Trials: The Suffering God
I don’t get it. Why does God just stand by and let such horrible things happen as go on in this world, when he could stop them if he wanted to? Doesn’t God care?
Yes, God cares. But I doubt anybody can give an entirely satisfying answer to that question. Here is what we do know: The way we best understand God and our suffering is to look at Jesus Christ. He is God; he is human, too. God became human, without ceasing to be God, for our sakes. That is what we mean when we say Christ was fully God and fully man.
When we say Jesus Christ is the Son of God, we do not mean that he is something less than God, or someone else in addition to God. We mean he is God, and as God, he took on the human condition for us.
I don’t see what this has to do with our suffering. And I don’t see how Jesus can be God and the Son of God at the same time. It seems like you are just changing the subject. I want to know why God doesn’t stop horrible suffering if he is so almighty and good.
Fair enough. And that is just why we need to talk about Jesus Christ. Because it is in understanding Jesus that we can begin to understand something about why God allows human suffering.
Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. You’ll notice I said is, not was. Jesus was, is, is to come, and always will be God in the flesh. When the Son of God assumed humanity, he took the human condition into himself, that is, into God. And in doing that, he purified humanity, redeemed it, and gave it eternal communion, or right fellowship, with God the Father. As a human, he took all human sin and corruption on himself, and through his crucifixion and death, all human sin and corruption found its end.
But death could not hold the Son of God made flesh. He was resurrected, not as a spirit or as the fleshless Son of God, but as the very same man Jesus Christ who died for us, only glorified. That is what we Christians mean when we say we believe in the “bodily resurrection.” We mean Jesus himself was raised, the same fully God and fully human Jesus Christ who hung on the cross for us. He was raised with a glorified human body.
When we are raised from the dead, we will have a glorified body like that of Jesus — like the body Jesus still has (Philippians 3:21). When we are raised, we will be fully human, not fully God and fully human like Jesus. But in our raised humanity, we will be like the captain of our salvation, Jesus Christ the crucified and raised Son of God, is in his humanity. He is fully human.
When we say “fully human,” we do not mean as opposed to partly human. We mean “fully” in the sense of “everything humanity was intended to be.” We mean undistorted, uncorrupted, unbroken, untarnished. We mean, as it were, straight off the showroom floor — perfect, no dents, no rust, no stains, no rips, no tread wear, shiny, tuned, lubed, fueled, washed and ready to roll as we were meant to roll.
Without Christ, being fully human would be impossible for us. It would be impossible because we started right out, every one of us, in the junkyard. We were beat up old clunkers, gas hogs, leaking like sieves, with bald unmatched tires, scratched up, faded paint and torn upholstery, dented, dirty, rusted, backfiring heaps stuck in second gear. That is because of sinfulness, a condition we share with Father Adam and Mother Eve as we chug merrily along in the choking exhaust of their distrust of God.
When personalities turn against God, whether they are human or spirit personalities, the result is evil. Evil can be defined as anything that is not in communion with God, that opposes God. It is this evil, this senseless distrust of God, this usurping by humanity of God’s faithful and loving divine fatherhood over us, that corrupts and attempts to destroy everything God originally made to be good.
Can God stop bad things from happening? Yes, he can. So why doesn’t he? Consider this: Bad things happen because people are free to do bad things. Sometimes, people are careless, inconsiderate or selfish, which results in creating situations and circumstances that can and usually do bring harm to others. Sometimes they are lazy, greedy or cowardly, and because of it, people get hurt. Sometimes, people are even hateful, wicked and cruel.
What would happen if God were to stop all consequences of human choices and actions? For one thing, it would make human choices and actions meaningless. If God were to always stop us before we do bad things, then he would also be taking away our freedom to make our own choices. If God removed our freedom to think for ourselves and make our own choices, then there would be no possibility for us humans of a freely chosen love relationship with God.
God gave humans freedom, real freedom — a freedom upheld by and in God’s own freedom, not a freedom independent of God (there is no such thing as freedom totally independent of God). But in Adam, humans have abused that freedom by choosing against God, which is choosing against themselves, because only in God are humans able to be what they really are.
That rebellion has rendered humanity less than it was created to be — completely in the dark about who God is and its utter dependence on him. In the midst of this blindness, humans no longer have the communion with God that Adam and Eve once enjoyed. Instead, the best they can do is grope for God in the dark in the hope that they might find him (Acts 17:27).
As surely as humanity fell into sin and corruption, however, the Word of God who speaks all creation into being (Colossians 1:16) has also spoken the new word of redemption (verse 20) — the new creation, which is nothing other than the gracious redemption of all things (Ephesians 1:9-10). By God’s grace, as they are held by God in Christ, humans can choose to trust in their Lord. On their own, they could never do that.
For one thing, their corruption would prevent it. For another, the creature is incapable of finding the Creator under its own steam; such finding is possible only by God’s own gracious gift of himself. In this God-given freedom, humans can trust God or not trust God. They can accept or reject his sovereignty over them. Even if they do reject God, of course, God is no less God, and they are no less dependent on him for existence, even though they may refuse to believe it.
But life is more than mere existence. God wants his human children to be what he made them to be: fully human, not the broken- down shells sin has made of them. To make humans what he made them to be, God took broken-down humanity into himself and fixed it. He became flesh, God in the flesh, God Incarnate. He came as one of us for no other reason but to reconcile humanity to himself.
But let us not get the false impression that this reconciliation is some kind of divine chemotherapy that God finally injected into a terminally sick world to save a few of those who would live after Jesus in chronological time. No, this reconciliation is something that the Son of God, who is the eternal Word of God who speaks everything into being (John 1:1-3), has done, and has been doing, from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8).
In other words, in some sense we do not understand, God has always (in every sense that we can understand always) had something of humanity in himself: God reconciled us to himself in Christ before the foundation of the world. He is for us, and he is for us eternally. When Jesus became incarnated as a human being, he was demonstrating in time what had been true from all eternity.
The One through whom all things continually exist (Hebrews 1:3), who as the divine Word continually speaks all things into being, is also the very same One who continually reconciles all things to the Father. His word of reconciliation for us restores us to the Father as surely as his word of creation gives us being in the first place. He is both Creator and Reconciler, and always has been. He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
How, exactly, did Jesus do it? He came in what the Bible calls the “fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:10), or exactly when the time was right. To repeat: Don’t think Jesus’ atonement is good only for those who came after him in time; that would be to forget just who he is and would miss the point by a million miles. He came at the right time for all humanity, both before and after him. He came as a self-offering of God to us, that is, in Jesus Christ God gave us nothing other than himself. He also gave himself, the perfect, sinless human, as a self-offering of perfect humanity to God. Only Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, could do both.
How did Jesus give this self-offering of perfect humanity to the Father in a way that reconciles all humanity to God? He did it by taking all the sins of humanity upon himself (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2), becoming in himself sinning humanity estranged and alienated from God (2 Corinthians 5:21; Matthew 27:46), and suffering death for us in our place (Romans 5:8).
He could do that because 1) as God, he is the one against whom sin has been committed and the one who has been rejected and despised by us in our sinfulness, 2) as our Creator, he represents all of us, and 3) by becoming one of us in flesh and blood, he responds to God on behalf of all of us. He as Son of man can take our sins on himself and bear the brunt of our collusion with the powers of evil; as the Son of God he can forgive our sins and restore our broken communion with God.
Wait a minute. You say Christ died for us, in our place. But in case you haven’t noticed, we all still die anyway. How does that work?
You’re getting ahead of the story, but it’s too good a question to put off. Yes, we still die. But because of Jesus, death is the very thing that is overcome by resurrection. Because Jesus has taken up death into himself and thereby defeated it, when we die, we are drawn into none other than Jesus’ death. When Jesus died, because of who he is, death itself could not contain him; death itself was swallowed up in victory.
Because the Son of God, the Lord of Life, took on death for us, every human death is a participation in the death of Jesus (John 12:32). And entry into the death of Jesus cannot end except in our resurrection into the resurrection of Jesus. Just as death cannot contain Christ, so death, because Christ died for us, cannot contain us either, precisely because we are, by God’s grace, in Christ.
So everybody gets resurrected, even Hitler and Osama bin Laden?
Yes, everybody who dies gets resurrected (Revelation 20:12). Because the Son of God became human for humanity, and died and was raised for humanity, all humans die in Christ’s death and are raised in his resurrection. There is no other resurrection into which humans can be resurrected but that of Jesus. If Jesus had not died and been raised for us, no human at all would be raised. But he did, and he did it because the holy and almighty Triune God is full of grace and mercy and free to be who he wants to be with us.
God with us
But if Hitler and all the bad guys get resurrected, how is that fair?
Good question. The answer is that it isn’t fair. But then it isn’t fair that you and I get resurrected either. The Bible tells us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). None of us humans deserves anything but death. We’ve all opened our own God-business with ourselves as “God,” even though we can’t create a pot, much less keep ourselves alive.
However, the fact that everybody gets resurrected does not mean that everybody is saved. Although in Christ everyone is reconciled to God, only people who put their trust in Christ are saved, and as we have already seen, for most people, that blessing does not come before death.
I’m not sure I understand what you mean. How can someone be reconciled, but not be saved?
For God to become a human is to reconcile humanity to God. You see, whatever God is cannot help but be reconciled to God, because God is always and ever reconciled to himself. God is faithful to his humanity in Christ, and he has established our humanity in Christ, to whom he is faithful.
That’s probably still confusing. Let me try saying it this way: God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — are one God, the Holy Trinity, perfect in union, and in perfect communion. The Father wills eternally that the Son be human for our sakes, and the Holy Spirit makes it so. Because Christ is God in the flesh, the perfect human for our sakes and in our place, that is, perfect humanity for humanity, and the Holy Spirit binds us with the Son in perfect unity, we are, because we are human in Christ only (there is no other way to be human because Christ is human for us), reconciled to God in Christ.
You think that is clearer?
Let’s try this: Christ reconciled the whole world to God by becoming human for us. He is one with God, so that makes us one with God, and it is true simply because God says so. Is that better?
I get that part now. But how is it then that some are not saved?
The thing that keeps a reconciled person from being saved is unbelief. They don’t trust God. It’s that simple. Whoever will not trust God is not saved. That is because even though God says Yes to every person because of Christ, if people say No to God’s Yes, that is, they won’t trust him, then they cannot enjoy the fruit of God’s Yes for them.
It is not that their No is louder than God’s Yes or that their No negates God’s Yes. God’s Yes is still Yes and ever will be. But that very Yes of God for them is refused in their No, which is crazy, to be sure, but nevertheless tolerated by God because his Yes includes our freedom to say No.
To say No to God is to say No to God’s love, to God’s grace, to God’s mercy, to God’s authority, to God’s wisdom, to God’s power. It is to sit starving and diseased in the dark alone with nothing, thinking one is entirely self-sufficient, and to prefer that state to the joy and freedom of God’s eternal banquet. To say No to God is to set oneself up as God (a birthday candle might as well set itself up as the sun).
So there is hope for everybody?
Because Christ lives, there is hope for everybody.
But hasn’t God already decided who will be saved and who will not beforehand?
In one way, yes, but in another way, it is not played out until he plays it out with us in time and space in Christ. Yes, because God intends that everyone be saved, humanity itself is elect or chosen for salvation in Christ, the Elect for humanity and the One in whom all humanity is elect. But, no, because God not only purposes human salvation in Christ, he also fulfills his purpose in Christ, and that fulfillment takes place concretely in the space and time of history, a history that has been redeemed in Christ. He created us in the matrix of time and space, and he interacts with us according to the context in which he created us.
All humanity is chosen, or predestined by God to be elect in Christ, and God works out his purpose in Christ in all humanity throughout all history. So in one sense, God knows, but in another sense, God is working out in time and space with us in Christ what he knows is his will for humanity, and he knows it because he is working it out according to his own purpose which he wills in Christ, who is the Elect for us.
Is that predestination?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that God predestines all humanity for salvation, and he works out that salvation with us in Christ freely and concretely in time and space. No, in the sense that God has not predetermined before all time and creation who will be damned and who will be saved. Rather, he actively works out his purposes with us in the real created freedom of time and space and history.
So our choices matter?
Yes, our choices do matter. They matter because they are choices made in Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being. In other words, we matter, and our choices and decisions matter, because God, in his uncreated freedom to be who he is with us, has graciously reconciled us to himself in Christ, who became human for us.
By God’s grace, our right choices are Christ’s choices, and our wrong choices are redeemed in Christ and made his choices if we deny ourselves and trust him to be our Savior, Lord and God — that is, if we repent and believe the gospel.
And further, our repentance (turning to God as sinners in need of mercy) and our faith (trusting God to be who he is and do what he has promised for our salvation) are originated, prompted and carried out in Christ through the Holy Spirit according to the Father’s will for us. This means that we can even trust Christ to 1) plead our pitiful cause and 2) to have for us the faith we need to be saved.
Now, we went through that so we could come to this: Our corrupt choices produce corrupt results, and humanity suffers because of it. But Jesus Christ, the perfect Human in whom God has established our humanity, also suffered with us and for us, so even though life on this earth stinks because of sin, it is redeemed in Christ, and therefore the life we hope for will be realized when we join him in his resurrection, and that is true not only for us, but for all suffering humans everywhere through all history whose agonies and tortured cries join in the cosmic groans of the whole creation (Romans 8:18-25; Revelation 21:3-4).
We don’t know why God allows babies to suffer. Or why some people must endure mental and physical handicaps. Or why many starve to death, endure hideous diseases or undergo unspeakable suffering in any of the uncountable ways humans have suffered and continue to suffer.
But we do know this: God himself suffered in Christ for every suffering human being, and he did it to end all suffering, and when the whole world sits down to eat at the Lamb’s eternal banquet, the cries of joy that will rise up will forever eclipse the groans of misery from which they emerged.
This hope is why we are Christians. Human suffering, evil as it is, is not in vain, but is given everlasting meaning in the suffering of our Creator who loves us so much in spite of ourselves that he is glad to suffer with us and for us so that in him every tear can at last be wiped away.
The final chapter of the tragic life stories of the teeming masses of humanity has been written precisely in the death and resurrection of the Son of God, into whose eternal joy all of humanity is drawn continually by the unremitting power of his love (John 12:32).
Author: J. Michael Feazell