Deciphering God’s Silence in Human Suffering: Reflections on “The Trial of God” by Ronald E. Osborn


(Spectrumbot) #1

I. Introduction: Is God Silent?

Across time and culture, men and women maintain their dignity while facing monstrous torment, but a reason for their suffering is rarely satisfying. The only certainty is that violence against a fellow human being should be a subjective matter; the Innocents at least deserve empathy instead of analysis. In “The Trial of God,” the culmination of his anthology on humanity’s struggle to understand its savage history, Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy, Osborn uses the Christian lens to view the Shoah with respectful acknowledgement and Jobian questioning. Too often, those who endow God’s image upon humans cannot face the world’s evil lest what they abhor be in the mirror. They, as Osborn skillfully shows, hurriedly ask who is responsible and why God is silent. Sadly, such interrogation ignores the glaring reality that the human doers (and enablers) are accountable and betrays passive-aggressiveness toward the call to be God’s loud witnesses against brutality.

II. Overview: Hearing the Deafening Silence

While Osborn’s dramatic anecdotes and authorial vulnerability make possible a smooth reading about the most widely affirmed human suffering in modern history, he puts to shame those who approach the conversation from a comfortable distance or arrogant objectivity. Using Elie Wiesel’s play of the same name as a springboard, Osborn’s courageous essay faithfully moderates between a smorgasbord of contenders in the age-old theodicy debate: Wiesel’s other works, Primo Levi, biblical Job and his “friends,” Eastern philosophies, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, self-righteous (anti-Semitic) Christians, self-sacrificing (Chambonnaise) Christians, Dostoevsky, and the mitzvah-centric Hebrew Bible.1 The author invites all who can handle the truth to ponder up close what it means to be God’s humanity in defiance of Medusa’s face that keeps reflecting back. Above all, he urges us to accept that humanity is not just academic lingo but each of us.

III. Strengths of the Propositions: “Come Now, Let Us Argue It Out”2

Osborn’s presentation of the Jewish “charge against God” begins on the right note with the most basic question about God’s existence — or rather, human “belief, or disbelief” in it.3 To blame God for anything, one must first assume a divine reality, and losing one’s faith due to inhuman cruelty presupposes the Creator is responsible for malfunctioning creation. Before the conversation itself can begin, the parties must decide whether they believe in God and — if so — what kind of character they attribute to the Creator. This will then make clear whether there will indeed be a God to indict, as well as the charges to be brought out. Ironically, people angrily hurl accusations at the Divine One precisely because they expect unconditional love and omniscience. The important role of a person’s conviction regarding God’s nature for faith is partly shown in the author’s initial investigation, for we find polar opposite reactions to the same horrific experiences (e.g., Levi’s renouncement versus Wiesel’s transformed faith after surviving the Nazis).4

Next, Osborn introduces the heart of his well-prepared exhibit: the three-fold phenomenon of silence along with its two contrasting effects. The victims (regarding whom “survivors are the exception; the dead are the rule”), the bystanders (“the anonymous stranger[s]”), and God (if real and alive) are all eerily and hopelessly inaudible; it then remains to be seen whether each silence will bless or destroy.5 While one can reverently mourn the first and easily condemn the second group, the dilemma only keeps getting bigger about the third entity; we have no way of arresting the Defendant. While evidences in God’s favor still do not emerge, all cannot help but agree that any human efforts to justify divine restraint “only heaps shame, not honor on His name.”6 Consequently, nothing moves the cosmic trial beyond the hollow opening statements, but Osborn’s observations direct our eyes to an obscure finger writing on the courtroom wall and the ground outside: charges against God’s absence, apathy, and heartlessness convict us instead.

In this context, “The Trial of God” shines most brightly in its forthright and impartial treatment of Christian responses to Jewish affliction. According to Osborn, the range goes from judgmental gloating (e.g., for Jesus’s murder) to sympathetic pity (e.g., hiding Jews during the Shoah), besides a flagrant support of The Final Solution; unfortunately, “the crisis of modern Christianity” only gets worse upon inspection, and “divine justice” does not seem so just after all.7 The more questions are asked, the stronger the quicksand pulls the inquirer down to the point where reasonable Christians have no excuses to explain away the Shoah on their merit or theology. They join the previous group of three Silents — not from choice but due to utter shame.

IV. Debatable Aspects: Whose Silence Is It?

In view of the close inspection upon the “crime” (i.e., silence) above, what seemed — by instinct anyway — to be a surefire trial against God rises to the surface as a bona fide kangaroo court. In the face of such horrifying human tale as the Holocaust, one cannot rebuke those who have needed to assume God is at fault. After all, what better target to heap all the blame on than the One who created humans and allegedly promised to be with them always — to the point where Godself became one human being to save all? If that is true, so the seemingly foolproof logic goes, God needs to answer and pay for human suffering. However, Osborn takes a loyal but safe, dangerous route to vindicate Elohim — “safe” for none will disagree and “dangerous” because just one tiny step will seriously misguide listeners to a comfortable point of no return: oblivion.

On one hand, Osborn makes the perfect move against the “stubborn logic” of Wiesel’s troubled character; contrary to Berish’s final reproach, “God’s justice and human justice” are not confined to an either-or interpretation (i.e., either intra-relational or non-relational).8 On the other hand, the author wraps up the inspiring chapter with powerful-but-incomplete theologies from both the Jewish and Christian traditions in favor of God’s innocence. His genuinely comforting conclusion is mutual-inclusivity of the Christian “imitatio” and Jewish “divine pathos” beliefs: the verdict is against Evil and not the loving God who offers “solidarity in sorrow.”9 This idea is not inherently wrong, but it stops short of proving the case to be a mistrial. In other words, God is certainly Jehovah Rapha and El Roi but also YHWH and the I Am.10 God cries with humanity but is inscrutably bigger than their sufferings. In fact, God is bigger than any human theologies.

Thus, both Jews and Christians will find clearer concepts of God and implications of Imago Dei by taking each other’s (and their own) traditions more seriously past just respectful tolerance. Christians profess Jesus Christ the Immanuel; this must lead from a risky dualism (debasing God to an equal level with Evil) to the realization that Jesus’s suffering freed us from our penalty to suffer. However, humans still suffer, and we turn to the Cosmos for the final rebuttal:

HUMANITY: Who is responsible?

COSMOS: The human agents of evil.

HUMANITY: Why do Innocents suffer?

COSMOS: This world has been hijacked, and humans voluntarily immigrated to this hell.

HUMANITY: True, but why is God silent?

COSMOS: Seen your otolaryngologist lately? By the way, why are you silent?11

V. Conclusion: God Still Speaks

Contrary to what Osborn suggests, the Shoah is not unique in its “scale,” atrocity, or perpetrating “intent.”12 The 12.5 million Africans forcibly uprooted during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade were in a “catastrophe” when their captors disembarked. Girls of all nationalities abducted to “comfort” fifty Japanese WWII soldiers per day in filthy bamboo huts certainly were not reveling in God’s presence when the captors ripped their uteri out sans anesthesia or sadistically force-fed them boiled human flesh.13 Closer to home, every time a person treats a fellow human being maliciously with a look, word, or deed, the latter’s spirit gets snuffed out. Thus, the Holocaust’s real uniqueness lies in the politico-cultural power victims have courageously and painfully procured from the global community — to be the voice not just for their grief-stricken history but to be the representative trumpeting for all whose victimization is still unheard.

Osborn’s “The Trial of God” stands out due to his Jeremianic demand for us to honestly face the unbearable and relentlessly ask the unanswerable questions about our relationship with God. He also gets our respect by not pretending to have an easy answer, since a quest for one “can only be profane.”14 The final verdict then is that God is neither dead nor silent — even in the darkest moments of recorded human history.15 Rather, humanity has tuned God’s voice out by its mutated will and distorted self-esteem, but hope is alive if — taking Osborn’s lead — we find an iota of God’s image remaining and pray together for the primordial Light to show the Way.

Notes & References:

1. Ronald E. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” in Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010), 127-156.

2. Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV).

3. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” 129-130.

4. Ibid., 132.

5. Ibid., 135-136.

6. Ibid., 143.

7. Ibid., 138-142.

8. Ibid., 144.

9. Ibid., 146.

10. In Hebrew, Jehovah Rapha means “The God who heals”; El Roi interprets as “The God who sees me.”

11. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Wonil Kim for inspiring this dialogue into being.

12. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” 135.

13. George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), p. 96, and Michele Park Sonen, “Healing Multidimensional Wounds of Injustice Intersectionality and the Korean ‘Comfort Women’,” Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 22, no. 14 (2012): 283.

14. Osborn, “The Trial of God,” 155.

15. I am grateful to Dr. John W. Webster (and Karl Barth) for ideas related to “God with us” in this essay.

Jeeyoung Lee is currently finishing her MDiv (2019) and EdD (2020) at La Sierra University. As a former navy reserve officer and a hospital chaplain, she’s also been blessed to receive an MBA in General Management, MA in English, EDs in Brain, Affect, and Learning, MFA in Acting for Film, and MMin. In Jeeyoung's “other life,” she creates films and music that aim to instill hope in audiences of all backgrounds.

Book cover image courtesy of Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9602

(Steve Mga) #2

The Movie, based on the Play titled – “GOD ON TRIAL” is a huge discussion
as to WHERE IS GOD? during the holocaust camps where Jews are starved,
and then sent to the gas chambers.
The inmates of this one barracks put God on Trial with 3 Judges to hear the
evidence.
It is an important piece of Literature.


(Steve Mga) #3

The CRY of the Psalms – 150 of them – is “God where are You?”
Is God in “heaven” and only comes down once in while to visit humans?
We find the Psalm Song writers say, Yes, God is in heaven. They also
say God is with me wherever I go on land, if I am in a boat on the sea, if
for some reason I am under the sea waters, and God is even with me
when I make my home “under the earth”.
God is everywhere. Silent, maybe. But “suffering” with me wherever I
am suffering.

We call that “Panentheism”-- God is everywhere so I am NOT alone.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

Why is the Bible Belt so vengeful.?


(Elmer Cupino) #5

Is it mutation and distortion of self-esteem or is it ignorance or misunderstanding of the biological unfolding of developmental milestones?

We may not agree on what is an “iota of God’s image” but we can all agree of what makes men’s image because the only lesson “Shoah” has taught us is never to put our trust in men even if they were cloaked in religious beliefs.


(ROBIN VANDERMOLEN) #6

I am pleased that Ronald Osborn has once again, produced a profound, provocative, pertinent and plausible treatise on a troubling topic.

He is one of Adventism’s brilliant minds —he always thinks “outside the box “.

Regrettably, his provocative questions have prevented church colleges from hiring him — a travesty, which excludes our students from being mentored by a master!

My native land, South Africa, in the thirties, admitted thousands of European Jews, desperate to escape pre Nazi Europe.- ( one of the only countries on the planet to do so ).

The reason was not a generous pro Semitic one— it was implemented to increase the white minority population versus the majority black population.

As a result I grew up with many Jewish friends ,— my public high school class was fifty per cent Jewish and my medical school class sixty per cent Jewish.

For that reason, the Holocaust is a harrowing, hurtful horror for me, realizing that my friends, if not for South Africa’s immigration generosity, would have been incinerated.

More troubling than God’s “ silence “, is the equanimity and complacency of EGW’s. “universe “ —( the “good” Angels and the “ unfallen beings “ on other planets.) in the face of incalculable evil…

This “ universe” supposedly constitutes the “ jurors” in the GREAT CONTROVERSY and their abject abdication from their role is appalling. Why were they not clamoring to God to end the carnage?

Did the Holocaust Jews not have “ guardian angels” ?

Were these heavenly beings not distraught at watching.their protégés perish ?

Why was the “universe “ not clamoring to God to fast forward the Second Coming and curtail the carnage?

Had the highly suspect 1844 date, really resulted in an ACTUAL SECOND COMING,
what multiple atrocities would have been avoided ?

—from the Civil War
to the Armenian, Bosnian, Pol Pot, Rwandan and Holocaust genocides,
Stalin’s Gulag,
and multiple major wars, magnified in their monstrosities by the multiplication of modern weaponry
— Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

An omniscient God who foresaw these egregious events in all their enormity could have expedited the SECOND COMING, in a heartbeat, to forestall them.

Surely His abdication to do so, makes Him an enabler and therefore accountable for these appalling, awful atrocities.

As cyclone FANI slams into India and Bangladesh, devastating millions, who already live in shanty towns amid abject poverty, what is God’s response? : SILENCE.

A multiplicity of natural disasters
— earthquakes,
cyclones / hurricanes, / tornados / typhoons,
—epidemics ( Ebola / the Great Bubonic Plague /. Spanish influenza ).
—-volcanic eruptions,
——famines ( the great hunger in Ireland )
—-tsunamis, and shipwrecks at sea,
murdering multiple millions, have elicited only cruel, callous, stony stubborn silence.

Twenty one centuries ( and counting ) after Christ on Calvary’s cross cried out “IT IS FINISHED “, mankind is still mired in MISERY,——-hopeless, helpless and hurting.


(George Tichy) #7

Though as I say, the biggest challenge in Adventism is definitely, “thinking outside the boox.”
Yes, the “boox,” the red boox… :wink:


(ROBIN VANDERMOLEN) #8

George,
You nailed it !

Regrettably, those “red boox “ predominant with pervasive plagiarism, are the catechism for TW and his henchmen.

If TW had papal powers, he would canonize EGW, —-Adventism’s Virgin Mary.

Just as Catholicism exalts the Virgin Mary, while all other females , even Mother Teresa are second class citizens, so does TW ape the VATICAN with his veneration of Ellen, while despising all other Adventist women , especially SE California Conference President, Sandra Roberts.


#9

How can the Great Controversy theme be viable?

Why is God more devoted and responsive to entities and beings in the universe, than to the individuals populating the earth He created? For these beings to trump humanity is troubling and seems to be an explanation as to why evil continues to play out in the most devious and destructive events. Buying into the Great Controversy theme provides no answers to Robin’s questions and brings up more and more questions about God’s principle of love. The mystery of iniquity also plays into this theme and how it could erupt among perfection and perfect love.

The Holocaust introduces just one example of God’s silence. As this article points out, we continue to experience God’s silence in our own brushes with evil.


#10

I embrace the idea of Free Will. That there IS a Great Controversy (even if not exactly as described by EGW or the story of Job – although both DO have some compelling observations about it). That Evil has had an effect on all creation (since the Fall of Lucifer) and that some of us participants (Earthlings) do recognize the Evil of Evil even while it remains part of our own lives.

However, there are several concepts that I embrace that are missing from most discussions:

  1. The willingness of an All Powerful God to Self-limit His Power – Which I believe is necessary for humans to have Free Will. All of the how’s of this self-limitation might need explored. One such how is the setting of boundaries that allow the free exercise of evil within those (ala Job). It seems that God sets conditions not only for Evil intervention but also His own intervention.

  2. The driving force of Love that compels God to self-sacrifice in His desire that none should be lost but that all should be brought to a Saving Knowledge of Christ, the Lord. This continued possibility of more people being saved compels the ‘long-suffering’ that some consider ‘slackness’ on the part of God. In fact, those who have a similar love for their fellow humans, as they do for God, may willingly choose to continue to suffer here in the hope of the eternal salvation of others.

  3. The succeeding idea, from the existence of Free Will, that a final solution requires the Convincing That Evil is Unacceptable in such a way or degree as to guarantee Eternal Rejection of Evil within the saved. They will continue to have Free Will to rebel and therefore must continue to choose to reject Evil, as will those non-participants in the current sin demonstration. The contin ued and renewed embracing of evil, here and now, as observed within our own lifetime & recorded history, demonstrates the tenacity of Evil and that humans continue to willingly embrace it. ‘Excessive Delay’ is a matter of the perception of time. Considering the possibility of eternal Evil, where the suffering would be recreated and extended beyond these millennial demonstrations, where Evil would return after being removed, makes the perceived ‘delay’ somewhat more understandable and acceptable to reach an Eternal End.


(David) #11

At the risk of sounding dismissive, simplistic, and insensitive, perhaps the answer to God’s silence can be found in His wrath. Could it be that we are living in the time of the 7 last plagues when God’s wrath is unleashed on the earth, when no man can enter the Temple?

Rev. 14:19 So the angel thrust his sickle into the earth and gathered the vine of the earth, and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.

Rev. 15:1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous: seven angels having the seven last plagues, for in them the wrath of God is complete.

Rev.16:1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out the bowls of the wrath of God on the earth."

It’s another explanation to a difficult problem.
@ezbord


#12

How is pouring out wrath (devastating storms, horrific diseases, mass shootings, etc.) a fruit of the love principle as the foundation of God’s government to be poured out on humanity?


(ROBIN VANDERMOLEN) #13

David,
Are you trying to tell me that millions of impoverished Indians living in dire misery, their children hungry and starving, zero prospects,for,being upwardly mobile, high infant mortality, reduced longevity, are still subject to further punishment / wrath ?? What did they do to deserve this ?

Is it because they were born Hindu or Muslims and.not into Christian families?? What makes them deserving of God’s wrath?

You must truly believe in a callous, cruel, SADISTIC God!


(Patrick Travis) #14

Steve, may I encourage you to review your concept of Pantheism and Panentheism. Pantheism is God in all things. Panentheism is all things are “in God.” Both are problematic in their logical end.
Regards,
Pat


(Steve Mga) #15

Pat –
can you define “in God”?
It is unclear what you mean.
The Psalmist says, God is everywhere I go to, go traveling. On land, on the sea,
in the sea, even at death. And is with me when I am around the house.
And that goes for 8 Billion persons on earth.


(Patrick Travis) #16

It seems to me that both humanism and liberalism box themselves in by denying God’s existence and need or by limiting what a " just loving god can do." God either doesn’t exist or He is damed if He does and dammed if He doesn’t.
“Pure free will” doesn’t exist in the Classical Protestant Christian view because it was lost by Adam’s fall. “We were dead in trespasses and sin.” This is what Luther calls the bondage of the will.
So regardless of the consequences of the fall we want our “free will” without consequences so that God now becomes the cause of evil happenings by not stopping the “free will” of some of His creatures who, surprisingly to some, cause horrific problems such as the given example Sheoh.
So, we want free will but we want to regulate God on when He is to intervene against mankind’s freewill.
So which is it? Perhaps that was the whole intended purpose of covenant in the OT. Violation ultimately causes all those things we abhor as a consequence.
The problem is we are sinners as a result of the fall and all humanities best efforts fail of themselves in the end. I suggest all government social, economic methodologies fail due to this. Likewise even God given “true law covenant.” Mankind expects success’ by methods rather than understanding oneself and abilities.
God can justify and take care of Himself. He showed that in Christ’s life and death on the cross. We are the one’s on trial and to suggest otherwise simply demonstrates, I suggest, why God allows time to continue for individuals in more generations to accept Christ and Him crucified as mankind’s only solution.
Regards


(Patrick Travis) #17

The Panentheist is saying all things are in part in God and make up who He is. Thus removal of anything somehow diminishes who God is. He is no longer the creator of all things He is a part of His creation.
God is everywhere but He is neither “In all things” or all things “in Him.” He is above His creation yet imminent to it.
Thanks
More clear?


(David) #18

I think it’s man’s rejection of God’s government of Love that brings God’s wrath. I think in most cases it’s simply God permitting Satan to have free reign.

I merely quoted some verses that refer to God’s wrath. I’m not the one who wrote those verses. When the dust settles, I believe we will understand a lot more than we do now.

I believe in a loving God; one I’ll admit I don’t always understand. I try to comprehend the world in light of what the bible says, just like you and everyone else here at spectrum. I stop short at blaming God for the woes of the world. We don’t always know what God’s grievances are.

The possible explanation I gave was in reply to your question about God’s SILENCE - that maybe God’s silence is due to His anger. That’s all I was saying.


(Steve Mga) #19

Panentheism–
Immenent – yes, God is always near, close by his creation, among.
Same as Panentheism.


(Patrick Travis) #20

Not really, but if it works for you fine.