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.