From Epicurus forward, every presentation of the Problem of Evil (PoE) begins with the tacit presumption that suffering must be an unnecessary and unwanted evil, something which a good God would certainly eradicate if he could. And thus the argument goes, either he is not good, or he is not able to eradicate suffering. Believers typically respond to this presumption about suffering in these ways:
1) Suffering adds texture to life (Psalms 30:5; 126:6): we cannot know true joy in the absence of sorrow, we cannot know pleasure without pain, we are not truly human without the full range of experiences including suffering; and
2) Suffering develops character (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-3): without suffering, character qualities like endurance might grow stagnant, might never develop to their fullest potential. Even Jesus grew and learned through suffering, we are told (Hebrews 5:8).
Because they do not take such benefits of suffering into account, the typical PoE argument of the skeptics, including the quadrilemma of Epicurus, are too simplistic. The PoE cannot be reduced to such a facile syllogism. Nevertheless, the above defenses of suffering fail, in my opinion, to account for all suffering. Indeed, CS Lewis recognized this in his theodicy, The Problem of Pain, in which he turns to the pain and suffering of animals where the moral arguments carry no water. Skeptical commenters on this blog have asked how the thousands of children crushed or drowned in earthquakes and tsunamis benefited from suffering ... or even how we who have survived such natural calamities benefit from their suffering. Such questions go unanswered. So, while I accept the standard Christian arguments about the benefits of suffering, those arguments do not solve the riddle for me, nor for countless others, nonbelievers and believers alike.
Suffering and the PoE go far beyond human experience where there can be some observable moral benefits in suffering. Indeed, the New Testament tells us that “all creation” is involved in suffering (Romans 8:22). From this passage we learn that suffering is the result of a deliberate choice on the part of the Creator, but that it is not his plan to leave the cosmos in this state. This passage suggests strongly to me that some eternal purpose of God is being fulfilled by this provisional state of suffering in the cosmos.
Christianity teaches us that all history is moving toward an inexorable climatic moment when all evil is destroyed, all processes of decay come to a halt, and death itself dies. Could it be that suffering in this cosmos under the free hand of evil contributes in some way to the ultimate undoing of evil? I believe that the Scriptures intimate that this is the case.
In the previous post, I suggested the possibility that God might combat evil on a cosmic scale using the same tactics he recommends to his followers on a terrestrial scale. Jesus teaches us to defeat evil through patterns of intentional nonresistance. If, in the cosmic battle between good and evil, evil is being overcome by good (see Romans 12:21), the winning of the war may come only at the cost of much suffering. While we learn from Romans 8:22 that this suffering is spread across all of creation, no part of creation suffers more than God himself, in the person of Jesus.
In Colossians 1:24, Paul makes an interesting statement about the suffering that Jesus endured. He says, in effect, that in his own personal suffering, he was “filling up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Two conclusions can be drawn from this remarkable verse:
1) Something is actually accomplished in the spiritual realm by the sufferings of Christ. The death of Jesus accomplished redemption for mankind, but that is not all. The clearest statement of the purpose for Jesus coming to earth is found in 1 John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” And in John 12:31, Jesus declares that his approaching suffering and death would be instrumental in the undoing of the work of the devil.
2) The sufferings of Christ are, in this regard, incomplete. Our sufferings team with his to accomplish the purposes of God. God calls people of faith to co-venture, if you will, with him in the battle against evil. I believe that we are called to share in the suffering which ultimately pays the price for the undoing of evil. And thus is suffering given meaning, purpose and value.
The New Testament has much to say about a connection between suffering and glory. It seems clear that there is a direct corresponding relationship between suffering in this age and glory in the next (2 Corinthians 4:17; Romans 8:18; Matthew 5:11-12; 1 Peter 1:7, 4:13). Is glory merely a consolation offered by God for the unfortunate sufferers? Is it a reward, an eternal “atta-boy” offered to those who buck-up under affliction? I don’t think so. The 2 Corinthians passage suggest the relationship is directly causal. That is, Paul teaches that suffering in this realm is “accomplishing”, or “achieving” future glory.
Does all suffering qualify for glory? Are all forms of suffering accomplishing the purposes of God? I do not know. Romans 8:22 suggests that the writhing of the entire cosmos is somehow instrumental in bringing to birth God’s plan. On the other hand, Peter urges people of faith to suffer with a heart and mind like Jesus had in his suffering (1 Peter 2:21-23; 4:1); and he tells us that there is no value in the sufferings which we bring upon ourselves (2:19-20; 4:15-16). So it would seem that the sufferings of the innocent, and the sufferings borne in faith would be at the top of the list in efficaciousness.
In the next post, we will visit the book of Revelation and observe how our actions and our sufferings here are significant in precipitating the final judgments of God against evil.
Your comments are welcome.