It's Monday, our 16 th wedding anniversary. Not that this has anyting to do with the subject of this article. Okay, I'm driving our 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son to school. And as I normally do on school days , the radio is set to a Christian station with Focus On The Family as the program. This morning Dr. James Dobson, the psychologist, best-selling author, and traditional evangelical leader was interviewing Christian music artist Steven Curtis Chapman, the repeated Dove Award winner who has sold more than 10 million records.
For the program of the morning, Steven Curtis Chapman was discussing with Dr. Dobson the recent loss of Steven's adopted daughter Maria Sue. Mr. Chapman described how faith in God has helped his family cope with the tragedy. On May 21, 2008, the little Maria Sue died when her 17-year-old brother Will Franklin ran over her in the family's driveway with an SUV. Maria had just turned 5 on May 13 th.
Steven Curtis narrated how he prayed, seeking to change the forecast of dark cloud that was descending over the Chapman family. He said, "I heard myself praying over and over again all the way to Vanderbilt Hospital, 'In the name of Jesus, breathe life.'" That was the shortened version of the prayer Steven began praying in the driveway as the medical team was working on Maria. Dad kept believing that God was going to breathe life back into his precious girl.
As that awful day unfolded, Steven Curtis prayed some more, "In the holy name, in the worthy name, breathe life. God, I know You can do this. You've breathed life into dead bodies before. I know You can do this … Jesus, breathe life into Maria … God, I'm gonna trust You, I'm gonna bless You even in this. "
Dad had a sense that he was breathing for Maria.
"In my mind, I was preparing myself to go in and pray for Maria to be raised from the dead", Mr. Chapman said as he neared the hospital. "I'm gonna go and bolt the door, and they can come in and call me crazy and say whatever they want to, but I'm gonna pray and just trust that God can raise her back up …"
At that point, Dr. Dobson, perhaps feeling helpless and uncomfortable about the level of pain in his radio guest's voice, gently interrupted Chapman to set the singer straight. You know how Christian musicians some times have a twisted theology, based on a poor knowledge of the Scriptures? Except that in this case, it was not the singer but the doctor who needed a theological fix.
Dr. Dobson told Steven Curtis and the radio audience, "In fact He (God) did, He did, because we know where she is". Not surprisingly, Steven Curtis abandoned his line of what really happened and agreed with Dr. Dobson that "in fact" God did raise Maria from the dead, since the little girl is now at home with the Lord.
"And my son Caleb said it at the memorial service," Steven Curtis continued. "He said, 'God did heal Maria. He answered our prayers for Maria. He healed her, but He did not heal her in the way that we like very much right now …"
So, according to these two Christian men along with Steven's son Caleb, God "in fact" did two things for Maria Sue:
- God raised Maria from the dead.
- God healed Maria of the coma.
Denial theology! That's exactly what that sounds like. That's what it is. Denial theology confirms the charge that so many non-Christians levy against religious people: that we use faith to hide from reality. This is the kind of faith that can not be defended with reason. Thus it portrays our faith as illogical. This kind of religious jargon attracts the label of "blind faith", and it should.
The fact, the truth, the reality is that in May of 2008, a 5-year-old girl named Maria Sue Chapman died. God did not raise her from the dead. If Jesus had breathed life back into her, Maria would physically be a part of the Chapman family today. The truth is that God did not heal Maria Sue of the coma from which she never returned. The reality is that God did not answer the prayers of the Chapmans and the thousands of believers who prayed with them, asking the Lord to preserve little Maria's young life.
We play ostrich to stare such a devastating reality in the face and stick our theological necks in the sand and come away spewing such piety as, "God did raise her to life. God did heal her." We can believe Maria is in Heaven, but that is not the same as her being resurrected or resuscitated. Not recovering from the trauma of coma is not the same as being healed of coma.
Denial theology does not serve the Christian faith well, or any other faith for that matter. It mocks true faith, which keeps on believing and trusting God, even though Maria died, even though Maria was not healed.
Words have meaning, and the words of theology are no exception to the rules of diction. Resurrection means rising from the dead; dying and staying dead can not mean the same thing as being raised back to life. Healing has a meaning, and it does not mean the same as death. Why do we even have to point that out?
As Christians, our theology of pain and suffering should remain rooted in the Scriptures, and the Bible is no book of denial. It features real people, real events, real experiences.
Beginning with the teaching of Jesus Christ, death is spoken of in the New Testament as "sleep". When a believer died, the first-century Christian community would say the person had "fallen asleep". But that "sleep" was a euphemism for death.
Also, the language of sleep underscored the belief that for the Christian death has lost its painful sting; death has become as calm as falling asleep. Furthermore, the sleep imagery summed up the early Christians' hope of resurrection, that the Christian would literally rise from the dead at the end of this age, when Jesus Christ returns to planet earth. Never did the early Christians or the New Testament ever portray the experience of dying and death as healing or as rising from the dead!
The early believers would reject the denial theology that has become so rampant, coming even from the lips of famous Christian leaders. There are many Scriptures we can use to comfort people without resorting to the crude denial of death and disease.
A clergyman recalls how he was tempted to use denial theology as a cheap, watered-down way to comfort a young lady whose baby had died before delivery. He had considered cheap comfort, because he really did not know how to help this young lady. It would have been far better for the minister to keep silent than give the girl some of the cliches that denial theology is famous for.
The grieving mom asked the minister to do a funeral for her stillborn baby. It was the preacher's first time conducting such a funeral, and he has never done one like it ever since. Frankly, the man of God really did not know how exactly to comfort that young woman and somehow ease the pain of her acute grief. Finally, he shared the story of King David and Queen Bathsheba whose baby had died, regardless of the fact that David had prayed and fasted, asking God to spare the life of the innocent infant. Using that biblical account, the minister told the mother and the sympathizers present something like this:
"None of knows why God allowed your innocent baby to die before birth. Our faith in the God of the Bible tells us that there are some things we will not be able to understand or explain in this lifetime. All we Bible believers know for sure is that the human race lives in a fallen world, an imperfect world, and in such a world bad things do happen to innocent people, even to innocent babies like your little one. to continue to believe and trust God in spite of our inability to comprehend such a reality is the essence of true faith. you can still trust God, even though He did not answer your prayer for your baby's life, even though you do not know or understand why your child did not live. "
Does Dr. James Dobson not know this? Of course, he does. After all, Dr. Dobson wrote the book, When God Does not Make Sense, wrestling with the subject of theodicy (the issue of evil in lieu of God's existence). So what are we to make of Dr. Dobson's preference for denial theology in his interview with Steven Curtis Chapman? One can only guess that the lapse was due to the psychology major's well-meaning effort to sympathize with Mr. Chapman and relieve the still fresh memory of the intense grief that Marie Sue's death must have brought upon the Chapman family.
But even at that, Dr. Dobson still came across as a typical denial theologian, who seems to trivialize the mentally demanding question of 'why bad things happen to good people'. Denial theologians tend to throw trite answers at the deep questions of theodicy, the presence of undeserved evil in a world governed by the hands of a sovereign God, a deity whom believers know to be omnipotent (all-powerful and beneficent (good, kind, loving).
There is much hope that denial theology shall not continue to rule the thinking of the faith community. How can we be so sure? Because left to sort out their own experiences in light of their faith, ordinary religious people will express views that resemble realty theology. That was exactly the way Steven Curtis Chapman was narrating his story, until Dr. James Dobson stepped in to save the day. The good doctor should have left Mr. Chapman alone, so he could continue to sort out his very own theology of pain and suffering, rather than stuff him with a loaf of cookie-cutter denial theology.