Suffering & Hope

The word theodicy is simply a fancy term for a perennial question: "How could a loving God and suffering co-exist?" There are more variations on this so-called problem than anyone can count, but they all amount to the same thing. People have (or claim to have) a hard time reconciling the presence of God and suffering in the universe.

While philosophers, theologians, and apologists scramble around trying to answer this question with complex arguments and lengthy explanations, the real answer is simply another question. Instead of posing a theodicy, the question we should be asking is, "How could we imagine a world in which a holy, loving God and suffering did not co-exist?"

Such a world would be a world without sin. So, we can easily ask, "How can suffering and God co-exist in heaven?" The answer is simple: they don't. Heaven is God's presence, and sin cannot exist in God's presence; therefore, its effects (suffering and evil) can't exist in God's presence.

But this world isn't heaven, and it is inhabited by sinful human beings in rebellion against Yahweh God. When we sin we break God's Law, and we therefore bear the punishments God promises to anyone who disobeys. If God didn't punish disobedience He would be denying an aspect of His perfection: His justice.

If there's one thing no one ever seems to take seriously, it's God's perfection. We hear about God's love, but love without justice is imperfect; we hear about God's wrath, but wrath untempered by love is imperfect. God is holy, and we are not, and so of course there is suffering in the world, and it is the result of God's justice for what we've done.

Another thing we don't seem able to understand is that just suffering for our sin is indeed loving. This is particularly true for Christians; God uses our suffering to mold us into servants who are faithful. So suffering is essential to God's character (fallen humanity must suffer for our rebellion because God is just) and necessary for our sanctification (in faith we turn to God when He causes us to suffer).

None of this is intended to suggest that suffering is a non-issue. Suffering is very real, and some can testify to that much more than others. It's also not intended to suggest that every time something bad happens, it's a direct judgement for a particular sin. Just as sin is both generally and specifically present in the world, so God's justice is generally and specifically applied.

We confess that there is only one true alleviation of suffering, and that is Jesus Christ. He suffered on our behalf, taking the curse of sin on Himself though He knew no sin. Christ submitted Himself both to general and specific suffering for all the sins of everyone who puts their faith in Him.

The question of theodicy is inappropriate in several ways, not least of which is it's earthly-mindedness; God promises His children salvation from suffering in the life to come, not here and now. Jesus didn't die so that we wouldn't have to suffer, He died that we wouldn't have to suffer eternally.

Inherent in questions of theodicy is a concept completely foreign to the Bible and its authors. Theodicy supposes that there is such a thing as a good person; the question put more simply is, "Why do good things happen to bad people?" God says there are no good people, except Jesus Christ. We preach Him crucified, and rely solely on His mercy to sanctify us through suffering now, and one day to alleviate all suffering eternally in His glorious presence.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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