N. T. “Tom-Tom” Wright is on the spot. He’s been challenged to explain — not cavil, calumniate, careen or cajole, but EXPLAIN — how he can believe in the Christian God in a world where a child dies of starvation every, well, no one is quite sure how often, but it happens all the time!
First, says Wright, the Gospel message is that Jesus’ ministry was “the inauguration of ‘God being in charge of the world’ in a new way.” This “new way” was not what contemporary Jews expected, nor is it the kind of Godly world we might want. But it was the reality of what Wright likes to call the “inbreaking of the Kingdom” into our world.
Okay, so Jesus represents a glimpse of what the world would look like were God in charge. Which means he’s not in charge yet; which means — here I’m saying what I think Wright is saying, which may not be right, or Wright, but is, ahem, write — that it’s wrong to think human suffering somehow proves God’s non-existence. He’s not quite in charge yet.
Here, it gets sticky. Wright makes the poignant point that the Gospels — and Jesus himself — represent “a challenge to all expectations.” This is particularly true when we try to explain how the Kingdom of God is supposed to be started by an executed-and-resurrected criminal. We’re back to the old, old Christian dilemma of just how and why a suffering God-man was required to bring on the Kingdom.
Why didn’t God just bring it on? What’s the point of the man on the cross?
Well, says Wright: “Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running the world’ … in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way.”
Wright links atonement and the problem of evil. The Gospels are another chapter in God’s story of Israel, a story that continues today and points toward a future redemption that has already, in a real way, begun.
Poetic summary: “It is because I believe in Jesus’ resurrection that I believe that the creator God has inaugurated his new creation in which, at the last, he will wipe away all tears from all eyes.” Ultimately, if you don’t believe in resurrection, the debate itself is pointless — and, reading the Ehrman-Wright fight logs, I get the dismaying feeling it is.
In the meantime, Wright says, Christians should work in the world as healers and love-bringers, like Jesus, and so provide a mild foretaste of the glorious banquet to come. Forgiveness looses all burdens.
Ehrman’s response is two-fold. First, he reiterates the thesis of his book “God’s Problem,” pointing out that the Biblical view of suffering is quite clearly “the reason people suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it.” He cites Amos 3-4, where God’s on a killing spree, and mentions the Flood in Genesis where the entire human race (almost) is slaughtered. And the Book of Revelation is no sweeter.
But really, he says, people like Wright who seem to believe “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” while they are certainly in the Markan and Pauline tradition, are always wrong. “The kingdom never did come. You seem to think that it will.” The Synoptic Gospels use Jesus to show what the Kingdom will look like (no death, disease, demons, etc.) but do not claim it has already come — just that it will, very soon.
Wright is still waiting. Ehrman has stopped. He doesn’t think it’s coming.
The last word goes to Wright, and no end is in sight. He still takes issue with Ehrman’s maudlin litany of grotesquerie (20 pages on the Holocaust, rather than 2), which he thinks is agnostic propaganda. More seriously, he thinks Ehrman is wrong about Amos, et al.
Amos wasn’t trying to explain suffering, says Wright, but laying down the serious stakes involved in the covenant with God: “The prophets were not, by and large, answering our philosophical question, but acting (so they seem to have believed) as mouthpieces for the covenant God.”
Ultimately, as in Job, God’s mind is inscrutable to us:
We are never in a position to judge God (if God there be). That’s not a pious platitude, but a rather obvious ontological reality.
God decided to call Abraham and “address the problem of evil through people who are part of the problem as well as part of the solution.” It’s a “mess.” Then with Jesus, it gets even messier.
Wright returns to the resurrection. Essential Christianity is that “the kingdom did come through the death and resurrection of Jesus.” So with that event, “God’s new world — the world where God’s writ runs — had already begun.” The Holy Spirit worked through them to change the world right away. Neither the early Christians nor Wright are actually waiting for anything. It’s here.
So the kingdom is here. Look around. Hmmm? As Wright says, it’s not what we expected. But the suffering God on the cross tells us it’s here.
Let me put all this in my own words and get it wrong.
Bart Ehrman: Human beings suffer. The Bible explains suffering as punishment for sin and that is morally unsatisfying. Jesus’ followers thought the Kingdom would come soon. They were wrong. God probably does not exist.
Tom-Tom Wright: God exists. The Bible is not God’s apologetic for suffering but the story of how he chose to work out salvation through the people of Israel. Working through people is messy. God becoming man and suffering was a challenge that showed “my ways are not your ways.” We must trust in the resurrection but ultimately can not understand suffering.
So we are where we started. Who won? I give points for logic and clarity to Ehrman and points for spooky nuance to Wright. Ultimately, I’d rather live in Wright’s world. Perhaps there is no “real world” at all — perhaps we can choose where to live.
Suffering has ended. This post is complete.