In the end," wrote Nietzsche, "one experiences only one's self." Nietzsche is right. When we grieve with the grieving, weep with the weeping, and suffer with the suffering we experience only our own grief, our own cries, and our own anguish never anyone else's. We bleed our own blood, spew our own spit, and secrete our own sweat never another's, no matter how fused our flesh. Other people's pain comes to us filtered, always and only, through our own. Our own, then, is all we ever actually know.
When the Twin Towers crashed, and thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers perished in a crushing cascade of steel, fire, and blood each one felt only his or her own fear, only his or her pain, only his or her own suffering; no one else's. Whether a mother holding a feverish infant to her breast, or a father clutching a crumpled wife, neither can splice into the nerves of the other to feel a spasm of their woe, a prick of their pain, or a sputter of their sorrow.
No matter how loud, outrageous, or consuming, pain remains more private than thought; thought can always be shared, pain never really can. Unlike the liver, the heart, or blood suffering is nontransferable, nontransfusable, and nontransplantable. What's yours is yours alone.
When famine descended upon Ethiopia, and tons of flesh withered and faded back into the earth, they did so, each quivering one at a time. However we die, however we suffer, whether alone or in bundles, corporate agony, collective pain, doesn't actually exist; we are islands of anguish unto ourselves.
This privatization of pain, this personalization of anguish, it's good because it means that no one has ever suffered more than an individual can. Grief remains finite, hedged in by what's as minuscule as the human. We know no more suffering than our personal metabolism allows, no more pain than our delirious cells can carry. No matter how many miles of nerves are wired through us, what are they but a few frayed and twisted threads in contrast to the light-years of reality that surround us? Our finitude is our defense, our physical borders our best protection. How fortunate that pain and suffering remain hedged in and limited by the inherent confines of individuality. It's hard enough, this bearing of our own pain. Can we even imagine carrying others' as well?
There's an exception, however, to this otherwise pandemic personalization of pain; only one time when this universal paradigm of individuated anguish shifted, and that was the Cross. Only as we understand what happened there, to God Himself in contrast to anything and everything that happens to us, can we begin to understand what's perhaps the most difficult question that ministers face from their parishioners: Why does God allow human suffering?
Only on the cross can we find, if not certain answers, at least some hope amid the pain.
A clear view
To begin, if one could shovel away the debris, climb over the rubble, and wade past the moral and physical wreckage left in the wake of two thousand years of Christian history in order to see the cross, what would appear? If one could peel off the cross the centuries of ecclesiastical riffraff, what would remain? If one could unravel all presuppositions and prejudices amassed from lifetimes of lies, myths, and religious illusions, all in order to have a clear, unadulterated and undistorted view of the cross what would they see?
They would see the Creator of the uni verse the Being who spoke the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity into existence; the Being who sprinkled infinity with the Eagle Nebula and Orion; the Being who threaded 100 billion billion superstring loops into every proton they would see the Christ shrunk into human flesh and nailed to two pieces of wood, His life crushed out by all the pain, suffering, and anguish of a world that He with His creative syllables had crafted into existence.
Again, though we experience only our own fear, only our own loathing, no one else's at the Cross, Jesus experienced everyone else's. The individual miseries of humanity were, one by one, added up and the grue some sum fell on the Creator. At the Cross, everything noisome and evil that ever rippled through our nerves rippled through His at once.
However much blood, sweat, and tears have spilled, dripped, and flowed under anemic moons; despite the cancerous color of the soul and the loathsome fates of so many little ones none of them, none of us, suffered more than a single human can. Our pain never surpassed our finitude. No one ever ached more than he or she, individually, could with stand; the moment the threshold was crossed, death cracked it off.
In contrast, at the Cross, the evils of the world, and all their doleful results, honed in on Him at once. From the pain of the children mutilated and then murdered by Mengele, to even the Herr Doktor's personal tremors of guilt, from the first swollen belly to the last emphysemic lung, from abused to abuser, all the planet's finite evils fell on Christ and, amassed at once, they were enough to kill Him.
Putting aside postmodern mumbling about perspectivalism, relativism, pluralism, about Foucalt's Interpretative Analysis, or Derrida's Deconstruction of the text, or Wittgenstein's language games . . . either England is an island near Europe or it isn't; either Jonathan Swift wrote A Tale of a Tub or he didn't; either George Washington was the Prime Minister of France from 1926-37 or he wasn't; and, either at the Cross the Creator of the universe, having taken upon Himself our humanity, died from the evil of that humanity or He didn't. There's no middle ground here, no compromise. Either Jesus was God Himself, or He was just a good man (and an infinite qualitative difference exists between the two), or maybe even a bad man, or maybe never a man at all. But if He were merely a good man, or a great one, or even the greatest yet not God too, then the Cross is a noxious lie.
"Man simply invented God," it has been said, "in order not to kill him self." If so, then man invented not only God, but One who suffered infinitely more than the creature, any creature, He created. Belief in a false god is bad enough; belief in a crucified one is even worse, for while the belief helps tame the cruel, empty spaces of the universe the lie makes them more hellish than ever.
The infinite divide
However incredible the Cross, there's nothing contradictory about it. The Power who uttered into existence infinity, eternity, and matter and wrapped them together and draped the result across nothing, certainly would have the capacity to garb Himself in human flesh and then die in that flesh. The One who created all of what's created could become part of what's created. The issue is not physics (How did He do it?) but morality (Why did He do it?)
If ascending from zero to one takes an infinite step, what's the moral calculus of descending from the infinite to the finite? That God Himself would become a human, that the infinite would assume finitude (while still remaining infinite), that's incredible enough. But that God would, in the form of finitude, suffer only as the infinite could suffer? Logic and reason knuckle under the notion; before a sketch, or even a rough draft, the imagination surrenders. Only the metaphysics of faith can approach it.
But more importantly, if Jesus"tasted death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9, TLB), if He died "for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2), if upon Him was placed the iniquity "of us all" (Isa. 53:6) then all of us are implicated in the Cross because all of our evil was there.
Either the Cross is true or it is lie. If a lie, then it's just a black hole into which so much hope, promise, and prayer have been poured, with little or nothing in return. But, if it's true, then it means that our lies, our greed, our envy, our lust, our pride, our cheating, our selfishness, our injustice, and all the nasty and dirty little things we have thought and done; all the things that by themselves might not seem so bad but if added up, shoved in our face, and exposed for what they really were would cause us to claw at our own flesh all of them were there, at the Cross, borne by Christ, killing Christ so that when all the evil moments of our life are tallied and weighed, they don't have to ultimately, and forever, kill us.
There's no justice in this life. But if God exists, and if He is just, then justice will be done which means sooner or later we'll have to answer for everything; for the dirty secrets that occasionally appear in our dreams, for the pangs that itch in places we can't scratch, and even for all the things that we long ago justified and then, conveniently, forgot. Imagine facing every evil thought, word, and deed at once, with all excuses, rationalizations, and justifications swept away by the peering eyes of an all-seeing, all-knowing God who exposes the deepest, most carnal motives until there's nowhere to hide.
If all the evil we have ever committed or will ever commit fell on Jesus to spare us from the punishment that justice demands, then the Cross has an absolute moral claim on us. Whether we believe it or not, whether we accept it or not, the claim remains and all other ties, in contrast, bind us in nothing but pink ribbons and bows. No one, nothing else, has such a stake in us because no one, nothing else, has done (or could do) so much for us.
If at the Cross Christ paid the penalty for every wrong thing we have ever done, if He bore the brunt of our evil, if in His flesh He felt at once the painful consequences of our foul deeds, and if He did it in order to spare us from having to face divine judgment for all these things we have done and yet we reject the provision, what's left?
That's heavy. Whatever else we do or have done to others, we do or have done to those of the same noisome brew as ourselves. We are finite creatures who do things, sometimes petty, sometimes puerile, sometimes terrible, but always only finite and temporal things, nothing more. The gap between who we are, what we do, and to whom we do them stays finite, and finite minus finite equals only finitude.
The Cross, however, presents to humanity something infinite, some thing eternal. Instead of hovering "out there," as concepts merely sensed or intuited, the Infinite and Eternal stepped directly into the equations of our lives, wrote Themselves into the formulas of our immediate existence, and made Themselves accessible as never before. To have the eternal and infinite God clothe Himself in human flesh in order to save us from the inevitable doom of our own rotting wraps and then only to have those temporal and rotting wraps purposely reject what He did for us what's left?
There's an infinite gap between the finite and the infinite; those who have rejected what Jesus has done for them have, in a sense, breached that gap; it is the ultimate transgression because it is an infinite one. Of all the evil of the world at the Cross the murders, the rapes, the incest, the barbarity the only one not there, the only one not provided for is the only one that's infinite, the one in which the finite rejects the Infinite.
Of course, belief in this Infinite death isn't in itself productive of loving and lovable Christians. On the contrary, corporate Christianity often produces corporate wretches. It's one thing to have vile folks walk into a church that might be expected. But to have them leave worse because their villainy is now absolved by a conscience confirmed in the certainty of terminal truth that cannot be expected.
How does one explain those who have murdered, raped, and pillaged in the name of Jesus? Or what about those God-fearing, church-going white Protestants who loved the Lord but wouldn't share their restrooms with a Black person? Or the folks who shoved Jews into gas chambers Monday through Saturday but rested from their work on Sunday? From the Crusades to the Inquisition, from the Ku Klux Klan to the most orthodox fascists, why has Christianity provided the vehicle, the incentive, and the rationale for so much of what rots the planet? And why has much of what's been noxious been nurtured in the cold, lurid womb of the church, which served for centuries as the intellectual, cultural, and moral dungeon of the West?
Though good questions, none are good excuses. Jesus Himself warned about those who would, under the guise of Christian faith, work iniquity (Matt. 7:21-23). Millions of professed Christians have, for almost two thou sand years, provided convenient excuses to reject the Cross; what they haven't provided are adequate ones, because nothing has changed the Cross, where God died for and from the world's evil an infinite act that transcends all finite ones, even the ones done in the name of the act itself.
In the end, nothing nullifies the Cross. It remains, above and beyond everything else, and its claims are so universal, so sweeping, and so grand that they blow away all excuses, even good ones about human suffering.
No matter what we have suffered, we have suffered only as individuals. No more. In contrast, God took on the form of humanity and died a death not only worse than the worst of the best of humanity but suffered a death worse than all of humanity (even the worst of it) combined. And though that amazing death does not answer all the questions about evil and pain, it does put them in a perspective that could help us past our own anguish and that of others if for no other reason than that, because of the Cross, the moral hues, the tones, and the tenor of the cosmos have radically changed, and the music of the spheres becomes howling praise.