Suffering and the Biblical Story
Dr. Robert Peterson
[Dr. Peterson is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. This article is related to the weekend mini-course that Dr. Peterson presented through the Richmond Study Center on suffering and the resurrection May 23-25, 2010. It is taken from his book Suffering and the Goodness of God, which Dr. Peterson co-edited with Chris Morgan, professor of theology and associate dean of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University.]
We are all acquainted with suffering. For us to get a handle on suffering we must view it from Scripture’s perspective and not merely from our own. That means that we must consider it in light of the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
CREATION AND SUFFERING
Understanding Genesis’s teaching about God’s creation sheds light on our understanding of suffering in two important and related ways. First, we discover that suffering is not something created or authored by God. Rather, God created a good universe and good human beings. Second, we learn that there was a time when there was no suffering. Suffering is not original; it has not always existed.
Suffering is not created by God.
Genesis 1-2 shows the Creator to be transcendent, sovereign, personal, immanent, and good. God’s goodness is displayed in his turning the chaos into something good—the heavens and the earth. His goodness is even more clearly reflected in the goodness of his creation, evidenced by the steady refrain, “And God saw that it was good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), a goodness accentuated on the sixth day: “Behold, it was very good” (1:31). God’s generous provisions of light, land, vegetation, and animals are blessings given for man’s benefit, as are the abilities to know God, work, marry, and procreate. God blesses man with the Sabbath, places him in the delightful garden of Eden, gives him a helper, and establishes only one prohibition, given not to squelch man but to promote his welfare.
The conclusion is clear: God is good and did not create suffering or evil. He created a good world for the good of his creatures. Humans too were created good and blessed beyond measure, being made in God’s image, with an unhindered relationship with God, and with freedom. As a result, casting blame for suffering on the good and generous God is unbiblical and unfounded.
Suffering has not always existed.
A related but distinct principle we learn from the biblical account of creation is that suffering has not always existed. From a theological standpoint, God’s creation of the universe out of nothing shows that he alone is independent, absolute, and eternal. Everything else has been created. Further, the inherent goodness of creation leaves no room for a fundamental dualism between spirit and matter. Contrary to some philosophical and religious traditions, the Bible teaches that matter is a part of God’s creation and is good.
From a historical standpoint, the story of creation unmistakably recounts that there was a time when there was no suffering. Suffering is not original. Indeed, the very fact that our world now includes suffering testifies that it is not now the way it was, and therefore, as Cornelius Plantinga helpfully states, “it is not the way it is supposed to be.”1
THE FALL AND SUFFERING
Suffering and sin were not a part of God’s original good creation. But they are surely a big part of human life today. To understand why things are not the way they’re supposed to be we must consider the fall. The biblical account of the Fall helps us understand suffering in three important ways. First, we see that suffering is a consequence of sin. Second, we learn that suffering is not natural to God’s good creation but is an intruder. Third, we realize that suffering contains an element of mystery.
Suffering is a consequence of the Fall.
God is the author of neither sin nor suffering. He creates a good world and good human beings who reflect his goodness. Henri Blocher wisely warns, “We cannot be too radical here. The perfect goodness of God’s creation rules out the tiniest root, seed, or germ of evil.”2 Suffering is not a part of God’s creation, but rather a byproduct of sin, as Carson states so clearly:
Between the beginning and the end of the Bible, there is evil and there is suffering. But the point to be observed is that from the perspective of the Bible’s large-scale story line, the two are profoundly related: evil is the primal cause of suffering, rebellion is the root of pain, sin is the source of death.3
Genesis 3 makes it clear that as sin enters through Adam so do its consequences—estrangement from God, shame, alienation from others, suffering, banishment, and death. Paul in Romans 5:12-21 confirms this: sin entered the world through one man’s sin, and condemnation and death through sin.
On a cosmic scale, therefore, all suffering is an effect of the Fall.4 Indeed, because we live in this fallen world, we will suffer and “reap sin’s consequences in the home, the workplace, and the cemetery.”5
Suffering is an intruder.
As a consequence of sin, suffering is also an intruder into God’s good creation. Michael Williams observes: “By beginning with the story of creation rather than the Fall, Scripture proclaims categorically that sin is an intruder. It is not the product of God’s creativity. It does not belong.”6 Sin is not the only intruder, but its evil children—suffering and death—have intruded as well.
We intuitively know this but often do not consider its significance. When we encounter suffering, something inside us often cries out: “This is wrong! The world should not be like this! Children should not be abused, senior adults should not get Alzheimer’s, missionaries should not be tortured!” Or on a more personal level, we might protest: “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Such instincts are valid because they recognize that this world is not the way it is supposed to be. We know this when we consider sin; we know to hate rape, murder, bigotry, and child abuse. We oppose sin and refuse to be at ease with it. In the same way, we are not to be comfortable with the reality of suffering (although we are to be at peace with God in the midst of it) and should do our best to alleviate it.7 Like sin, suffering is an intruder and cannot be welcomed as natural.8 The horror of suffering’s intrusion points to the horror of sin, its fundamental source.
Suffering is mysterious.
Suffering is not only a consequence of sin and an intruder, but it is also mysterious. Theologians speak of “the riddle of sin.” For example, Anthony Hoekema asserts:
The fact that we can discern these stages in the temptation and fall of our first parents, however, does not mean that we have in the Genesis narrative an explanation for the entrance of sin into the human world. What we have here is the biblical narrative of the origin of sin, but not an explanation for that origin. One of the most important things we must remember about sin… is that it is inexplicable. The origin of evil is… one of the greatest riddles of life.9
The riddle centers on the question: why would Adam and Eve sin? Augustine helpfully taught that Adam was able not to sin and able to sin, so that there was an inherent possibility to sin in him. We agree, but as Hoekema advises: “But how this possibility became actuality is a mystery that we shall never be able to fathom. We shall never know how doubt first arose in Eve’s mind. We shall never understand how a person who had been created in a state of rectitude, in a state of sinlessness, could begin to sin.”10
The difficulty remains: “how could a sinless will begin to will sinfully?”11 Adam and Eve were created good and did not initially have a corrupt heart to lead them astray. They had a close relationship with the Lord, enjoyed intimacy with each other, and retained authority over creation. It would seem that they had everything in Eden they could possibly want; they lived, after all, in paradise! Collins notes:
In 3:6, as [the woman] regards the tree and sees that it is “good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable for giving insight,” the irony of the parallel with 2:9 (there was already “every tree desirable to the sight and good for food” in the garden) should not escape us. She already had everything she could possibly want, and she even had the resources to get everything she thought the tree had to offer.12
The first couple had everything they could ever want, and yet history records that, in unfaithfulness to God and disobedience to his one prohibition, they threw it all away for a piece of fruit! How absurd! As Augustine noted, trying to determine reasons for such foolishness is like trying to see darkness or hear silence. Or as Cornelius Plantinga describes, sin is like sawing off a branch that supports us—it cuts us off from our only help.13 We cannot make sense out of such folly or find clear-cut explanations for the irrationality of this Original Sin.14
If the origin of evil is one of the greatest mysteries of life, then it should come as no surprise that the existence of its byproduct—suffering—likewise remains a mystery. Paul’s words “now I know in part” (1 Cor. 13:9, 12) show that for at least some matters even apostolic revelation is partial; and suffering is one of those matters. God has revealed much about suffering (hence this blog post and the book on which it is based!), but our knowledge is limited and some mystery concerning suffering will remain.15
While its source, nature, extent, and effects are themselves enigmatic enough, the primary mystery related to suffering concerns how and why a sovereign and good God chooses to decree/permit suffering in general, as well as to distribute it so seemingly inequitably. We know that sin, suffering, and death are results of the Fall, but if God is sovereign, why would he do it this way? And why do some seem to live in relative ease while others are consistently pounded with heavy blows? And why does this particular circumstance happen to this person—or worse, to me or my family? At its core, this aspect of the mystery of suffering is really the mystery of providence: Why does God run his universe the way he does?16
Scripture’s account of the Fall tells us that sin and its corollaries suffering and death are not created by God; they do not belong. Yet through the rebellion of Adam, they have intruded. The world is not the way it was, but thankfully, as Genesis 3:15 hints and the rest of the Bible makes increasingly clear, the world will not always be this way. Because the Son of God became one of us and died and arose to set things right, this ugly curse will be removed from the earth and from humanity (Rev. 22:3). Because “God was pleased . . . thru him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20) there will be a new heaven and new earth, the home of the Trinity and God’s people for all eternity. But in this interval between God’s initial good creation and final recreation, sin, suffering, and death exist. And somehow the good, sovereign God guides history in such a way that he plans that evil would occur and even utilizes it to bring about his intended purposes for creation. He plans it, guides it, restrains it, and uses it.17 In doing so, he will glorify himself and benefit his creatures. So suffering may be mysterious, but it is not utterly pointless. A biblical view of the providence of God “affirms that all things ultimately have purpose, even evil acts which appear to be completely senseless.”18
~ Dr. Peterson is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary
~ Dr. Chris Morgan is professor of theology and associate dean of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University
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1 Cornelius Plantinga , Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 2.
2 Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle. New Studies in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 56.
3 Carson, How Long, O Lord?, 42.
4 This is not to suggest that particular instances of suffering can be or should be traced back to particular sins. In some cases, that is possible, but in other instances it is unfounded. The point is that all suffering results from Adam’s sin.
5 Pyne, Humanity and Sin, 160.
6 Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2005), 64.
7 For more on this theme, see William Edgar’s essay on oppression on pages XYZ of this volume.
8 It is important to coordinate the emphasis on the intrusion of suffering with a robust view of God’s sovereignty. The Fall does not fall outside God’s design for history.
9 Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 130-31.
10 Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 131.
12 Collins, Genesis 1-4, 172.
13 Plantinga , Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 123.
14 Not everything about sin is mysterious, however, and sometimes theologians too quickly appeal to mystery. For a helpful response to such approaches, see Blocher, Original Sin, 107-9.
15 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (Wac Word, 1976-83; reprint, Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 6:302.
16 After Job raises this and other questions to God, God turns the tables and poses the question back to Job (see Job 38:1-41:34), asking essentially: Do you know enough to run the world? Do you really believe you have some insights to offer me on how to guide history? Job learned that God’s providence is good, sovereign, wise, and mysterious.
17 See Erickson, Christian Theology, 387-432.
18 Pyne, Humanity and Sin, 203.