Christ and Horrors: God's advocatus diaboli

Of all the things I struggle with in faith, the problem of gratuitous suffering is the biggest.

I few week ago I was having a difficult day. Not for me as much as for people I care about. In the middle of the day a student sent me an e-mail asking the question, "Is it okay to hate God?" And I said, "Sure. For a season it is okay to hate God."

All that reminded me of some e-mails I sent around a few years ago to some friend's espousing a vision of the cross I called, in half-jest, the advocatus diaboli heresy.

The Devil's Advocate--the advocatus diaboli--is the person appointed by the Catholic Church to argue against a person moving up the chain toward sainthood. The Devil's Advocate is to be, by appointment, a kind of curmudgeon. This mechanism is to ensure that the process is fair and that even the most unflattering evidence against the candidate gets full consideration. I recall a few years ago reading about the man appointed to be the Devil's Advocate against Mother Teresa (she was at the stage of "Blessed" at the time). Fun job, wouldn't you say, pointing out Mother Teresa's faults?

Given my issues with God I wondered, what if someone were appointed to be God's advocatus diaboli? What case would they bring against God? And, given that case, how would God respond?

In my mind, the Devil's Advocate would say something like this:

I am a Canaanite mother. I had my baby ripped from my breast and smashed to the ground by Israelites under Joshua's command. You, God, commanded the murder of my baby. And I witnessed it before I myself was brutally beaten to death. So, no, you cannot be the God for all people. You cannot ask for my love or loyalty. I am the advocatus diaboli against you.

I can imagine a long line of advocatus diaboli against God. The billions who have suffered horrors, some God-sanctioned, on this earth.

How could God defend himself against the Devil's Advocate? My answer for my friends followed the rhythm found in Jack Miles' book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, which is the sequel to his Pulitzer-Prize winning God: A Biography. Following Miles, here is how God might answer the advocatus diaboli:

...If God had to suffer and die, then God had to inflict suffering and death upon himself. But why would God do this?

Every perpetrator was first a victim. Behind every crime stretches a millennial history of earlier crimes, each in its way an extenuating circumstance. But to whom does this infinite regression lead in the end if not to God? The guilt of God is certainly not a Christian dogma, and yet it is an emotionally inescapable implication of the Christian myth, visible and audible in countless works of Christian art. The pathos of those artistic enactments--those masses and oratorios, passion plays and memorial liturgies, and above all those paintings and sculptures in which unspeakable is left unspoken--is inseparable from the premise that God is inflicting this pain upon himself for a reason. "The real reason," as Albert Camus wrote in his haunting novel The Fall, "is that he himself knew he was not altogether innocent."
(p. 5)

To use the language of the myth, who is to be blamed for our expulsion from Eden? It is the Lord himself who cursed what he created...Our offense was so mild, his punishment so ferocious. Can we avenge ourselves upon him?

No. we cannot; we cannot make him "bear the awful curse" that he has inflicted on his creatures. But he can make himself bear it. And when he does, all lesser offense can be caught up in one primal offense, his own...In the words of Paul (2 Cor. 5:19), he can "reconcile the world to himself" and himself to the world. As God, the Lord cannot cease to exist; but as Christ, he can taste death. Betrayed and abandoned, he can breathe his last breath in pain. The myth that he once did so has within it...the power to still that rage against the universe which any individual history can engender.
(p. 9)

The world is a great crime, and someone must be made to pay for it...the New Testament is the story of how someone, the right someone, does pay for it. The ultimately responsible part accepts his responsibility. And once he has paid the price, who else need be blamed, who else need be punished? (p. 12)

In the end, then, I argued this: Jesus died, not for our sins. Jesus died for God's sins.

Needless to say, none of my friends liked this formulation in the least. But for me, the formulation was cathartic.

But although cathartic my pet advocatus diaboli heresy wasn't very constructive. Recently however, I've discovered the book Christ and Horrors by Marilyn McCord Adams. The book is amazing, a constructive response to the horrors in the world. My response to my wife after reading the first chapter was, "Finally, a theologian that gets it."

So, this week I'm going to blog a bit about Christ and Horrors.

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28 thoughts on “Christ and Horrors: God's advocatus diaboli

  1. I have never seen it that way but it makes perfect sense to me. At least if you don't think in christian categories but human ones.

  2. Greg,
    Obviously, God cannot sin. But if we think of sin in emotional terms (as onkel comments), as a feeling of being treated wrongly then I think lots of people feel God has "sinned" against them. And, we have to admit, God's suffering and death in Jesus is his best response to that accusation. Emotionally, Jesus atones for God's perceived "wrongdoing." God becomes "like us" and, hence, helps reduce our feelings of be victimized by the cosmos.

  3. Oh, I am with you on this. I'm just saying that for some people, as soon as you talk about God possibly transgressing against humans (a relationship that seems reversed from the norms), a lot of people will a) get angry or b) ignore anything you have to say about it.

  4. The math just doesn't add up. How does the suffering of one man at one point in history somehow absolve God of responsibility for the suffering of millions over the eons?

  5. Pecs,
    That is kind of the point of this post: Although initially cathartic (for me at least) this doesn't lead to a fully constructive theodicy. God needs to do MORE. Hence my coming posts from Christ and Horrors.

  6. Pecs and Everyone else,
    An ecclesial observation that just hit me...

    As Greg observes, how many in our churches would be appalled by the formulation of this post (Jesus died for God's sins)?

    Yet, there are some, like Pecs, whose first response to the formulation is: Fine God, but not good enough.

    How big is that emotional divide in our churches?! That seems, to me at least, a very important phenomenon in churches. I mean, that is a huge psychospiritual faultline running through the church. It seems that ministers/pastors/priests would need wholly different pastoral sensibilities to minister on BOTH sides of that line. Here at ACU, I wonder if our M.Div. students are being trained for that issue?

  7. Richard,
    Isn't this formulation of God sinning something that would be attributed to the complete dominance of the individual's rational mind over all? Again, the amoeba diagnosing the scientist.
    Wouldn't it be more fair (in a postmodern matrix) to say "Jesus died for the perception that God sinned?
    Oh, and I am having a problem with logging in, so I am Jordan

  8. Pecs,
    I don't think the "suffering of one man" fully gets at the point: this is God offering God's self to atone for God's own sins.

    I guess who the "one man" is is pretty significant.

  9. Jordan,
    No doubt this is a human-centric perspective and, thus, wildly presumptuous. It is an emotional formulation as you note.

    But my hunch is that God knows humanity has some "issues" with Creation and the pain involved in bodily vulnerability. Knowing we have these emotional hang-ups, which might prevent us from coming to Him, how could God address that anger toward Him? By pledging His love to us? Sure, but does not the torture and death of Jesus also indicate a strong inclination on God's part to identify with our pain? If so, then is seems that God is aware that the death of Jesus somehow builds His credibility with humanity. That in some form the crucifixion has humanity (and not just God) as an audience.

    If this is so--that a part of the cross is establishing God's credibility with victims--then it might be a fine thing to say that Jesus died to atone for the perceived wrong-doing (or neglect) of God.

  10. dr. beck,

    thanks for a fascinating post. it was a much needed point in a new direction for me. one question, however...given the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries - do you think God is in need of some serious atonement again?

    kelly shearon

  11. Richard,
    Jordan again...
    okay, I will buy your proposition and in fact I have argued for it before during times when I have comforted people who have suffered significant loss or when I myself have had to deal with some harsh realities.
    Next item up for bid is this: How do I communicate this to a community in a way that is good news (true gospel) and not merely an introspective romp through their world. I preach in a small community of farmers and factory workers. Where is the real gospel in this and how do I tell them this in a way that disciples the community (whether believers or not)?

  12. oh, and Kelly,
    I like your question a lot, but I can see a difference in the Rwanda and Auschwitz and the Canaanite woman. I don't think that God needs to die again because evil men allowed evil to rage out of control. It comes down to how we see God working out history, I guess...

  13. have you ever been to rwanda? a trip there or to a war torn sudan might change your mind, i think. seeing those sites is enough to make you think nietzsche was right.
    i guess it just makes you wonder what God is good for. he is supposed all powerful, all knowing, and on and on, but the innocent suffer.

  14. Kelly,
    I agree that the last two centuries have piled a lot of stuff onto God's plate. Unimaginable horrors.

    Which is why I don't think God can get this all fixed in this life. Adams, in her book, speaks of stages of horror defeat. The Incarnation and death of Jesus only get to, in her model, Stage 1 defeat. She has a Stage 2 and 3 after that. Once her full model gets deployed will we have all the answers about places like Rwanda? Probably not. But I admire Adams for making the defeat of horrors God's central mission.

    Here's brainstorm.

    Premise: I think most would agree that it is harder to be angry at God given the torture and death of Jesus. If so, then is seems clear that Jesus' death absorbs not just Divine Wrath but Human Wrath as well.

    Sermon Moves:
    Move A: God acts as devil's advocate against us. I'd use the language of the prophets here.

    Move B: Humanity acts as devil's advocate against God. I'd use the language of lament and the personal stories of people you know.

    Move C: Enter the Cross. In Jesus we see how both Divine and Human anger are absorbed. Jesus' removes the wrath of God and absorbs our rage at God (e.g., we have a High Priest who identifies with us). Thus, Jesus brings peace between God and man.

  15. Have been to Germany, haven't been to Rwanda. Not doubting what you are saying is true. I am just saying from my perspective there is a difference between God-ordained genocide and man-driven genocide.

  16. Richard,

    I am familiar with Jack Miles' regressus ad infinitum argument. But it is, it seems to me, a false rendering of the problem of atonement--a most theological way of sanctifying violence and solving the problem of theodicy. But it is not the only way. Remember, the "God told us to kill, slay, engage in genocide" is always after the fact and an ethnocentric misreading (if Jesus is to be believed--"love your enemies," etc.--of the circumstances by those who wrote it down and those who interpret what is written.

    One of the advantages of having read Girard is that I have permission to let God (and the devil) off the hook for our evil deeds. Reading Anselm and original sin per Augustine back into Paul and Hebrews just won't fly. Humans, it seems to me, do violence to others out of fear.

    Jordan: farmers and factory workers need good news theology in stories and parables that parallel Jesus' own stories and parables. Tell a story with humor, irony, parody, exaggeration, knowing that God is always hopeful and doesn't
    give up on anyone. That will communicate good news to them. Sometimes you will really have to struggle to find hope in some Biblical passages and stories. But they will sense that because you are real, authentic. And that will communicate good news to them also.


  17. "Yet, there are some, like Pecs, whose first response to the formulation is: Fine God, but not good enough. How big is that emotional divide in our churches?!"


    Chase that.

  18. Matthew:

    Richard wrote: "Move C: Enter the Cross. In Jesus we see how both Divine and Human anger are absorbed. Jesus' removes the wrath of God and absorbs our rage at God (e.g., we have a High Priest who identifies with us). Thus, Jesus brings peace between God and man."

    I think James Allison in his book RAISING ABEL says it differently (and, I think, presents a better way of speaking about the way God responds to God's "anger"): "When we speak, then, of God as love, it is not as if he loved us by throwing Jesus to us as if we were a pack of hungry crocodiles. No, God's love for us is the love by which Jesus was empowered as a human being to create for us -- which means to understand and imagine and invent for us -- a way out of our violence and death. There is a certain piety which imagines Jesus on the Cross, with the Father observing from above. In some versions the Father is pleased, because he is being offered a sacrifice which will wipe out our sins; in another sort of piety the Father is horrified by the cruelty which we are showing towards his Son. Neither of these seems to me to be adequate. The Father was present at the Cross not as a spectator, but as the source of the loving self-giving which was bringing into existence the possibility that we humans might overcome death and its dominion in our lives: God was not attending our show, but was busy in making of a typical show of ours a revelation of Himself to us. (pp. 59-60)"

    Otherwise, often, if unwittingly, we communicate a "bad news" God, one complicit in the torture and death of his child. And that is not the God Jesus embodies.

    George Cooper

  19. "Otherwise, often, if unwittingly, we communicate a "bad news" God, one complicit in the torture and death of his child. And that is not the God Jesus embodies.

    I think that is well said.

  20. That's a very interesting heresy I find compelling myself. Was the italicized text a direct quote from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God?

    I encountered the same idea in Ronald Goetz's writings:

    Jesus Loves Everybody

    I must conclude that Jesus Christ's death entails not just God's atonement for our sins but God's own atonement for being the ultimate agent of evil as well as good.

    The Divine Burden

    If one would want to indict God for doing evil, à la Job or Ivan Karamazov, then a deistic God, for example, would have only one crime to answer for: creation itself.

    God’s honor, which is his love, can never finally be satisfied if humanity is left to bear the brunt of evil alone. God must suffer.

    On the cross, Christ has borne all wrath -- God’s righteous anger against sinful humanity and human fury against the tragedy of existence and the creator of such a vale of tears. On the cross, the God/Man was abandoned by both God and humankind. In his crucifixion all enmity found its focus, and now it is consumed in the God/Man’s passion.

    The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy

    God, the fellow sufferer, is inexcusable if all that he can do is suffer. But if God is ultimately redeemer, how dare he hold out on redemption here and now in the face of real evil? My own view is that the death of God’s Christ is in part God’s atonement to his creatures for evil. Only on the basis of God’s terrible willingness to accept responsibility for evil do we have grounds to trust God’s promise to redeem evil.

    The Godforsaken Messiah

    Too often the church has sought to discount and redirect against suffering humanity this outrage against God. Our fury simply further establishes our guilt and the propriety of our suffering. But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God answers otherwise. In the resurrection all enmity has been overcome in glory. There can be no further recriminations. God has taken up into himself, through the person of his Son, our human outrage. God himself has turned the other cheek. He has not rejected our outrage; he has endured it and has answered it with the risen Christ.

  21. rasul,
    Yes, the italics were quotes from Miles' Christ with the corresponding page numbers given.

    Thank you for all the additional references/perspectives. Clearly, this isn't a new idea and its one others have found particularly helpful/appealing.

  22. Unfortunately for us, God WILL NOT go back in time and redo everything to appease his creation and prevent the countless unknown pains and sufferings of man. Or perhaps...He can not. What's been done has been done. We must all accept it and move on. But that's not to say God mustn't hurry his timeline and bring it all to end NOW!

  23. I'm glad to see others have this idea as is interesting that Christ dies on Passover...Passover is the time of the last plague on the Egyptians...the death of the eldest son (daughter) child...all these innocent children died for the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt...the Hebrews were instructed to smear the blood of the lamb on their doors and the angel of death would pass over their homes and their children would be safe. The blood of the lamb as salvation has been repeated over many times in the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. I do see God as attempting to atone for the sin of causing death and trauma to innocent beings...later after Christ is born, Herod upon hearing the news of a new born King from the magi, the King of Israel, has his soldiers go about the countryside killing all the new born baby boys...more innocents killed...and this event the birth of the Messiah happens during another period of slavery and subjugation under the Romans...The tribes of Judah, Levi, and Ben, the remains of the broken nation, are anticipating a savior in the form of a military strong man like David, after all, the Messiah was to be born of the house of David, according to the prophecies...Christ and his teachings did not fit the bill...and after his death everyone started fighting over what he meant and who he was ....until the Roman Emperor Constantine usurped Christ and his message and made it the Roman State religion...he took control of it and turned it around making it yet another religion of killing and subjugation...the followers of the old religions, pagans, and those who disagreed with the Dogma became the new martyrs and victims of the religion claiming to represent both God the Father and Jesus the Son and the Mystery, the Holy Ghost. This was the birth of the Anti-Christ....The mess that we know as Creation here on Earth continues. Perhaps this is why a second coming is needed. Not to punish and condemn but to clarify the Truth.

  24. God seems to be a creation of the ruling class, a powerful partner in crime....a model to justify their heinous behavior.

  25. Humans are important to all powerful Gods as a source of adoration without which a God seems to lose it's seat of power. Not many people, for instance worship Zeus, many Gods have fallen out of favor with humans throughout human history..? Even now with Christians God the Father has taken a back seat to his son, Jesus. not dissimilar to human sons and daughters replacing their parents.

  26. What is this mystery we are part of? We humans attempt to answer this with our notion of God...

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