Part 4 of a Lenten journey through the last seven sayings of Jesus.

Reflecting on the last sayings of Jesus is an obvious focus for Lent. But what if my Lenten subject was something altogether different? What if, instead of contemplating the words of Scripture, I turned my attention to Christianity’s most formidable critics?

What would it look like, for example, if I fasted these seven weeks with Freud? Or if I meditated with Marx? Or, heaven forbid, if I gnawed on Nietzsche for my daily devotions?

The suggestion is not as absurd as it might sound. In fact, the philosopher Merold Westphal actively encourages such a practice. In his book Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, he urges Christians to pick up these “masters of suspicion”, arguing that their writing confronts some of the idolatry that can arise from our religious practice.

Paul Dominiak (whose book, The Falling of Duskhas been my companion this Lent) would not disagree. When considering the fourth last saying of Jesus, he contends with the words of a modern master of suspicion, Stephen Fry, who has stated his objection to Christian belief in devastating terms:

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Setting aside the fact that I do not recognise the god so crudely characterised by Fry, it is impossible to deny the source of his complaint. The world is, indeed, full of injustice and pain.

But what Fry seems not to appreciate is that the question he raises is a biblical one. Indeed, long before Marx or Nietzsche ever lifted a pen, the biblical writers lamented the reality of evil in the world.

“Why do you make me look at injustice?” cries the prophet. “Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds” (Habakkuk 1:3).

This is a point raised by Stephen Williams during a public conversation with David Livingstone last Sunday evening. Pointing us back to the Garden of Eden, Stephen argued that Scripture seems to urge an acceptance of the inexplicability of evil right from the very first pages. In Genesis 1, we are told that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” And yet, just a few pages later, we discover that one of the creatures in this good creation turned out to be duplicitous, tempting our primordial parents to eat the forbidden fruit.

How are we to explain the presence of the serpent in paradise? The Genesis account offers no answer.

And this appears to be the pattern throughout Scripture. Again and again, the problem of evil is addressed (sometimes in terms even starker than anything Fry might pen!), and yet the question is left unresolved. Think, for example, of God’s response to Job at the end of his long complaint. God responds with a question of his own: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”

Of course, this lack of resolution will be wholly unsatisfactory to Fry. And I am not unsympathetic to his complaint. As human beings we want answers. And when the problem of evil moves from the abstract to the personal, we want answers all the more.

But though we might want answers, I am less sure it is answers that we need. I mean, could any explanation of suffering ever satisfy our complaint? Could any reason ever make our pain more endurable? Perhaps you think it would help, but I am less convinced that an untying of the knotty problem of evil makes it any easier to live with its reality. In fact, I tend to agree with Stephen Williams when he says, “I come close to saying that it might be part of Christian faith to believe in the inexplicability of evil.”

That’s why, of all the last sayings of Jesus, it is his “why” question that has always brought the most comfort to me: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In one sense, these are not comforting words at all. In fact, Christians throughout the ages have found them deeply discomforting and have often rushed to find some neat explanation for Christ’s lonely lament. 

But, as Paul Dominiak warns, we need to beware explaining away these words too easily. Of course, there is much to be gleaned from reading these words as a fulfillment of the messianic prophecy of Psalm 22. But surely we are mistaken to hear Christ’s God-forsaken cry first and foremost as a sermon. This is a cry from the heart! This is a shout of felt abandonment! A wound in the heart of the Trinity, when the Son calls to the Father, Where are you God? Why have you abandoned me? 

Like all other “why” questions, this one also is left unresolved. There is no voice from heaven, no dove descending. When Jesus cries his last, there is only darkness.

What brings me comfort, however, is that the darkness does not remain. Beyond this shadowy Friday is the dawn of Sunday morning. And in the light of the resurrection, the “why” question loses its urgency. Because the one who uttered that cry of abandonment is the one who now stands present before his frightened disciples and says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

And isn’t this the crucial difference between the questions asked by Fry or Freud, and the questions asked by people of faith? The atheist laments into darkness — he despairs at his helplessness in the face of cold hard suffering. But the Christian begins her petition with the words, “My God”. It is a cry spoken into a relationship — a plea made, trusting that there is one who listens, even despite feelings of abandonment or forsakenness.

In this sense, the lament of the Christian, however desperate, is inherently hopeful. “Where are you, Lord?” trusts in God’s hearing. “How long Lord?” promises God’s mercy. “Why, Lord?” believes in God’s goodness.

So, I don’t know if I will take Westphal’s advice next Lent or not. But I do intend to keep listening to the hard questions of today’s masters of suspicion. They are good questions. They are questions for which the Bible gives us language. But they are not questions that bring life.

The fourth last saying of Jesus reminds me that the questions themselves are not the most important thing. Of far greater importance is that they are addressed to a God who is there and who is personal; a God who is present with us; a God who knows what it is to feel the stab of suffering.

This is the God we see on the cross — a God who does not give easy answers, but who instead gives us no less than himself.