Book Reviews

Greg Boyd’s Answer to the Problem of Suffering: A Review

Greg Boyd and the Problem of Suffering

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In his gripping book, Is God To Blame?: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering, Greg Boyd tackles one of the most enduring philosophical objections to the Christian faith: If God is all loving and all powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?

In formulating his own answer to the problem of suffering, Boyd attacks the cliché responses Christians commonly offer and poses a fresh solution that runs contrary to the normal evangelical line. While many familiar with Boyd will recognize traces of his open theism throughout the book, his perspective fits just as easily within a traditional Arminian framework.

Rethinking the Problem of Suffering

In his introduction, appropriately titled, “Why Did God Do This?” Boyd recounts the powerful story of a middle-aged woman named Melanie, who confronts Boyd following one of his sermons.

“I have lost my passion for God and my joy in life,” she tells him. “I used to be a fired-up Christian who poured herself into her faith, but now I feel nothing toward God and I’m always depressed….I used to love to read the Bible and pray, but now I find both laborious and aggravating. I just feel dead!”  (p. 11).

Melanie goes on to discuss how she had dreamed of being a mother all her life. After getting married, however, she and her husband learned that a medical condition made it unlikely that they would ever conceive. Yet, miraculously, Melanie became pregnant anyway only to lose the baby when the umbilical cord wrapped around the child’s neck during labor.

Facing the stinging pain of this terrible tragedy, Melanie and her husband began looking for answers in the church. Instead, they received empty platitudes such as “God has a reason for everything,” and “There are no accidents with God.” One religious leader even suggested that God might be trying to teach them a lesson. If they learned their lesson, perhaps God would give them another child.

Boyd, however, rejects this line of reasoning and points out the logical conclusions to which such a belief system leads.

“Let me get this strait,” Boyd begins, “You’re supposed to believe that God gave you this strong desire to mother a child and then miraculously set you up to believe he was going to fulfill this desire, only to kill the baby he gave to you?…Does that seem like something a loving God would do?  Can you picture Jesus doing that to someone?” (p. 13).

This final rhetorical question lays the foundation on which he bases his arguments throughout the book: that we have in Christ the full revelation of God.

Jesus as God

Boyd argues that the view that sees God as the author of all things portrays him as a cruel, aloof entity, not at all reminiscent of the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus. Boyd writes,

The one thing I know for sure is that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. When we see him, we see the very heart of God…When things went wrong in people’s lives…I don’t recall Jesus ever looking for the hand of God in it. Instead, he had compassion on suffering people and treated them like casualties of war. He expressed God’s heart by bringing relief to people’s suffering…[We must] learn to define who God is by looking at Jesus Christ (pp. 14-15).

Boyd argues that the fall has distorted the image of God, rendering us incapable of seeing him as he truly is. Jesus, as the full revelation of God, however, clears away these distortions.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. John 1:1-4 (NIV)

Jesus is not one Word among others. Jesus is the Word. To know Jesus, therefore, is to know God.  Boyd argues that only when we begin to look at Christ as the complete revelation of God can we see God as he truly is and reject all the distorted teachings about God’s character. One of these distortions, Boyd argues, is the belief that God is the author of our suffering.

Christ v. The Prime Mover

Boyd argues that our fallen nature compels us to project upon God every character trait that we think he should have. We consequently assign God those characteristics that our philosophical traditions assign him, even where they are inconsistent with what we know about Christ.

Classical Western philosophical thought, for example, views emotional vulnerability as a weakness, so we think of God as being above suffering. Greco-Roman philosophy teaches that any kind of variability displays imperfection, so we insist that God is above change. Our theological systems insist that an omnipotent God must control everything, so we insist that God predestines everything that happens.

Yet, these beliefs are hard to square with the incarnation: the belief that God undertook a terrific change when he became man and personally partook of human suffering. We equate power with control, so we insist that an all powerful God must be an all-controlling God.

Yet, to accept this belief, we must believe that every death, every rape, every atrocity and genocide, comes directly from the hand of God. This premise lies at the heart of the problem of suffering. Boyd argues, however, that we must look past our own philosophical traditions and instead look to Christ.

Greg Boyd v. Augustine of Hippo

Boyd argues that Augustine has replaced Christ as the lens through which we see God. Since the 5th century, the Western church has propitiated the unbiblical Augustinian conclusion that God is somehow behind everything that happens. (The Eastern Churches have largely rejected Augustinian teachings, though he remains a somewhat controversial figure.)

Boyd calls this the “blueprint worldview” (p. 41). From this mindset comes the old cliché, “Everything happens for a reason.” In other words, everything that happens is part of a greater divine plan. The ultimate reason for everything, therefore, is that God has determined that it is better for a certain event to occur than not to occur.

One school of thought argues that everything that occurs, including the “free” decisions of spiritual and physical beings, happens exactly as God preordaines it. We are players on a stage acting according to a divinely-prepared script.

Another view holds that human beings, and perhaps angels, can, according to their free will, make choices that God has not predetermined. Yet, since the beginning of time, God has decided which free acts he would allow based on whether they contribute to the “greater good.” Everything happens either because God makes it happen or because God allows it to happen.

Both beliefs, therefore, hold that everything happens by the will of God. There may be a minor dispute as to whether God is directly causes everything, but both views nonetheless hold that God’s will controls all.

Boyd rejects this worldview, arguing that the notion that the will of an all-powerful God cannot be thwarted is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ entire ministry presupposes that God’s will is not always done. Otherwise, what sense would it make for Christ to teach us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Importantly, whenever Jesus came across someone afflicted, he did not try to console that person by telling them that God has a reason. In fact,

without exception, when Jesus confronted the crippled, deaf, blind, mute, diseased or demon possessed, he uniformly diagnosed their affliction as something that God did not will. Often Jesus or the Gospel authors specify that it was evil forces (Satan or demons), not God, that were causing the afflictions (pp. 52-53).

Rejecting the Blueprint

Yet the blueprint worldview so permeates Christian theology that it even affects translations of Scripture. For example, upon coming upon a blind man, Jesus’ disciples asked whether the man or his parents sinned that he was born blind.

According to the NIV, Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him,” (Jn 9:3) implying that God intentionally afflicted this man with blindness to glorify himself. The Greek text, however, simply reads, “He was born blind. Let the works of God be revealed in him.”

Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus teach that everything happens according to the will of God. Quite the contrary.

The blueprint worldview holds that an omnipotent God must always get his way. Yet, at the cross, God displayed his omnipotence, not in sheer might, but in self-sacrificial love.

The Problem of Evil

Boyd argues that the blueprint worldview faces serious problems under any scrutiny. Besides the scriptural evidence that contradicts it, it is philosophically troublesome. Such a belief system holds God responsible for every evil in the world.

The Holocaust and the September 11th attacks, therefore, were all part of God’s plan. Every little girl who has lost her life at a pedophile’s cruel hand suffered because God so ordained it. The trouble with such a view should be obvious.

Viewing God through the revelation of Jesus Christ, however, contradicts this system of belief and dismantles the problem of evil so often posed against the Christian faith. The freewill that God has given his creation allows the possibility that his creation will act contrary to his will.

Boyd argues that the Bible depicts creation in a state of war between good and evil. Creation, therefore, is a war zone with all the accompanying difficulties and tragedies that stem from such a state. Understanding this, Boyd urges us to abandon the resignation to the current state of creation that the blueprint worldview inspires and instead revolt against the evils of this world.

Evaluation

The implications of Boyd’s arguments are tremendous. The writings of John Calvin and Saint Augustine are so engrained in our modern theological perspective that it is hard to read Scripture apart from the presuppositions these teachings inspire.

Boyd compels Christians to rethink how they look at God by taking the doctrine of the incarnation to its logical conclusion: in Christ alone we have the full revelation of God. Drawing our theology from any source inconsistent with the revelation of God through Jesus Christ is a mistake because, if Jesus is God, then everything we know about Jesus, we know about God.

Boyd presents a compelling case. While his constant references to spiritual warfare seem a bit hokey at times, a strong reliance on Scripture gives Boyd’s arguments a high level of evangelical credibility, the obvious target audience of his book. Even evangelicals who disagree with his conclusions will accept much of his premise.

The practical implications of Boyd’s arguments are immense. Instead of an aloof and emotionless God who deals out cruel sufferings to teach people a lesson, we see a caring God who grieves with his people.

We see a God who cannot instantly remove suffering from the world because he refuses to submit his creation to a slavish existence removed of freewill, but who nonetheless fights to bring about the ultimate annihilation of such evil. We see a God who is moved by his creation, changes his mind in response to our prayers, and sacrifices his own ability to always get his way so that we can be free.

In fact, in response to the terrible sufferings infecting the world, God chose not to remain removed from that suffering, but to partake in it. The fundamental message of Christianity is that God himself became man and shared the sufferings of mankind. In the person of Jesus Christ, the creator of the universe dwelled among us and died a horrible death to set us free.

Though God is just and does sometimes send horrible judgments, we should not look for God behind every death, every Holocaust, every tsunami. We should not see God smiling as his divine providence yields the deaths of millions in order somehow to accomplish a greater good.

God is not a cosmic sadist, taking pleasure in tragedies. When we grieve, he grieves with us. Even in Scripture where God is often the source of judgment, we see him suffering over its necessity. (And even in those cases the judgment is not arbitrary or quick in coming.)

Conclusion

Many today who see the world through the blueprint worldview are, like Luther, looking for a God they can love. Others simply cannot accept Christianity because they cannot accept the God of Augustine or Calvin, a God who predestines people to hell, who allows the slaughter of six million Jews, and who sends tsunamis, earthquakes and plagues for no apparent reason.

If we can begin to see our world as a war zone, however, a condition resulting from creation’s rebellion against a loving God, we can let go of the bitterness and anger toward God that inevitably results from the blueprint worldview. In this model, those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, those who are born with deformities and disabilities, and those who suffer disease and illness are casualties of a terrible cosmic war, not victims of some divine scheme.

I would have preferred to have seen a greater reliance on mystery in Boyd’s book. One of the greater weaknesses in the blueprint worldview is its insistence on accounting for everything that happens. At some point, we must recognize how little we understand about the universe and accept that we cannot explain everything.

Boyd also relies heavily on open theology in explaining his point of view. Open theism is a point of great controversy within evangelicalism, and so Boyd’s answer to the problem of suffering may not find great acceptance among his readers who are not already sympathetic to the open point of view. Yet, his arguments should resonate with all but the most ardent Calvinist, at least on some level.

Boyd’s belief that the condition of the universe is a result of creation’s rebellion again God squares well with the biblical witness and allows us to take comfort in the fact that, while we may not understand everything that happens, we do not have to blame God for our sufferings.

We worship a God who understands our suffering, having experienced it firsthand, and who is working to reconcile all of creation to himself. We can therefore look forward to the day when the war will end and all suffering will cease.

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See Also:

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Protestants and Purgatory


One Comment

  1. Hi Garrett. Thanks for such a wonderful synopsis of “Is God to Blame?”. This is really well done and a great introduction to Boyd’s teaching for those who aren’t ready to pick up the book for themselves.

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