The God Who Suffers: The Long Silence

The following anonymous short story is thought provoking, though I have serious reservations about it (which I will share after the story, lest I prejudice your read):

The Long Silence

At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with cringing shame – but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”, snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”

In another group a negro boy (sic) lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black!”

In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.”

Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world. How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro (sic), a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the center of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.

For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.

(HT: John Stott’s The Cross of Christ)

Now, here’s my take:

The story has severe weaknesses, including the following:

  • It portrays mankind making bold assertions against God rather than cowering before Him in terrified silence (Rev 6:15-17).
  • It treats God as a peer or even subordinate of humanity, presuming to make Him accountable to us when the exact opposite is true (Rev 20:11-15).
  • It insists that God’s suffering (vs. His deity) was necessary in order for Him to be a just Judge, which is obviously not the case (Ps 9:7-8).
  • It suggests in its conclusion that God has “served His sentence,” (a) when the very idea of God’s being punished is blasphemous (1 Pet 2:21-24) and (b) when, in fact, He has served ours (Is 53:5).
  • Most importantly, it interprets Christ’s suffering as identifying with suffering humanity, but neglects the very purpose of the cross as atoning for sinful humanity by absorbing the wrath of God (1 John 2:1-2).

Thus, it is an incomplete and inadequate picture of Christ’s crucifixion that takes too many artistic liberties and neglects too many theological truths. So why post it at all? Well, first, because thinking through inadequate presentations of the work of Christ helps us sharpen our own understanding and presentation of it. And second, because for all its weaknesses, I believe that it provides at least the seed thought of the most adequate answer to the complicated problem of suffering. That is, I believe that the best response to those who doubt God’s goodness in light of a world filled with anguish and injustice is not just a sovereign God, but a sovereign God who suffers. Indeed, He suffers by choice, He suffers despite His innocence and our guilt, and He suffers to alleviate our suffering! The cross reveals that God is not only great, but infinitely good.

Romans 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?

1 John 4:10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

(Note: For a clear explanation of the purpose for Christ’s suffering and death, listen to this 25-minute mp3.)

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2 Responses

  1. Don’t miss the point. The story doesn’t “treat God as a peer” -the crowd has that perception. It doesn’t say he needs to “serve a sentence,” they feel he does. In fact that pretty much explains all your criticisms. They “feel” God should be held accountable, there’s no deying in the story that he is above accountablity to humans . In fact, the story backs that up. Each and every on of those points are true in and of themselves. As an example: “served his sentence” means that whatever humans may try and exact against God, he has already covered by sterling and upright behaviour. Obviously there’s more to God’s being able to judge us, but I see nothing wrong with “answering the Pharisees on their own terms,” so to speak. As far as your 1st point- there is in Rev 6, afer all, a context of judgement & calamity before the people are moved to tremble.

  2. Not so sure I can clear anything up, but in Romans 3:19 we read that the law speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped. I”m not sure if that refers to the final judgment or not. Then in contra-position we have Jesus Himself saying in Matthew 7 that many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, we did thus and so.” And He will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” That definitely appears to be the final judgment and it appears people will make “defenses,” as if discussing with a peer. (Obviously, God is not our peer.)

    Romans 3 also speaks about God displaying His righteousness–that He always does what is right–as if it’s a response to man’s objections. He does not owe us any reasons as to why He does what He does, but he proves the fact that many people question Him because He says that he put for Jesus as a propitiation (sacrifice to remove His wrath) for the purpose of showing his righteousness–that He always does what is right because there was some doubt. The doubt arose from the fact that He had passed over former sins. How could he forgive Abraham’s lies, Jacob’s deceitfulness, David’s adultery, murder and lies, and every other saint before the cross and be just and right? Through Jesus and His propitiation. It was to SHOW to people who questioned Him, his righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
    I guess I’m just commenting that man does and always has questioned God, and God, undeservedly so for us, has given a response. The response, as you mention Chris, is Christ. Good points to think about.

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