What’s the most difficult question you’ve ever had to answer about your faith?
A few months ago I placed a quotation on my Facebook page about God’s attributes by one of my favorite contemporary theologians. I call these weekly quotes on social media “Theological Thursday.” I place them there to stimulate thought and discussion about Christian theology.
Dr. David Block, renowned astronomer and Messianic Jew, read the quotation and left a question for me to answer. The specific context made it one of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked to answer about my faith.
I’ll provide the quote and the question as well as my answer to it. I hope you’ll find this interaction meaningful in your thinking about Christianity. I also hope it helps you in your desire to answer tough questions.
God’s Holiness and Love Together
“God would not be as holy as God is without being incomparably loving. God would not be as loving as God is without being incomparably holy. God’s holiness without God’s love would be unbearable. God’s love without God’s holiness would be unjust. God’s wisdom found a way to bring them congruently together. It involved a cross.”1
Dr. Block’s Question
How might you read this paragraph by Oden to a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Ken? Jewish survivors often only saw absolute terror as smoke arose from the crematoria and the gas chambers.
Greetings, David. It’s always an honor to converse with you.
You have asked one of the most challenging questions of the Christian faith. The problem of evil is arguably the most difficult challenge for Christians to answer. And asking how one might explain why the biblical God—who is perfect in holiness and love—would allow the Holocaust is especially burdensome.
So how would I answer your question? I would first hug the person and tell them how deeply sorry I am that they, their family, and their people have experienced such terrible suffering. I would also acknowledge their personal strength and courage to have withstood a living nightmare.
I think I would say that theologian Thomas Oden’s definition of God being both incomparably loving and incomparably holy reflects the Hebrew Bible’s definition of Yahweh (the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH or Yahweh is translated “Lord” in the English NIV translation of the Old Testament):
“And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” (Isaiah 6:3)2
“The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.’” (Jeremiah 31:3)3
As I have written in my book 7 Truths That Changed the World,4 Yahweh has a morally sufficient though not yet fully revealed reason for allowing evil and suffering. The Lord assures his people that his decrees and actions are always holy and loving. The Scriptures are filled with declarations of God’s moral goodness in his dealings with humankind. As the Old Testament patriarch Abraham declares in Genesis 18:25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
But while Yahweh has a morally justifiable reason for all he does, as the sovereign Creator and Ruler of the world he seldom chooses to explain himself to his creatures. Nor is he or his decisions subject to the critique of finite and imperfect human beings. And if Yahweh did explain his ultimate purposes to human beings, is there any reason to think that mere creatures could comprehend his majestic ways? Even the Lord’s classic discussion with Job about the problem of evil and suffering reveals Yahweh’s inscrutable wisdom and Job’s finite understanding of God’s purposes in creation and in redemption (for example, see Job 38:1–11 and Isaiah 55:8–9).
I would then say that the world in which we live is not the way it ought to be. The nightmarish suffering of God’s chosen people in the Holocaust resulted from humanity’s catastrophic fall described in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, the first human beings, misused their freedom to rebel against the Lord’s sovereign rule. Tempted by Satan, they chose to go their own autonomous way, which has led to a morally fallen world with real evil in it.
I would then share that Yahweh, motivated by his attributes of perfect holiness and love, sent his Messiah, his only Son the Savior, Yeshua, to redeem lost human beings by dying on a cross and being raised bodily from the dead. This atoning sacrifice was predicted in the Hebrew Bible (see Isaiah 53) and anyone can receive its benefits by trusting in Yeshua as Savior and Lord.
God’s recompense for evil will take place on Judgment Day when the Lord promises to make all things right (Revelation 20:11–15) and in the new creation to follow there will be no more evil, pain, or suffering for the Lord’s redeemed people (Revelation 21).
As a Christian I would tell my Jewish friends how much I love them and the Hebrew Scriptures and how indebted Christians are to ancient Judaism.
Lastly, I would share with them how my father’s US infantry division in World War II helped liberate a Jewish concentration camp. I’m glad that my Dad, in some small way, helped stop the horrific evil of Nazism.
Peace be with you, David.
Immense appreciation indeed, Ken, for your touching and loving reply.
1. Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York, NY: Harper, 1992), 404.
2. Contextually, this passage reflects the prophet Isaiah’s vision. “The threefold repetition [‘holy, holy, holy’] emphasizes the centrality of holiness in the revelation of God’s character.” See John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 29.
3. Contextually, this passage addresses the restoration of Israel after judgment and exile. “The love of God is here a central motivation for God’s saving purposes.” See Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts,” 30.
4. Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), chapters 13 and 14.