Posts filed under ‘Revelation’
Leibniz vs. Voltaire: Can an Omnipotent, All-Benevolent God be Reconciled with this World of Suffering?
A few days ago, I wrote a post about the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, but one important point I did not mention is his theodicy. Leibniz firmly believed that this world of ours was “the best of all possible worlds,” because an all-powerful, all-benevolent God would never create the second or third best possible world. He would choose the best of all possible worlds.
Shortly after reading Leibniz, I also re-read Voltaire’s philosophical novella Candide. One of the characters in the story is Doctor Pangloss, who is a Leibnizian philosopher that keeps preaching the doctrine of the “best of all possible worlds” even in the face of the most outrageous suffering. Through his sometimes quite funny parody, Voltaire sharply criticizes Leibniz. If this is the best possible world, he wants to know, then what do the other worlds look like?
Another thinker who criticized theodicy was Immanuel Kant. He thought that all philosophical attempts at a theodicy had failed, and I tend to agree with him. The only theodicy that I find at all tenable is not a philosophical one but simply the cross of Christ. This is a cautious Christian approach to suffering, admitting that ultimately we do not understand it. We might never know why God lets us suffer so much, but we know one thing: If there was any way around it, God Himself would not have come to suffer. Since He did, since He suffered indescribably and even died, the picture has changed. He has taken His own medicine, so to speak, and therefore we can trust Him.
The cross of Christ is thus the only credible theodicy. One cannot argue with a martyr. And if God Himself is a martyr, well, then there is no arguing with Him, is there?
Of course, you actually have to believe in the incarnation of Christ to be convinced by this. But it shows how someone who believes in God can find in the picture of the suffering God a solution to the problem of theodicy—not a solution that answers all intellectual questions, but one that satisfies on a more emotional level. And I would suggest that the main problem people have with theodicy is an emotional one, not a purely intellectual one.
Beyond this picture of the suffering God, a traditional theodicy has been the story of the Fall. In that view, the world was utterly perfect until we humans messed it up. It’s all our fault, including earthquakes and diseases and itching noses. God, in his infinite grace, is in the process of restoring the world, and he paid the ultimate price for it. So what are we complaining about?
Nowadays, this line of thinking can only be maintained by Young-Earth Creationists, that is, by people who believe that God created the world a few thousand years ago and that all modern scientific views on the age of the earth and of life on earth are completely wrong. Even most Intelligent-Design (ID) advocates affirm that the earth was formed about 4.6 billion years ago, that during the Cambrian period more than 500 million years ago invertebrates spread widely in the oceans, trilobites became common, and the first mollusks appeared. ID advocates generally embrace the earth’s history as now understood, from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic, including dinosaurs and all. Consequently, they also believe that death, pain, and discord existed in the world long before humans came into existence.
This, so to speak, throws the ball of the problem back in God’s court. We are not to blame for the basic fact of suffering after all. “Why, God, did you create a world of discord, pain, and death—not just for us humans, but long before we ever appeared on the scene?” This is the new question of theodicy that modern science has pressed on the theist.
The traditional answer that this earth is a kind of training ground for better things to come is hard to believe in light of earth’s long and long-suffering history. If one were to hunt for answers to theodicy in the Book of Revelation, for instance, this is one of the answers you would get (in addition to the more important “answer” of the Lamb of God, the suffering divinity nailed to a cross, which is probably the most central aspect of Revelation).
In Revelation 8 and 9, there are seven angels blowing seven trumpets, and at each blast of a trumpet a horrible disaster befalls the earth: natural catastrophes, pollution of oceans, shipwrecks, contamination of drinking water, harmful changes in the atmosphere, demonic attacks, yes, even Satan himself wreaking destruction. And then it says in chapter 9,20-21: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.”
Now I want to stress that Revelation was an “occasional” letter, meaning it was written for a specific occasion of real people that the author believed were either undergoing terrible suffering or were about to undergo terrible suffering. It is not a philosophical treatise or an intellectual answer to the problems of theodicy. But were one to approach the text in this way, it would suggest that people suffer because God wants to warn them of even greater suffering to come. It is His way of pouring cold water on the heads of sinners and waking them from their spiritual slumber.
Proclaiming this pain-stricken earth to be God’s training ground for eternity, however, has mostly failed to bring the skeptic to his knees. Instead, it has caused outrage or at least a lively discussion on why such an idea is problematic.
The first problem is that it completely ignores non-human suffering. Is the deer expected to repent of its sins when chased by a lion? And is a torn deer supposed to serve as a warning to its comrades that eternal torment is awaiting the unbelieving deer soul? Hardly. No verse in the Bible promises eternal life to animals. Why then, from a purely theological perspective, do they need to suffer? Evolution does provide a sensible biological answer here, but not Revelation.
Second, there are ethical limitations on how much suffering one can inflict for a future good. If I see a group of people approaching a mine field and find myself in the position to warn them, am I justified to issue my warning by mowing down half of them with a machine gun and maiming the rest? Is there any court in the world that would sanction my action? And what are the many diseases, epidemics, earthquakes, floods, and storms but a constant killing and maiming of earthly life?
Third, suffering as a way of steering people away from future suffering only makes sense when they know the good that will come of it. Unless you tell a child that a vaccination will prevent disease, it is hardly going to turn its naked shoulder to the pointy needle. Granted, you sometimes have to force someone into their own good, such as with a baby or a mentally handicapped person. But with them you are not aiming at voluntary submission, which is what Revelation is aiming at.
To take a different example, every soldier-to-be knows the purpose of recruit training. He can therefore interpret its hardships in the right light, knowing that they are necessary for his successful career as a soldier. Applying this to humanity as a whole, one can imagine all people being born in another sphere where God instructs them about His purpose for their eternal lives, before sending them to this earth as a temporary training ground. If this were the case, life on earth would still be a test so hard as to border on cruelty, but at least people knew what they were in for. As it is, however, we are born on this earth and know no other. Different people say different things about the purpose of our planet. There is little agreement on whether this is a boot camp for something better or as good as it gets. And as long as there is still any disagreement on why we are here, Revelation’s take on suffering falls flat.
Forth and last, Revelation itself admits that the whole scheme simply does not work. A minority starts believing in God because of their suffering, yes. But only a minority. For many people, it was not only the Jews and gypsies who died in the Holocaust, but God, too.
Let me reiterate that a more cautious Christian approach to suffering is to admit that ultimately we do not understand it. But in the cross of Christ a believer can see a God who has taken His own medicine and is therefore trustworthy. This can be a comfort to believers, but probably is not something that would convince a skeptic.
Either way, I am with Voltaire not to gloss over the suffering in this world. It is real, and as human beings we all sit in the same boat—on the same Titanic, one could say. Let me close this all-too long post therefore with an excerpt from a poem that Voltaire wrote after the disastrous Lisbon earthquake, an earthquake that, one can argue, had a huge impact on European discussions of theodicy:
Horror on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,
That man’s the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain,
Approach in crowds and meditate awhile
You shattered walls, and view each ruined pile,
Women and children heaped up mountain high,
Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie;
Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death,
Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath,
Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire,
And end their wretched lives in torments dire,
Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries,
Or from their ashes see the smoke arise,
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain? …
But when like us Fate’s rigors you have felt,
Become humane, like us you’ll learn to melt,
When the earth gapes my body to entomb,
I justly may complain of such a doom.
- Translated by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771)
WHO WAS THE AUTHOR OF REVELATION?
It was during the latter half of the first century that a man prepared to embark on a short voyage to an insignificant island in the Mediterranean. Ordinary as the trip must have seemed to his fellow travelers, it was destined to cause ripples in history that have still not abated.
The man called himself John, and the departing port was most likely Ephesus, a bustling city of almost half a million. The greatest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World dominated its prosperous life: the famed Temple of Artemis. No doubt John heard the Ephesians quote the poet Antipater, who had seen the wall of lofty Babylon on which was a road for chariots, who had visited the hanging gardens, and the magnificent statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Colossus of Rhodes, and the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus. But when he saw the house of Artemis reaching to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and he declared, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on anything so grand.”
John, however, was not impressed. He was longing for the time when this temple would come crashing down. Soon, he hoped.
All this luxury, all this grandeur—he was sick of it. He couldn’t bear the tunes of the harpists and minstrels, flutists and trumpeters celebrating the gods. He hated the sight of people dressed in fine linen of purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, jewels, and pearls.
Showing off. Clamoring. Living.
The sound of the millstone filled the air. Lights shown through the windows of houses in which artists pursued their craft. In a courtyard adorned with flowers, a bridegroom and a bride laughed in celebration, their friends and family clapping joyously.
“It will all be silenced. It will all be thrown down,” John might have mumbled to himself as he shielded his eyes from the opulence around him and made for the harbor.
But it was no better there. The port was the hubbub of commerce. Merchants ordered servants around to load and unload cargo: iron, bronze, silver, gold, silk, and cloth; scented wood, ivory, and marble; cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots. And slaves. Human lives.
Did John only think of condemning this thriving culture when he arrived at the isolation of the island? Perhaps. Or perhaps even now he spoke under his breath: “All your dainties and your splendor will be lost to you, never to be found again. You will all weep and mourn. All you shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and merchants—you will all cry at the loss of your riches. It will happen. Soon. And then it will be my time to rejoice.”
John, we have to understand, was a radical. He deemed the materialism of affluent Roman society an enemy of God. But not only that. He also ran counter to many of his fellow Christians. It appears that he had just visited the cities that lay along the main commerce road of what is now western Turkey, and he had found the state of the church appalling.
Laodicea, for one, that center of wool trade and monetary transaction. Had not the Master said that you cannot serve both God and Mammon? Well, the Christians there were trying to serve both, John thought. Rich and satisfied, they were. Spiritually lukewarm. If they did not renounce this world, the Master would spit them out of His mouth. They would go to the place where all worshippers of Mammon were going.
The same in Sardis. With few exceptions, the whole church was spiritually dead. Unless they became more radical and stopped being out to gain the acceptance of society, their names would be blotted out of the Book of Life.
And in Thyatira he had met a woman teacher whose Christianity was so liberal that she even encouraged others to eat the normal meat from the marketplace, which had been sacrificed to idols. God was bound to intervene soon, though. She and all her followers would feel the brunt of God’s disciplinary action, of this John was sure.
Similar teachings were spreading in Pergamum, and in the great metropolis Ephesus the Christians were so caught up in their daily lives that they had lost their initial zeal for God.
But there was hope. A minority of believers was not under the spell of Mammon. They were poor and vulnerable in this world, yet strong in God. Some of them lived radically enough to suffer persecution, such as the dear believers in Philadelphia and Smyrna, who had run into repeated problems with the local synagogue leaders. And in Pergamum one Christian had even been killed for his faith, just like Jesus. A martyr.
In John’s view, the church needed more martyrs: people who were willing to live in direct opposition to their own culture. Some were doing it, and they had to be encouraged, but all the others needed a wake-up call. “Come out of her, my people!”—This was the message the Christians needed to hear. “Separate yourself from the godless society around you, from the money and luxury, the feasting and singing, the marrying and toiling. Come out and seek the Lord!”
This, at least, John intended to do on the island to which he was headed. The ship was leaving the harbor now, and already he was feeling better as the noises of the merchants were swept away by the wind of the open sea. After months of pagan city life, God’s sun shining on the clear turquoise of the Mediterranean water must have felt to John like a welcoming presence from on high.
Yes, he was going to Patmos, one of many small islands between Macedonia and Asia Minor. Hardly anyone was living there. Solitude.
Why he was going? Well, he himself only said it was “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). This might mean that he was banished there by the Roman authorities for having stirred up too much trouble on behalf of the Christian message. It is doubtful, however, that someone who did not hold any influential position in the empire would be silenced by exile. Senators, relatives of the emperor, government officials, high ladies, famous poets and philosophers—all those might for one reason or another be sent into exile. But some leader of what was seen as merely a quarrel within Judaism? Someone who was most likely not even a Roman citizen, such as Paul had been? There were more expedient ways to silence a non-citizen quarrel maker.
Still, one shouldn’t rule it out. There could have been factors we are not aware of.
But it is equally possible that the phrase “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” simply means that John went to Patmos voluntarily in order to seek God. One clear message in the Book of Revelation is that Christians ought to separate themselves from Roman society, which John viewed as being on the brim of destruction. What better way of putting his own message into practice than fleeing the madness himself? And what more convincing place from which to write such a message than a remote island?
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
- Revelation 1:1-3
No other book in the Bible begins with such a pronounced claim of divine authorship. In essence, John is telling the reader: “Make no mistake. This is from God. And He has something important to say for the very near future, here and now in the first century.”
Such a confident claim forced people throughout the ages to make a definite decision on the book. You either had to embrace it or reject it. Completely. The one thing John did not leave open for you was to appreciate it in a differentiated, half-accepting manner. Hot or cold, but not lukewarm – that’s the effect John was going for.
The only problem is that if you mix hot and cold, lukewarm is precisely what you get. That, at least, has been the overall reception of the book by Christians from the second century onward. Some embraced Revelation as their favorite text; others rejected it as not being from God at all.
The result was that the father of church historians, Eusebius, listed it as a disputed book around the year 300. Some Bibles did not print it as late as the seventeenth century, and even today it remains the only book of the New Testament that – though officially accepted in the canon – is excluded from the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
That is a rather lukewarm reception, wouldn’t you say?
(Picture copyright by Jacob Schriftman. Do not use without permission.)
The Book of Revelation contains one of the longest quotes of Jesus Himself—a quote, furthermore, that was supposedly written down only moments after He uttered it.
The Gospels were composed decades after Jesus’ life. It would be a mistake to read them as transcripts of Jesus’ teachings, as if the authors based their records on tape recordings rather than oral transmission. The author of Luke, for instance, simply said that he had done his proper research; he did not claim to transcribe Jesus verbatim.
John’s Revelation, on the other hand, does make that claim. Jesus appears in awe-inspiring power and tells John to write down what he is about to receive, and then He launches into a lengthy monologue. Here we have Jesus actually dictating part of the Bible to a human secretary.
Yet, what kind of a Jesus do we meet in these messages? Is it the same Jesus whom so many Christians have grown to love by reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? The Jesus who upset the religious purists by reaching out to sinners and rejects? The one who usually reserved His reprimands to legalists who thought it terribly important to eat kosher food and keep the Sabbath, while ignoring that God’s commandments were meant to help people?
It can be argued, and many Christians in fact have argued, that the Jesus of Revelation is quite a different Jesus than the one in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters. In the Gospels, Jesus condemns an overemphasis on purity, kosher living, as well as misguided religious zeal. In Revelation, He condemns the lack of purity, kosher living, and religious zeal. Legalism seems to have suddenly disappeared as an item on His list of concerns. In the Gospels, He wins over the sinners by accepting them with open arms; now He attempts to reform them by saying that they make Him sick and He will throw them up.
In a word, you could say there is a lack of grace in Revelation. Here, grace is reserved for those who deserve grace, which really makes it no grace at all. Grace means to get something you do not deserve—a theme that runs like a golden thread through the Gospels and Paul’s letters. In Revelation, some say, this golden thread breaks off. Now we are back to the concept of reward rather than grace: getting what you deserve.
That is why Martin Luther, the man who sparked the Reformation, said that Revelation is no prophecy from God at all and that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” He later changed his mind, but it seems that such was his view at the time when he distributed his ninety-five theses, which set the greatest shift in the history of the church in motion.
Are Christians today still at liberty to draw the same conclusion about Revelation as Martin Luther did? Or would they be then labeled by many of their fellow Christians as unbelievers, or at least as people spreading false teachings?