We are living through strange times. By all accounts this current pandemic is unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetime and, due to the structures of the world, different to any other flu pandemic that has gone before. When such events occur, as Christians, we must reflect theologically. Behind this statement isn’t so much intellectualism, rather it is a sense that Christianity is lived and our understanding of God is revealed through experiences in our lives. In short, if I don’t have a response to why this is happening and what God is doing about it, I can’t claim to have a lived faith, rather I’m adhering to a set of beliefs about a disconnected being. And so the wrestling of theology begins.

And theology is often wrestling. I don’t have solutions, but I have questions that demand a response. But these responses are my own contortions my own convictions, rather than the repetition of any doctrine or statement of belief. For example, this is not what the College is saying as a statement of beliefs, nor necessarily have I made a good job of representing the following interlocutors, because it is wrestling with the subject through my own limited understanding. I hope it resonates, but it may not.

Why do I make this caveat and extended introduction? When dealing with suffering the last thing you want to do is make pronouncements that come across as tone deaf. Intellectualism can often sound like you think you’ve solved the problems. But that’s unlikely and, if anything, it serves to make the situation worse. And so, if at any time this reads aloof to the suffering, please forgive me, as I wrestle to seek God in the midst of a pandemic.

I decided to explore my wondering by “reviewing” 4 books. 3 of them have been written specifically in response to the pandemic and one as a response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The question I am wresting with is this: As Christians in the contemporary world, do we have an adequate response to what is classically termed “natural evil”.[1] Much of the 20th Century was dominated by responses to moral evil, to the suffering and horror of World Wars, but I sense a shift for the 21st Century. Whether the climate crisis or pandemic, we are confronted by a broken created order. What I hope to show is that these categories – natural and moral evil – are perhaps not as distinct as sometimes we think and, as such, we need to realign the way we understand God and creation.

Despite similarities in these categories, there is still an important and necessary distinction between the sources of suffering. For those instances that we class as moral evil it should be clear that the origin of evil is human will – the desire to inflict harm upon another human (though not limited to harm to humans). However, when a tsunami strikes or a pandemic takes over, it is less clear the source. Ruling out a human-made virus, it is valid to ask the question, “why does this type of suffering happen?”, as distinct from anthropocentric origins of moral evil. Yes, human factors compound the spread of a virus (or vice versa help to control it) and yes, human factors contribute to the devastation of a tsunami (sub-standard housing or the preference of tourists for a coastline). But no individual human has sat down and, by an act of will, decided to cause a tsunami or create a virus (again, assuming this is not a case of biological warfare). So why does such suffering come into a world, created by a good God, and a world that same good God continues to care for?

Walter Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss. Grief, and Anxiety

The first book I want to engage with is Brueggemann’s Virus as a Summons to Faith. All of the books have positives and some areas I want to consider further. Bruggemann’s book is rich in biblical exegesis as he brings his well-known concept of prophetic imagination to bear in a pandemic-stricken world. ‘Prophetic imagination is the anticipation of new social possibility that is available from the intention of the God of the prophets.’[2]

The richness of this book stems from Brueggemann’s challenge not to return to the “normal” but to create a better world. He is realistic about the challenge: ‘In a therapeutic culture in which reality is too soon reduced to entertainment, there is a ready attempt to eliminate the groan, to imagine that one can get from old to new, from death to life, in easy fashion without the pangs of death or of birth.’[3] It’s not an easy or happy road to take, but perhaps a necessary one. In Chapter 5, he exegetes Psalm 77 to challenge the individualism of the contemporary world and encourages us to ‘seek to be faithful . . . in our culture.’[4] God is not constrained by our ideas of who He should be and this can cause us discomfort as we re-orientate our vision of who He is.

All this is excellent work by Brueggemann. However, employing his prophetic imagination to see a coming future revealed in the present by way of suffering, makes me wonder if it raises more problems than possibilities. To be clear, and not to misrepresent Brueggemann, he states that it is possible to see God at work in the pandemic without thinking God caused the pandemic.[5] But Brueggemann doesn’t give many hints to what he thinks has caused the suffering, but only that it brings possibilities. In skipping this part, it reads like his main aim is to redeem the suffering by giving it a meaningful purpose. When we get to Bentley Hart’s book, we’ll discover that this becomes problematic. Suffice it to say, Brueggemann, at times, sounds a little too eager to render the pandemic purposeful in God’s ultimate plan for the redemption of creation. I don’t think that’s what he intends, but as I read the book, I couldn’t help but think it would be an easy conclusion to come to. His rendering of Romans 8 (a passage that all 4 books reference to one degree or another) suggests that the repeated groaning is because ‘the new creation does not come easily, but only in painful struggle that is both anguish and hope.’[6] Does God then require suffering to bring about His new creation? I think that is an unwise conclusion.

Tom Wright, God and the Pandemic

NT Wright has a way with words and it makes this book a good read. His ability to put deep ideas into accessible language is admirable. Wright takes a “big picture” approach walking us through the Old Testament and the New Testament to give a Christocentric response to God and suffering. He is at pains to point out that God is not the author of suffering in any way whatsoever. This is an important message and Wright argues the case very well. In fact the first four chapters are really an extended biblical exegesis to dismiss a theodicy that suggests this kind of response. It is an interesting contrast to how I was left feeling after Brueggemann’s book.

Wright suggests the correct response to suffering is prayer, but not just a passive “stoic” resolve but ‘a Jesus-shaped picture of suffering, redeeming providence, in which God’s people are themselves not simply spectators, not simply beneficiaries, but active participants.’[7] That is, we are ‘the vehicle for the Spirit’s own work, holding the sorrow before the Father, creating a context for the multiple works of healing and hope.’[8] Wright offers a pastoral response rather than philosophical abstraction where Christians are called to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. For those who know Wright’s other work, this is probably no surprise.

In a sense, he is similar to Brueggemann (though, as I’ve pointed out, quite different). Wright sees the Christian response to suffering as ‘signs of God coming into the ordinary and making it extraordinary. . . . They were signs that the world was coming into a new springtime. A new beginning.’[9] To me this is a helpful response – not that the suffering (groaning) is necessary for the new creation, but rather our response is a signpost to the new creation. The nuance makes all the difference.

My wonder about Wright’s book is the ease at which it could be used to write God out of the picture. Not only is the response a human response (albeit as a vehicle for the kingdom of God) but Wright places the responsibility for the suffering on humanity. ‘It is altogether more appropriate, then, to recognize that God has in fact delegated the running of many aspects of his world to human beings.’[10] It seems that his approach could quite easily err towards the deistic rather than the theistic. Of course, I don’t think that’s what Wright means to do at all, but again, that kind of reading would be easy to see lurking under the surface. Wright uses this approach to suggest that the pandemic came by way of human fault only. ‘This is why we need proper investigation and accountability for whatever it was that caused the virus to leak out, and for the lesser ways in which various countries and governments have, or have not, dealt wisely in preparing for a pandemic.’[11] It is the “whatever it was” that leaves me still asking my question – did a human sit down and engineer this virus or that tsunami willfully causing the suffering?

As I mentioned above, there is significant human influence on the scale of natural disasters. Many more have died in the pandemic because of the structures of the world we live in – some of them, like international travel and shared resources, are not bad in themselves while others are more dangerous, such as the politicization of health advice and the reliance on consumption for the global economy. And while I agree with Wright’s insistence that God is not the author of suffering, I struggle to place the responsibility simply with humans. Viruses, tsunamis, and such like, are not completely within the control of the human will and so it still leaves me with a question of why does creation contain so much potential for destruction?

John Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?

I found Lennox’s approach refreshing and straight-forward. It is a very readable and concise book that employs a logic and a system that appealed to my sensibilities. It tackles the questions many people are asking, which is not surprising since he is known for his apologetics. This approach is both the strength and the weakness in my opinion. The strength is in its coherence; but the weakness is his diversion into “proving” why atheism is not valid and his altar call-esque conclusion that suffering should bring us to acknowledge God. Others might disagree, but I found these chapters detracted from what was otherwise an interesting exploration of the circumstances of the virus itself. In a striking chapter entitled “How can there be Coronavirus if there is a loving God?” (Chapter 4) he provides insight that few others have expressed as clearly. Quoting from a virologist he notes ‘viruses are a critical part of inorganic nutrient recycling . . . viruses are our smallest unsung heroes.’ Following this he quotes from another viral ecologist that ‘viruses deserve a better reputation.’[12] After exploring other natural disasters he concludes that ‘both viruses and earthquakes, then, would appear to be essential for life.’[13] In Lennox we begin to get a sense of living within an integrated ecosystem. It is not God above, humans below, and nature to one side. All creation is sustained in an intricate, interconnected ecosystem. Nature is not an autonomous force that rages against (or conspires with) the human race.[14] Likewise the human race is not above nature or beyond nature, but part of the created order. I’m not sure I want to fully embrace Lennox’s idea that natural disasters are ‘essential for life’ but, perhaps, a more nuanced statement that the building blocks of natural disasters (e.g. viruses, tectonic plates, weather systems) are part of the ecosystem which is designed to sustain life in the present world. This begins to scratch my itch that wonders if these events require more than simply anthropocentric responses. 

On the one hand, there is the undeniable human impact that compounds the suffering from natural disasters for which humans bear the responsibility; while on the other hand, it is very difficult to hold humans responsible for the presence of viruses or tectonic plates. There is fragility in the ecosystem where there is the potential for death and decay that, on the surface, humans are not responsible for.  In a shift from virology to theology Lennox suggests that in “the fall” humanity chose unwisely, thus ‘nature itself was fractured by that same event.’[15] As such ‘creation was subjected to ineffectiveness and frustration’ and now does not achieve ‘the goal for which it was designed.’[16]

Without wishing to diverge into a full exploration of “the fall” as historical event and where we place responsibility on Adam and Eve for every subsequent wrongful action, I do think there is merit in the link between moral evil and events of nature. By that I mean human activity compounds the impact of natural events and also contributes to the disordering of the goal of creation. There is human activity on a personal level that compounds suffering as well as systemic involvement in structures that are detrimental to creation. Although in the latter case we might not be able to trace personal responsibility or identify any one decision responsible for the system, humans, nature, and all creation are bound together in detrimental systems of decay (or perhaps conversely, help to establish flourishing practices of renewal). For example, Lennox gives evidence that the spread of this Coronavirus is due to on-going interactions within creation that are detrimental to creation (he quotes from the Director of the Zoological Society of London to suggest that though the presence of the virus in creation is not, in itself, problematic, it is the detrimental interactions between humans and the rest of creation that creates the conditions for a pandemic as the virus jumps between species).[17] For me, this added a layer of understanding that helpfully augments the position put forward by Wright. God has delegated the responsibility for the natural world to humans, but when this responsibility is combined with systematic disorder it can wreak havoc as creation fails to meet the purposes it was intended for – the flourishing of all creatures.[18]

Where I found Lennox most helpful is summed up in the word interconnectedness. The interconnections between humans and the natural world, and further still, interconnected to the point that thinking about humans as separate from nature is a false distinction. In this sense, the types of theodicy that hold moral evil on one hand, and natural evil on the other, seem to miss the deep interconnectedness of the human condition and the flourishing of God’s creation.

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea

In my reading, Lennox’s depiction of interconnectedness resonates with Bentley Hart’s book, The Doors of the Sea. This is an outlier in this series of books, written as a response to the Indonesian Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 rather than the current pandemic. However, this is a powerful piece of writing that carefully picks apart some of the more basic theodicies. I found it most helpful in fleshing out some of the more intricate theological questions that have been raised. A note to anyone inspired to read it, as with other Bentley Hart pieces, I found it to be colourful in style, but not always the easiest to follow.

Bentley Hart first dispenses with deistic-type of theodicies by considering Voltaire’s writing in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Such arguments claim that there could be no true god if such a god created a world with this much suffering and simply left it to its own devices. For Bentley Hart these sorts of arguments are not worth losing sleep over since this is not the picture of God that Christianity portrays.[19]

His real exploration begins in his treatment of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. And it is from this starting position that he makes, in my estimation, his three main arguments.[20] First, he considers if suffering should be meaningful? Second, he dismisses a type of Providence that suggests suffering is part of God’s plan for redemption. And finally he defends God’s impassibility against the type of theodicy that has become mainstream where God, in Christ, “learned” to suffer at the cross. Bentley Hart’s arguments, though concise, are sophisticated and powerful, and I think they are a valuable contribution to this topic. What follows is just a very brief summary of his conclusions.

First he causes us to wonder if suffering should have meaning at all? Bentley Hart indicates his approach by asking the question in this way. In other words, if we begin by thinking suffering can have meaning, it is easy to surmise that God uses suffering to bring about meaningful events. However, in turn this would raise a question about the character of God. The Brothers Karamazov probes whether it is right that God gives meaning to suffering in the process of redemption. For Bentley Hart, salvation shouldn’t require the suffering of the subject in order to be efficacious.[21] He urges us not to give reason to suffering or infuse it with meaning. Behind this approach is an appeal to the early church concept of suffering / death as non-existence (complete absence or tending to decay) contrasted with goodness as flourishing, fullness of being, life itself.[22] Suffering and life are incompatible.

His second argument takes aim at what he labels a type of Calvinistic providence that proposes all events are in God’s will and, therefore, means suffering must be part of God’s plan of redemption. Already from his initial argument, you can see why Bentley Hart wouldn’t subscribe to this approach. And Bentley Hart is not shy in his dismissal. He notes that,

total and direct divine sovereignty in all the eventualities of the fallen world is not shared by the authors of the New Testament canon. Much less is there anything to be found in Scripture remotely resembling theodicy’s attempted moral justification of the present cosmic order.[23]

Furthermore, confronting Calvin directly he calls this sort of all-encompassing providence ‘unfortunate’ and ‘foolish’ as it leads to the suggestion that God is ‘the author of and so entirely beyond both good and evil.’[24] While I am uncertain of his reading of Calvin, Bentley Hart’s response to this position is, for me, a turning point. He places suffering as the outcome of a kind of dualism where the ‘cosmos . . . is divided between two kingdoms, that of God and that of death.’[25] Creation is a conflict between a genuine, worldly autonomy that allows nefarious powers to operate and God’s saving love that offers the fullness of life to creation.[26] At the heart of the book, and exploring this dualism, he writes:

To say that God elects to fashion rational creatures in his image, and so grants them the freedom to bind themselves and the greater physical order to another master – to say that he who sealed up the doors of the sea might permit them to be opened again by another, more reckless hand – is not to say that God’s ultimate design for his creatures can be thwarted.[27]

For me, this resonates with Lennox’s interconnectedness.

If then, there is no suffering in God, does God lack empathy for the suffering? In the 20th Century, particularly in light of the World Wars, many theologians proposed that God identifies with those who suffer because of His suffering on the cross. I admit it’s a compelling argument and one I’ve advocated for in the past, however, Bentley Hart’s critique has changed my mind in some regards. One of the most noteworthy proponents of the “God who suffers” approach is Jürgen Moltmann (for example, in The Crucified God) and many people read him simply as advocating for a fellow-feeling, God-with-us in suffering, but there’s a more complicated argument. The Moltmann-type of theodicy begins with the idea of an impassable God who does not suffer but, in Christ and His suffering it, God “learns” how to suffer and, therefore, becomes sympathetic to the human cause. In Christ, God more completely identifies with humanity’s suffering. This is an evolutionary understanding of God where God becomes more than He was, indicating that God had a deficiency before the event of the cross and, furthermore, will becomes even more complete upon the full reconciliation of God and creation. This type of theology has Hegelian roots (or as Bentley Hart puts it ‘semi-Hegelian’[28] which is a reaction to Kantian ideas of the noumena and phenomena) and sees the Trinity as an act of becoming (in Christ) and overcoming at the final reconciliation of the uncreated God with the created world. If all that sounds complicated, it is, and Moltmann and those in that camp are not often understood through this lens. In this context, Bentley Hart summarises it in the following:

this way of thinking implies that God took our suffering into himself as something that changed or enlarged his knowledge of us, and it implies also that on the cross he had to learn the extent of our suffering: now perhaps, he understands what we must endure. This is simply nonsense. It is a logical absurdity simultaneously to assert that God is the source of all that is and that God can “become” something more or other than he previously was.[29]

In short, what can God “learn” that he has not created? The result of this debate is being able to say that God does not suffer death and non-existence. Instead he subverts death and this has a profound impact on the way we understand the cross. In Bentley Hart’s words:

The cross most definitely is not an instance of God submitting himself to an irresistible force so as to define himself in his struggle with nothingness or so as to be “rescued” from his impassibility by becoming our fellow sufferer; but neither is it a vehicle whereby God reconciles either himself or us to death. Rather he subverts death, and makes a way through it to a new life. The cross is thus a triumph of divine . . . love sweeping us up into itself, taking all suffering and death upon itself without being changed, modified, or defined by it, and so destroying its power and making us, by participation in Christ, “more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37).[30]

In one sense this might seem triumphalistic. Is he suggesting that suffering should not bother us because Christ has conquered death or that anyone suffering has not yet experienced God fully? This is not what Bentley Hart intends.[31] In bringing together the main strands of his argument he carefully distinguishes between a God who wills sin and death ‘as the proper or necessary means of achieving his ends’ and a God who wills good for his creation ‘and will bring it to pass despite their rebellion.’[32] He seeks to assure us of the completion of God’s ultimate purposes, while recognising the real, present, and persisting existence of suffering in creation. It is a hope-filled vision, but not necessarily a comforting one.[33]


I have concentrated most on Bentley Hart’s book despite not being centred on the current pandemic. The reason is two-fold: first, the depth of his theological engagement is vast for a short book; second, is more personal, it scratched where I was itching in relation to the question about the nature of God and natural evil. It’s rarely in doubt that, as Christians and as humans, our response should be to relieve suffering. Likewise, though our visions of what a good world looks like might differ, we generally agree that we should strive to make the world a better place. And I’ve heard and agree with the many responses to the pandemic of this nature. “Let’s not go back to the new normal but create a better world” or “we need to be with those suffering and seek to relieve it.” I do not disagree. However, my desire is to identify the uniquely Christian perspective in these responses. On the one hand, as all humans are made in the image of God, the humane response may also be the Christian response; but on the other hand, I want to find how these responses are rooted in my understanding of the nature of God, not just my duty as a fellow human. In short, I began by asking myself, what kind of God is seen in these responses? What kind of God created a world of suffering but let’s us respond to it? The pastoral response is right in the moment of suffering, but if like me your convictions won’t rest until they have settled on a deeper understanding (whether this is deemed a weakness of faith or a strength of insight) then after, reflection on suffering is required.

If that is my “itch” then the scratch has been delivered from the theological reflection offered by Bentley Hart. Tsunamis and pandemics are not the same but, the responses raise similar theological enquiries. Bentley Hart’s proposal is insightful: a “provisional” dualism where suffering really is suffering, but not God ordained, alongside a defence of God’s impassibility that brings the hope of redemption. This proposal provides the theological framework to navigate the difficult questions of God and suffering. That’s not to say the others do not, they all offer insight in their own right as they ask their own questions. Brueggemann offers us the opportunity to see the world differently; Wright offers a thorough Christocentric response helping us shape our ideas of God, as revealed in Christ; and Lennox helps us to understand the order of the world God has given to us. They don’t necessarily agree with each other, but there are some common themes. Bentley Hart and Wright ensure that God is not the author of suffering; Bentley Hart and Lennox both suggest a provisional dualism between the suffering world and the redemption of God; Bentley Hart and Brueggemann share a hopeful vision of God’s intended purposes for creation; and to different degrees all hold that humans bind creation to flourishing or decay suggesting the interconnectedness of humanity and the rest of creation is of vital importance.

And so what? I was always told to ask this question in theological reflection and I think it’s important to do so again here. With the theological reflection behind us, it shows that we, as humans, have responsibilities. On a personal level we have a responsibility to act for the good of all in a time of a pandemic, whether this is limiting community spread or, where safe to do so, support those in need. But together as the human race, we also have a larger responsibility to the rest of creation. As Lennox pointed out, we need to think deeply about our commitment to the world and how we care for God’s creation. God’s delegation of creation to humans is not His rejection or abdication from creation, but it is a genuine offer of partnership to create a world well-ordered for the reconciliation of all things to God. We need to reflect carefully on how we treat animals, the earth’s resources, and how we curb our insatiable consumption that often puts profits above protection. In tsunamis, forest fires, and pandemics, we’ve seen time and again how humans have acted in ways that have magnified the suffering. And yet, I think as Christians, our response can and should go further. If we recognise that suffering in creation is not intended by God and we live within His redemptive purposes, then we need to become witnesses to this redemption. By that I don’t mean criticising those who suffer for a lack of faith, but living in ways that tell of God’s faithfulness and love, embodying the hope which that brings. Yes we need to mourn with those who mourn and lament the suffering, offering our sorrow at the disorder we’ve created; but we must not stay in a place of sorrow if we are to witness to God’s redemption. We must move to a place of hope. Perhaps, this is what Brueggemann was aiming for all along – a vision of a better world, but not prompted by any necessary suffering, but in spite of it. With Bentley Hart’s dualism we can also appreciate what Wright was aiming at – beacons of hope in the present. Our hope is not in a far off, distant vision, but in and among the darkness, we operate as lights that cast out the darkness – signs of redemption amid a suffering world. We embody a present hope when all looks bleak. This is not an ignorant or callous overbearing happiness, but a sure and certain steadfastness that God is faithful and grieves our pain as He too laments over disorder in His creation.

Why are there moments of catastrophic suffering instigated in nature? Our understanding is limited. However we can understand that God is completely free and the definition of absolute being, who considers existence to be infinitely better than non-existence and so brings forth the created order. The created order is completely other to God and yet He creates humans in His image, marking them with that same freedom. In doing so He binds the whole created order to the providence of humanity and thus the whole created realm is simultaneously beautiful in its reflection of God, but deadly, as it is bound in frustration alongside humanity. In this provisional dualism, there rages a conflict between the flourishing life of being and the scourge of deathly non-existence.

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using graham.meiklejohn@uws.ac.uk or through social media if that’s where you see it!

[1] Natural Evil and Moral Evil are the two traditional categories that theodicies often consider. Moral evil is that which humans are responsible for; but natural evil is where suffering arises from events outside of human autonomy – natural disasters are a prime example of this category.

[2] Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith, 58.

[3] Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith, 67.

[4] Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith, 52.

[5] Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith, 57.

[6] Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith, 65.

[7] Wright, God and the Pandemic, 51.

[8] Wright, God and the Pandemic, 51.

[9] Wright, God and the Pandemic, 60-61.

[10] Wright, God and the Pandemic, 58.

[11] Wright, God and the Pandemic, 58-59.

[12] Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?, 33-34.

[13] Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?, 35.

[14] A BBC article on mutations in the Coronavirus had the simple but profound statement that ‘viruses don’t have a grand plan.’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53325771. Of course, it is important to maintain the ontological separation between Creator and creature / creation. God is not the sum of all creation, nor contingent on created life and, as such, we must avoid pantheism and panentheism.

[15] Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?, 39.

[16] Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?, 39.

[17] Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World?, 15-16.

[18] I want to be careful not to suggest an unhelpful kind of biological essentialism where we talk of sin as unnatural acts. For brevity, I want to distinguish between the often unhelpful idea that there is an innate nature that underpins essentialism and what I am suggesting here, which is more like an order that leads to flourishing lives versus chaos or disorder which leads to the collapsing of life.

[19] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 22.

[20] At pp 43-44 Bentley Hart introduces these thoughts (although in reverse of how I wrote them) suggesting that The Brothers Karamazov provide a ‘solvent’ to semi-Hegelian theology (which he addresses in his defence of God’s impassibility) and to theistic determinism (which is aimed towards a type of Calvinism). He concisely states the argument in The Brothers by writing ‘Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoyevsky sees – and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality – that it would be far more terrible if it were.’ For Bentley Hart, the idea that redemption is contingent on suffering is ‘more terrible’ than if suffering is simply unjust.

[21] This is not the easiest idea to summarise. On pp 39-41 Bentley Hart develops this idea with the best summary I can give being found on p40: In the face of suffering, how can a promised eschatological justice, ‘with any moral integrity, can it defer its outrage to some potential future where some other justice will be worked, in some radically different reality than the present?’ In this sense, it is not that we deny salvation or justice, but salvation that includes some final judgement and justice while ignoring present sufferings is morally absurd.

[22] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 73-74.

[23] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 66.

[24] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 90. The argument goes that if by God’s providence we mean the totality of all that happens in creation then God must have both good and evil within Him meaning that ‘God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens.’ (p91)

[25] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 66. Note that Bentley Hart isn’t suggesting a dualism between nature and divine or some kind of cosmic battle between good and evil, but something more like a dualism between existence and non-existence or flourishing and decay. On one hand you have God, the great I am, being itself enshrined in the Spirit of life; on the other it is not necessarily Satan, the devil, or an evil force as such (though he leaves room for it – cf. p66), but rather nothingness. Bentley Hart describes the latter as ‘turning…back toward to the nothingness from which all things are called’ and back to the darkness from which creation sprang (and thus embracing the doctrine of creation ex nihilo). Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 73. There is a possible intersection with Augustine’s “two-city” analogy where the saeculum (our present time) is a mix between the earthly city and the City of God. Bretherton’s analysis suggests this gives rise to an ambiguous time as the cities coexist and where everything that happens is tentative, neither tending towards or away from its ultimate end. The Kingdom of God is already fully established in Christ now, though not fully manifest. Bretherton subscribes to Gregory’s idea that ‘the drama of the secular lies precisely in the human capacity for good or evil, rather than in some autonomous tertium quid.’ By this he advocates for a similar dualism to Bentley Hart. Creation is not totally determined, wholly encompassed in God’s providence and, as such, all that happens is only tentative where suffering arises from the presence of “two cities” within the shared space of creation. Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, 82-84.  

[26] Although Bentley Hart does not go into detail on powers and principalities, it strikes me that Walter Wink’s definition works well here. Wink suggests that powers have an inner and outer pole i.e. a manifestation of an inner spirit or essence and neither causes the other but they exist concurrently. He summarises that ‘when a particular Power becomes idolatrous, placing itself above God’s purposes for the good of the whole, then that Power becomes demonic.’ Wink, Naming the Powers, 5.

[27] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 63.

[28] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 43.

[29] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 78. This is also a strong defence of God’s impassibility – that God’s being cannot suffer or be changed by the actions of an outside force (such as humans). Despite being a mark of early church orthodoxy, it is a characteristic of God that Moltmann and others have dispensed with in order to make their theodicies work. While meritous in many regards, this is an issue that any proponent of that type of approach must contend with. For more on Bentley Hart’s defence of impassibility see his article “No Shadow of Turning”, Pro Ecclesia, Vol XI, No. 2.

[30] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 81.

[31] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 66. He describes the gospel as ‘ineradicable triumphalism’ but that we live in a world ‘where the wheat and the tares have been sown side by side’ in essence saying that suffering and redemption co-existence and the triumph appears ‘before, alongside, within, and beyond that history, always present, yet for now deferred’ (pp67-68). I think this is a helpful “two-cities” approach akin to Augustine’s earthly city and City of God that also uses the wheat and tares analogy. There is a way in which creation or ordered or orientated towards the good that results in flourishing life or we can orientate it to disorder and decay.

[32] Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 82.

[33] Bentley Hart relies heavily on the idea of primary and secondary causality as expressed in Aquinas (cf. p83) to hold that God, in his transcendence brings forth creation (primary cause) and in doing so creates beings genuinely other to God (secondary cause) but this otherness is not at odds with the fact that since God is the source of all things, nothing is ever truly alienated from God. Therein lies the tension – genuinely other, yet never alienated. In relation to suffering this means that God grants freedom to humanity for the possibility of ‘a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love’ (p82). In this freedom, humans can bind themselves to life or to death, to being or non-being, existence or non-existence, flourishing or decay, but choosing against God’s highest good will not extinguish God’s ultimate purposes. It is a hopeful picture of God’s love, but leaves suffering to be an expected, unavoidable and ultimately meaningless event in our lives.