Book Review: God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross


Author: Douglas John Hall
Publication details: Minneapolis, Augsburg: 1986.

Summary: Hall is refreshingly reticent to provide “answers” to the problem of human suffering. “The trouble with most answers – including the answers that popular Christianity is ready to offer at bargain prices,” he says, “is that they are usually provided by persons who have not lived long enough with the questions.” Hall rejects the classical framing of the theodicy question as too preoccupied with a speculative understanding of God’s omnipotence. In any case, our task is not to try and justify God but to proclaim his profound love for the world and his suffering engagement with it: “There is not so much an ‘answer,’” Hall says, “ but…an Answerer!”

In the first part of his book, Hall engages in a penetrating analysis of the reality of human suffering. Some suffering (due to loneliness, limitations, temptation, and anxiety) is to be embraced as simply part of being human – it is intended by God as “the suffering of becoming.” Other suffering, due to the ironic and tragic nature of sin, is not intended by God – it is “suffering as burden.”Drawing from Luther’s theology of the cross, Hall’s main message is that the reality of suffering has been “met by an even greater reality: the conquest of suffering by the God of ‘suffering love.’” In Jesus Christ, God Himself has suffered redemptively for, and with, his fallen world. Hall insists that God still suffers today – for people continue to suffer “in a countless number of ways.” The one authenticating mark of the true Christian community, according to Hall, is that it too suffers redemptively – as a real “part of the response of God to the massive suffering of God’s world.”

Evaluation: Hall’s view that some suffering is integrative to becoming is a helpful corrective to the idea that all suffering is to be avoided. His refusal to supply shallow answers that tend to minimize the appalling reality of much human suffering is also appreciated, as is his insistence that we are to understand the nature of God from the story of Jesus, not from abstract philosophical notions of omnipotence, or triumphalistic ideas derived from our culture.The extensive appendix (50 pages or so) in which he engages in dialogue with five other authors who have also written on this subject is a helpful reminder that all good theology is done in conversation.

Reviewed by: David McGregor
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