This is a great debate - Of course Bart lays the smack down on Mr. Wright. You can view it in its entirety here:
Before responding, let me address two minor points that you make in passing, one about my argument and the other about me.
(1) On that ole emotion issue, you indicate that “if one is making an argument, then multiplying examples of the problem doesn’t actually add to the force of that argument.“ That’s a logician’s point and (I’m afraid) suggests different investments from the ones that I have in this “debate.” My view is that the numbers matter because people matter. They all matter and they are all that matter. If the Nazis had killed only one Jew, we would not be having this conversation (we probably should be, but we wouldn’t be). They killed six million. Each is an example, and multiple examples matter, logicians (please, one might add) be damned.
(2) You suspect that I left the faith because I had an intellectualizing understanding of it. I’m afraid that’s wrong. I was dead set against understanding Christian faith as some kind of assent to propositional statements – I preached (sometimes literally) against this view frequently, for years. My faith was a relationship with Christ, and through him with God. Several people have tried to psychoanalyze my journey; most of the time they get it wrong. I can see why they try though. If I left for good reasons, they too may be left facing the void!
Those points aside, I have two major responses to your second posting.
The most prominent answer in Scripture is given by the prophets: the reason people suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it. Is this a view that you, as a biblical theologian (or anyone else?) wants to support? Just take the book of Amos, who is characteristic, in this respect, of the entire prophetic corpus. Because Israel is God’s chosen people (3:2), “therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” And punish them he does. He brings starvation (4:6), drought (4:7-8), crop failure (4:9); he literally “killed your young men” (4:10) as he did the people of Sodom and Gomorah (4:11). It’s not that these are isolated events, for Amos or for the rest of the Bible. This, for much of the Bible, is how God deals with his people! “Does disaster (calamity/evil) befall the city if the Lord has not done it?” (3:6)
Then there is the poetry of Job, where the answer to suffering appears to be that there is no answer, that God is almighty and is not accountable to us peons, and if we dare to ask why, though innocent, we suffer, we are liable, like Job, to be squashed into the dirt by God’s all powerful presence, forced to “repent in dust and ashes” even for asking the question.
The kingdom never did come. You seem to think that it will. So has every generation of Christians from day one – many of them, like Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and Paul!), expecting it within their own lifetimes. Every one of them has been wrong. I don’t think this should be taken lightly. The view that the kingdom is already beginning to be manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus hinges on its actual appearance in the (imminent) days to come. If that actual appearance is jettisoned, everything is changed.
But leave aside the question of whether it is sensible to think the kingdom really, actually, is ever going to come. How does one see it manifest in Jesus? In fact, it is not simply in his “obedience” (and suffering), as you intimate. I think you are reading the Gospels through the lens of Paul, rather than reading the narratives of the Gospels themselves. For the Synoptics, for example, the Kingdom is manifest in Jesus’ life and work: in the kingdom there will be no disease, no demons, and no death. Jesus manifests this kingdom in the meantime: he heals the sick, he casts out demons, and he raises the dead. This was not a message about some vague power of God breaking in at some period thousands of years hence. It was God breaking in now (in anticipation of its imminent appearance in power).
And is he? This I think is where we differ in a major way. In my view there is nothing to suggest that the Kingdom has arrived, even provisionally, in the coming of Jesus, in the way the Gospels themselves think (that in his coming the sick are healed, the demons cast out, and the dead raised). There are no fewer sick, demon-possessed, or dying now than before the appearance of Jesus (and his obedience and death). There are no fewer people born with horrible birth defects. There are no fewer lepers, blind, and lame. The multitudes are not being fed. The storms are not being stilled (think Katrina, for example).
Quite the contrary, the world goes on as it ever did. The writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not expect this (nor did Paul). They saw the kingdom arriving with Jesus’ ministry, they saw his death and resurrection as the beginning of the end, and they expected the end to come in their lifetime – when God would overthrow the forces of evil and set up a kingdom in which there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering. Our actual history stands at odds with their expectation, our world of genocides, AIDs, malaria, unclean drinking water, leprosy, birth defects, hurricanes, Columbian mudslides that kill 30,000, Pakistan earthquakes that kill 50,000, Indian Ocean tsunamis that kill 300,000, and on and on and on.
I wish Jesus had brought the Kingdom. But the human race struggles along its not so merry way, with all its pain, misery, and suffering – biblically based hopefulness notwithstanding – world without end.
What I see as extremely valuable in your view is the emphasis on the need to imitate Jesus in a life of obedience. If Christians really would be obedient to what they see as the will of God – for example in the “two greatest commandments” – the world would be a much better place. But it would still not be the Kingdom.
I know this note sounds critical in places, but I have wanted to state my view forcefully. Let me conclude on a conciliatory note, and ask if you will agree with me on four of the leading claims of my book God’s Problem:
(1) There are in fact many and varied answers in the Bible to the question of why there is suffering, not one overarching answer common to all the Bible’s authors.
(2) Some of these answers stand at odds with one another.
(3) Some of these biblical views (that God starves, drowns, and slaughters people he disapproves
(4) Even if we cannot, in the end, know the reasons for suffering, we can at the least have appropriate responses to it. We ourselves can feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked; we can work to solve problems of poverty; we can give money to agencies finding cures for cancer and AIDS; we can volunteer more often locally; we can give more to international relief efforts. We can, in fact, fulfill the urgent demands implicit in Matthew’s account of the judgment between the sheep and the goats, for “as you have done this to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”