I’m going to begin by quoting some excerpts from a transcript of Bashir’s interview with Bell:
Bashir: Before we talk about the book, just help us with this tragedy in Japan. which of these is true? either god is all powerful but doesn’t care about the people of Japan and they’re suffering or he does care about the people of Japan and but he’s not all powerful? Which is it?
Bell: I begin with the belief that god, when we shed a tear, god sheds a tear. I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate and stands in solidarity with us.
Bashir: Which is true, he’s all but powerful and cares?
Bell: I think it’s a paradox at the heart of the divine, some paradoxes are best left as they are.
I’m a pastor so ideal with real people and a real world asking and wrestling with these issues of faith. what I have discovered and over again people who have questions and hunches and have sort of I’m struggling with this and when you can simply give them the gift of, by the way, within the christian tradition, there are scholars and theologians and other people who have had the same questions. they have had the same theories.
What are we to make of this response?
i) In fairness to Bell, it could be said that a 7-min. interview is hardly the best forum to answer thorny questions concerning the problem of evil.
ii) On the other hand, Bell knows that TV interviews are a simplistic medium. If you can’t give suitable answers, don’t submit yourself to the limitations of the medium.
iii) In addition, it’s fairly routine, when a religious figure is interviewed during some humanitarian crisis, for him to be questioned about the problem of evil. Therefore, there’s no reason for Bell not to have a prepared answer. Indeed, pastors are often expected to comment on public tragedies, and they frequently use the opportunity to do so.
iv) What about the notion that “God sheds a tear when we shed a tear?” Is that just a picturesque way of saying God cares? If so, that’s fine as far as it goes.
If, on the other hand, it suggests that God is just as helpless as we are, that he’s lost control of the world, that all he can do is wring his hands and cry with us, then that’s bad systematic theology, bad pastoral theology, and bad theodicy. Frankly, that kind of “God” is pathetic. Worse than useless.
Imagine if God responded to the Israelites in Egypt that way. “Well, I really can’t do anything to save you from oppression, but I’ll cry with you.”
Divine compassion is not a substitute for divine action.
Jesus wept for Martha and Mary (Jn 11:35), but that’s not all he did. That was a prelude to raising Lazarus from the grave.
v) In addition, God gives us a variety of relationships. We don’t get everything we need from one type of relationship. Commiseration is what friends and family are for.
When you go to the doctor, you don’t want the doctor to weep with you–you want him to cure you. Maybe some patients find a weepy physician comforting, but that’s really not the point. We go to doctors for healing, not a shoulder to cry on.
We shouldn’t look to God as our Heavenly Sob Sister.
vi) Finally, Bell says he’s approaching these questions from a pastoral standpoint, but his “answers” or non-answers fail miserably in that very respect. Imagine if he were a Japanese pastor. When his grief-stricken parishioners ask him to make sense of the tragedy, does he tell it’s a paradox? What kind of answer is that? How does that help them cope?
While Bell’s “answers” and non-answers have been greeted with richly-merited derision, we ourselves need to do more than heap criticism on his performance. We need to present a constructive alternative. If Bashir were asking us the same question, how should we respond?
i) One problem with Bashir’s question is an assumption built into his question: the assumption that God must have a uniform attitude towards the Japanese. But from a Calvinistic perspective, there’s no reason to assume that. In Scripture, God doesn’t have a uniform attitude towards everyone alike. God draws distinctions.
ii) At one level, God cares what happens to all the Japanese, for God made them, and he made them for a reason. He planned their lives down to the very last detail. He cares what happens because what happens is the result of what he planned to happen all along.
iii) He cares about Japanese Christians. He cares for them. Cares what happens to them. Indeed, he’s made provision for their eternal welfare.
iv) He also cares about Japanese unbelievers whom he will bring to the faith in due time. And, indeed, tragedies large and small are one way that God draws people to his Son.
Likewise, a Japanese Buddhist today may be the grandfather of a Japanese Christian tomorrow. God cares about the unbeliever with a view to the future. For in the providence of God, a reprobate may be a link in the chain, leading to one of God’s elect.
One branch branches off from another. God doesn’t care about every branch equally or directly. But he cares about the tree generally because the tree supports the heavenbound branches. The past supports the present. The present supports the future. The elect grow out of the reprobate, and vice versa.
Even branches which will be pruned and cast upon the everlasting bonfire make a necessary, temporary contribution to the outcome. So each branch is valued, but some are valued in relation to others, while others are valued in themselves.
v) Appearances are deceptive. God may be most caring when he seems to be least caring. God is near, even when, or especially when, he seems to be far away:
1The righteous man perishes,
and no one lays it to heart;
devout men are taken away,
while no one understands.
For the righteous man is taken away from calamity;
2 he enters into peace;
they rest in their beds
who walk in their uprightness.
As one commentator explains:
The oblique passive, “are being taken away,” suggests divine action, but God’s role’s is not apparent to those around who do not “lay it to heart” (cf. 42:25; 47:7; 57:11), being unwilling or unable to perceive its significance. Like their rulers, none of the people “understand” because they are affected by the same lack of spiritual perception (cf. 56:11)…
…the calamity is enemy invasion–which has already been threatened (cf. 56:9)–and Yahweh is mercifully removing the righteous before that disaster arrives (cf. 2 Kgs 22:20).
The righteous will “enter into peace,” a phrase which recalls the promise given to Abraham: “You will go in [or “enter”] to your fathers in peace” (Gen 15:15). This describes a life lived out in full enjoyment of the divine provision of the peace of salvation (cf. 53:5; 54:10), and sets the basis for its continuation in the life to come (cf. 2 Kgs 22:20; Jer 34:5). This is in marked contrast to the lack of peace experienced by the wicked (cf. 57:21).
J. MacKay, Isaiah: chapters 40-66 (EP 2009), 428-29.