Monday, August 25, 2014

The Bible and Human Suffering

Lately, I’ve been reading the Bible, and I’ve been startled by how much human suffering it contains.  I’ve been wondering why this book, this spiritual foundation of the western world, has at its center a people group (the Jews) who have been repeatedly persecuted, defeated, and nearly annihilated throughout history.  Even in the Bible, they only have power for a relatively brief period, over a relatively small area.  Ultimately, even in the Bible, the people of Israel suffer devastating defeat, exile, and death.  What does this mean?  Why is the story of the Jews so central to how the west has understood spirituality?  And I’m not just talking “Old Testament” here.  Jesus and Paul were Jews too.  At the center of the Holy Book of the west is a people who suffers perpetual defeat.  What does it mean?

I don’t think it’s an accident that almost exactly in the middle of the Bible is the book of Job, whose main theme is undeserved suffering.  Up until Job, and even after Job, lots of reasons are given for human suffering—mostly sin and disobedience.  But smack dab in the center of the Bible is a book that explicitly avoids easy answers to the question of human suffering or, as C.S. Lewis puts it, the problem of pain.  Job is a good man, totally undeserving of the calamity (or, Shoah) that befalls him.  And yet, astonishingly, Job (who loses everything) retains his faith in God, and his hope for the future.

The Bible speaks, mainly, to the meaning, not of victory…but defeat.  Here, in the exile of the Jews, the suffering of Job, the passion of Christ, is a book that speaks to the universal experience of human suffering, probably the most troubling aspect of our existence.  Yes, there are victories in the Bible, but the most profound moments happen when the bottom falls out, when the greatest heroes suffer agonizing defeat, when the king is slain, when the temple lies in ruins, when the savior dies.  I don’t understand what this means, but I think this is part of why the Bible still speaks to people.

"Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez

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