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Pain and Pantocrator | Why Christianity? Series 3

Derek Caldwell

This is part 3 of the Why Christianity? series. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

The Problem of Pain

Pain had kept me at arm’s length away from Christianity, but it was pain—or the problem of it—that ushered me toward Christianity in the final analysis.

Looking back, I probably should’ve just asked CS Lewis to write this article; it is unfortunate that he passed away about 60 years ago. Anyway, it was C. S. Lewis (again) in The Problem of Pain who gave me something of a breakthrough. In truth, early on I didn’t find arguments about the moral law all that persuasive. But there was a sense of justice with equity within me, within all of us, from somewhere. If it was simply the result of our culture, then how could we hold culture accountable? Can morality just be based off of our subjective desires, experiences, whims, “natures,” or created cultural values? Is Nazism only evil because the Nazis lost the war, and therefore the cultural battle? No, morality had to be objective, and there had to be a point to it, a telos even. It had to be from outside of culture that I was told that not only was there such a thing as goodness but that one ought to be good, that one will be held accountable for being bad, and that this evil and suffering felt in the world was not the way it was meant to be. The world felt wrong, but why?

Pain, Lewis explains, is essentially only a problem in Christianity. This may sound like an argument against the Christian faith, but to those who have felt deep pain it becomes readily apparent that it is not. Lewis describes something in his book that he calls the Numinous.He expounds that if someone told you a tiger was in the next room, you would feel fear. If someone told you that a ghost was in the next room, you would still feel fear, but of a different kind; rather than fear of what the ghost will do to you (as you would fear with the tiger), it is fear that the ghost even exists at all. “It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread,” Lewis writes.[1] With the uncanny, Lewis believes that we are getting close to the “fringes” of the Numinous. Next, he describes what would happen if we were told that there was “a mighty spirit in the room” and we believed it. He describes this feeling:

Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking – a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it – an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked’. This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.[2]

Here is where this gets interesting: the Numinous is not something that Lewis believes we could gather from the natural world. Yes, you can gather something of the awe and grandeur and createdness of the natural world, as Paul states in Romans 1:20 or the Psalmist in Psalm 19:1-6, but regarding the nature or character of that great Being behind it all, extra help is needed in our fallen states to recognize the Good, True, and Beautiful One. This is something that requires a special revelation: the combining of the numinous experience with the moral experience (that this awe-inducing Power is Good) may be a difficult leap of logic to make, and one that only Jewish believers made in antiquity (which the Christians inherited).[3] In a natural world that seems like it wants to kill us every chance it gets, special revelation must inform us about the numinous experience and the moral experience. In other words, were we not given the special revelation that the Jewish people were given, then we may not quite follow them when they “fully and unambiguously identified the awful Presence haunting black mountain-tops and thunderclouds with ‘the righteous Lord’ who ‘loveth righteousness’.”[4] From nature we could perhaps believe in a god, but we might question whether this god was good or loving, because life in creation was neither happy nor easy.

Lewis begins summing up by writing:

To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.[5]

Reality and Rescue

In order for us to think that evil, pain, and suffering are wrong, we must have an objective moral law that says they are wrong. This, in turn, requires an objective moral lawgiver—one who pronounced the law from outside of our subjective wants and desires—who will hold us accountable to it. We must also have some understanding that the world ought to be some other way. In Christianity, these become a major problem because we serve a God who says He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and who created the world and humans in a state of goodness. Furthermore, since we were created in God’s image, there can be no doubt that each of us has eternal value stamped upon us, and that this eternal value makes us all of equal worth (a novel idea in the history of ideas).

Once we remove the Christian ideal from the equation, then pain, evil, and suffering can no longer be said to be a “problem” at all. In Islam, all is by the fatalistic will and design of Allah, even if it is not good. In Hinduism, the world is an illusion, and so evil and suffering are not real in the ultimate sense. In Buddhism, it is our desire for temporal things that brings suffering, so we must control our desire to escape suffering. In atheism, though it might invoke moral language, there is nothing “unnatural” about any evil (it cannot even really be said to be “evil,” since that requires an objective moral law that can’t exist in the absence of God). If one is an atheist, then they are also most likely a naturalist, meaning that nature is all that exists. In that case, pain hurts, but only because my brain was wired to have a negative response to anything that might inhibit the strength of my tribe. In reality, this is just what nature does—it ebbs and flows but is always “red in tooth and claw.”[6] And if you are an atheist materialist then, well, you are essentially back to Hinduism and the idea that perhaps our perception is off. Perhaps none of this is really happening anyway.

The world reflects the reality of God and his power, but not necessarily His goodness since the world is now fallen; His goodness is still there, but it is obscured by a thick cloud of sin, death, and the devil. Interestingly, the religions and conceptions of god or gods that surrounded ancient Israel revolved around the idea that divine beings were either amoral or morally corrupt. Much the same can be said about the Greeks (and a shocking amount of other ancient peoples). Gods were merely extensions of sinful human beings; they were petty and often only created humans in order to be slaves for them and their gluttonous bellies.[7] In the words of Karl Barth, sometimes our talk about the gods is essentially just “speaking of man in a loud voice.”[8] The great and exceptional revelation from Israel’s God was not just that He is one, but that He is also the epitome of goodness.

Christianity aligns more with the experienced world when we come to pain and suffering than any other religion. It supplies us with the foundation of justice in a moral law and in a world that was originally designed to be good, both of which combine to inform us that things should be different. Unlike other worldviews, again, Christianity offers us a way to a much better world, a world of peace and flourishing, which the Old Testament calls shalom.

The resurrection is not the prime miracle of Christianity. No, the resurrection is a grand miracle that serves to validate the real prime miracle of Christianity: the incarnation. That God, unlike the other gods who remain aloof or offer a bit of help to those with the ability (which is not many) to devote every waking second to withdrawing from the world to escape its death-rebirth cycle (reincarnation), stepped down into the world to save it. He came down and assumed a human life. By His human life He recreated life, and by His human death and resurrection He defeated sin, death, and the devil, the great enemies of God and the world. We can look at the destruction of the world and truly proclaim, in Christ’s words, “an enemy hath done this” (Matthew 13:28, KJV). It is comforting, but not quite consoling, to hear only that God came down, saw the mess, and suffered with us. The joy of consolation comes when we realize that, as Kallistos Ware has written, “He has the ability to rescue us from the quicksand and to pull us out. He does not merely suffer with us, but he also lifts us out of suffering. He offers us not only sympathy but also a new life, not only solidarity but also redemption and restoration.”[9] We may take heart, for Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33). Indeed, the Greeks depict him as Christ Pantocrator, or Christ Almighty, Lord of the universe. 

Christ’s rescue came through the torture of a Roman cross. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) writes of the cross, of God’s bearing of all the worlds evils upon himself,

How could he have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death, ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.’[10]

It is not a coincidence, in other words, that Christ died with his arms outstretched to the whole world. They are outstretched in forgiveness and rescue everywhere and always, which includes here and now. And unlike other conceptions of gods and very much like the prodigal son’s father in Luke 15:20, God is running toward us, full of compassionate and overflowing grace.[11]

Why go to these lengths? Because God is love, and He loves you. In religions that practice reincarnation, your self is something of an illusion, perhaps only an energy, that will be absorbed and erased by some impersonal universal force at the end of time. Islam means “submission,” which pretty well summarizes the relationship between God and man it presents. Both, again, sound very much like gods made in our image: humans who decompose, humans who domineer. But instead, our God comes to be our God through humility, from a baby’s manger to a cross, rather than by the sword. And this is because God is love. This is not the same thing as saying, “God is loving,” although He is. Rather, it means that essentially, in His character, God is love. He has existed as love for eternity in the Trinity. In fact, because the Christian God is triune, He is the only God who can truly be love eternally, since He has existed in eternity with equals in a loving, familial relationship. And so, God by His own nature chooses to lavishly love, and no matter what you do, you cannot exhaust God’s love for you. He does not wish to erase or absorb us; He wishes to restore us to all we were meant to be, something far more than what we have settled for. As Dutch holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom once wrote, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”[12]

The problem of pain is still a problem, but only in Christianity does it become a real problem. And that, Beloved, is a good thing.

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[1] CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lewis elsewhere points out that the moral law is something else that may move someone, from universal experience alone, to seeing that the Creator must be good. He writes in Mere Christianity, “If we used [the created universe] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that He was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place). The other bit of evidence is that moral law which He has put into our minds. And this is a better bit of evidence than the other, because it is inside information. You find out more about God from the moral law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built.” See Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 29. The confirmation of these moral intuitions, though, and perhaps the bit of evidence that settles the apparent “contradiction” between the goodness of the moral law, the beauty of nature, and the terror of nature, is the special revelation from God, known both by His words to us and His actions for us (decisively so in the crucifixion).

[4] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 13.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.

[7] See for instance Atrahasis, the pre-Genesis Akkadian/Babylonian epic. To see more of these differences, check out my article on the Old Testament “borrowing” from other ancient Near Eastern religions.

[8] Barth is referring to the cultural Protestantism of his own day in the original context, but I have found it quite suitable to many other epochs of history. Karl Barth, “The Word of God and the Word of Man,” quoted in Stephen R. Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 9.

[9] Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “The Impassible Suffers,” in Nonna Verna Harrison and David G. Hunter (eds.), Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 232.

[10] Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Popular Patristics Series(Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 49.

[11] Sometimes when Christians say that this is the only religion that involves grace, others may point to Shin Buddhism and Bhakti Hinduism as the exception. But the point can still be made: in what appears to be their original, essential, founder-created teachings, grace was not a component of salvation in other religious systems. That said, it would not be surprising if, after a good deal of time and the sober recognition of the inability to live a perfect life, another religion would begin to have offshoots desiring some form of grace to be involved. This is not the same thing with Judaism and Christianity, as the Hebrew Bible shows God giving much grace and pursuing reconciliation with humankind from the very beginning, foreshadowing the ultimate grace given in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Moreover, Shin Buddhism, perhaps the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan today, was founded in the late 12th-early 13th century, nearly 2,000 years after the birth of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (5th century BC) and about 1,300 years after Christ. Likewise, Bhakti Hinduism looks to have began in the 7th or 8th century in South India, thousands of years after the original, foundational, and most influential teachings of Hinduism were born.

[12] This is a close approximation of Corrie’s words by Joni Eareckson Tada in the foreword to the 2006 edition of Corrie’s classic The Hiding Place. The actual words were spoken by Corrie’s sister, Betsie. “We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.” See Corrie ten Boom with Elizabeth and John Sherrill, The Hiding Place (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen, 2006), 8, 227.