous, he was using an old form of imagination. That he did uncritically use it the records plainly indicate (See chap. VI) but, in every case, he employed it only as a familiar setting in which to frame an attack upon current ideas concerning the kind of conduct that was pleasing or displeasing to God. (E.g., Luke 16:19-31) Thus, in one of his most cogent pleas for humanitarian service as the test of true religion and the crucial point on which God judges man -- "I was hungry’ and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me" (Matthew 25:31-46) -- the scenery of the parable is the old-fashioned eschatology. How much of this was merely ad hominem and how much represented Jesus’ personal conviction concerning human destiny it is difficult to be sure, just as when Plato used demonology to serve his purpose it is difficult to know how literally he took the mental pattern he employed. That apocalyptic elements, in general, and pictures of future punishment, in particular, were carried over from current Judaism into Jesus’ thinking and speaking seems obvious.
A second consideration is that the point at issue, in all such uses of current categories, is the substantial matter being phrased rather than the form of phrasing. What the Jews and early Christians were concerned about in their theories of final things was an ethically satisfying issue to human destiny, and the formulations of that conviction changed radically from imaginations of a restored Davidic kingdom, in early Hebraism, to Paul’s picture of a universal victory of God, in which, whether in heaven, on earth, or in Sheol, "every knee should bow," and God "be all and in all.’’ (Romans 14:11; I Corinthians 15:28. (See chap. VI.) If we are unwilling to welcome great matters, even when they come to us in obsolete vehicles of thought, it is of no use to read any ancient literature whatsoever. The vital matter in the New Testament’s appeal from the injustice of the present world to the justice of the final arbitrament lies not in any special formulation, whether it be that of Jesus or of Paul but in the deep conviction that the "one far-off divine event" will be ethically adequate.
Nevertheless, the old phrasing of this ultimate vindication of righteousness is often terribly present in the New Testament. In many passages it is obvious that the idea of God inherent in Jesus’ thought has not yet found its logical conclusion; that what Jesus himself, thinking in terms of some of his own parables and of his own life-principles, could not have considered ethically satisfying endless, hopeless torture, without constructive moral purpose and therefore without moral meaning -- God is accused of inflicting, as judge of the world and arbiter of destiny. At this point some of the worst crudities of apocalyptic Judaism passed over into New Testament passages, such as one finds in the Book of Revelation.
The distinctive element in the New Testament’s future hope, as a resource in present trouble, does not, however, lie in such passages. They could all be eliminated and the afflicted soul’s reliance on future vindication would still be unimpaired. Still there would remain the assurance of eternal life, beginning here in a quality of spirit worth permanent continuance and going on, through death, to its fulfillment. In the light of this present possession, involving endless hope, affliction was not so much endured as rejoiced in by the early Christians, and of this spiritual triumph Paul’s words are representative: "Wherefore we faint not; but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens." (II Corinthians 4:16-5:1)
This inner victory of the eternal over the temporal, here and now as well as hereafter, is the original and creative element in the New Testament’s use of future hope to comfort present sorrow. In Jesus’ own recorded words, this emphasis appears in the spiritual nature and present accessibility of the kingdom of God an emphasis that, in view of the postponed hopes of Jewish apocalypticism, is very significant. According to Jesus, the kingdom, while future in its full consummation, is also immediately here, its doors wide open now to men of the kingdom’s quality, and, far from being merely a future expectation, entrance into it is the crowning privilege of the present. Whatever Jesus may have carried over from the apocalyptic traditions of his people, he struck here a note characteristic of himself and gave his disciples not so much a quotation as a fresh insight of his own.
To be sure, some students of the New Testament have been so completely commandeered by apocalypticism that they insist on interpreting all references to the kingdom in terms of its categories. The kingdom, they think, must always mean a future, imminent, catastrophic event. But in the rabbinical teaching, to become unquestioningly obedient to the Law means here and now "to take upon oneself the Kingdom of heaven." Why, then, should this same emphasis be thought strange in Jesus or its importance in his thinking be doubted when so many passages seem plainly to suggest it:
Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein. (Mark 10:15)
The present, therefore, in Jesus’ thought, was not simply Satanic, as current teaching claimed; the kingdom of God was an immediate experience as well as a future expectation and those who were in the kingdom, possessing, as they did, a life with eternal issues inherent in it, could triumphantly surmount affliction.
Once more we run upon the characteristic mood of the New Testament in dealing with suffering. The future life was of immense importance to the early Christians in facing suffering, but it was no longer mainly an apologetic means of vindicating the justice of God through postponed rewards and retributions. It was a singing assurance of present victory in the spirit, with all future triumphs presaged in immediate experience, and the result was positive jubilance in the face of even extreme disaster. "For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing." (II Timothy 4:6-8)
An ethically satisfying outcome to the cosmic process remained, therefore, the confidence of New Testament Christianity, as it had been the confidence of Old Testament Judaism. It gained new dimensions, however. Within the Christian scriptures it has no uniform and unanimous phrasing. It even rises in the end into a hope of universal redemption, when God will "sum up all things in Christ." (Ephesians 1:10)
4. Such developments of experience and thought no more took the sting of inexplicable mystery out of suffering in the New Testament than they did in the Old. The cry of the psalmist was echoed on the cross --
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
In the New Testament, therefore, as in the Book of Job, deeply religious spirits, often unable to explain the afflictions which God permitted, fell back nevertheless on God himself. To trust God when one can clearly understand his ways has always been but a slight indication of serious religion. A scientist steadily believes in the law-abiding nature of reality even when he is baffled in his endeavor to discern the laws; so the saints have understood God well enough to maintain faith in him even when they could not understand his plans and policies. The real triumphs of the spirit have been customarily won by those who trusted God when his ways were inexplicable. Indeed, the major function of religion, in the experience of its great exemplars, has been not so much the explanation of life, as life’s conquest -- the winning of spiritual triumph in the midst of mysterious adversity. Jesus is never represented as saying, "I have explained the world," but he is reported to have said, "I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) The bestowal of interior power thus to rise above trouble and carry off a victory in spite of it seemed to the early Christians a supremely vital function of religion, and this power they found through their faith in, and experience with, an availably present Spirit. Far from being driven away from God by unexplained suffering, therefore, they were driven to him. As Paul implies, trouble has a tendency to "separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:35 [marginal translation]) but, in it, by God’s grace we can be "more than conquerors," (Romans 8:37) and early Christianity was all on the side of the latter possibility. In the New Testament, what began in the Book of Job was consummated -- "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him." (Job 13:15 [King James Version])
In this is revealed one of the most important of all developments in the conception of religion’s meaning. Primitive religion uses its gods for ulterior purposes, seeks to gain control over them and thus to win material favors from them. Mature religion rests in God himself as greater than any of his gifts. In primitive religion the gods are means to ends; in mature religion God is an end in himself. Such devotion to the eternal Goodness for his own sake, rather than for the sake of anything externally to be gotten from him, is therefore one of the clearest manifestations of serious faith, and in the Old Testament Habakkuk gave it typical expression:
For though the fig-tree shall not flourish,
Such an attitude was characteristic of New Testament Christians. They did not make fortunate circumstance a pre-condition of faith in God; they were not fair-weathcr saints, finding in adversity an occasion for disbelief or disillusion; they did not expect wholly to understand life but they did expect triumphantly to handle it, surmount its difficulties, and prove themselves spiritually superior to its hardships. The afflictions that their ideas of God did not enable them to explain, their inward experience of God enabled them to overcome.
The New Testament itself is full of trouble. It begins with a massacre of innocent children; it is centered in the crucifixion; it ends with a vision in which the souls of the martyred saints under the altar cry, "How long, O Master?’’ (Revelation 6:10) The Book was written by men whose familiar experiences were excommunications, persecutions, and martyrdoms. Their faith was not like a candle flame, easily blown out by a high wind, but like a great fire fanned into a more powerful conflagration. In consequence, while the New Testament is supremely a book of hardship and tragedy, it is far and away the most exultant and jubilant book in the literature of religion.
5. The climactic element in the New Testament’s contribution to the understanding of suffering is to be found in its treatment of vicarious self-sacrifice. The Great Isaiah, with his interpretation of Israel’s tragedy as redemptive martyrdom, never had a thoroughly sympathetic and understanding successor until Jesus came. Indeed, the ideas with regard to the saving office of suffering which the Great Isaiah had put into deathless song were so little grasped that Professor J. M. Powis Smith can say:
How unacceptable that message was to Deutero-Isaiah’s times and how unintelligible it was is evidenced by the fact that, so far as we have any information, not a single follower of this interpretation was forthcoming among his prophetic contemporaries and successors, and no reference even is made to this substitutionary interpretation of suffering until IV Maccabees . . . . (The Moral Life of the Hebrews, p. 163. Cf. IV Maccabees 1:11; 9:29; 17:21-22)
In the endeavor to understand the sacrificial experience of Jesus, however, the Great Isaiah received his long postponed coronation.
To explain the resemblance between the "poems of the Servant of Yahweh" and Christ’s ministry by supposing that the former contains a clairvoyant prediction of the latter, is, of course, to turn the relationship between the two upside down. What really happened was that, after five centuries of neglect, the Isaian passages on the Suffering Servant of the Lord were used by the early Christians as a means of interpreting the necessity and the significance of Christ’s unmerited suffering. In the preaching of the first disciples, as recorded in Acts and made clear in the wording of the Revised Version, the title ‘Servant’ was applied to Jesus in a way which inevitably suggests the Isaian source. (Acts 3:26; 4:27,30) When Philip presented the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, he started with Isaiah’s fifty-third chapter and "beginning from this scripture, preached unto him Jesus." (Acts 8:27-39) In Peter’s great passage on Christian suffering, salient verses from the same chapter are quoted, (I Peter 2:22-25) and the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to Christ’s cross in terms of it. (Hebrews 9:28)
Some, indeed, are convinced that before the early church thus began interpreting the sacrifice of Christ in Isaian terms, Jesus himself, with his selective response to his religious heritage, saw in the prophet’s Suffering Servant the real meaning of Messiahship and the directive principle of his own mission. Certainly, according to the Gospels, Jesus had pondered the writings of Isaiah. When he announced the purpose of his mission in Nazareth’s synagogue, he read from the prophet’s sixty-first chapter, (Luke 4:16 ff.) and when he answered the emissaries of John the Baptist he alluded to it. (Matthew 11:2ff.; cf. also Isaiah 35:5) The very word ‘gospel’ -- good tidings -- apparently came from the Great Isaiah. (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7) Only one direct quotation from the fifty-third chapter is ascribed to Jesus -- "I say unto you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors" (Luke 22:37; Isaiah 53:12) -- but apparent intimations that Jesus had the Suffering Servant in the center of his thought are elsewhere discoverable. The ancient prophet had told his people that they should be "redeemed without money," (Isaiah 52:3) that the "righteous servant" would "justify many" and that he "bare the sin of many"; (Isaiah 53:11, 12) Jesus said that he came "to give his life a ransom for many"; (Mark 10:45) "The Son of man goeth," said Jesus at the Last Supper, "even as it is written of him." (Mark 14:21) Where else in the Old Testament, argue some, could he have found this conception of suffering saviorhood if not in the Great Isaiah? It may well be, therefore, that as Dr. James Moffatt puts it, "The suffering Servant conception was organic to the consciousness of Jesus, and that He often regarded His vocation in the light of this supremely suggestive prophecy." (James Moffatt: The Theology of the Gospels, p. 149. Cf Ernest Findlay Scott: The Kingdom and the Messiah, chap. 8; Henry Wheeler Robinson: The Cross of the Servant, chap. 3)
At any rate, a redemptive idea of suffering, which had begun as an individual intuition centuries before, became in the New Testament the organizing center of the gospel. Far from being simply punitive, educative, or inexplicably mysterious, suffering was understood in terms of saviorhood. So the Fourth Gospel reports Jesus as saying, "Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit." (John 12:24) Affliction, being thus redemptive, was in consequence itself redeemed; "Christ crucified," whom Paul rightly called a stumblingblock to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, was proclaimed as the wisdom and power of God; (I Corinthians 1:23-24) and, not stopping with any negative apologetic to explain the cross, the early Christians positively gloried in it (Galatians 6:14) and made it their ambition to know "the fellowship of his sufferings.’’ (Philippians 3:10)
It would be difficult to exaggerate the difference in this regard between the Old and New Testaments, taken as wholes. The inveterate Jewish association of goodness with prosperity and of badness with adversity here broke down completely and the supreme sufferer became the highest revelation of God and the noblest ideal of man. No theory of the way in which vicarious sacrifice operates to redeem mankind was explicitly set forth; current forms of thought, such as those associated with animal sacrifices (E.g., Hebrews, chaps. 8-10) or with inherited concepts of corporate personality, (E.g., "as in Adam all die," etc.) were commonly in the Christian consciousness; but the power of self-sacrifice as an indispensable factor in saviorhood was none the less the orienting truth of early Christianity. The result was revolutionary. At the center of the first church’s experience was a momentous tragedy -- innocence outraged, wisdom overthrown by ignorance and bigotry, a supreme soul done to death by the hatred of little men and the ruthlessness of an inhuman government. Here were the factors which for ages had made men wish, as Job’s wife advised, to curse God and die. Here was the kind of inequity that had made the Book of Ecclesiastes plausible and that seemed to justify the doubts of skeptics and the despair of pessimists. Instead, there issued from this tragedy a radiant and confident faith in God. Far from being cradled in fortunate circumstance, Christianity began in the kind of disastrous experience commonly supposed to make faith in God impossible -- the worst triumphing over the best, the needed good dying young, goodwill ground under the heel of malevolence, and no equity anywhere -- and, instead of faith meeting defeat, it achieved victory; the tragic cross proved to be so saving a force that it redeemed tragedy itself.
At the beginning of the Old Testament all suffering was regarded as punishment for previous sin, but in the New Testament we read, "What glory is it, if, when ye sin, and are buffeted for it, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye shall take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps." (I Peter 2:20-21)
Indeed, the possible uses of suffering were so far exalted and suffering itself was so clearly seen to be an integral part of the universe, not an alien intruder in it, that God himself was portrayed as the eternal Sufferer. Through the many differences that distinguish conflicting views of the divine nature in the Bible, one common strand of idea runs -- God is in earnest, he cares, he is no metaphysical abstraction but a living being with purposes, devotions, and affections. Hosea heard him say, "My heart is turned within me, my compassions are kindled together," (Hosea 11:8) and Isaiah says of him, "In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old." (Isaiah 63:9) In the New Testament this insight is fulfilled in a God "rich in mercy," (Ephesians 2:4) who "so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son," (John 3:16) and whose seeking, sacrificial compassion is incarnate in the suffering Christ. In this regard, thought had traveled a long way from the legend of the Garden of Eden, according to which trouble first entered the world as penalty. In the New Testament suffering is carried up into the heart of God himself; it is seen as no intruder in the universe, as though by some fortuity it had slipped in, or as an afterthought had been introduced as retribution. Suffering, sacrificially assumed for the sake of saving and serving others, has in the New Testament become an attribute of the divine nature itself. So ennobled, it is both a requisite and an evidence of the divine nature in man, no longer the mark of shame but the badge of honor. So Paul is proud to bear in his body "the marks of the Lord Jesus," (Galatians 6:17 [King James Version]) and behind this personal glorying in self-sacrifice he has a cosmic outlook upon suffering as belonging to the very warp and woof of the universe -- "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." (Romans 8:22)
Despite the importance of these five trends of New Testament thought with reference to suffering, it would be a mistake to regard them as covering the whole attitude of early Christians toward human affliction. Both Judaism and Christianity were, and if true to their heritage still are, aggressive faiths, not teaching resignation to life’s evil but vigorous attack upon it. To picture the great Hebrew prophets as wrestling with the problem of evil as though it were mainly an affair of apologetics, demanding intellectual explanation, is to misrepresent the prophets altogether. Human affliction, especially the monstrous inhumanity of man to man, was to them a practical, rather than a theoretical, problem; it represented not only a conflict of ideas but a conflict of individual and class interests, a struggle for justice in personal character or social organization against selfishness, ill will, and inequity. Ideas and tasks are always closely inter-related in any progressive development, but one may fairly say that the Hebrew prophets gave their conscious attention, not so much to the explication of the idea of suffering as to the task of eradicating the needless exhibitions of suffering caused by human cruelty. The problem of evil represented to them not merely something to be thought about but something to be done.
Of this prophetic tradition Jesus and his early disciples were the inheritors. They thought through one of the most radical revolutions in religious theory ever achieved in human history, but they never lost sight of the centrality of their task. They had come, as their enemies said, to turn "the world upside down," (Acts 17:6) and they knew it. Their eyes were forward toward "a new heaven and a new earth." (Revelation 21:1) While their minds worked upon the problem of suffering -- exploring its retributive and disciplinary aspects, its saving power in the form of self-sacrifice, its future solutions in the eternal realm, and its inexplicable residue of mystery -- their practical devotion was given to the kind of world where man’s monstrous cruelty to man would end.
Where suffering is concerned, therefore, the New Testament is not only a thoughtful but a militant book. A great war is on, as the Christian scriptures see the case, between the hosts of good and evil. To be sure, the mythological paraphernalia of inter-Testamental Judaism, shaped probably by Zoroastrian influence, is often used in picturing this conflict. Satan and his devils are familiar personages in the New Testament and to their machinations is ascribed every manner of human affliction, great and small. (See the author’s book, The Modern Use of the Bible, Lecture IV, sec 3.) As in the Jewish Bible, however, they never are used as a means of solving the ultimate problem of evil in the cosmos; they remain an imaginative phrasing of the malevolent forces which convulse the world, and their existence is no more taken as an explanation of the problem’s origin than is the existence of evil men. Whether in terms of demonic ill will or in less picturesque phrasings, evil in the New Testament is faced not mainly as a fact to be explained but as a force to be conquered. In this militant and aggressive task, early Christians conceived themselves as "God’s fellow-workers" (I Corinthians 3:9) each striving to be "a good soldier of Christ Jesus." (II Timothy 2:3)
Indeed, whereas at the Bible’s beginning the practice of religion is in large measure a means of escaping trouble, at the Bible’s end the practice of religion is a sure means of getting into trouble. The Master deliberately called his disciples to courses of action that involve suffering:
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. (Matthew 10:16)
Discipleship to Jesus, therefore, while it saved men from lower orders of suffering, such as penalty for sin, called men to the higher order of self-sacrifice.
Modern knowledge has thrown special illumination on this area of thought. Suffering, far from being in itself a curse, is an essential, integral part of sentient living, the necessary concomitant of organic experience. As life evolved from mollusk toward man, each higher range involved increased capacity for pain. Always in the organic world it is the best who can suffer most, and man outranks the lower orders of existence, not simply in range of intelligence and creativity, but in depth, expanse, and poignancy of feeling and therefore of sensitivity. One major mark of rank in the organic world is the capacity to suffer.
Indeed, out of such sensitiveness has come man’s greatness. Much of man’s thinking has been born out of his distress and bafflement in the presence of a painful problem. The aim of life, therefore, is not to abolish suffering, for that would be to abolish sensitivity, but to eliminate its cruel, barbarous, and useless forms, to elevate and sublimate its expressions and uses, to make it humane, stimulating, unselfish, and creative. Some suffering is needless, brutal, ruinous, but when Shelley speaks of
a nerve o’er which do creep
he is recognizing the hall mark of creative character. So Jesus said, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." (Matthew 25:40)
The New Testament, therefore, glories in an expansion of sensitiveness, in a keen and often suffering awareness of sins and brutalities which others take for granted, in a poignant sense of contrast between the actual and the possible, in a sacrificial assumption of vicarious toil and trouble. No story of the development of the idea of suffering in the Bible could rightly end except with this outlook on the regenerative task, both personal and social, in which all Biblical ideas culminate. The Jewish-Christian religion has always involved a philosophy but it has never been a philosophy. In its most essential nature and most continuous meaning, it was and is costly adventure for the kingdom of God.
Viewed 215786 times.