I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

On the shores of the Lethe: is oblivion the best we can do in addressing the problem of evil?

I am reading through Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Wolf. I have previously written about the introductory chapter, and I will have more to say about the book as a whole. In general, my impression is that Volf is casting Christ’s teachings about forgiveness, reconciliation, and repentance in the language of modern and post-modern philosophy, and responding to the challenges to the Christian message posed by those systems.

There is a lot to praise in the book, and I will come to those points in subsequent posts. I am finding the chapter on embrace to be of uneven quality, however. In particular, Volf posits that in the final redemption suffering will be eliminated through… choosing not to remember suffering. This strikes me as such an odd claim to make that I would be considerably less confident in making it if Volf hadn’t made the point so clearly:

In a nutshell, my argument is this: since no final redemption is possible without the redemption of the past, and since every attempt to redeem the past through reflection must fail because no theodicy can succeed, the final redemption is unthinkable without a certain kind of forgetting. Put starkly, the alternative is: either heaven or the memory of horror. Either heaven will have no monuments to keep the memory of the horrors alive, or it will be closer to hell than we would like to think. For if heaven cannot rectify Auschwitz, then the memory of Auschwitz must undo the experience of heaven. Redemption will be complete only when the creation of “all things new” is coupled with the passage of “all things old” into the double nihil of nonexistence and nonremembrance. Such redemptive forgetting is implied in a passage in Revelation about the new heavens and the new earth. “Mourning and crying and pain” will be no more not only because “death will be no more” but also because “the first things have passed away” (21:4)-from experience as well as from memory, as the text in Isaiah from which Revelation quotes explicitly states: “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”.

(NB: I’m reading on a Kindle and don’t have easy access to page numbers for a proper citation; I imagine a Google Books search will produce a page number for you if you really need it.)

Let me get one thing out of the way: Volf is preoccupied with victims’ rights and is quick to qualify elsewhere that in the present time we must not forget, and that even in the final redemption, nonremembering will be voluntary. Volf is not in the least susceptible to the charge of trying to erase victims’ sufferings. The victims will forget of their own initiative.

So on to the real point. Is the final redemption only possible if we not only cease to suffer, but choose not to remember that we or others have suffered? Volf says so:

For ultimately, forgetting the suffering is better than remembering it, because wholeness is better than brokenness, the communion of love better than the distance of suspicion, harmony better than disharmony.

There’s a lot packed into that, but what I would draw attention to is: “forgetting the suffering is better than remembering it, because wholeness is better than brokenness”. If I’m not completely misunderstanding these passages, the basic idea is that it’s impossible for evil to be redeemed to the emotional satisfaction of the victim. The best we can hope for is lethean oblivion, where we simply choose not to think about certain things – some sort of supernaturally-enabled neurotic repression.

I find this to be reprehensible and completely anti-Christian. To me it is a basic article of faith that redemption is possible – redemption rather than annihilation. Volf seems to believe in annihilation of experiences, rather than their redemption. And this is not through ignorance of the biblical text, of course. Of the two passages in the New Testament that can really address theodicy as we think of it, Volf goes to Romans.

In what strikes one as an “anti-theodicy” of sorts-an abandonment of all speculative solutions to the problem of suffering-the Apostle Paul writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). The logic is as simple as it is profound. If something is not worth comparing, then it will not be compared, and if it will not be compared then it will not have been remembered. For how would one fail to compare suffering with glory if one remembered the suffering while experiencing the glory? When we reach the other side and the bridge connecting the new to the old is destroyed so as to prevent the old from ever invading the new, the last part of the bridge to disappear will be the memory of the old.

The logic is sound but the premises are not, specifically this one: “if it will not be compared then it will not have been remembered”. It’s simply not true that everything that isn’t compared will be forgotten. (The incomparability of Star Trek: First Contact with any of the other TNG movies has no bearing on whether we can remember the other movies… though I’m not saying that in that particular case oblivion wouldn’t be preferable!)

But what Paul is actually saying is that the glory to come is not worthy of comparison with our present sufferings. As in, the Zimbabwean dollar is not worthy of being compared with the American dollar. Both are real, but their relative values are so disproportionate as to make comparison laughable.

Setting aside that the meaning of Romans 8:18 is being twisted in that passage, I think it is pastorally significant to note that Paul wrote that passage both as victim and perpetrator. He had presided over at least one death, and had also of course suffered considerably at the hands of various parties. He was walking around with a lot of dark memories. The problem of suffering is a theoretical problem for someone like me, but not for someone like Paul. I think his faith in the incommensurate nature of our present sufferings and our future glory is credible as a personal conviction.

Do I have it worked out? No. Do I read The Brothers Karamazov with an answer to Ivan Karamazov burning in the back of my mind? No. And if Ivan Karamazov multiplied examples of brutality nearly to the point of voyeurism, it is similarly easy in a discussion like this to become dismissive of suffering in the extreme. But being fairly young, I can look back on painful experiences of the past (emotional or physical), remembering the pain, but feeling no pain in the present. That kind of experience gives me heuristic confidence to believe that some final redemption is possible.

In a more lighthearted vain, how should we imagine the heroes of our faith talking about their lives in the Resurrection, with all of the sufferings stripped out?

  • Polycarp of Smyrna. “I was on a journey heading eastward – I can’t think why right now, but all my friends were trying to stop me – and then I was going into an arena, and… Huh. That’s as much as I can remember.”
  • Maximilian Kolbe: “I remember I had a lot of guests at the time, thousands even. I can only imagine they were going to a convention. Then there was a knocking on my door at night… I don’t remember anything else.”
  • Alan Paton: “I was a school teacher, and then I did some other work that I can’t quite remember, and I wrote a book that became quite famous (about what, I couldn’t say), and then it seemed like there were a bunch of meetings after that. What could we have been talking about?”

All to say, we do not now understand how all of the suffering in the world will be redeemed. It is painfully easy to produce examples of sufferings that appear to be unredeemable (or at least, unredeemed). But that’s not the same as saying that no suffering has been redeemed. The examples above, I hope, show that even in our relatively narrow historical perspective, we can see the benefit of the suffering of people like Polycarp, and we can also see how suffering provided the context for the Christian service of people like Kolbe and Paton.

One final thought from Volf. This sentence is taken from the beginning of the discussion, and while he takes it in a different direction from what I would have, it is a helpful warning against trying to fit everything into a system.

The problem of suffering, whether past or present, cannot be addressed as a speculative question.


The original version alluded incorrectly to the Styx as the mythological river of forgetfulness. It also referred to The Grand Inquisitor in the context of theodicy, which was wrong. (The Grand Inquisitor is actually quite a good story, and separate from what Ivan had to say about the problem of evil.)


  1. In recent memory I’ve always been of the camp that says no thing can be truly good without an evil to compare it to – thus the idea that the glory of heaven exists completely isolated from the trials and tribulations of life seems in my mind to imply a false glory.

    If all we can remember in heaven is heaven then how does that not become simply a new norm of existence?

  2. adamb924

    October 30, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    Certainly it is difficult to imagine a world without suffering, and I cannot imagine reflecting back on this world from the perspecive of the Resurrection without remembering suffering. Before the Fall we knew only goodness, and if the Fall had not occurred, we would still know only goodness. All the same, it is important to remember that the world was created good, and that evil is a subsequent perversion of that good. And “perversion” is the right word, because evil doesn’t have any existence of it’s own; it’s only a corruption of creation (or the absence of goodness, privatio boni). Being firmly convinced of that, however, I have to confess that it’s only in rare moments that I am able to imagine what a purely good world would be like. (Perelandra helps – though of course that book only has a plot because sin entered the world.)

  3. It seems to me that there cannot be true reconciliation and forgiveness without remembering. I think that even the most terrible experiences can be redeemed by God. The Jewish/Christian concept of the resurrection seems to provide for this; God promises to restore all things and wipe away every tear.

    I visited Auschwitz in 1984 in the company of a Polish believer who survived it. He certainly had a testimony of redemption.

    Also, if you forget the experiences that made you the man you are are you still the man you were before you forgot?

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