In this episode Kurt speaks to Pastor Joshua Johnson about his journey in dealing with cancer, his relationship with God, and how he dealt with the experiential problem of evil.
Kurt: Good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It’s a pleasure to be with you here yet again week after week talking about issues that concern the Christian worldview, a variety of topics from theological doctrine to political philosophy and economic theory to just other issues in general that we might be thinking about or dealing with in the world today. Today we’ve got a good episode for you. We’re going to be looking at one of the problems of evil, but we’re tailoring it as part of our stories of the journey series. We did sort of a more personal side of things last autumn with Reverend Andy Larson who did outreach to Muslim communities and learning more about his story, his background, and his journey, but today we’re going to be talking to a pastor in New Hampshire, about his time dealing with cancer and how he interpreted that through the experiential problem of evil, so we’re going to be talking to him in a moment, but just a few introductory things before we get to that. Today I’ve been running back and forth actually between here and Palatine, Illinois for an apologetics conference put on by Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, EMNR, and they focus on reaching cults and other new age and the occult like witchcraft for example so they kind of specialize in that so there’s been a nice conference with a number of speakers there. Richard Howe, Robert Stewart, Rob Bowman, and some other apologists, and just a great time to network with others. It’s a good reminder to that while the events themselves are open to the public, it really is a great opportunity for Christians to become equipped to have a training there so that they can go out and talk to people and reach to people and sometimes, there’s kind of two ends of the spectrum. Sometimes people err and they think that Christians shouldn’t just be doing this. We’ve got to get out there. Well that’s true, but there’s a time for equipping, for learning, and so that’s a good thing. The other side of the err is in thinking that we shouldn’t really be getting out there and that we just, and this isn’t so much a mentality but more of just an inaction, that sometimes we can only be meeting with Christians and we’re not reaching out that enough so that’s the other err, so there’s a nice fine line between the equipping time of the season and getting out there and talking to people so whether this podcast for you is an opportunity for you to hear a different perspective, and sometimes we bring on guests of different perspectives, or if this is a podcast that’s equipping for you, I hope that this is edifying and beneficial for you, so I hope that it serves its purpose in that regard. It’s trying to reach different people in different stages of life.
If you’d like to have your voice heard on today’s show, if you have a question about anything towards the end of the show or if you’ve got a question for our guest, you can give us a call. The number is 505-2STRIVE. That’s 505-278-7483. Also, did you know you can text in? Just text the word VERACITY to the number 555-888 and you can also send me messages then throughout the week or during the show, I’ll be checking those and finally then we’re also doing the livestream on Facebook so I’ve got it here and I should be able to see comments coming in. If you’ve got questions we’ll try to our best to address those. With that I want to again talk about the show today so let me put it in context here. When we’re talking about the problem of evil, there are many aspects to this or rather there are distinctive problems of evil, and this is something we’ve covered on the show before so just for your memory, I want you to remember these distinctions.
First, there’s what’s called the logical problem of evil which seeks to pit the existence of God against the existence of evil and that the two of them are contradictory so if evil exists then God can’t exist, and of course this issue is deemed solved or resolved or maybe even better, it’s discovered, the atheist J.L. Mackie has said that really we’ve discovered that there wasn’t any problem at all and that’s coming from an atheist and that’s due in part to the work of Alvin Plantinga. He’s got this great little small book called God, Freedom, and Evil. You could literally read it in an afternoon and it’s a great book I think you should check out. That’s not so much a problem for us anymore, but intellectually in the speculative realm, still there’s what’s called the evidential problem of evil that still has the attention of Christian philosophers and non-Christian philosophers debating about this issue, but today we’re not so much dealing with the intellectual or the speculative issues. Instead we’re dealing with what is sometimes called the pastoral problem of evil or others have called it the experiential problem of evil and it essentially is not so much an argument. It’s more of a why. Why did God allow this evil to occur to me or to a loved one? For this I wanted to bring on a guest who has experience in the experiential or the pastoral problem of evil himself because some of us might think, “Well yeah. I’ve been wronged here and there”, but to have dealt with something like cancer for instance is something that’s very much out of our control or out of the control of some other human. If another human has wronged us we can understand why they might do us, but why is there the cancer here? Why are there these natural events that occur that cause suffering to us humans? Joining me now is Pastor Joshua Johnson and he is the author of When God Doesn’t Look Like God: A Christian Confrontation With Cancer And Other Evils. He is a survivor of Non Hodgkins’s Lymphoma, a graduate of Gordon College and of Nazarene Theological Seminary, he’s a former seminary instructor in Biblical Hebrew, and the senior pastor of New Beginnings Church of the Nazarene in Loudon, New Hampshire. Dr. Joshua Johnson. Thanks so much for joining us on the show today.
Joshua: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Kurt: Great. Tell us a little bit about your background. Maybe even sort of a little bit of your testimony briefly, sort of your journey in terms of your growing up and then realizing you wanted to become a pastor of sorts, someone who is invested in the Christian worldview and in spreading the Gospel and the making of disciples and then, along those lines, when and where was it was that you were diagnosed with cancer and tell us a little bit more about the cancer, just so we can learn more about you.
Joshua: Sure. Stop me if I add too many details, I grew up in Massachusetts and both my parents were believers…
Kurt: So you’re a Celtics fan which is a problem.
Joshua: Yeah. Yeah. I’m a Celtics fan of sorts. Never quite as loyal to the Celtics as to the Patriots….
Kurt: I don’t know what’s worse.
Joshua: I know. I know. I grew up here and both my parents were believers. I grew up in Church of the Nazarene which is a Wesleyan denomination. It’s distinct commitments were to free-will and to the belief that the cross and Jesus’s death was a means to an end, that forgiveness was not the end goal but it was the beginning of the relationship God wanted with us and so we have a heavy emphasis on the transformation that comes from being in relationship with Jesus. I grew up in that tradition and considered myself a Christian from the time I was about eight years old and yeah, in the teenage years, which is normal for quite a number of people, I started to wonder whether this was just something I had inherited from my parents or if it was something that was really real for me and that was a struggle throughout for those years, but towards the end of my time in high school I had an experience that convinced me that the Lord was asking me to take a more official role in being part of the church and feeding His sheep and so I interpreted that experience as a call to ministry and I started to pursue that. What was interesting for me is that I went through all those hoops and I went to Gordon College and I graduated and got married and then followed kind of the instinct to go Chicago and begin my seminary studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and that led me to pastoring in a United Methodist Church which is where you and I met.
Kurt: That’s right.
Joshua: That started about 2000. I was kind of pursuing all that and kind of doing the good Christian thing where I had the right thinking and I was teaching the right things and encouraging people to put their faith in the right places, but about three years into that ministry, I was diagnosed with Non Hodgkins Lymphoma, and what was probably the most startling thing to me was that the first thought I had when the doctor told me that that’s what I had was that Christianity was most likely not true and I was done for. That was a shocking realization for me because I would never have called myself an atheist or agnostic. I would have called myself a strong theist, but when I was diagnosed, I was shocked at where my uncertainties really were and so I sometimes in hindsight said that I was a devout Christian atheist until I was diagnosed with cancer and began to think much more deliberately about what was real and so I would not call myself an atheist today. I would call myself a theist, but it was quite a journey for me from the soul searching that went on when I was diagnosed to the final resolution that I would put all of my eggs in the basket of faith in God. Does that trace the steps you were asking about?
Kurt: Yes. Yes. That’s a good sort of introduction. Tell us, where you were spiritually before, right up to the moment before you had the cancer diagnosis and then tell us more so how that changed your personal outlook.
Joshua: I’m an idea person. I really like ideas. It doesn’t really matter how helpful the ideas are. If it’s a new idea and it engages me in some way, I want to pursue it, and in a lot of ways God was after me. He was an idea that was a really engaging idea and a marvelous idea and an upending idea, and so I…
Kurt: The God of the philosophers. Right?
Joshua: Maybe of a sort. I was very rooted Biblically. It was the Bible where I wanted to know more about this God. It was a particular type of philosopher, Hebrew philosophers and so on, but yeah, it was an idea that was, I couldn’t stop pursuing and I would have called that Christianity. I would have called that faith, but I didn’t realize that the God I was worshiping and pursuing was really more of a concept I was wrestling to comprehend and not really real, like it was real to me in a way, but obviously not real in the sense that I was certain that if my cancer took the road that it inevitably would have had I not had treatments and I breathed my last, I would not, I wasn’t even mildly confident that I would encounter Him and that was a shock to me. I would never, if somebody had mentioned that that was my belief system maybe six months before I was diagnosed, I never would have agreed with that. I would have resisted that, but the cancer really, the diagnosis, maybe because I was so young, I was 27 years old, it just took me completely out of the blue, but I realized that God had become this idea to me and it was a beautiful idea. I would even say I loved the idea of God, but I had not really been pursuing any kind of a personal experience with God. I did when I was young, but I had become frustrated with that because I didn’t see much responsiveness so it was safer for me to keep God an idea I think and so when I found out that my death was imminent if I didn’t receive treatments and even with treatments there was a chance that I wouldn’t live through it. When that became real, I became desperate for God in a way that I hadn’t been desperate for God since I was a child, so spiritually I think, I don’t know, I think I would have passed very well. I think I did pass very well as an energetic theist who loved Jesus and was pursuing God. You were in some of the programs that I taught. I certainly would never have expected what I found when I was diagnosed.
Kurt: And so how did that experience lead you to a more vibrant relationship with the person or persons rather of God instead of just God being an idea?
Joshua: I think for me, it’s hard to kind of put this into words because it was such a strange process for me, but if anything I had to almost start over because I think it’s a good thing that parents teach their children about their religion. I think indoctrination is not a dirty word and I certainly had been indoctrinated, but I had to almost go back to zero with some of that. I had to step back because cancer didn’t fit into the idea that I had constructed of God, at least for me, and so I had one of two things I could do. I could discard the idea or I could rethink my construction and I think that that started me on a journey to go back and rethink everything I thought I knew, because I felt like, again, it was awhile before God became anything more than idea to me, that I needed to rethink my hypothesis and make room for my new experience. I think that’s what I was doing, but it caused me to go back and ask questions that I thought had already been asked and answered and I went back into the Scriptures and I started reading differently. Prior to my diagnosis, somebody like William Lane Craig arguing philosophical proofs of God’s existence, but that would have been very persuasive to me, but it was persuasive I think because God was an idea and that was the way you proved ideas, with logical proofs and so on, but I think I said in the book that for the first time in a long time I no longer cared who God was. I cared that He was. Then it was a different experience for me and it led me back to the Scriptures and I started to read those accounts as though those folks were seeing things and experiencing things that I had never seen or experienced and I had no choice but to go to them, to try and encounter this God. It was just a different approach. I became a biblical theologian of sorts.
Kurt: Yeah. Draw that out for us more. More specifically or explicitly. What does that mean that we’re going back to the text and seeing God as a person?
Joshua: I guess I wanted to know what was behind the ideas that were being expressed. I was sort of trained to be, I don’t know another word for it, other than propositionalist. I was kind of trained to read the Bible and extract its principles, its eternal principles, and then to teach those principles and apply them to the contemporary world. That was what I was being taught to do as a pastor. That’s how I preached. I would read the story of David and Bathsheba and I would try and extract principles that I thought I could draw out of that story and then universalize them and then apply them to the lives of the people I was preaching to. That was kind of the way that I approached the Scriptures.
Kurt: So the Bible kind of served as a history book with people that have long passed who we can no longer relate to, but only apply principles from their stories from those events into our lives today. Would that be an accurate summary then of a propositionalist?
Joshua: Yeah. I might even push it a little further and say something like it didn’t really matter to me, the people. It mattered to me the lessons I learned from their lives. I could have easily said, it really didn’t matter if there was an Abraham. What matters is I have learned what I needed to learn from him. They were means to an end for me. They were simply tools to give me the proper thinking tools so that I could construct the right way of understanding the world and so on. So I went back I started reading a little differently. I started asking myself, “Who are these people and what would be the experiences have been like and what they were saying and how were they interpreting it and why did God reveal Himself to them in these ways?” I started just trying to hunt for the person of God that was implicit in all of these experiences that had been preserved by the prophets and the apostles and it was just a different approach, but like I said, I almost desperately wanted to tear open the pages and see the God they were seeing. I never really read Sinai and thought about the experience of standing in the presence of God and being so terrified that you’d ask as the Israelites did, never to speak to Him again. What would that have been like? How did they experience that? It was just a different way of reading. I was no longer looking for principles I could preach. I was trying to discover the God they encountered.
Kurt: And so in doing that, where did you go?
Joshua: It was difficult to find anybody who would write on that subject who wasn’t at the same time dismissing the historicity of the story and the value of the principles so that was difficult and I think part of God’s grace was that I went to Nazarene Theological Seminary because I’m a very conservative evangelical person. I still am. I’m not who’s afraid to be called an inerrantist even though in my tradition that can be a dirty word for some folks. I’m pretty comfortable with it. So Nazarene Theological Seminary was a difficult decision for me because I had thought this isn’t the way I, I’m a Nazarene but I don’t think the way that I have been told they think there. That’s what I thought, but it was God’s grace that I went because the approach to Scripture that I was being taught was encouraging me to dig deeper into the stories themselves and almost look at them from the inside out and I needed that so I did find some authors who were doing that who I never would have probably read had I stayed where I was. So authors helped me, but that’s the way that I am. I think of folks like Brevard Childs and Dallas Willard, Kierkegaard, and some others that I had never really been exposed to in my previous education that I encountered and then a few other teachers too. Tom Nobel has been the most formative for me, but folks who were able to speak about God in a way that was quite different than this list of what God is and what God isn’t. It was more of an experiential conversation about God and so it helped me, those things helped me, but really in the end, I received the most help by just going back and reading the stories I thought I had already understood perfectly well and reading them again from this different perspective.
Kurt: Reading them afresh.
Joshua: Yeah. I think all of that came together somehow to set me on a road and then writing the book was helpful because I’m a verbal processor so some things began I make sense to me as I started to write about them.
Kurt: We’re going to take a short break but after the break, I want to ask you sort of how your reflection on your experiences led you to the perspective that you have and then sort of one, sort of, I wouldn’t call it a pet project, but one of my pet interests is in looking at the book of Job and how we understand the problem of evil so I’d love to get your thoughts on that too, but we’ll be right back after a short break from our sponsors.
Kurt: Alright. Thanks for sticking with us through that short break from our sponsors. As a reminder, we love the sponsors that we have. I can’t say I always agree with the things that they propose, but I very much support doing theology in community, let me put it that way. I think it’s very good and important for us to get out there and to explore ideas and to have ideas challenged from time to time. That’s a good thing and so we should be supportive of things like that, which part of the mission of this show is to do exactly that. If you want to learn about how you can become a sponsor of the show, if you’ve got an organization or you’ve got an advertisement you want to play, you can go to the web site, Veracityhill.com/patron and check out the sponsorship levels there. Now before we get back to our discussion today, it is time for….
Kurt: Alright. That’s What Do You Meme, which is the Beebs, Justin Bieber, he’s definitely saying What Do You Mean, but I’m being subjective, I’m being a relativist. I think he’s saying what do you meme? We just have one meme today and it’s about whether God would heal amputees. If you’re watching on the livestream, I think we’ve got it up there, and if you’re listening to this as a podcast later during the week, check out the web site. We’ll post the picture there. Here we have Willy Wonka, that typical meme, he’s kind of like he’s got his hand on his forehead there and he says “About the power of prayer, tell me more about the healed amputees?” Basically this gets to an objection that atheists pose against Christians that if God exists, why won’t He just heal amputees? This is, really if we’re going to take a step back out of that specific issue, this deals with the experiential problem of evil, so I’d love to get, pastor Josh, I’d love to get your perspective, because while you’re not an amputee, you’re someone who has dealt with the experiential problem of evil, so how would someone like yourself handle this meme?
Joshua: Yeah. Not to endorse the meme or anything, but I will say that Dr. John Lennox has helped a little bit, me think a little more about miracles and I think that’s what this brings up. We could talk about the power of prayer, but I think miracles are more to the point, and one of the things he said, I think it was in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, but he may have mentioned it with Richard Dawkins as well, is that miracles are not a matter of God suspending the normal laws or normal routines of nature, but rather a miracle is when God inserts genuinely new material information into creation, so I would say, when it comes to cancer like mine or in the case of somebody’s had an injury or in cancer, amputation of my leg was one of the options depending on which kind of cancer I ended up having. It happens I ended up with lymphoma which could be treated with chemotherapy, but I could have had a sarcoma that would have required removal. I think that often times God does not choose to do that because in general terms, God does not violate the routines of nature, matter of fact I think it’s part of His method, part of His faithfulness, that nature is so regular and runs according to regular routines. I’m not opposed to believing God could do that miracle if He wished to do it, but I am astounded in the Scriptures at how often it seems clear that when God does do those kinds of miraculous things where He inserts genuinely new information, where He does a new creative act within the midst of history, He almost never does that, this might sound bad, for the sake of the person. It’s almost always narrated as for a larger purpose that serves the declaration of the Gospel or some other purpose that God is aiming at so I would imagine He could in response to prayer, create a new limb, but I would say that that would be a very rare occurrence based on some reasoning that God would have that this would be the right time to do a new creative act in creation, but I think we should expect and I’ve come to expect, that the covenant He’s made with creation, that He will govern it in the way that He has throughout history, that that’s the faithfulness we should expect. I’m not afraid to ask for a different kind of intervention, because I believe He can, but I do believe it’s rare that He says yes to that.
Kurt: So is this, let me follow up then, so you say that when miracles occur they’re new information but that when they do occur, it’s just as a result of His greater purposes if you will? Is that right? If so….
Joshua: Yeah. I mean, I guess, I don’t want to overstate the case because obviously there’s a lot of people that He’s listed as having healed in the Gospels that we don’t get any stories about, so it’s possible He was motivated to heal them simply by mercy or something, I’m not going to say that we know for sure, but I’m more speaking about the overt miracles that are talked about, that get a narrative and an explanation. I think in every case I can think of those miracles were for an illustrative purpose and not done simply because somebody was suffering and God wished to relieve it and that would be a different kind of conversation.
Kurt: Alright. That is the segment of the show we call….
Kurt: I know Chris here in the studio just loves that that is an 18-second clip of the Beebs that we play twice each episode.
Chris: 18 seconds of heresy.
Kurt: Alright. That’s What Do You Meme? We’ll see what we’ve got next week coming up for that segment. Let’s get back to the discussion here. I’m here with Pastor Joshua Johnson and today we’re discussing his story, his journey, through experiencing the problem of evil and so pastor Josh, let’s pick up where we left off. You had talked about how you were at a time then where you began to reflect upon your experience in managing the problem of evil. Tell us a little bit about that period then of your life.
Chris: As I started writing the book as a way to get through that part of my life, as a way to work through my reimagining of theology and who God is and what I can expect of God and so the book details a lot of that. I think one of the big realizations that sort of dawned on me came from a lot of places. I can think of a lecture by Tom Nobel. I can think of a book by Marvin Wilson called Our Father, Abraham that I was rereading at the time, and then a later on reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy¸ so a lot of different pieces came together but one of the realizations, one of the dawning moments was that when God created the world, and I should have known this, I studied it my whole life and I think I even told people this, but it didn’t dawn on me what it meant, but when God created the world the world seems to have been narrated in Genesis as being lifeless. In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth and the Earth was formless and void and darkness covered the surface of the deep. This idea that everything was water and that by an act of creation God separated the waters, water above from water below and He created an expanse in the midst of it which He called in Hebrew, the shamiyam, the heavens, and then he rose up a platform for life, that whole story, I started to think about these waters and why not create the universe from go exactly as you want it? Why create chaos? Why start with nothingness, with total bohu, to use the Hebrew words? I started working on that a bit and chasing the theme of water through the Scriptures and that journey led me to the very end of the Scriptures in Revelation where the prophecy says that in the new Heavens and the new Earth there will be no…
Joshua: Which is interesting. I mean that the sea is the basin that’s before the throne in the tabernacle and there’s a huge one before the throne room of God when Isaiah goes there, so there’s that, so there’s just the sense that somehow the waters will be banished in the new Heavens and the new Earth and I thought, “What is all this getting that?” I started to notice if water represents chaos, which it seems clearly to represent in the Hebraic kind of worldview of the first testament, if it represents chaos, it’s interesting how much of the original primordial lifelessness God has allowed to creep in to creation and of course, the events of human rejection of God early on that’s narrated in the Garden of Eden history, made it worse. God allowed more of the chaos to leek in, more of the disorder to leek in, but there even was some in the ideal paradise of Eden. God created a tree that could lead to the death of all humanity right there in the middle of the garden so it’s hard for me any longer to think of Eden as a Paradise, a Paradise with a live electric wire in it and a toddler wandering about I suppose. Plenty of fruit, but a lot of peril too, and the serpent to boot who wanted them to eat from it. As I started to think about that, I started to wonder, because I’d been raised to believe that the Earth was perfect, we were never intended to suffer, we were never intended to be sick, we were never intended to endure pain and all of that came as a consequence of Adam and Eve eating from that tree.
Kurt: So you take more of an Irenaean perspective. For those of us that aren’t familiar with sort of the Fall narratives, Irenaeus, one of the church fathers held to a more innocent view. He believed that Adam and Eve were created like infants more so than an Augustinian view which doesn’t ground the Fall so much in innocence, but in willful rejection and rebellion, so sort of different contrasting views there of the Fall.
Joshua: That’s certainly one way you could picture Irenaeus in the view of the Eastern fathers generally. As I started to think about this reality that God has always had peril alongside of blessing, even in Eden, and that the waters were always around us and that Israel so often found themselves just like creation itself in the midst of the waters when God divided the Sea of Reeds and they walked through on dry ground. When He divided the Jordan River and they were able to walk into the land of Canaan on dry ground. They so often found themselves in the midst of the waters which is where creation is. I started to wonder, maybe pain and suffering is not simply a consequence of sin. What if this is part of the design of this place? What if there is some purpose for it? Certainly sin has wielded in a way I don’t think that God wanted us to, but I’m wondering if it’s part of the human experience here that is essential and I think that was the moment when I started to realize that maybe I had been thinking about my life all along.
Kurt: That’s interesting. That certainly is a different perspective for a lot of people. They think evil and suffering, specifically the natural consequences of being in a fallen world is because of the Fall as opposed to this idea that maybe it’s just here all along and it’s here to teach us and help us to grow closer to God even so it’s certainly a different perspective. Go ahead.
Joshua: Yeah. I don’t want to take up too much time with what could be a rabbit trail, but I’ll let you decide if you want to pursue this, but I’ll just say it. One of the things that came out of that study as I started to look at the metaphors that are used in Scripture, I was shocked at how often the metaphor of birth is used, like when Jesus in His Olivet Discourse is discussing things that will happen as the world nears its end, earthquakes and famines and wars and all that and he calls them birth pangs, and when Jesus is discussing with Nicodemus in John 3….
Kurt: I was going to ask of that.
Joshua: ….A child of the kingdom, He says you have to be born again. We’ve really spiritualized that. We think of born again as some sort of a spiritual rebirth out of devotional commitment to God or something. But as I thought about all those metaphors and then how the idea of birth comes up in Revelation again, I started to have the sense that perhaps this world was created from the very beginning to not be a habitation for humanity but a womb.
Kurt: Interesting. So how do you take then in John 3 when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, He says you must be born of water and spirit. How do you take those then?
Joshua: The water and spirit thing is difficult so I’m not certainly not certain it, but you’re also now so I’ll give where I am at present. At present I’m wondering if we’re talking here about born out of the chaos which is what this world was born out of, the chaos, and then the new Heavens and the new Earth which will be born out of the spirit of God.
Kurt: So the water represents this world and then being born of water and spirit means kind of from and out of this world and into the Kingdom of God. Is that right?
Joshua: Yeah. What I’m thinking, and again, I’m not certain, this is speculative stuff, but what I’m thinking is that the two births that Jesus is trying to explain are not exactly natural human childbirth here and then some sort of spiritual rebirth that happens when we put our faith in Jesus, though certainly there is a type of being born again as kind of, it’s foreshadowed, what a real rebirth is, but I think it should follow the Gospels. What you find out is that the two birth that Jesus is really talking about is birth into this world and then death and somehow death is birth into the new world. There’s a sense in which that’s being born again, that Jesus transforms death into the birth canal and I have a sense that that’s what He’s aiming at. Certainly baptism and its association with His crucifixion and death on the cross I think is a support for that way of reading.
Kurt: Right. Okay. I want to move along to the book of Job. For someone like yourself, not only because you’ve experienced evil in your life, sort of the suffering as a result of living in this natural world, but because someone like yourself is a studied man, you like to read and you like to think about theology, so I’m curious to get your take on the book of Job and dealing with issues in suffering. How do you understand Job and do you think he has good theology when he says “The Lord gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”?
Joshua: Yeah. This is a really important subject to me because I think the very presence of Job in the Hebrew canon reveals some of the uniqueness of Hebrew theology and it’s one of, you can’t speak of evidences, but certainly if God were to inspire a people to speak for Him, I would imagine that they would be a people who would have this kind of courage. It’s courageous to have a story like Job in the Scriptures. It’s not so clear in our English translations most of the time because our ordering is based on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the first testament, but in the ordering of the Hebrew Tanakh, Job and Proverbs are right next to each other, and I think that’s done deliberately. What you’ll find is that Proverbs, which summarized basic guidelines for living and wisdom sayings and basic truths that in most circumstances turn out to be true, you’ll notice that Job’s friends are constantly quoting Proverbs. In some ways the book of Job is a counterpoint to the certainty of Proverbs. It’s the Hebrew prophets allowing the possibility that you could live in every way that the book of Proverbs tells you you should live and still experience what only the wicked according to Proverbs should experience. I think that’s a situation we’re at with Job. There’s another dilemma in Job. I’ll do this as fast as I can. Job is not written from the perspective that there is life after death, and I know that there’s that wonderful passage that’s been translated and turned into a song. I know that my redeemer lives and so on. When you go back to the Hebrew, it seems very very clear that part of Job’s dilemma is he feels he’s being treated unjustly. He’s not meriting what’s happening to him, but if he dies, it will never be known. There’s no hope in Job that one day he’ll be resurrected and justice will finally be done. Job is the cry of a person who in this life is facing the worst kinds of injustice and all they want is to be vindicated because based on what’s happening to them, the world assumes their guilty and wicked and vile, but they deeply believe that’s not the case and that they’re being unfairly treated and so Job cries out to the only one he can appeal to God, and begs Him to justify him, to stand up for him before he dies, to let all these people who think he’s wicked know that he’s not, that he’s not betrayed God. The life experience he’s having are not indications that he has become a traitor to his Lord. I think that’s the cry of Job. The friends keep trying to bring proper Proverbs theology to him. It’s good theology. Job. Maybe you did something and you didn’t know it, and Job keeps responding, “But how just is that? How fair is that?” If I don’t know what I’ve done, how can I be judged for it?” What I need is God to tell me what I’ve done wrong, because I’m unaware of it, and so it’s this great desperate lament. Job is that great lament, the lament of the unfairly judged, of the disenfranchised, of those who have had false witness born against them and people have believed them to be things that they’re not, who’ve been slandered in the public sphere unjustly. He’s the cry of humanity to its God saying when will justice be done? I think his voice is echoed in Revelation when the voices of the martyrs under the throne of God say “How long, O Lord will you let our blood remain unavenged?” For me, does Job have bad theology? Certainly not a robust theology that would come from knowing the whole story beginning to end. He certainly has no sense of Jesus. It’s very acerbic with God and he’s so desperate for vindication that he is quite rude with God, which God slaps him around at the end and basically does say, “You really have no right to make these accusations against me Job,” but after saying that God turns around to the friends and more or less says Job’s right. These things that are happening to him are not consequences of his own evil behavior. He does reprimand Job for being so irreverent, but He also does vindicate him and answers Job’s prayer at the end and restores his reputation, and so there’s a lot of hope in that. I don’t know. I think when we’re desperate the way Job is our theology suffers. I think that’s always the case. So I give him a pretty wide, probably say some pretty profane things too, but there’s a sense that God understands that, reprimands it, but then repays him. It’s one of my favorite books because I think it tells us that God understands a human with limited understanding who doesn’t understand the world or why things are going on the way they do. We cry out to a God begging for purpose in a world that seems senseless and I think Job tells us at the very least, God hears.
Joshua: I think Jesus answers, yeah. Go ahead.
Kurt: So what do you make of some of the comments that Job says accusing God of being unfair, of putting a bullseye on his back, a mark on his back. He’s accusing God of being unjust so what are your thoughts on that?
Joshua: I think those are fair accusations not because God is guilty of anything, but because God’s silence is doing that to Job. The fact that God is not stepping onto the scene and explaining the situation is leaving Job up to the vultures. I mean, by not intervening, by not speaking up for him, God has more or less turned him over to the opinions of humans and that is a violence being done to Job. God’s silence for Job is a violent and an injustice being done to him and I think there are many people who feel that same way even today, that the silence of God is the grossest form of injustice. Now you and I as people of faith who have seen the story of Jesus and have watched how seriously God treats sin and how willing He was to endure the same things He’s asked us to endure, we trust Him in His silence, at least we wrestle to do that, but I think we can certainly understand how God’s silence would be, somebody could interpret that as a violence done against the human race and that’s what Job is complaining about and the great thing for me is God does not strike him down for saying it. He reprimands him, but I think that that is a complaint that God is willing to hear. There’s this great passage in Revelation at the end where it says at the end God says “They will be my people and I will be their God” and I’ve always wrestled around with that, that phrase, because isn’t God already our God? Does He just mean that we’ll be more aware of Him? But I have the sense that maybe God knows that the God we need Him to be, He is not yet for us. I think that one of the great hopes of the new heavens and the new Earth is that the relationship we have longer for with God will be real there, that there’s a sense in which Job’s cry, that God is not speaking, that God is not stepping on him, He’s not vindicating him, he is leaving him out and letting the buzzards pick his bones dry. I think God knows that that’s the experience of most people on Earth and I think, we could debate all day long why He’s decided to do it this way, but I think His promises that He will make it right, it’s kind of like that quote from Joel, the book of Joel, after the locust plague has come through and God says to them, “I will repay the years the locusts have eaten.” I think that is viscerally told in the story of Job, but I think Job’s complaints need to stand. I think that there are some folks that could use Job to be vindicated in their frustration with the way God is governing the world. You and I believe that He will make all things right, but I don’t think any of us will argue that they all feel right to us right now.
Kurt: Yeah. That’s right. Good. Interesting. Before I let you go, we do have a question from a commenter online, Travis, and he says regarding John 3, why not follow the narrative which has baptism before John 3 and baptism after Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus? It seems to me baptism is the entry point into the kingdom, so maybe Travis here thinks that water refers to the act of baptism. How would you respond to that?
Joshua: I would agree that baptism is the entry point into the kingdom, but I think it’s both, I think you have to understand it in two ways. Here on Earth when we are baptized, we do enter into the kingdom, in a sense, but we also will be baptized in death. Remember later on in John, Jesus will call His death, His baptism. I don’t want to jump around too much but James and John ask if they can sit at His right and left hands and He asks “Can you drink the cup that I’m going to drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism I’m going to be baptized with?” They say, “Yes we can.” He says, “That’s true, you will, but who’s going to be at my right and my left is up to God.” That sense that yes, when we are baptized, we do, we almost anticipate our death in baptism and we put our faith in the God who will resurrect us by embodying it in the middle of history, that very same event, so I do think baptism is an entry point into the kingdom, but when we enter it here, we enter into a time between the times as the scholars like to say, a sort of inaugurated eschatology. We enter into this, into the kingdom, but not into the kingdom. We’re in the kingdom, but the new heavens and the new Earth have not come in their fullness, and so it’s an anticipatory entering if that makes sense. It’s like entering the first part of the temple, entering into the most holy place and then upon death entering into the holy of holies. There’s a sense in which this is the first step that anticipates the next step and I think that’s what I’m saying.
Kurt: Gotcha. Thanks for that answer there and Travis, thanks for listening and for engaging with us live here. We appreciate you listening in and engaging with us. Pastor Joshua Johnson, thank you so much for coming on the show today and offering us your, not just your perspective, but telling us about your story, your journey, through dealing with the experiential problem of evil and how that’s led you closer to God and even transformed the way that you’ve related to Him as not so much just these ideas, but as a being, as an agent, as three persons. Thank you for your time and we’d love to bring you on the show again sometime to get into some more core theological debates as we have done, you and I in the past.
Joshua: That’d be great.
Kurt: Take care. God bless you.
Joshua: Thank you and you also.
Kurt: Alright. If you want to get in touch with pastor Joshua Johnson, you can check out his website at shadowofthecross.org and you can check out his book When God Doesn’t Look Like God: A Christian Confrontation with Cancer and Other Evils available there on Amazon.com. You can check that out. Let me move along because we’ve got a question from the mail bag.
Kurt: Alright. Here we’ve got Rick. He emailed in and if you’ve got a comment or question you can email in at any time during the week. The email is Kurt@veracityhill.com. You can just send me an email if you’ve got a comment or question about anything, I’m happy to entertain those comments or answer those questions during this segment of the show and Chris tells me to that he’s made a logo, I don’t know if it’s up right now on the live stream, he says it is, so he says he’s made a nice image. I haven’t even seen it yet, so hopefully it’s a fine-looking piece of graphic design to indicate the mailbag segment. Here it is. Rick. He says here, “If we challenge someone’s disbelief in the historical bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, we can expect an exercise in futility unless we address the underlying and coinciding issues,” and he has a further lengthy message to me but basically, this is the point that he’s making here, that we really need to look at those underlying issues, but let me say this. I think that by challenging someone’s disbelief or rather rejection of the historical Jesus, I think we are actually addressing the underlying and coinciding issues. It’s a great starting point, so I don’t think Rick that we should neglect doing that or thinking we’ve got to first think about but quickly get to those really true issues underneath. I think it really can serve as a stepping stone to talk about those things, so let me give a concrete example here. For example, Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He thinks that we can’t historically know if Jesus was resurrected because historians can’t know if miracles occurred. That’s his reasoning. That’s an a priori philosophical assumption about how to do history. Right away I would say that in talking about and in challenging a person’s interpretation of the resurrection we begin to look at those underlying assumptions. I don’t view them as sort of distinct or kind of, hey, let’s mention this, get that out of the way and let’s talk about the real issue, like the problem of evil or something like that. I think that it can still be very beneficial, but I think you’re generally on the right track there, that the reason why people typically don’t want to believe is because of some other issues that might have happened or are presently going on in their lives. Thanks for submitting that question Rick. I hope that kind of just touches base a little bit, but if it doesn’t and if you disagree keep following up with me. I’d love to keep the conversation going.
That does it for our show today. I am grateful for the continued support of our patrons. Those are folks that just chip in a couple bucks a month and actually let me make a point on this. A couple times a year we’re going to do a small campaign push. Of course the most popular time is the end of the year, end of the year donations, but I think thought that the month of May after people have already paid their taxes and maybe they’ve gotten a rebate, would be a good opportunity, the month of May would be a good opportunity to seek out some pledges from people so we’re going to be increasing our monthly goal to a whopping $400 a month so on the website right now I think it’s $360, so we’re going to up it, I think it’s $40 or something like that a month, so we’re looking for four people to give $10. It’s a small little increase there. If you support the work that we’re doing, or if you have an organization that you’d like to have an advertisement played, our new goal now is going to increase and so we would love to get your support so if you want to become one of our patrons, we would love for you to do that. I hope that this podcast is very edifying for you and you like what we’re doing here. You love the topics. You love the thoughtfulness that we’re providing, the variety of perspectives by bringing on different people. Speaking of which next week as our worldview series, I’ve got an interview for you with a Jewish rabbi. That’ll be interesting. We’re talking about Judaism. Of course, the rabbi couldn’t do the live interview because it’s the Sabbath and so he wasn’t willing to do the interview on the Saturday so we’ve got that recorded for you and that’ll be interesting to see how much commonality between his view and our view as Christians. It’s interesting. Stay tuned for that next week. But yes, a variety of perspectives on the show. We’d love to get your support if you like what you’re bringing here. I’m also grateful for the continued support of our sponsors. Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, The Illinois Family Institute, Evolution 2.0, and Ratio Christi. Thank you to the tech team, Chris, the one-man band over there handling the livestream and what not, the mixer, I appreciate the work that you do and that you bring to the show, thanks so much, and also the peanut gallery comments from time to time to. Thank you for that. And then also special thanks to our guest today, Pastor Joshua Johnson. Thank you so much for sharing your story, and I want to thank you for listening in and for striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.