Posted by: gcarkner | March 29, 2013

Why Aren’t Things All Better?

Why Didn’t Everything, including Us, Become Perfect after the Cross?

Dr John Stackhouse Jr.


We often ask questions of the “Why didn’t God just . . .” variety. Why didn’t God just avoid the whole painful business of the Incarnation? Why didn’t God in particular just spare his Son the Cross? Why didn’t God just heal all the sick and raise all the dead at once in the career of Jesus? Why didn’t God just . . . and so on, and so on. In each of these cases, the Christian answer is the same: God elected either the best of the available choices or, indeed, the only choice available for God to pursue his purposes.

Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal is a key case in point. He badly wants to avoid the horrors to come and tells his Father so, begging him to find another path, to give him a different cup to drink. As he prays, however, Jesus becomes convinced once for all that there is no other path to take. So he willingly goes on to drink the cup of suffering and death. Apparently, even God couldn’t “just” wave a magic wand and make everything better. Quite the contrary.

The natural follow-up question, furthermore, might best be explained in a paradoxically similar fashion. Most people who encounter the Christian teaching about the Cross of Christ wonder why, if Jesus suffered all of that on our behalf, did evil and its effects not then immediately disappear from the world?

Sometimes preachers answer this question by invoking D-Day, 1944. The Cross of Christ is the huge battle that decides the ultimate outcome of the war, but there still remain lots of “mopping up” battles to be fought.

The initial problem is the accuracy of the metaphor itself, alas. Many historians think the German war with Russia on the Eastern Front was at least as important. Indeed, many believe that had Hitler not committed the classic mistake of opening a war on the Eastern Front in 1942, the Germans might well have withstood even D-Day in 1944.

Still, the basic question remains: Why is there need for any “mopping up” at all, for an omnipotent deity who has suffered “once for all” on the Cross? Why not instant shalom? Didn’t Jesus “pay it all,” as classic evangelical piety proclaims?

Jesus did indeed do what Jesus needed to do: forever remove the eternal consequence of sin for anyone who would avail himself or herself of that salvation.

But being forgiven of sin is not enough. We are forgiven, but hardly holy. And to make us holy, which we must be to enter into the new world to come, God must do what is necessary. Apparently, that means letting the world spin on, evils and all.

For God is accomplishing good things through the evil that remains in the world after the death and resurrection of Christ, including both bringing into existence you and me through the many generations of our forebears and then doing what is necessary to bring us into the state in which we can enter eternal life.

Indeed, I think it is simply implied in all this that there has been no other way to accomplish these several purposes than to let the world run on a while longer, in both its good and its evil, until all the good that God wants to accomplish has, at last, been accomplished.

When we ask, therefore, why God doesn’t take shortcuts, I presume that there aren’t any shortcuts to take. Why would God be deliberately inefficient, let alone deliberately tolerant of the suffering of his beloved creatures? To get to where we all want to go, to get to a paradise of morally mature, loving human beings enjoying shalom with each other, with the earth, and with God, apparently requires a journey. To be mature apparently requires (a process of) maturation.

One last note on this point. The only other creatures we know of that possess similar free will such that they could accept or reject God and such that they could develop into creatures of established moral character are the angels. And they, apparently, followed a similar trajectory. Some chose God and became his faithful messengers of now-unquestioned goodness, while others chose to rebel and became his sworn enemies of now-unquestioned evil. Therefore, of the two kinds of creatures we know of that have been given free will to love or hate God, both have had episodes in which at least some chose badly. Neither sort of creature, that is, was created instantly mature and therefore incapable of sin. Maybe, then, to create a creature “instantly mature” is a contradiction in terms and thus nothing—literally no thing—that God can make.

~John Stackhouse, author of the profound book Can God Be Trusted? John also often writes on religion and culture for the Globe & Mail as per his recent Easter contribution.

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