Three biblical answers to the question of suffering

Published on 10/10/17

Bruce Burkholder

New attached image

The death and devastation wrought in Mexico by the recent earthquake and the destruction throughout the Caribbean Islands caused by Hurricanes Irma and María reminds us that suffering is part of the human existence. Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden plunged the human race into sin, sorrow, and death. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5:12, “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Now thousands of years later, the earth is still groaning under the weight of man’s sin.

Groanings, like the Mexican earthquake and Hurricane Irma, elicit questions in the heart of believers and unbelievers. Where is God? How can a good and omnipotent God allow such suffering? Is suffering part of God’s plan? These questions provide the believer with excellent opportunities to express the Christian worldview and to share the good news of the Gospel.

Pastor Tim Keller’s excellent book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (not yet available in Spanish), provides an excellent answer to the questions of human suffering. He references three biblical themes as foundational to a compassionate and correct response.

1. Creation and the Fall

At the completion of creation God described everything that he had created as “very good” (Ge. 1:31). Creation reflected the beauty and glory of God in every aspect. There was no suffering or death. Suffering was not a part of God’s original design. However, as a result of mankind’s disobedience, God responded in justice – “the wages of sin is death” (Ro. 6:23).

Keller writes, “When we stand back and consider the premise – that God owes us a good life – it is clearly unwarranted. If we look at the biblical standards for our behavior – the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount – and then consider humanity’s record against those norms… it may occur to us that the real puzzle is this: Why, in the light of our behavior as a human race, does God allow so much happiness? The teaching of creation and the fall removes self-pity…it strengthens the soul, preparing it to be unsurprised when life is hard” (p. 114, 115).

2. The Incarnation

While calamitous events induce reflections on God’s power and transcendence, they must be balanced by reminders of his grace and compassion. Christ, the second-person of the Godhead and Lord over all creation, voluntarily entered humanity to suffer with us. He experienced human weakness, hunger, and thirst. He suffered firsthand rejection, betrayal, poverty, and abuse.

Keller writes, “It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he does not care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He understands us, he has been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually wipe away every tear.”

Even more, Christ experienced the worst human pain and suffering imaginable. He bore our sins on the cross, dying in our place. As the Apostle John writes, “Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.”

3. The Resurrection

Of all human worldviews, Christianity is unique in providing hope for all. Christianity offers promise of a better life, a glorious future. This hope finds its anchor in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. As Paul writes, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Co. 15:19). Christ’s resurrection demonstrates his power over sin and death. He is life and those who have placed their faith and trust in him are promised an eternity in his presence.

Keller writes, “The resurrection of the body means that we do not merely receive a consolation for the life we have lost but a restoration of it. We not only get the bodies and lives we had but the bodies and lives we wished for but had never before received. We get a glorious, perfect, unimaginable rich life in a renewed material world.”

While the circumstances of this life are often dire, and we regret to say that they may even get worse. There is hope in Christ. The Christian worldview and the Gospel provide hope in the middle of despair. Let’s be bold in proclaiming God’s goodness to those around us who are hurting.