Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Does God Get What God Wants?: Review of and Reflections on "Love Wins" (Part 3)

Bell begins Chapter 4 by demonstrating the inconsistency of believing in a God of love and in a judgment of eternal torment. He contends that God wants all people to be saved and come to the truth, and then he asks the question, “Does God get what God wants?” He argues that the writers of Scripture consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family and that what we have in common outweighs our differences. He compares God’s love to that of a parent for a child, “the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds. The kind of love that moves toward, embraces, and always works to be reconciled with, regardless of the cost” (p. 99). Bell then references several texts that reflect an inclusive, universal perspective. Bell writes, “This insistence that God will be united and reconciled with all people is a theme the writers and prophets return to again and again” (p. 100).

This, of course, is true; there are a number of biblical passages that reflect a universal, inclusive emphasis. A central component in an inclusive gospel that I affirm again and again in my book, A Living Faith: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, is that we are all children of God and God’s steadfast love toward all people is that of a Parent for a child. The way I like to put it: We are all the daughters and sons of God, but not all of us have claimed our identity or are living in light of that reality.

However, it is important to acknowledge the dualistic, exclusivistic passages as well. And given the apocalyptic milieu in which the Jesus movement was born, there are many such passages in the New Testament. What is needed (which Bell does not offer) is an adequate hermeneutic to account for and deal with the contradictions. John Dominic Crossan, in his book God and Empire observes that in the biblical tradition, sometimes in the same book, are two very different versions of how God will cleanup the world and usher in God’s kingdom (see pp. 78-95). The Bible has many dualistic, retributive, vengeful texts, as well as inclusive, gracious texts with a universal trajectory. On what basis will we choose which vision is best reflective of God’s will/plan for the world?

Bell rightly raises the question of human freedom in connection with God’s desire to save all. He writes, “God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is” (pp. 103-04). He points out that at the heart of the universal perspective “is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence” (p. 107).

That is my position, and as Bell points out, I am not alone; “there is a long tradition” of Christians who hold to this view. In interview after interview Bell denies that he is a universalist, because he cannot argue conclusively that all will eventually repent and turn to God, given the reality of human freedom. And that, of course, is true. However, his denial does not tell the rest of the story. He asks, “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love?” (p. 109). And he says that the story of God’s love reaching everyone “is a better story . . . bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes” (p. 111).

We who are hopeful universalists have to allow for human freedom and the possibility that some may become so hardened and pervaded by evil that they would never choose the good, though we believe that God’s love will eventually bring everyone to repentance. And it seems that this is Bell’s hope too, if not his belief.

One of the reasons I believe that all persons will eventually be changed relates to the way numerous factors influence human freedom. Bell does not address this, but a multitude of biological, temporal, cultural, and social factors impact and restrict human freedom. My daughter who has Downs Syndrome has her freedom severely limited by genetics. The child subjected to acute neglect and abuse will be greatly restricted in his or her freedom to live an emotionally, spiritually, and relationally healthy life. The person who has made many evil choices and whose conscience is numb may be difficult to influence. But given enough time and different contexts and influences, it is reasonable to believe that even the most distorted, twisted, sadistic psyches can be redeemed and transformed by God’s love.

Toward the end of the chapter Bell turns the question around and asks, “Do we get what we want?” He answers yes. If we want evil, then we can have evil along with its consequences. If we want love, we can have that too, says Bell. The problem with this is that we do not always know what we want. Given the ways the Domination System can beat us down and the ways our freedom can be impeded, we can easily become deceived, deluded, and confused. God is always trying to lure us away from the evil into the good, even if evil is what we think we want.

So I cannot agree with Bell’s conclusion: “That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (p. 119).

It is true that love cannot be manipulated or forced, and it always allows for human freedom. But if we want evil and get evil, then love does not win, because it is not what love wants. God’s love wants/wills our good, our healing and transformation, and God’s love will do whatever God can do without violating human freedom to accomplish this. (This raises questions about whether God voluntarily or involuntarily self-limits in regard to human freedom or whether, as in process theology, God is not omnipotent; but these questions are beyond the scope of this review.)

God’s love does not win if God is not able to eventually, working with human freedom and all the ways that human freedom is impacted, limited, and influenced, bring all God’s children home safely. Only then does God get what God wants and only then is God’s love fully satisfied.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann in his book, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, has a good word: “In this Spirit of the resurrection I can here and now wholly live, wholly love and wholly die, for I know with certainty that I shall wholly rise again. In this hope I can love all created things, for I know that none of them will be lost” (p. 87). When love gathers all in and none is lost, love wins.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Christ is Risen. Alleluia!

In religious language “life” and “death” are poignant, theologically packed religious symbols. This is particularly apparent in the Gospel of John. In my book, A Faith Worth Living, I express it this way:

“Death represents the absence of spiritual life. In a contemporary spiritual sense, it may be symbolic of the darkness of depression; or the enmity, estrangement, and alienation that separates individuals from one another and from their true selves; or a felt absence of love, meaning, and significance.

Life, the antithesis of death, is what one experiences in relationship with God. In a contemporary existential sense, it may stand as a symbol for relationships and experiences that are healthy, vibrant, holistic, and transformative. Life involves freedom from the debilitating power of anxiety, worry, and fear. Life reflects the love, joy, and peace experienced by an individual or faith community when that person or community is delivered from the oppressive power of hate, guilt, and shame.

Life is what happens to us when we open our hearts to the love of God and decide to share and express God’s love to others. Death is what happens to us when we close our hearts to God’s love and decide instead to harbor resentment and animosity” (p. 127).

“Life and death” is a common expression that puts the accent on death as the climax of the story. The gospel of Jesus reverses it. Jesus told his followers that in Jerusalem he would be rejected, suffer, and be killed, but then “raised to life.” Life is the pinnacle of the story.

There’s a lot of death in our world: Rwanda, Darfur, the Gulags, Katrina, Haiti, Japan, war, murders, rape, sex trafficking, genocide, crack houses, spousal and child abuse—death that makes no sense. Like the tragic torture and suffering of an innocent victim. Like the cross.

But death is not the end of the story. In John 20, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and finds it empty. Thinking that someone stole the body, she is at the brink of despair. She feels overwhelmed by death. But then something happens. Mary leaves the tomb a witness to life.

(Note: None of the Gospel accounts tell the Easter story the same way. There is little agreement in the details. The one thing they concur on, however, is that the disciples, because of some mysterious encounter/s and experience/s with the living Christ become convinced that he is alive.)

On a mission trip to Haiti in 2010 with undergraduates, Will Willimon reported in The Christian Century that there was widespread agreement that the most disarming thing about the country was the laughter of the children, along with their raucous singing. How could they sing in the midst of all that death?

As darkness fell upon Port-au-Prince ten weeks after the earth shook and collapsed, people danced in the streets and sang hymns. Anderson Cooper on CNN was somewhat incredulous: “Don’t they know what they are saying about how bad it really is?”

It seems to astound us in our American, consumerist, ego-driven culture that people who seem to be so trapped in tragedy can be so full of life. Could they be experiencing the power of life over death ahead of time? The Christian gospel proclaims that life with all its possibilities has broken into our world.

So even when we should be weeping and crying out in despair, we sing: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rob Bell on "Hell": Review and Reflections (Part 2)

Bell begins his discussion by noting that there is no “hell” in the Old Testament. There is a sheol—“a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die” (p. 65)—but nothing equivalent to hell. Beliefs about the afterlife in Hebrew culture were not “very articulated or defined” (p. 67).

Bell notes that the word translated “hell” in the New Testament is actually gehenna, referring originally to an actual valley on the west side of Jerusalem used as a garbage dumb; a place where the fire was burning constantly to consume the trash.

Bell emphasizes the metaphorical use of this word in the sayings of Jesus. The “volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors” that Jesus uses “describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity” (p.73).

I agree with Bell that Jesus employed the term in hyperbole and symbol. What Bell does not tell the reader, however, is that one metaphorical meaning of “hell” during the time of Jesus was that of an actual place of fiery judgment. This belief in a fiery judgment where the wicked would be consumed emerged in the intertestamental period as an apocalyptic worldview began to develop. Oppressed Israel started dreaming of vindication and some of them imagined a place where the wicked would be destroyed by fire. A smaller number imagined it as a place of eternal torment. As the ABD notes: “By at least the 1st century C.E. there emerged a metaphorical understanding of Gehenna as the place of judgment by fire for all the wicked everywhere.”

It’s also interesting that most of the references to gehenna are found in Matthew’s Gospel and Matthew tends to embellish the judgment texts with a severity, harshness, and vindictiveness not found in Mark or Luke. Theologian and Bible scholar Walter Wink, in his book, The Human Being, expresses it this way: “Matthew’s use of the judgment theme is particularly vindictive . . . The unconditional loving Abba of the Sermon of the Mount (5:45) now wants to settle some scores. Matthew’s heart will not be happy until ‘all evildoers’ have been thrown ‘into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (p. 177). Apparently, Matthew or some in his community had an ax to grind. This also better explains the phrase, “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:30 as a Matthean embellishment. Bell’s attempt to make that phrase say something else is a real stretch (see pp. 91-93).

Bell does a good job with the story in Luke 16 about Lazarus and the rich man. It is a “brilliant, surreal, poignant, subversive, loaded story” proclaiming “the social revolution” that is part of the kingdom of God. The reversal theme that is so prevalent in Luke shows up here “calling all people to human solidarity” (p. 75). Bell contends that the story was particularly aimed at the religious leaders as a warning that “there would be serious consequences for ignoring the Lazaruses outside their gates” (p. 76). Bell points out that even in his agony the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him and go warn his brothers, treating him as his servant. In an insightful application Bell points out that the gospel of Jesus is about a death that leads to life; a pattern of dying to the ego, status, and pride, so one can live in God’s kingdom. Bell notes, “He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life” (p. 77).

Bell’s interpretation is perceptive and transformative, though the story needed more introduction and context. It would probably be improper to call this story a parable. Most parables have a true-to-life sense about them; this is pure allegorical fiction. A similar story appears in other literature and cultures, probably originating in Egypt. There were several versions of it in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Jesus is adapting a common story line to proclaim God’s eschatological reversal and in the Lukan context, he is critiquing the Pharisees misuse of the law, particularly the way they interpreted the law to justify their love of money. The word for “hell” does not appear in the text; instead, the word hades is employed, referring to the abode of the dead. Literalizing the details of the story robs it of its power and reduces it to the ridiculous. (For a more complete discussion of this see my book, The Good News According to Jesus, pp. 185-198).

Bell acknowledges that there are a number of passages in the Bible that speak about judgment and punishment that says nothing about “hell.” With regard to Jesus’ announcements of judgment Bell says two things. First, sometimes Jesus is referring to the coming wrath of the Romans against Israel (though he doesn’t cite any passages here). Second, Jesus is addressing very religious people who thought they were the “in” group, warning them “about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love” (p. 82). (Again, it is unusual that he does not cite any specific passages here either.)

Bell makes a very important point about the criterion of judgment, pointing out that in all the passages of Jesus’ sayings on “hell” Jesus is not talking about beliefs. Rather, he is talking about “anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of the listeners’ hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world” (p. 82). This is true, by the way, of all the judgment texts in Scripture. Even in the Gospel of John, where belief is so prominent, the eschatological judgment is determined on the basis of conduct and actions, namely, on the grounds of “those who have done good” and “those who have done evil” (John 5:29).

The most important point Bell makes in this chapter is about the nature of judgment. Bell, like myself and a growing number of progressive Christians, sees judgment as restorative and redemptive. The movement of judgment is a movement “from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life” (p. 85). Though his attempt to find this movement in Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment in Matthew 10 is the result of eisegesis, not exegesis; it’s simply not there. But it is in the prophets, and Bell cites a bunch of them. He writes, “According to the prophets, God crushes, refines, tests, corrects, chastens, and rebukes—but always with a purpose” (pp. 85-86). That purpose is restoration: “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction” (p. 88). Bell appeals to the judgment renderings of Paul in First Timothy and 1 Corinthians 5 to support this movement. (Note: It is not likely that Paul was the author of First Timothy).

This is the point about judgment that I develop in The Good News According to Jesus and A Faith Worth Living. In the latter book I begin the discussion by putting it this way: “Rather than perpetuate the duality of “us” and “them” (the saved and unsaved, the righteous and wicked), each group being assigned separate destinies as is common in apocalyptic and dualistic versions of Christianity, it is more reasonable and true to the God of Jesus of Nazareth to bring judgment and salvation together as part of the total providential, redemptive, restorative, transformative work of God to reconcile all things to God’s self” (p. 100).

Later in the discussion: “An inclusive gospel inverts our images of judgment and invests them with new meaning. The “furnace of fire” becomes a furnace that burns off all the dross, leaving the precious metal; it consumes all the selfishness and sin, so that the one who has been through the flames comes forth purged and pure. Perhaps the journey through “outer darkness” is necessary to dispel the inner darkness and illumine our minds and hearts to the mystery, wonder, and power of God’s goodness and grace. Maybe the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a necessary prelude to the joy and celebration that results from the experience of grace and real gratitude” (p. 107).

This is the theological grounding for a rethinking of traditional ideas and beliefs about hell, namely: God’s judgment (however we may conceive of this) is for the purpose of ultimate transformation. This theological construct is a key component in an inclusive gospel.

I think judgment in the form of consequences is good as far as it can go, but in my estimation it simply can’t go far enough. For one thing, there are some people who seem to be able to elude the natural consequences of their evil actions and conduct. And for another, simply facing the consequences of our evil actions may not be adequate to turn us around. I believe it will take more direct engagement from God. How God can or might do this, I am not imaginative enough to guess. How might God get the attention of and bring about the repentance of sadists, torturers, “natural born killers”?—I don’t know. I feel rather strongly that their judgment will be more severe, intense, painful, and prolonged. The refining fire may need to burn hotter and longer, especially with those whose conscience has been completely numbed.

This view of judgment allows me to pray the psalms, at least the ones that go beyond the little self (the false, ego self). I can love my enemies while simultaneously praying for their judgment, knowing that the judgment rendered will ultimately be for the good of all. But I have to be careful that my prayers do not express repressed or underlying currents of anger that come out in thoughts of vengeance and retribution.

If judgment begins in my own household (the whole earth is God’s household and all are God’s offspring—see Acts 17) then I can pray for my own judgment, knowing that the fire is a purifying, refining, purging fire designed to bring out my true self, my true humanity.

I agree with Bell that we need the language of “hell,” that we need “a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences [for me that includes God’s part in the process] we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us” (p. 93). We may have to endure many “hells” before we reach “heaven,” whatever heaven may mean in terms of personal, communal, and global transformation.

I have one Absolute that orients my belief system, my spirituality, and my daily life. I believe that at the heart and core of all Reality, that which is Really Real, the Mystery that holds it all together, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One taking the universe or universes somewhere is pure, undefiled, unconditional Love. Of course, I am a Christian with Christian beliefs, but if all my Christian beliefs prove to be false and yet, the one Absolute holds true, then “all will be well.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rob Bell, "Love Wins": Review and Reflections (Part 1)

This is the first installment of my review of and reflection on the views articulated in Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. My plan is to review one or two chapters in each blog entry over the next several weeks. This week I am discussing chapter 2, “Here Is the New There,” which is his discussion of heaven.

Bell begins by calling into question “the fundamental story” of heaven that pervades evangelical Christianity, namely, that it is somewhere else, some other-worldly place. Bell points out that in the Gospels “eternal life” is more about quality of life than duration of life, and that it primarily relates to the kingdom of God that is both now and later, both present and future.

Much of Bell’s discussion about heaven occurs around his exposition of a conversation Jesus has with a rich man who asks Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life (Matt 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31; Luke 18:18–30). My intention here is not to critique Bell’s interpretation of all the angles and aspects of that story, but to reflect on what Bell says about heaven.

Bell is careful to point out that the promises of the Hebrew prophets anticipated a time when this world “would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth” (p. 40). Bell rightly emphasizes that “Jesus’ first century Jewish world” understood these promises of a new world to be connected to this world, not a future life somewhere else.

Bell also rightly points out that in Matthew’s Gospel, “the kingdom of heaven” is the equivalent to the phrase “kingdom of God.” Matthew substitutes the word “heaven” for “God” in keeping with the Jewish custom of avoiding the common use of God’s name. But Matthew is speaking of the same earthly reality, not some other world.

In other words, Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God, which by the way, was the central theme of his preaching and teaching, is about the transformation of this world, not some other world. And this process of transformation began with Jesus. Bell makes clear in a way and style that is unique to Bell that it’s all about transformation—personal, communal, and global— now and in the age to come.

This is all good stuff, but I would like to have seen a more nuanced discussion on the subject of the kingdom of God, which subject is central and critical to Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 2 of my book, A Faith Worth Living, titled “God’s Dream for the World,” I develop this in more detail.

While Jesus announced the kingdom of God against the backdrop of the promises of the Hebrew prophets, he infused the concept with a more expansive, flexible, and dynamic meaning. In some passages the phrase “kingdom of God” functions as an intensive symbol for the healing, transforming power of God. There are deep inner, spiritual, and personal dimensions to the good news of God reigning in the world, which is why Jesus spoke of dying to the ego, being born again, being pure in heart, hungering and thirsting after righteousness/justice, loving one’s enemies, and the necessity of repentance.

Bell gets at this toward the end of the chapter. He says that the kingdom of God relates to “an all pervasive dimension of being, a bit like oxygen for us or water for a fish.” He writes, “Jesus lived and spoke as if the whole world was a thin place for him, with endless dimensions of the divine infinitesimally close, with every moment and every location simply another experience of the divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us all the time” (p. 60-61). This is excellent, but there could have been more clarity and it could have been all tied together better. For those interested in exploring what it means to live in this divine reality I recommend the writings of Richard Rohr, especially Everything Belongs and The Naked Now.

Bell emphasizes that our calling/task is to partner with God to make this world “a new and better world.” Bell may be at his best when his writing reflects his pastoral concerns. He writes, “Jesus calls disciples in order to teach us how to be and what to be; his intention is for us to be growing progressively in generosity, forgiveness, honesty, courage, truth telling, and responsibility, so that as these take over our lives we are taking part more and more and more in life in the age to come, now” (p. 51).

Bell offers some discussion of the intermediate state—between the time when we die and the time of resurrection, when heaven and earth becomes one. Referencing Jesus’ words to the dying thief about the promise of Paradise and Paul’s words to the Philippians that dying meant being with Christ, Bell acknowledges that there are those “in heaven” with God now, but without a body. Bell argues that "Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now" (p. 59).

I felt that Bell needed a more carefully nuanced articulation of this aspect of heaven. Of course, it is difficult to be clear on a subject that Scripture is somewhat unclear about. My discussion of this in A Faith Worth Living may be helpful here:

 “Heaven has a rather diverse and ambiguous history of interpretation among the Jews. In a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible, heaven (or heavens, in Hebrew it is always plural) refers to the canopy covering the earth. In other texts it encompasses all that is above the earth. An ancient worldview that is sometimes reflected in the Scriptures imagined heaven as a dimension of reality corresponding to earthly reality . . . During the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in a plurality of heavens or levels of heavenly reality, equating the last level (the third level in some systems, the seventh in others) with Paradise, a holding place for the righteous dead. In Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth, he refers to a visionary experience or revelation he had, where he was caught up to “the third heaven,” which he calls “Paradise,” where he heard things that he was not permitted to repeat (2 Cor 12:1–4). This is undoubtedly the meaning of Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel to the dying thief who was crucified beside him. The thief asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom, and Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43). “Paradise” is not to be equated with the kingdom, but it is one aspect or dimension of it. This may be what John’s Gospel is referring to when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places . . . I will come again and will take you to myself” (John 14:1–3). This reality—referred to as the “third heaven,” “paradise,” and the “Father’s house”—was not the hope or destiny imagined by Jesus when he announced that the kingdom of God/heaven had come near. Yet this seems to be the dominant expectation of most Christians” (pp. 29-30).

While this aspect of heaven is not completely clear, what is clear, as Bell points out, is that the redemptive goal anticipated by the prophets, proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, claimed and expected by Jesus’ early followers, and should be our dream, hope, and calling today, is a world of restorative justice and peace, renewed, redeemed, and made whole.

I am grateful that a pastor of a mega-church in the evangelical tradition is finally calling evangelicals to pay attention to the gospel that Jesus proclaimed, taught, embodied, and died for.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Rob Bell, Martin Bashir, and the Question of Suffering

When Rob Bell was interviewed by Martin Bashir of MSNBC, before Bashir asked about his book, Love Wins, he asked Bell to respond to the disaster in Japan. Bashir phrased the question this way, “Which do you believe: That God is all powerful, but doesn’t care about the people in Japan and their suffering, or that God cares about their suffering, but is not all powerful?” He framed the question as if these were the only two options.

Bell responded by saying that he begins with the belief that when we shed a tear God sheds a tear, that God is a Divine Being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate, and stands in solidarity with us. Of course, that didn’t fit Bashir’s binary, dualistic way of thinking, so he kept pressing him. Finally, Bell responded, “It’s a paradox at the heart of the Divine and it’s best left at that.”

It was a horribly conducted interview that revealed more about Martin Bashir than it did Rob Bell. Bashir framed the questions in a way that required an either/or, yes/no, true/false response. And yet the questions dealt with truth that defied such simplistic answers. (Jesus, by the way, never offered simplistic answers; he spoke in stories, short, witty aphorisms, and shocking, hyperbolic sayings filled with paradox, irony, and mystery.) Healthy Christianity (or any religion for that matter) does not need or invite simple, trite, all-encompassing answers to the universal questions of human suffering and meaning.

Christianity does not have easy answers, but it does have the cross, where God in Christ enters into the tragedy of the human condition and bears it, endures it, owns it, and absorbs it.

In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave, and that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures.” Berry cuts against the grain of our privatized, compartmentalized way of seeing life, reflecting a more universal and inclusive worldview. He writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds still are bleeding.”

It is in Christ’s once-upon-a-cross humiliation and in his ever-present bleeding wounds that we find a brother. In his cry of abandonment upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we have a comrade and friend. For he descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power, so that we who follow Christ through our own “hells” can find healing and redemption through his suffering and death.

Our disappointments and discouragements, our losses and defeats, our feelings of rejection and forsakenness do not separate us from God, but draw us into fellowship with God and one another through the sufferings of Christ. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.”

Paul, in one place, said that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). He is saying that Christ bore the hate, evil, and animosity of the world without returning it, and stands in union and solidarity with every suffering soul.

In Mark's (also followed by Matthew) passion narrative Jesus is totally passive, bearing it all, but God is active, suffering with our suffering world. And God is active still in the Spirit of the living Christ, sharing our sorrow, feeling our pain, and participating in every loss.