I recently saw a movie called “Do You Believe?” The plot essentially addressed human suffering and the question “Where is God when innocent people suffer and life falls apart?”
At the beginning of the movie, a Protestant minister of indeterminate denomination is sitting in his car when he notices a man carrying a life-sized cross down the street. The cross-carrying man approaches the minister and asks if the minister believes in the power of the Cross of Christ. This gets the minister thinking, and he decides to deliver his next Sunday sermon on the matter.
At this point, I was very excited and intrigued. I thought, “It’s high time a Christian film addressed the problem of human suffering in the light of a good and loving God.” I eagerly waited to see how this would unfold over the course of the film.
So the Sunday arrived for the delivery of the minister’s sermon. I expected to hear something about how the Cross is a sign that God walks with us in suffering, that He loves us through our suffering, that suffering can be redemptive when joined to the suffering of Christ.
Alas, I was disappointed. The point of the sermon was essentially that when someone embraces the Cross of Christ, his or her suffering comes to an end. Christ suffered so we won’t have to.
This was borne out by the remainder of the film, which covered the stories of several down-and-out characters. The minister and his wife suffer the grief of not being able to have children. They take a single, pregnant woman under their wing. There are also a mother and daughter who had been rendered homeless by the death of the husband and father of the family; they meet up with a very devout man who offers them a place to stay. He also happens to be dying of a terminal illness. Well what do you know – at the end of the film, everyone gets what they want. The pregnant woman dies in childbirth, leaving her baby to the minister and his wife. The mother and daughter find good people willing to help them find work and a place to live, leading the little girl to proclaim “See Mommy? God really does love us!”
I can’t emphasize enough how utterly damaging this kind of thing is to real Christian belief. The moral of the story is that God loves people who get stuff. It’s the Gospel of Prosperity run wild. The end of our suffering is proof of God’s love? The suggestion is that God doesn’t love us while we suffer, then changes His mind and loves us when our suffering is all done. Getting what we want is proof that God loves us. That kind of capriciousness is characteristic of pagan deities, but not of the Christian God.
A film, sermon, book, or whatever that claims to examine the meaning of the Cross of Christ must acknowledge that human suffering is redemptive when it is intentionally made a sharing in Christ’s own suffering. Participation in the Cross doesn’t let us off the hook for suffering; it gives us the strength to endure the suffering this crooked world inflicts on us. We suffer with Christ; we don’t get out of suffering because He suffered. But it’s to be expected that a film made by evangelicals, whose atonement theology holds that Christ is a substitute, would present the idea that Christ suffered so we won’t have to; therefore embracing the Cross ultimately means not suffering at all. The Catholic view of participation in Christ’s sufferings is radically different.