Open Theism (2)

THE SUFFERING GOD

Pinnock declares that “In the gospel we encounter a God who loves and takes risks, who becomes vulnerable even to the point of suffering, and reveals himself in a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief.” Billheimer called God the “supreme sufferer in the universe” and declared that “Suffering is an essential ingredient of agape love and therefore of a moral universe.”

Moltmann observes that, according to Greek philosophy, “the divine substance is incapable of suffering; otherwise it would not be divine”; yet he points out that “God and suffering belong together, just as in this life the cry for God and the suffering experienced in pain belong together.” C S Lewis summed it up in this way: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.’”

In attacking open theology, Ware referred at length to the question of suffering, and of the God who could have prevented human suffering but did not; in all this Ware is saying that suffering is to be avoided if at all possible. But it is difficult to read the Scriptures without coming to the conclusion that God did, and does, suffer, and more so than any of us.

It may just be that human suffering is inevitable and unavoidable because it is part of the nature of God himself, and it is our response to suffering that is crucial, not the avoidance of suffering. Such thinking may turn out to be invalid, but surely it is worth exploring it with integrity rather than just opposing it and violently opposing those who dare to think in that way?

In Genesis, the fall of Adam and Eve is followed by God’s question, “Adam, where are you?” Why did God call out, “Adam, where are you?” Did God really not know Adam’s physical whereabouts? Or could it be that the suffering God was verbally expressing the agony of the broken relationship with his own creation? The man who should have been by his side was hiding from his Creator. God knew the pain and suffering of a broken relationship for the first time. 

Consider Jesus on the cross. He called out, “My God, my God; why have you abandoned me?” (The popular ‘forasken’ translation is too weak.) The God-man knew the pain and suffering of a broken relationship with his Father in heaven for the first time. Is such an experience merely academic for God? Or did the crucifixion bring new experience, new knowledge and new understanding for the whole of God in three persons?

At what Lewis calls ‘The Great Divorce’, God’s heart will again know suffering as the relationship, or the possibility of relationship, with many of his created beings is severed finally and for ever. Whatever the truth of Hell, it isn’t my own first choice. But it isn’t God’s first choice either. This brings us to consider the problem of evil.

EVIL

The problem of evil is exacerbated by the definition that we give to evil and the use of the word evil as a description. When a man with a knife attacked another man and severely wounded him, someone was heard to describe the stab wounds as ‘evil’. But they are not evil. They are the natural and inevitable result of a sharp knife interacting with human flesh. Neither is the knife evil. It is merely a knife. But the intent and motive of the person who carried out the attack are certainly evil. This distinction is essential if we are to understand evil.

Any evil that may be carried out against me becomes my suffering. As Billheimer put it: “No-one ever becomes a saint without suffering because suffering, properly accepted, is the pathway to glory.” God makes the evil of others into my suffering and ultimately into my good, because he uses my suffering to mature and perfect my human experience. I will certainly run from evil, but I will not run from suffering.

The existence of evil and its ingrained nature in humanity is part of what Jesus died to deal with. But let us be clear about this one thing: Evil did not originate in a human being. Referring to the Garden of Eden, Ware calls it a ‘perfect environment’ in which there was no sin, but that is simply not true.

There was certainly no sin in humanity until Adam sinned, but sin, in the shape of the serpent, was already there. There was sin in the garden. The Garden of Eden was not a perfect environment. The enemy of our souls who was and is the very source of sin was already there, and he was plotting the destruction of God’s people and the bringing down of God’s kingdom. He is evil, as God is love. We must pray that evil be overcome. That brings us to the subject of prayer.

PRAYER

One of the strengths of open theism is the place that is given to prayer. “God wants input from creaturely agents and does not control everything that happens” say Pinnock, but rather “God invites us to participate with him in loving dialogue, to bring the future into being.” This kind of partnership necessitates a high view of prayer as real, meaningful and having an impact in changing people and thereby changing things.

But the strange thing is that those classical theists who believe that “The Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all events past, present and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents” nevertheless believe in precisely this kind of prayer!

This high view of prayer is taken by Billheimer, who declares that “God did not ordain prayer primarily as a way of getting things done, but to enable the church to learn the technique of overcoming; it is his way of giving her on-the-job training in overcoming the forces hostile to God.”

According to Billheimer then, prayer is therefore to be understood as not merely relating only to the here and now, but to the unending ages to come: “Here we are learning how to use the weapons of prayer and faith in overcoming and enforcing Christ’s victory so dearly bought. What foes will be left to overcome in the eternal ages we do not know. But the character acquired in overcoming here will evidently be needed when we have joined the Bridegroom on his throne.”

It is, of course, one thing to speak about prayer in a theoretical or theological way, but what really counts for me is what happens in my experience of prayer, and it is to my experience that we now turn.