Suffering and the Biblical Story
- Thursday, June 03, 2010
[Dr. Peterson is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. This article is related to the weekend mini-course that Dr. Peterson presented through the Richmond Study Center on suffering and the resurrection May 23-25, 2010. It is taken from his book suffering and the goodness of god, which Dr. Peterson co-edited with Chris Morgan, professor of theology and associate dean of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University.]
We are all acquainted with suffering. For us to get a handle on suffering we must view it from Scripture's perspective and not merely from our own. That means that we must consider it in light of the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
CREATION AND SUFFERING
Understanding Genesis's teaching about God's creation sheds light on our understanding of suffering in two important and related ways. First, we discover that suffering is not something created or authored by God. Rather, God created a good universe and good human beings. Second, we learn that there was a time when there was no suffering. Suffering is not original; it has not always existed.
Suffering is not created by God.
genesis 1-2 shows the Creator to be transcendent, sovereign, personal, immanent, and good. God's goodness is displayed in his turning the chaos into something good—the heavens and the earth. His goodness is even more clearly reflected in the goodness of his creation, evidenced by the steady refrain, "And God saw that it was good" (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), a goodness accentuated on the sixth day: "Behold, it was very good" (1:31). God's generous provisions of light, land, vegetation, and animals are blessings given for man's benefit, as are the abilities to know God, work, marry, and procreate. God blesses man with the Sabbath, places him in the delightful garden of Eden, gives him a helper, and establishes only one prohibition, given not to squelch man but to promote his welfare.
The conclusion is clear: God is good and did not create suffering or evil. He created a good world for the good of his creatures. Humans too were created good and blessed beyond measure, being made in God's image, with an unhindered relationship with God, and with freedom. As a result, casting blame for suffering on the good and generous God is unbiblical and unfounded.
Suffering has not always existed.
A related but distinct principle we learn from the biblical account of creation is that suffering has not always existed. From a theological standpoint, God's creation of the universe out of nothing shows that he alone is independent, absolute, and eternal. Everything else has been created. Further, the inherent goodness of creation leaves no room for a fundamental dualism between spirit and matter. Contrary to some philosophical and religious traditions, the Bible teaches that matter is a part of God's creation and is good.
From a historical standpoint, the story of creation unmistakably recounts that there was a time when there was no suffering. Suffering is not original. Indeed, the very fact that our world now includes suffering testifies that it is not now the way it was, and therefore, as Cornelius Plantinga helpfully states, "it is not the way it is supposed to be."1
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