Judgment as both necessary and good

The latest edition of VOX is out. With the lockdown there are real challenges in distribution. Do consider taking up the offer below.


My ‘Musings’ column was titled ‘Facebook, Judgment and Easter’ and is below. It came from reading this article in the Irish Times

‘This is what my job has taught me. People are largely awful and I’m there behind my desk doing my best to save the world.’

These are the words of an Irish ex-Facebook moderator who is taking legal action against the company for psychological trauma experienced as a result of his work.

Reading about his job makes you think alright. Every day moderators like him review a never-ending stream of images reported by users from all over the world. These range from the foolish (petty arguments) to indecent (nudity) to potential hate speech, to illegal trade in animals, all the way to child abuse and videos of groups of terrified people being executed somewhere in the Middle East (and this is only reported content remember).

Apparently Facebook provides detailed lists of rules to moderators for making judgments. These document are tens of thousands of words long and keep expanding in length and complexity. The moderator is faced with between 100 and 250 possible decisions on any given piece of content. Such is the volume there is limited time for evaluation and the moderators are expected to meet a target of 98% accuracy in their decision making. No wonder they are stressed; I don’t envy them their (unfortunately necessary) job.

There was a popular illustration used in evangelistic talks when I was younger. The speaker invited you to imagine a video of your life – all your secret thoughts and sins – being shown publicly to everyone you knew. The point was to bring home how none of us live up to our own standards let alone God’s. We would be ashamed if others really knew what we were like. The idea was to make listeners aware of their need for God’s grace and forgiveness.

I haven’t heard that illustration in a long time (and I’m not saying it’s necessarily a good one). But my impression is that Christians don’t talk too much about shame, sin and guilt these days. Maybe it’s because they seem to be outdated and repressive ideas, especially given recent Irish history. So we rightly emphasise the limitless nature of God’s love, but quietly downplay how much the Bible talks of his wrath and judgment. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and smacks of intolerance – and who wants to be thought of as intolerant?

But the story of the Facebook moderator shows us that, when we think about it, judgment is actually both necessary and good.

Judgment as Necessary

It’s necessary because while the moderator isn’t a pastor or theologian, he looked into the ‘heart of darkness’ and concluded that ‘people are largely awful’. This echoes Paul in Ephesians saying that we are ‘by nature deserving of wrath’ (2:3). The moderator was doing his ‘best to save the world’ by trying to discern between good and evil. Out of compassion and a sense of justice he tried to put things right. But of course he couldn’t – none of us can. The depth of sin and the power of evil are too strong and the moderator, a mere man, was nearly destroyed in the process.

Judgment as Good

Judgment is good because the moderator’s experience shows the importance of naming and resisting evil.

This brings us to Easter and to another saviour and judge. The wonder of the cross is that ‘because of his great love for us’ (Eph 2:4) God freely chose to take his own judgment upon himself in Jesus Christ so that all in him share in Jesus’ resurrection victory over the power of death and sin.

While those destructive forces still stalk our world and God’s people are to battle against them, we can look forward to the goodness of God’s final judgment. We can thank God that there is no impunity for all the innumerable horrors humans perpetrate on each other and over our despoliation of God’s creation.

On that day justice will be done and this broken world will be put right for good. That’s why Christians today can say with the first believers

Maranatha. Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor 16:22).

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (35) What explanation for evil?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’

The chapter progresses from where we left off with a return to themes discussed earlier – the unfathomable reality of evil that has no rational explanation

Rutledge has given extended attention to helping us look unblinkingly at the reality of evil.

Not only extreme evil but (my comment) what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’.

It is rarely a monstrous psychopath who does great evil, but most often ‘normal’ people, former neighbours and colleagues who become ruthless sadists and torturers – whether in Bosnia or in Rwanda or in Third Reich Germany.

We will skip ahead a bit to where Rutledge gets to the second purpose of this chapter (the four were summarised in the last post). To remind us it is:

To ask if the reality of horrific evil calls into question any faith in God’s good purposes. And if we still believe in God, how do we respond to the fact of evil?

Out of the Whirlwind

Question – how does your theology of evil and suffering feed into pastoral practice?

Or, to put it more specifically, what do you say beside the bed of a friend who may not live through the next few days’ harsh treatment in a cancer ward? What can (and cannot) you say about God? About ‘purpose’? About ‘hope’? What words of comfort can you bring?

Rutledge begins with the book of Job. We don’t need to replay the story here – her point is that the book

“moves away from ‘answers’ and ‘explanations.’ Instead it brings us into the very presence of God. (446, see Job 42:1-6)

Job does get a response from God but it not the one he expects.

The question “Why?” is not the right question and will never yield the right “explanation” (447)

Therefore, a prime rule of pastoral ministry is not to look for explanations or give theories to sufferers. They may come to some sort of understanding themselves but that is a very different process.

The only ‘response’ to suffering is to suffer with the sufferer and to “hate these things with a perfect hatred!” (quoting Hart 101, quoted 448)

Descendit ad inferna: New Testament Cosmology

Rutledge then turns to the third of her objectives for this chapter. Recall a couple of posts back that it was this:

To discuss how the ‘descent into hell’ implies a cosmology – linked to the chapter on the apocalyptic war – and that Jesus’ death has cosmic implications.

We are back with themes raised in chapter 9 on ‘the apocalyptic war’ and one of the places that Rutledge cycles back to come to similar arguments from different angles. The cross is about God’s invasion of enemy territory.

Rutledge brings in Stanley Hauerwas, never a bad thing to do ..

Christianity is unintelligible without enemies … to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against armies … [Christians are embattled and] had better be ready for a fierce counteroffensive as well as be prepared to take some casualties.” (Hauerwas, quoted 449-50)

What Hauerwas is getting at, and Rutledge is arguing, is that the cosmology of the New Testament is structured around a cosmic battle against evil.

And, therefore, the mission of the church is to engage in battle, to resist evil, to speak of the good news of deliverance and liberation from those destructive powers.

The question Rutledge then turns to is her fourth goal of this chapter:

To link this theme not only with Christus Victor, but also others, particularly substitution (next chapter).

What she means by this in particular is that Jesus’ descent to the dead brings us to think about the scope of that liberation. In other words, the disturbing and challenging idea that the cross is for all, including the perpetrators of evil.

It is to that question we will return in the next post.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (33) The Descent into Hell

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’ which is a full 66 pages long.

At the beginning Rutledge gives a detailed outline which reads like the contents of a book. So not only is the content intimidating, so is its length and complexity.

This goes for the following chapter on Substitution as well – it is even longer at 73 pages. We will have about 4 posts on each chapter.

Big questions are going to emerge – and I wonder how you think about them?

Where does evil come from?

Does the reality of evil throw doubt on the goodness or power of God?

Does evil somehow serve the purposes of God? And if we still believe in God, how do we respond to the fact of evil?

What do you say to someone suffering from the consequences of evil when they ask how God could allow it?

How does the cross of Christ speak into such pastoral and theological questions?

Up front Rutledge acknowledges that having a major chapter on a theme that hardly appears in the Bible may seem perverse. It could have been subsumed into the Christus Victor chapter. She explains that her choice to have an extended discussion on hell:

1) To look ‘without blinking’ at the presence and potency of radical evil in the world and in ourselves.
2) To ask if the reality of horrific evil calls into question any faith in God’s good purposes.
3) To discuss how the ‘descent into hell’ implies a cosmology – linked to the chapter on the apocalyptic war – and that Jesus’ death has cosmic implications.
4) To link this theme not only with Christus Victor, but also others, particularly substitution (next chapter).

As Rutledge herself comments, if you wish to skip over a significant amount of background material, the reader can jump ahead to where the discussion picks up the theological discussion on ‘The nature of Evil’.

We are going to do this, partly because the relevant Bible texts and the ‘descendit ad inferna’ clause, which is found in the Apostle’s and Athanasian Creeds, has been discussed elsewhere on this blog – see these posts on Catherine Ella Laufer’s fascinating book Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead

Just before we join the later discussion, some ‘nuggets’ from Rutledge en route. She is keen to frame this whole issue in terms of a great spiritual conflict of the Powers with God:

We need to understand hell, not as a place, to be sure, but as a domain where evil has become the reigning reality – an empire of death ..” (417)

We must take great care lest we leave the impression that Christ’s work was not finished … on the cross. In discussing the descent, we do not want to suggest that Jesus died with more work still ahead of him. (417-18)

On the origin of evil, Rutledge is absolutely right to say that there is no clear explanation, not in the Bible nor in theology and philosophy.

… there never has been a satisfactory account of the origin of evil, and there will be none on this side of the consummation of the kingdom of God. Evil is a vast excrescence, a monstrous contradiction that cannot be explained but can only be denounced and resisted wherever it appears. (419)

The Nature of Evil

It is fiendishly difficult to define evil. Augustine’s idea that evil is ‘non-being’ and is ‘the absence of the good’ is easily misunderstood to give the impression that there is ‘nothing’ to evil. But evil is a reality, it does terrible things, it causes suffering, destruction and pain.

Evil is ‘nonbeing’ in that it does most emphatically NOT have its origins in God, or participate in any way in ‘real Being’ [God] – but this does not mean that evil does not have real presence and power in the world.

But, again rightly, Rutledge comments that this sounds all very abstract

‘it has no shock value’ (425)

We begin to get to grips with evil not in philosophical definitions but in death camps and genocide – these are ‘realms’ or ‘kingdoms of evil’.

The intent was deliberately, purposefully, and systematically to exclude goodness.’ (425)

51o3wazoi7l._sx316_bo1204203200_For me, this quote brings to mind a brilliant but harrowing novel I read some years ago, The Street Sweeper by Elliott Perlman.

Much of it unfolds within Auschwitz – more description cannot begin to explain what went on there. It was indeed a demonic ‘empire of death’ – only a robust theology of evil can begin put words on such horrors perpetrated by human beings.

A Summary of What the Christian Tradition Affirms and Denies about Evil

Rutledge takes a pause to summarise a consensus of what the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy says about evil and God: (what follows is a quote)

• “God did not create and does not intend evil.
• Evil is not a component of God’s being.
• Although evil made its appearance in the creation, it possesses no existence or being of its own, but is rather a negation, or corruption, of being.
• God is not powerless against evil, but for some reason inaccessible to us, he permits it to operate within appointed bounds.
• God is actively at work through human agents to challenge and resist evil, so that any penultimate victory over evil in this world is a sign of God’s ultimate victory.
• Evil will be conclusively and finally defeated and obliterated by God in the final judgement.”

In the next post we will turn with Rutledge to two of the questions at the start of this post:

How can Christians, in the face of horrific evil, believe in a good and all powerful God?

Is evil somehow part of God’s good purpose? (as a good Calvinist would affirm)