I Believe in God…and Monsters (3 of 3)
From the Cross and the Empty Tomb
By Andrew J. Byers
There are no simple theological answers to explain disasters like the Haiti earthquake, the floods in Pakistan, and the earthquake-tsunami in Japan—not even equating the disheveled streets of Port-au-Prince and the flooded fields and streets of the Punjab and Sendai with divine judgment. As we have seen in the previous two articles in this series (here and here), the book of Job urges us to suspend making such theological claims.
The disobedience described in Genesis 3, however, reminds us of the gash in this “good” creation, and the unwelcome entry of chaotic forces like sin and death that resulted. A world dismembered from its Maker can only heave and quake in disarray. Massive beasts will tromp over our security fences and breathe fire onto our fortifications.
Somehow, in the midst of all the rumbling and shouting, there is a God who shouts not only in triumph from “out of the whirlwind” (as in Job) but also in agony from the unnatural disaster of the crucifixion. This God reigns over the monsters and ominous powers of land and sea that elude our control, yet has submitted himself to a disaster that can be attributed to divine judgment.
From the cross we hear not a poetic divine speech of rhetorical questions, as in Job, but instead a pained question that sounds more like a voice crying out from dust and ash:
In Aramaic: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
In English: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
In Haitian Creole: “Bondye, Bondye, poukisa ou lage m’ konsa?”
In Japanese: “Waga Kami, waga Kami, dooshite watashi wo omisuteni nattanodesuka.”
Earthquakes feature in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Matthew tells us that at one point during the crucifixion, the earth shook (27:51). He later writes about another earthquake (28:2), which took place on the third day, when God-crucified emerged from the darkness of a stone tomb.
From out of the disaster-rubble.
When I was in Haiti the summer after its earthquake, I preached in a small church. My text was Ezekiel 37—an earthquake text. In the prophet’s vision Israel, dead as a dry bone pile littering a valley, was resuscitated to life at the shaking of the earth. In Ezekiel 37 as in Matthew 28, we find earthquakes associated with resurrection. God’s power and goodness is such that, somehow, even the trembling of the earth can bring new life—and not in a trite, sentimental sense, but in the sense that in spite of what may be going on behind the celestial curtain, God can (and one day will) raise the dead.
Isaiah 27:1 tells us that God will defeat Leviathan … one day. The book of Revelation tells us that whatever dragon clambers up out of the sea will be destroyed by the Lamb … one day. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that the dawn of such a day is just beginning to pierce the dark horizon. Resurrection has whispered a death threat in the ears of Death itself, and its draconian minions are howling.
The mission of the Western church is not to board flights for Port-au-Prince or Tokyo with our platitudes and airtight theodicies of the kind Job’s friends preached when they arrived in Uz. Scripture is not clear enough about the reasons behind suffering to warrant such a mission. What Scripture is perfectly clear about is that this mysterious God has identified with the darkest depths of human suffering. Job’s story shows us that God’s sovereign governance of the world is beyond our understanding. Christ’s crucifixion shows us that God has lovingly endured disaster on our behalf. Christ’s resurrection shows us that new life can burst out of the makeshift graves hastily dug after a heinous atrocity. So we wait, hoping wildly in the face of wild forces, tending faithfully to the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the unclothed, no matter how jarring the footfalls of Behemoth on the ground and no matter how hot the breath of Leviathan on our necks.
Andrew J. Byers leads University Christian Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama. He blogs at Hopeful Realism and is the author of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.