As I’ve written about before on the Forum, a large reason I moved to UR in college was because of how it allowed me to handle, theologically, the problem of pain and suffering. UR is as much a theodicy for me as it is a soteriology.
A book that has helped me in this regard has been Marilyn McCord Adams’s book Christ and Horrors. It’s a pretty tense theological text so reader be warned, but Christ and Horrors resonates with me as 1) it places suffering (physical and psychological horrors) at the center of the human predicament, and 2) McCord Adams makes an appeal to UR to address this issue.
If you are interested in a synopsis of Christ and Horrors and how it might bolster the argument for UR, this summary post appeared on my blog today:
If you are a long time reader of mine you know that one of the distinctive theological moves I tend to make is to conflate soteriology with theodicy, seeing the problem of salvation as being entwined with the problem of pain and suffering. I call this move “distinctive” as it’s not typical. But there are a few theologians who make this move. One of favorite examples of this is Marilyn McCord Adams book Christ and Horrors, a book I interacted with many years ago.
According to Adams, horror, rather than sin, is our fundamental predicament. Thus, salvation is less about forgiveness than the defeat of horrors. Adams writes:
What are horrors? They are all sorts of extreme human suffering, and Adams focuses upon their existential impact, how horror radically disrupts our ability to make meaning from our lives:
Again, these experience disrupt us existentially, they render life meaningless and empty life of any positive value:
While it true that few of us experience this psychological, physical and existential damage, Adams goes on to point out that we are all complicit in horrors. If not victims we are perpetrators or, at the very least, we are the beneficiaries of horror perpetration:
To return to the key point that Adams makes, horror overwhelms our capacity to make meaning of our lives. Horror ruins our ability to name life as “good” and “worth living.” A part of his is how horror destroys our volitional capacities, our ability to make positive choices and decisions:
Our vulnerability here is rooted in the fact that our meaning-making capacities are so tightly tethered to our material bodies, bodies radically susceptible to damage and decay:
In the face of all this, what is salvation supposed to look like and accomplish? What is Christ–as Savior–supposed to do?
Well, if our predicament is our inability to, in the face of horrors, make positive meaning of our lives, to judge life as “good” and “worth living,” then the work of the Christ must be involved in some sort of existential rehabilitation. Christ must stand in the place of horror victims and from there begin a process of existential reconstruction. Adams borrows from Julian of Norwich and calls this process “mothering.”
And the key aspect of this “mothering,” according to Adams, is that God’s healing and grace is extended universally to everyone. We must not think that God will create and perpetuate more horror by torturing people forever and ever. As Adams notes, this earth is hell enough.
In short, if God is to defeat horrors God’s love will necessarily be universal in scope:
In the Babylonian Enuma elish, the elemental goddess Tiamat (primeval chaos) is represented as either serpent/dragon, or as salt water (the “Deep” in Genesis 1 is “tehom”, related to “tiamat”.)
Tiamat gives birth to horrors.
“She spawned monster-serpents,
Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;
With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.
Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,
With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.
Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,
Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.
She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu,
And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men,
And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams;
They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.
Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;
After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven kinds of monsters…”
The Babylonian solution to these horrors is supreme violence. Marduk, the storm god, kills Tiamat and cuts her in two. He uses one half to form the sky (which holds back the waters of chaos. Hence the sky is blue.) The other half forms the material universe. ie. Chaos lies at the heart of reality, and the violent exercise of power is the remedy.
The Hebrew reply has God hovering above the chaos before filling the heavens with divine light (wisdom). He speaks calm words of creative power into the chaos, transforming it inexorably into cosmos. ie. Rational love lies at the heart of reality, not violence. John draws us back to this idea by calling Christ the Word of God who has come down from Heaven.
Again, John sees “a new heaven and a new earth, but no sea.” Chaos has been transformed into glass, glowing from within. It glows because “the light of the world” has descended into deepest darkness to slay the Dragon. Death, hell and all its attendant horrors have been destroyed. This must be universal in scope, or else the grand story is pure fantasy.
Very thought-provoking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.
One of the reasons I was drawn to the Christian faith in the first place I think was because of the idea that God both understands and shares deeply in our pain, and can bring us through it somehow, no matter how horrible or terrible it may be.
I’ve wondered about this sort of thing myself, those ‘unanswerables’ of suffering and evil.
I put up a post on the Forum about something along those lines recently that you may be interested in taking a look at:
Thank you for this Richard! It has great explanatory power I think.
I have been struggling for a long time to explain/understand how violence fits into the drama of the human predicament so it seems to me that in some ways violence and horrors are almost synonymous… …wonder if you’ve any additional thoughts on this.
Also, another thing that always bothers me seems well addressed by this formulation you present here:
— it seems that most (non UR) theories of salvation do a fine job of saving the milder cases of sin; skimming off the less severe cases and leaving the rest to their doom. So one ends up with the really bad sinners, the severely recalcitrant, the most vigorous resisters of grace, those where sin truly “abounds”, all cast onto the trash heap and “lost”. Except this is a total inversion of Romans 5:20 – where sin abounds, there grace abounds even more
So the idea you present here is more than adequate for ALL sinners.
Lastly, it might be tempting to see annihilation as an acceptable alternative to hell in that “the horrors” could be said to be dealt with this way. While raised an annihilationist, I no longer accept it as valid. I’m curious to know if you see annihilation as simply another manifestation of “horrors” or, maybe something else…