Have you ever been asked, “Why does God allow suffering?” I have. Sometimes it has been asked by people who have watched or are watching a loved one suffer. That kind of experience can be a real test of faith. Sometimes it is asked in much more abstract circumstances. And whatever answer you try to give has to be tempered by the intent of the questioner.
To a person witnessing the suffering of a loved one, the answer has to be pastoral. We might recall how God in Christ experienced great suffering himself; that we believe and trust in a God who is love and therefore suffers along with those he loves, sharing the burden of pain. We might recall that this is a world of ceaseless process of creation and decay. We might offer the thought that God does not inflict suffering as a mark of displeasure. We might want to say, because it is true, that there are things we cannot understand. Often the best way is to say little but to be with the other person in their pain and confusion, because that is the godly thing, because God is always with us, whatever we face, whatever is happening.
But what about those more abstract times this or similar questions are asked? Often, that’s a more hostile, more confrontational conversation, with a subtext like this. “This God of yours: you say he is good and loving and all-powerful, still there are all these bad things going on. Not such a great God after all, is he? Maybe just a figment of your wishful thinking!” That kind of questioner doesn’t want an answer. They want to show that they are right and clever, and that we who believe are a bit stupid and gullible and definitely wrong. These people are difficult to argue with, because their minds are made up.
We read about the situation kind of like this from Luke’s gospel. The Sadducees were an elite. Predominantly wealthy, they lived comfortable lives, lives which gave them the leisure to pursue theological disputes. Like many relatively closed groups, they built up a high degree of certainty in their own beliefs. Their big thing was that they believed that there was no life after death, no resurrection, and that this life was to be lived to the full. All right for them, you might say; most of them were pretty comfortable.
The Sadducees argued that there was nothing in the written Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to support a belief in life after death. The Pharisees, their great opponents, argued that there was plenty to support such a belief in the Psalms, the Prophets and the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. It was a clash of fundamentalisms.
Jesus’ thinking was closer to that of the Pharisees on this matter. So this group of Sadducees thought they would try to demonstrate that Jesus was stupid and wrong. They came up with an absurd situation, of a woman who had been married in turn to seven brothers. ‘Who would she be married to in heaven,’ they asked, no doubt smirking. We’ve got you now, haven’t we?
So this is short but complicated passage yields its first lesson. We don’t know much about heaven, but Jesus tells us a little here. Heaven, he says, is not going to be just like this life, only better. Heaven is a gathering in of God’s people into God. In heaven we will be together with one another, together with those we love but not particularly together with any one other person because all will be equally together with God. Our life will continue because it will be life in God. It will be life in which all is restored because there will be no further separation from our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
It is interesting that the scenario the Sadducees concocted to try to outwit Jesus should have been what it was. It centred on a woman. Without question in their minds, her function was simply to provide heirs for her husband. She is nothing more than a possession, to be passed on to the next to inherit. Although taken to extremes in this scenario, this was a real system, and was developed in response to poverty and insecurity, situations of which the Sadducees would have had a little direct experience. They have no sympathy for the woman, no thought for the suffering implied by their tale.
But the answer Jesus gives does. Although he speaks about the next life, he is also speaking about this life, for to Jesus, there is no discontinuity between the two. In the next life, the systems of this world will have no further relevance. Those who are oppressed will be freed. Those who suffer will have their burden lifted. All shall dwell within the perfect love of God.
While this assurance brings hope, it also begs the question – if God’s perfect kingdom is like this, why do we put so much effort into maintaining systems which are corrupt, which do oppress, which call such suffering to so many? How can we be content with what is so far from perfect when we have such a good idea of the will of God?
These largely rhetorical questions find some sort of answer in the final thing I want to say. There is something of the Sadducee in all of us. We all wants to know where we stand. We like systems and rules and consistency. It is how we struggle to achieve fairness, which is laudable in an unfair world. But these systems are also the means of preserving privilege. Those who set the rules wield the power. That’s why they are so seductive. So we make the making of and keeping of rules all-important. We do it in many aspects of life, even in our life of faith. We call it a dogma, these systems of ‘correct believing’ that we create, rules by which we judge and measure faithfulness.
That’s exactly what the Sadducees were doing. They wanted to prove that Jesus didn’t measure up, that he was a bad teacher, a bad person even. But they made a fundamental mistake, one which fundamentalists are always making. They were elevating beliefs and dogma over the grace of God. Believing correctly had become more important than living lovingly. Believing by the rules had taken the place of gratefully appreciating the grace of God. Understanding rather than loving had become the goal of faith.
But God doesn’t work that way. His grace is abundant. It is always unmerited, undeserved. We cannot box God in and expect him to abide by our rules. Rather, what we must do, is appreciate God with thankfulness and, to the best availability, copy him and his all-inclusive love, love which makes us all his children, love which promises us that all will live in God for ever.