Suffering: The Tree of Life, Job, and Jesus

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© Ruth Bancewicz

‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them,

a son of man that you care for him?

You made them a little lower than the angels;

you crowned them with glory and honour

and put everything under their feet.’

…But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while,

now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death,

so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Hebrews 2: 6b-8a, 9

Nick Higgs is a marine biologist who studies the explosion of life that happens when a whale dies and its carcass sinks to the sea floor. As a Christian, his view of human suffering and death is formed both by his knowledge of how the created order works, and by his understanding of what Jesus did when he came to earth. Nick shared his perspective at a recent conference organised by Christians in Science, where he had been invited to give the Oliver Barclay lecture – an annual award for an young scientist – and I will share an abbreviated version of his thoughts here.

Nick drew on the themes of Terrence Malik’s film The Tree of Life, which tells the story of a family that lose a son and brother. Malik’s response to the parent’s grief is to spend 17 minutes exploring the origin of the universe, from the first moments of the formation of the universe to the evolution of life on earth. This beautiful and awe-inspiring sequence invokes feelings of spirituality, but a Christian viewer might also twig that Malik is referencing the biblical book of Job.

In response to Job’s questions about why he has been allowed to suffer, God takes him on a quick mental tour of the wonders of the known world in those days, including wild animals, extreme weather, and vast landscapes. The things that invoke awe in us today are different. In his film, Malik has very effectively identified those new touchstones for wonder: the formation of the universe, the planets, the slow march of evolutionary processes and the incredible diversity of life as we know it today.

Whichever set of wonders are used, the message of Job is that we are a small and not terribly powerful part of a very big creation. But when we are in right relationship with the rest of the created order – and its creator – we can find our place, and peace, within it. Malik explores these two strands of life in his film – the way of nature and the way of grace – but does he manage to makes sense of them?

From Nick’s perspective, although not an answer to suffering, scientific knowledge can change our perspective on why bad things happen. His whale studies have shown that death is an inevitable consequence of life, and one that allows other creatures to live. “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust and to dust all return”(Ecclesiastes 3: 19-20, ESV)

If you look at why we get sick, from an evolutionary perspective this is often because our bodies were adapted for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, not the one we experience today. Our bodies are attacked by organisms that evolve faster than we do, and we may be plagued by some of the consequences of otherwise useful evolutionary adaptations – such as the blind spot in our otherwise very wonderful retinas. Some aspects of the way our bodies work protect us from other diseases or disasters, enabling us to reproduce more easily, but leaving us with other legacies that haunt us later in life – such as the heart disease and cancer that wouldn’t have been so much trouble for people that exercised a lot and didn’t live beyond a few decades.

Like the Complementarity Principle in particle physics that tells us an electron has the properties of both a wave and a particle, the way of nature has to be held in tension with the way of grace. God has allowed us to live in a world that causes us physical hardship, suffering, and death, but he loves are cares for each one of us, suffering alongside us in the person of Jesus. The verses from Hebrews at the beginning of this piece capture that tension so well.

‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them,

a son of man that you care for him?

You made them a little lower than the angels;

you crowned them with glory and honour

and put everything under their feet.’

…But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while,

now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death,

so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Jesus is the ultimate revelation of a personal, loving, God. Nick finished his lecture by saying, “In science we see God as the universal creator and orderly sustainer of the world; in Jesus we see the embodiment of God’s love for us. As Christians in Science we are in a unique position: to help fellow Christians understand the ways of God through science and to show others the loving grace of God evidenced in the way of Jesus.”

You can listen to Nick’s lecture in full on the Christians in Science website.

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is Church Engagement Director at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She studied Genetics at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, and spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology in Edinburgh, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth is a trustee of Christians in Science, and a Fellow of their US counterpart – the American Scientific Affiliation.

 

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