God’s Green Mile

In The Green Mile (1999 film based on a Stephen King novel by the same name), Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey, an innocent man tried and convicted of murder and sentenced in Louisiana for killing two young girls. He’s on death row awaiting capital punishment. The corrections officers responsible for him all become convinced of his innocence based on Coffey’s humility and the peculiar exercise of an extraordinary God-given gift he possesses. Coffey can feel the innocent suffering of others. The world’s hatred and ugliness enter into his mind and he feels what the suffering feel. He’s also able on occasion to extract the physical sufferings of others and absorb them. For example, one night the officers smuggle Coffey out of prison and take him to the home of the prison warden to treat the warden’s wife who is dying from cancer. Coffey beckons the blackness of her cancer into himself and expels it out into the night air.

But for Coffey this is hardly a “gift.” He longs for death because the weight of the world’s suffering is, he says, “like pieces of glass in my head all the time.” He longs for the rest that death would bring him. Check out the video clip. Pretty cool movie if you haven’t seen it. Dwayne and I have at times discussed the idea of likening Coffey to a suffering God as imagined by the likes of Moltmann, Kazoh Kitamor, or even Greg Boyd.

What got me thinking about the coherence of this view of God’s suffering was a comment one prominent open theist made to me to the effect that “God could be much happier than he now is.” I admit this was my view of God for most of my life. But I was in process at the time, so I asked how that would work. “Well, somebody just died and went to hell the hour we’ve been talking. God grieves that. Hence, God is less happy than he might otherwise be.” The idea is that God’s happiness (let us call it ‘the felt quality of God’s experience’ or, as we prefer using Boyd’s language, God’s “aesthetic satisfaction”), fluctuates depending upon how well the world is doing.

Every instance of benevolence or failure of benevolence in the world increases or diminishes (as the case may be moment by moment) the felt quality of God’s experience, i.e., his happiness. God’s ‘emotional life’ (if we can use the term) is improved or diminished given the relative state of creation. This yields a general formula: Reasons for being happy – reasons for being sad = how happy God is. Makes sense, right? After all, that’s how it works with us, right? Reasons to rejoice – reasons to sorrow = how happy we actually are. John Coffee, mind you, was able to feel both the suffering AND the happiness of the world. His emotional state was simply the difference between reasons he had for being happy minus reasons he had for being sad. Our experience to Coffey’s is similar; but we don’t experience the suffering of others to the depth of emotion equal to those who suffer. But Coffee did. That was his gift. And God, as I understand Moltmann, Boyd, et. al., is a universalized version of Coffey. He feels evil to a depth which not even suffering fallen human beings experience, since their being finite and sinful would diminish their ability to feel the truth of evil. God transcends (in this instance at least!) this created limitation and experiences the world’s suffering infinitely. But in the end, God’s emotional state is still the difference of an equation, between rejoicing over every actual instance of goodness in the world minus sorrowing over every actual failure of such love. None of us has God’s omniscient point of view. His experience would be the ultimate difference. But we do know — so the view goes — that evils actually do diminish the divine happiness. So God is relatively happy, given the up’s and down’s of the world we live in. In the end, we decide how happy God is.

The more I thought about this the less sense it made. More on ‘why’ in the next post. In the meantime, check out The Green Mile.

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