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Is Divine Omnipotence (Non)-Violent?
(Reflections from the Viewpoint of Dramatic)

Autor:Wandinger Nikolaus
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Abstrakt:Omnipotence is one of the classical divine attributes in Christian theology. Modernity, however, has questioned that tenet on several fronts because it seems incompatible with another of God?s attributes ? His goodness ? and the violent atrocities of history. I do not attempt to give a solution to the problem of theodicy. Yet, I reconsider the concept of divine omnipotence by looking at the drama of Jesus' life and death, which ? for Christians ? is the drama of salvation. Utilizing the method of a 'dramatic theology', which supposes real interaction between the divine Lord of history and the human agents of history, I argue that a truly Christian view of divine omnipotence has to conceive of it as non-violent, and as co-operative with human agency. Thus it is also supervening: "haec potentia, quae semper maius facere possit". This challenges us to transform our views of power ? and thus also of divine omnipotence.st
Publiziert in:Jnanadeepa ­ Pune Journal of Religious Studies 8/1 (2005), 50-64
Datum:2005-05-30

Inhalt

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1. Introduction

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Christian tradition – a tradition certainly formed and developed in a predominantly European cultural horizon – counts omnipotence among the divine attributes. And there are good reasons for this view. However, the concept of a God who can do everything He wants to do, was also seen as problematic. Historical experiences of crimes against humanity – perpetrated by humanity – led to a more urgent posing of the question of theodicy: If God is omnipotent and still permits these atrocities to occur, can He still be good? Should He not intervene – even violently, if necessary? On the other hand, the conception of a violent God has terrified generations of believers. Is there a theological guideline to decide the question and minimize the danger of falling prey to our own projections and fears? I will try to develop a Christian conception of divine omnipotence by utilizing the approach of Dramatic Theology as the desired guideline. This approach has been developed in Innsbruck, initiated and foundations laid by our late Dean Fr. Raymund Schwager SJ, but is now carried on by many of his students, including myself.

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Dramatic Theology understands revelation not as linear but as unfolding in a dramatic, conflictive process that develops through several stages, or acts. Each act thereby shows a different perspective on the whole of salvation history, and we humans cannot attain a quasi-divine overview; however, by looking back from the end of the drama, we can distinguish the meanings of the acts preceding it and come to a more unified and integrated perspective. Dramatic theology also takes very seriously that humans are real agents in the drama of revelation and of salvation and God respects that by entering into a real dialog with them.

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For the Christian theologian the whole of that history is condensed in the drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It contains the drama of salvation history and represents it in a real-symbolic way. Therefore the end of the Jesus drama already allows us to discern the meaning of the whole drama of salvation history.

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2. Looking at the Drama of Jesus' Life and Death

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Schwager interprets Jesus' life from the beginning of his public ministry to the coming of the Spirit as a drama consisting of five acts. Act One is constituted by Jesus' message of the kingdom of God, the Basileia. Act Two shows his discussions and arguments with the religiously powerful of his time, in which Jesus resorts to the language of conflict and uses parables of judgment. Act Three tells the events of his trial and execution. Act Four shows what the resurrection means for Christ, the believers, and the world. And finally Act Five is the situation that still exists today: between the coming of the Spirit and the second coming of Christ.

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One of the results of Schwager's analysis is that this drama is a process of clarifying and darkening, veiling and unveiling the right image of God. That image is shown in the purest way in Jesus' message of the Basileia, in his words and deeds in the First Act. However, his adversaries were not able to accept an all-forgiving God and therefore they had good reason to be Jesus' adversaries. They did not persecute him out of base motives, but because they were convinced that he really was of the devil, meaning that he was distorting God's image. Thus, putting Jesus to death was merely being consistent with their image of God. If the drama ended here, we would not know who was right about God. However, in raising Jesus God decides in his favor. The resurrection shows that Jesus' view of God is the right one. In order to keep Jesus' ministry going the Holy Spirit is sent and the new community, the Church, formed. However, this community bears with it the essentials of all five acts, so the Church is not free from false images of God or conflict, but it has come out of the process of discerning them from the true God, and thus is able, guided by the Sprit, to do so ever again.

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So far, the short version of the drama. Now let us take a second look at it from different perspectives, focusing on our question about divine omnipotence and its relation to violence or non-violence.

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3. Divine Omnipotence in the Drama of Salvation

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3.1 Jesus Teaching on God's Power

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A first perspective would ask about what Jesus says about the power of his heavenly Father. It looks at Jesus as a human being and asks what he reveals in his words about God. It seems that Jesus presupposes and teaches something akin to the doctrine of divine omnipotence: In urging his listeners to trust into God's guidance and protection, he tells them that nothing can happen to them without God's will, that even every single hair is accounted for by God's providence (cf. Mt 10:30 par.). Also in accepting his own way of suffering Jesus maintains his firm belief that the Father could spare him, if He wanted to: In rejecting the disciple's violent defense by the sword, he expresses his conviction that if he asked his Father, "He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels" (Mt 26:53). In his moving prayer in the Garden of Gethsemani, Jesus also expresses his trust in the Father's omnipotence: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will." (Mk 14:36). So from a first perspective we can summarize: Jesus is convinced of the Father's unlimited power; nevertheless he accepts that the Father does not change things. Neither does he pose the question of theodicy in the modern sense. On the contrary, he trustingly succumbs to what he recognizes as the Father's will.

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Yet there is what you could call a biblical version of the question of theodicy: It is Jesus' outcry on the cross: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Mt 27:46). Of course, we know that this is the beginning of Psalm 22, which ends on a very positive note. Nevertheless, we can assume that the feelings of being forsaken, which the Psalm expresses, really are Jesus' feelings at the moment, as the rest of the Psalm also reflects his feelings and his faith.

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3.2 Jesus Living God's Power

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A second perspective would take Christology into account. Christ here is not only seen as a human being, he is the son of God, who always acts in unity with the Father. That means that not only his talk about God reveals who God is, but even more so his deeds, therefore also his behavior in his passion, death and resurrection. The Christian dogma of the incarnation does have fundamental revelatory significance: Whatever Jesus says or does and how he behaves in his suffering, his words, deeds, and behavior reflect, from an earthly perspective and situation, what the heavenly Father is like. What can we conclude from that?

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In a first step we see Jesus partaking in the Father's omnipotence, curing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving sins. He even dares his followers to do the same: "Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, […] if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,' it will be done." (Mt 21:21) So also other humans could partake in God's divine power, if they had faith. At the same time, however, this reminds us that even Jesus' power of healing and exorcising found its limits in the lack of faith of his contemporaries. People in his home town of Nazareth had too little faith, and Mark summarizes: "Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief." (Mark 6:5f.) So, what seemed a power indifferent to the forces of nature, turns out to find its limitation in unbelief – or as we might say in human resistance.

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Then – in the second act of the drama – we see a Jesus who identifies himself with the Son of Man, with a judge, and talks about powerful and violent ends for those who refuse his message. It seems that the divine power Jesus represents is not willing to allow this resistance of unbelief to stop its work, and it seems that it is about to break that resistance violently. There are many parables of judgment but I want to remind you specifically of the parable of the wicked vinedressers: To these a vineyard was rented by its owner, but when he sends his servants to collect his due, they are chased away or even killed. Finally he sends his beloved son, but the vinedressers murder him because he is the heir, so as to have everything for themselves. And now, eventually, even this gentle and patient Lord gets angry: "He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others" (Mark 12:9).

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If this is a parable about Jesus' being killed by the religious establishment of Israel and the reaction of his heavenly Father to that, it does indeed talk of divine power and it does so in very violent terms. But does the parable correctly reflect the divine reaction to Jesus' killing?

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3.3 Jesus Dying and God's Power

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To judge that we need to take into account Jesus' behavior in his passion and the resurrection. Jesus' behavior is one of non-violence. I already mentioned that he stopped the disciple who drew his sword. It is surprising, however, that he did so not because, in the face of an overwhelming enemy, resistance was futile; he did so with the assurance that his heavenly Father could stop all that, if He wanted to, but he would not ask for it, because it happened according to the Father's will. So Jesus did not give his own powerlessness as a reason for abstaining from violent resistance, but the Father's all-powerfulness. The same applies to his prayer on the Mount of Olives. This leaves us with a very unpleasant possibility: Maybe this God is violent after all, but for some reason His violence is directed against His own son – an interpretation with a wide acceptance in the history of Christianity. However, Innsbruck Dramatic Theology does not adhere to this interpretation and I will argue for a different one soon.

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Another important action by Jesus is his prayer for his persecutors on the cross (cf. Lk 23:34). In it he renounces all thoughts or feelings of hate and vindictiveness against his persecutors and asks the heavenly Father to do so as well. So here Jesus prays for an ending to his story that is very different from the ending of the parable of the wicked vinedressers. He does not want to be avenged by his Father, he asks for forgiveness for his killers. To see whether his prayer was answered, we have to look from yet another perspective: we have to view the drama with the eyes of Easter, looking back from the resurrection of Jesus and deciphering what it says about the Father's activity.

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3.4 Jesus Rising in God's Power

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Inspired by the first letter of Peter we interpret Easter as the Father's verdict against Jesus' persecutors. "When He [Jesus] was reviled, [He] did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Petr 2:23). His judgment is made known by the Risen One. And the message he brings to his disciples – who are those disciples that denied and abandoned him in the hour of darkness – is: "Peace be with you" (John 20:19). The verdict of the heavenly Father is – again – forgiveness and peace, not revenge and punishment. And this verdict is not only applicable to the disciples, who – however weak they were, did not kill Jesus –, but to all who convert to Jesus, as the disciples themselves prove quite soon, when they use the statement "you have taken [Jesus] by lawless hands, have crucified, and put [him] to death" (Acts 2:23) not as an accusation but as the introduction for the message of forgiveness and the call to conversion (cf. Acts 2:38).

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Thus the Easter-verdict of the Father is a two-fold message: By raising Jesus from the dead He vindicates Jesus' view of Himself: He is a loving and caring God whose direct activity has only limits in human unbelief and resistance. Yet by sending the risen one to his fallen disciples with a renewed message of forgiveness the Father shows that indeed He is not willing to allow resistance and unbelief to stop His work of salvation, but He does not break that resistance violently. Rather, by following human sinners into their deepest self-isolation, as Jesus has done on the cross, He acts indirectly and opens up a new opportunity for conversion. Thus God overcomes the resistance against His kingdom, yet he does so non-violently: His power frees Jesus from the realms of death and restores him to life; but it does not retaliate against those who put him to death but opens up new hope to them (cf. Schwager 1999, 136). We could call this God's omnipotence, yet calling it God's supervening power would be more apt. It is supervening because it does not directly break the resistance it encounters but overcomes it by surprising developments on a higher level. Borrowing and adapting a phrase from St. Anselm of Canterbury, we could say: God's power is that power which is capable of the ever greater work (haec potentia, quae semper maius facere possit). This is synonymous with omnipotence, on the one hand, on the other hand it stresses that God's omnipotence is not exerted in a static, linear way, but that it responsively supervenes on acts of resistance against itself. Thus this expression is more fitting to the dialogical character of salvation history.

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We have now two problems remaining: Why would Jesus tell a parable like that of the wicked vinedressers, if the Father's verdict is different from that? And what is it to mean that the cross was God's will? If we cannot answer these, we don't have a consistent picture.

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3.5 Damnation and God's Power

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The first question can be answered by the function and meaning of the second act in the drama of Jesus' life. All the parables of judgment and of damnation belong to that act. It is conspicuous that this is the only act in which Jesus appears to talk about a violent and vindictive God – all other acts are distinguished by the image of a loving, benign, and forgiving Father. Raymund Schwager's dramatic model therefore suggests that Jesus does not convey his own convictions about God in the second act; he rather mirrors his opponents' (i.e. sinners') image of God and shows them its ultimate consequence: hell. Jesus does not mean: My Father will kill the vinedressers; rather he warns: If God were as you conceive of Him, he would do this. By his own non-violent behavior in his passion, he embodies the divine non-violent behavior. By his prayer for forgiveness on the cross, he does not persuade a wrathful Father to be lenient, rather he reveals that God is forgiving firsthand.

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In this context it is interesting to note that Matthew has a somewhat different version of the parable of the wicked vinedressers: Contrary to Mark and Luke, in Matthew it is not Jesus but his listeners who announce that the owner will kill the evil tenants. Thus Matthew verbally expresses what our interpretation suggests. Also in other parables belonging to the second act it is always the rules and reasoning of the condemned or punished themselves that are made the rules and reasoning of the Lord condemning them. If they adhered to Jesus' advice and did not judge, they would not be judged (cf. Mat 7:1) and condemned. Thus Schwager can summarize:

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"People should not fear judgment, despite their weakness, as long as they take notice of this one thing: ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; release one another from debt, and your debt will also be forgiven' (Luke 6:37). Whenever people […] remain trapped in the norms of payment and repayment, […] they hand themselves over to a process of judgment, based on repayment and payment down to the last penny. As each of us is a debtor, no one can endure this process; the demand for repayment becomes ever greater and at the end of this escalating process can only be hell." (Schwager 1999, 67)

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Seen in this light the judgment parables all make sense, because they warn people of a real danger: that they are preparing hell for each other and thus also for themselves, if they do not convert their view of God. These parables do not become obsolete by Schwager's interpretation; on the contrary they become very realistic and frightening indeed. Yet: it is not God who frightens, it is not God who condemns, it is human persons themselves that throw each other and themselves into hell, exactly if and when God does not intervene, and leaves them to their own devices.

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Yet God does intervene. But even here His intervention is not overpowering and violent – if it were, it would only corroborate the wrong image of God that sinners (we all) hold. God's intervention is Jesus' words of warning and his deed of salvation on the cross. So even the second act, which at first glance presented a violent God to us, does not do so on closer analysis: it is a perverted image of God that is violent. God, however, permits the consequences of that image to unfold. He even permitted these consequences to crush His beloved son in order to save us from them.

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3.6 The Cross as the Will of the Father

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This leads directly to our second question: Why or in what sense was Jesus' suffering the will of the Father? From what we have said so far, there appears a clear answer to that. Jesus' adversaries respond to his warnings by increasing their rejection and putting him to death. How is one to convey the message of a benign and non-violent God in this situation? By having Him crush one's opponents? By climbing down from the cross? Hardly.

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By suffering what they inflict upon oneself in loving forgiveness, by literally bearing their sin on the cross and by still forgiving them? This could be a way, if one could survive it, but that is not possible. And a dead victim cannot forgive.

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However, what if this victim were raised from the dead by the non-violent heavenly Father and could bring the Father's and his own forgiveness to the world which treated him so badly? This would be a way out. In this reading, Jesus' suffering is not some value in itself, as if suffering were something God enjoyed or demanded in order to forgive. Suffering is merely the consequence of evil, sinful human actions. And Christ's suffering is salvific because he endured these consequences without hate, without wrath, without vindictiveness and without accusation – against the human persecutors or the divine Father – and this way opened up a renewed chance to turn around to God. He bore human sins, human violence, with love, with forgiveness and with hope and trust in the all-powerful giver of life. It was the will of the Father that Jesus endure this because it was THE way to save humanity the non-violent way.

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Thus we can also reject the idea that Christ's salvation consists in taking upon himself the suffering that a vindictive God otherwise would have imposed on sinners. It is not God who wants suffering. It is sinners who cause suffering, and God indeed does permit it, even permits it to hit His son.

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We are now in a position to rethink our notion of divine omnipotence, and in rethinking it we have to keep in mind that "the concept of power in its application to God needs to be criticized by means of the crucified one's nonviolence and powerlessness" (Schwager 1999, 205).

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4. Rethinking Power and Omnipotence

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One extreme measure of doing this would be, of course, do deny divine omnipotence. However, this would not only contradict a long Christian tradition (which, of course, could turn out to be culturally prejudiced), it would also contradict the image of God that Jesus taught and lived and for which he died, according to our biblical analysis – and this goes to the core of Christianity.

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Jesus' non-violent way of the cross was exactly founded on and made possible by his strong faith in God's supervening power. Only a powerful and mighty God can justify a trust that enables one to give up one's own life for one's enemies. "To sacrifice one's life for one's own group and in aggressive polarization of enemies is a possibility that does not demand too much of human beings, as history and the so-called ‘heroic' deeds of many combatants and warriors show. […] Things completely change, though, when it is a matter of not striking back against an aggressor and risking one's own life nonviolently for others and even for the enemy. There is no spontaneous impulse to this kind of act, indeed the whole spontaneous will to live speaks against it, as human experience and Jesus' anxiety on the Mt. of Olives before his death show." (Schwager 2005, end of ch. 3 = Schwager 2004, 120)

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The consistent message of Jesus' drama was that divine power is creative, it is life-giving, and in that it has no boundaries. At the same time however, this power did not – or could not? – overcome human refusal in the form of unbelief or rejection. If we said "could not", we would really make God's power dependent on human actions, something that again runs counter to a long tradition. If we say "did not", we again stand before the problem of theodicy: can we call a God good and responsible who could intervene in the catastrophes His creatures bring about, yet does not? Is there a way out of this dilemma?

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Not unless we change our conception of God's exercise of power and of His intervention. The drama of Jesus challenges us to convert these notions. God indeed intervened: He sent His son, who clearly showed us the power of his divine Father as benign and life-giving. When this did not succeed, He resulted to warning us about the grave consequences of our exercise of power: a world full of violence. For all have been victimized and therefore all can rightfully demand retribution; but also all have victimized others and therefore they will rightfully become targets of retribution. When this still did not succeed but led to violence against the warner, God's supervening power revealed itself in strengthening an innocent human being to endure persecution, torture, unjust conviction and death without hate, without feelings of revenge, but with trust and hope and forgiveness. This, in fact, seems to me the miracle before the miracle of the resurrection: Jesus could love his enemies while they hated him. And again this divine intervention is not violently overwhelming, yet its power of love overcomes human resistance by subverting it, by proving it wrong in an ultimate, irreversible way, as Schwager explains:

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"Whoever offers his life when under the attack of enemies makes an implicit statement about the tendencies of those who slay him. They feel they are threatened and seize upon preventive violence. But the nonviolent one shows clearly by his conduct that he is certainly no enemy; indeed, his loving surrender of his life reveals that though being perceived as attacking those who persecute and kill him, he wills only the good for them. […] For in attacking, the persecutors always risk their own lives as well, whereas the nonviolent, by not retaliating, protects the life of his enemies. So the free act of the nonviolent one is more in accord with the actual will to life of the violent than the latter in their ostensible freedom. This self-giving aims at separating in the perpetrators of violence their deeper intention from their aggressive impulses and at strengthening and redirecting the former. […] In this way we can somewhat clarify how Jesus' surrender of his life redeems sinners. Through his loving nonviolence he came nearer to his enemies and to all sinners than they are to themselves." (Schwager 2005, end of chp. 3 = Schwager 2004, 122f.)

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Jesus' ability to do so is due to the divine power that we rightly call all-encompassing. This power also raised him from death to life and that way corroborated his view of God and also his view of God's supervening omnipotence.

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One may question, whether I really escaped the dilemma. Could God intervene violently? Absolutely speaking, He could. But from Jesus' definitive revelation we know that He does not exercise His power in a violent way. The result of our analysis of the Drama of Jesus is: God's omnipotence is exercised in a non-violent, supervening way. Its direct exercise is the giving of life. When confronted with active human resistance, it becomes indirect, what we called supervening, enabling the faithful to subvert that kind of resistance non-violently. It becomes therefore invisible to the normal human view. If this was the case even when His son was murdered, this will be so under all circumstances, for theologically the killing of the son of God is the ultimate sin. If God intervened violently, He would contradict His own self-revelation.

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Is it conceivable that God intervenes violently and in doing so shows himself as benign? When we are certain as to who the good guys are and who the bad, we tend to affirm that. Yet, part of Jesus' message was to show that all human persons are also bad guys, that violent divine intervention, if it occurred, would hit all. And when we consider that, we become unsure.

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And yet, what about theodicy? At least what about those people that suffer and in their suffering start to doubt God's love and power, and start to despair because of God's apparent silence and non-intervention?

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I think we cannot answer their existential question with theoretical treatises. This would be arrogant, even cynical. If it is posed existentially and not theoretically, it can only be answered existentially, and only by God's life-giving power. When Jesus cried out his cry of forsakenness on the cross, he – like the victims of all times – did not immediately receive an answer. But he was granted to keep his faith and trust. The thought that after the resurrection Jesus would recall his loneliness on the cross and ask his Father "Now tell me, why had you forsaken me back then?" simply makes no sense. It makes no sense because the existential situation that prompted it has been overcome and healed, in a sense it has been dissolved. In a similar way all victims of human history may hope that their desperation is overcome and existentially dissolved, although we have no theoretical answer for their question.

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5. Bibliography:

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All biblical quotations from BibleWorks for Windows. Big Fork, MT, 1996, New King James translation.

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Gnilka, J. (1988) Das Matthäusevangelium, 2. Teil. Kommentar zu Kap. 14,1-28,20 und Einleitungsfragen. Freiburg - Basel – Wien: Herder.

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Schwager, R. (1999): Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption. Trans. J. G. Williams & P. Haddon (Ger.: Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erlösungslehre). New York: Crossroad.

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Schwager, R. (2004): Erbsünde und Heilsdrama. Im Kontext von Evolution, Gentechnologie und Apokalyptik (Beiträge zur mimetischen Theorie 4). Münster: LIT, second edition.

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Schwager, R. (2005): Banished from Eden: Original Sin and Evolutionary Theory in the Drama of Salvation. London: Gracewing forthcoming. Translation of Schwager 2004.

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