Suffering and Our Suffering God
There is little question that one of the greatest problems or difficulties people offer for rejecting theism in general and Christianity in particular is the problem of evil. Stated simply, if there exists an all-loving and all-powerful God, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?
This is a perennial problem, and even has its own name: theodicy. How can we justify God and his ways, when it seems like evil and suffering run amok in our world? Entire libraries have been written on this, and little new can be said about it.
But it continues to be an ongoing objection raised by unbelievers and atheists. As but one very recent example, just the other day a hardcore atheist challenged a Christian apologist with these words: “In all honesty, if Dr. Craig could provide me with any kind of a logical, coherent account that could reconcile the evident fact of the horrors of human and infer human life on this planet over the last 3.5 billion years with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent agent then I will turn Christian.”
That was atheist philosopher Dr. Alex Rosenberg who debated Christian theologian Dr. William Lane Craig at Purdue University. While the purpose of this article is not to focus on that particular debate, I know that by now many will want to hear how Craig replied. So here is what he said in part:
“The problem here is that we are assuming that God’s purpose is just to make us happy in this life, but on the Christian view that’s false. The purpose of life is not worldly happiness as such, but rather the knowledge of God. There may be many evils that occur in this lifetime that are utterly pointless with respect to producing worldly happiness, but they may not be pointless with respect to producing the knowledge of God and salvation and eternal life.
“It’s possible that only in a world that is suffused with natural and moral evil that the optimal number of people would come to know God freely, find salvation, and eternal life. So, the atheist would have to prove that there is another possible world that has this much knowledge of God and His salvation in it, but which is produced with less evils. How could He possibly prove that? It’s pure conjecture. It’s impossible to prove those things.”
But here I wish to address just one small portion of our response to the theodicy issue. Elsewhere I have taken up the issue of the God who suffers – of a God who is not aloof from, or indifferent to, our suffering, but in fact suffers with us. Here I wish to briefly focus on one aspect of the question, namely the way in which Christ suffered on our behalf.
The clearest example of how God is involved in our suffering is the crucifixion. In the incarnation God is not only with us, but in the crucifixion he suffers for us, in our place. There is no clearer example of God taking upon himself our suffering than at the cross. And in many ways, this is the ultimate answer to the problem of evil.
This is the best the believer can point to. In the cross is to be found the answer of God to the dilemma of man. It may not offer detailed answers to every philosophical query, but it offers the solution to not just the problem of pain but the reason for pain’s existence – human sin.
Not only does Christ suffer, but there is a sense in which God the father suffers as well. While debate goes on about the propriety of speaking of a suffering God, Jesus clearly suffered at Calvary. And the Trinity itself, therefore, cannot go unaffected. Donald Macleod is worth citing at length in this regard:
“[N]ot only did God the Son suffer crucifixion, but God the Father suffered the pain of delivering Him up. The Father was as really bereft as the Son was forsaken: and the Father suffered the loss of the Son as really as the Son suffered the loss of the Father. The Father did not suffer what the Son suffered (He was not crucified). But He suffered seeing the Son suffering and the even greater (and quite unfathomable) agony of being the One who had to bruise and forsake Him. He had to steel Himself not to respond to the terrible cry from the far country, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”
The truth is, as Leon Morris has said, “the New Testament does not look on suffering in quite the same way as do most modern people.” Its conception of suffering is so alien to modern ears. And while it does not provide detailed answers to particular questions, its central concern – the life and death of Christ – speaks volumes on the subject. As Donald Bloesch has expressed it,
“Theology cannot offer a fully satisfying explanation for evil, but it does point to a spiritual solution – the incarnation and atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . The conflict between good and evil continues, but the future belongs irreversibly to Jesus Christ, for his victory over the powers of evil has already been secured.”
Indeed, the account of Calvary and all it entails is really the first and last word on suffering. As John Mark Hicks puts it, “the Christian perspective on suffering is fundamentally christological.” We just do not get a proper understanding of suffering without a proper understanding of the life and work of Christ.
As John Stott has put it, “We have to learn to climb the hill called Calvary, and from that vantage-ground survey all life’s tragedies. The cross does not solve the problem of suffering, but it supplies the essential perspective from which to look at it”.
This is not to deny that the biblical themes and crosscurrents still need to be waded through and assessed. Much more needs to be said. But the truly final word on the problem, if there indeed can be one, has to be that which centres on the events of Calvary. The attempted answers provided in the Old Testament are given full expression and ultimate resolution in the New Testament.
Says Roy Clements: “The problem of suffering is posed in the Old Testament but never solved. And yet the interesting thing is that when we come to the New Testament the apostles seem to talk as if all theological difficulties associated with suffering have disappeared. Suffering has ceased to be a problem, and has become instead a vocation.”
A piece such as this may likely raise as many questions as it answers. And I certainly never claimed we would solve any problems here. The point of this little exercise is to simply say that while all the ‘whys’ of suffering may not be fully answered in this life, we do have a ‘who’ we can point to.
In Jesus Christ we have the only genuine example of the innocent suffering, and he suffered so that we might ultimately be delivered from suffering, and its main source, sin. The Bible throughout shows us a God who suffers with us and hurts with what hurts us.
And it shows us primarily a suffering Christ who gave everything for us so that we might get everything in him. This does not end the problem of theodicy, but it offers some reassuring and comforting truths for those who will receive them.