Comparative Views on Pain and Suffering

What we have in Christianity is a God who is separate from His creation, but He isn’t detached. He is intimately engaged even with our suffering.


I studied World Religions in college at a time when I was searching. Buddhism was attractive to me at the time. (I have written on this before in Lured by Buddha but Taken By Christ and Reflecting Back On the Path I Have Traveled, among other places.) Perhaps, the reason that I think about the comparison of Christianity to Buddhism (in particular) is that I was attracted to Buddhism once, so I am interested to read or listen to what others have to say about it.

Though I eventually gave my life to Jesus Christ and vowed to follow Him, that decision was made in the environment of a secular college. My new found faith was challenged from the start. I engaged in a constant measuring of that belief against competing views early on, and that habit of measuring Christian belief against competing worldviews continues to this day.

Though we are all susceptible to confirmation bias, I strive to put my faith to the test. While I have held tightly to “mere Christianity”, I have held loosely to denominational doctrines, peripheral views and political positions, among other things. I have “evolved” in my thinking on evolution and science, and I have spent the better part of 4+ years deconstructing my political views at age 60 (now), to identify just a couple of area sin which my views have changed.

I also have spent much time wandering in my own wilderness. I have not always been a faithful follower.  Though I have had many reasons to turn aside and have nearly been undone by my own proclivity toward sin, I have not found any worldview or way more compellingly true then what I have found in following Christ.

Since I became a believer in Jesus, I have always been keenly aware of the intersection of belief and unbelief, probably because of the environment in which I became a Christian. I was confronted from the beginning by alternative and opposing views, and testing Scriptural text against alternative and opposing views has become a force of habit.

As I do, I am reminded of certain signposts along my journey, benchmarks of enlightenment – the light bulb moments in my journey – that have marked my way. I am reminded of them again when they pop up in front of me from time to time.

I came across one reminder of an old signpost this week. It was in a letter to Justin Brierley, host of the Unbelievable? Podcast, that he read on the air. The writer of the letter commented on a discussion about Christianity in India and the native religion of India, Hinduism. Brierley read the letter, prefacing it with the questions: “Which worldview offers the most satisfactory explanation [for pain and suffering], and which worldview offers the most opportunity for healing?”

Below, I will recite from the letter verbatim and make a few comments on the the dramatically different ways in which Christianity and Buddhism  (and Hinduism) approach suffering: Continue reading “Comparative Views on Pain and Suffering”

God’s Caring and Purpose in the Midst of Pain and Suffering

God is not cold or uncaring or unaware of our pain and suffering. Yet, He has a plan, and He intends to carry it out.


“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18 NIV)

John is talking about Jesus, of course. The progression in the beginning of John’s Gospel goes like this: In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God; the Word was God; all things were made through the Word; in Him was life; and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:1-4, 9, 14) Then, John makes the statement I have recited above. No one has ever seen God but the one and only Son, who is God.

The Greek word that is translated “one and only Son” in the New International Version of the Bible is monogenés, derived from the world monos, meaning one of a class (one of a kind) and genos, meaning only of its kind. A more literal translation of the word would be “only begotten”.

The beginning of the Nicene Creed[1] captures the idea as follows:

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven….

These thoughts arise today in the context of a discussion between the great Anglican scholar, Tom (N.T.) Wright[2], and Justin Brierley[3], the Unbelievable? Podcast and Ask NT Wright Anything host out of the UK. They were talking about the corona virus threat that is plaguing the world.

Among other things, Tom Wright (who is an historian) observed that a pandemic like the corona virus is not unique in the history of the world. The Justinian plague is believed to have killed as many as 25 million people (6th century), the Black Death killed probably double that in the 14th century. The Italian Plague (1629-31), Great Plague of London (1665-66) and Great Plague of Marseilles (1720-22) took millions of lives in Europe, and the Third Plague Pandemic killed about 15 million people, hitting China and India the hardest.[4]

After a discussion of how Christians should respond to the threat (in the same manner as they always have – with compassion and self-sacrifice, helping those in need), Justin prompted Tom by asking him for a five minute response to the hard question: why does God let things like plagues happen?

Tom Wright’s response recalls articles I wrote on March 22, 2020 (Change of Perspective: From the God of Moses to Jesus) and on March 28, 2020 (Perspective in the Reminder of Our Own Mortality). In the first article, I addressed the seeming incongruity between the picture of God we see in the Old Testament compared to the person of Jesus we meet in the New Testament. In the second article, I sought some perspective on the bad things that are happening in light of God’s revealed purpose in creating us and the world in which we live.

Tom Wright’s brief response (focusing on the raising of Lazarus from the dead) sits right in the middle. Right where we live. Let me explain.

Continue reading “God’s Caring and Purpose in the Midst of Pain and Suffering”

Is the Story of Jesus a Story of Divine Vengeance or Love?

Many people interpret the story of Jesus as if God was looking for someone on whom to take out his vengeance, and His son got in the way – so that somehow makes it right.


NT Wright made a statement on Justin Brierley’s new podcast recently, Ask NT Wright Anything, that is worth repeating. He says that people read John 3:16 (“That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….”) this way: “that God so hated the world that he killed his only son.”

People, especially today, view God as an angry bully. They interpret the story of Jesus, Wright says, “as if God was looking for someone on whom to take out his vengeance, and His son got in the way – so that somehow makes it right”. But it doesn’t seem right to many people who interpret the story in this way. We recoil from a view of God, the cosmic bully.

Of course, many people who moralize about God are simply refusing to acknowledge God as God. They sit in judgment of God, or at least “the God of the Bible” that they as they perceive Him. At many who hold this view don’t even believe God exists. But, I don’t think that Wright is only talking about a skeptical view of God, though skeptics certainly make interpretation errors. Even believers wrestle with a muddled view of the story.

Continue reading “Is the Story of Jesus a Story of Divine Vengeance or Love?”

God of the Living in Heaven and Hell

What does it mean that God is God of the living, not the dead.


Interestingly, Jesus directed most of his criticism against the Pharisees, but there were two groups of religious leaders during his time. The other group was known as the Sadducees. In one of the rare encounters with the Sadducees that we read in the Gospels, they asked Jesus about marriage in heaven. This is because the Pharisees believed in resurrection in bodily form (at the end of the age), but the Sadducees did not. In the biblical passage that inspires this blog post, the Sadducess pressed Jesus on the issue of resurrection.

They confronted Jesus with the hypothetical example of a woman married to the oldest of seven brothers. In Jewish culture and tradition, a brother had an obligation to marry the wife of a deceased brother. In the hypothetical, they asked Jesus, if each brother died in turn, with a surviving brother marrying the widow, who would be her husband after the resurrection? (Matthew 22:23-28)

Jesus, in typical fashion, responded that they should know the answer if they know the Scriptures. (Matthew 22:29) Imagine the upstart Jesus putting the respected leaders in their place like this!

But, Jesus didn’t leave them hanging. He answered that people neither marry nor are given in marriage after death because people are “like the angels in heaven”. (Matthew 22:30) And, then Jesus said,

“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God:  ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.’” (Matthew 22:31-32 ESV)

The statement that jumps out at me in this passage is the last one: God is not a God of the dead, but of the living!

Jesus made it clear when answering the Sadducees that there is a physical resurrection. Indeed, he had been talking about his own death and resurrection multiple times by this point in his ministry. Jesus came for the precise purpose of living and dying and rising from the dead.

And what this means for us is of the very most significance. God is a God of the living, not the dead.

What are the implications for us? While there are some obvious implications, I see some less obvious ones as well.

Continue reading “God of the Living in Heaven and Hell”

Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism

A rigid and wooden fundamentalism is an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system.


This is a continuation of observations in regard to a podcast interview of self-described agnostic, New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, by the atheist, Sam Harris.  In the first installment, I focused on Ehrman’s personal story about “losing his faith” as he transitioned from high school to Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton College to Princeton Theological Seminary. Along the way, he went from fundamentalist to agnostic. In many ways, though, he never left his fundamentalist view of the Bible.

Ehrman says that he began to shed his fundamentalist views as he learned the original languages and began to read scripture in those original languages. He describes how his rigid, nonintellectual reading of the scriptures began to crumble as he discovered issues with the Bible that didn’t allow such a strict interpretation of a text considered to be inerrant.

As the interview progresses, Erhman relates that he used to believe in a literal rapture, alluding to the Book of Revelations read in light of 1st Thessalonians (being caught up in the air).[1]  Erhman comments, “I not only believed in the rapture, I knew it was going to happen in the late 80’s” (followed by a hearty guffaw).  He goes on to describe that his loss of faith was a long process, but the “rapture was one of the first things to go”.

This was Ehrman’s fundamentalism, but “the rapture” is hardly a point of “doctrine” on which even fundamentalists agree, let alone the rest of the believing world. The verses in the Bible from which the idea of a rapture has been formulated are few, and they are wrought with difficulty in the interpretation, like the visions in Revelations and other apocalyptic writings. Many speculations have been suggested[2], but the whole idea is quite ancillary to the central tenets of the faith.

A person certainly doesn’t have to believe in the rapture or in any particular formulation of the rapture to believe in God or to have faith in Jesus Christ.

We often get the peripheral things inextricably intertwined with the essential things in our minds, and it’s hard to untangle them. This is the danger of placing too much importance on peripheral things, especially peripheral things with as little biblical support as the rapture: when the peripheral things begin to unravel, they are likely to begin to unwind the essential things if we have bundled them too tightly.

Rigid and wooden fundamentalism is brittle for that very reason. It’s an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system. We have to hold on tightly to the whole thing to keep the faith. When we allow any part of it to come unraveled, it’s likely to unravel the whole thing. The issue isn’t with Scripture, however; the issue is with the approach.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism”