Suffering and the Biblical Story
- Thursday, June 03, 2010
THE FALL AND SUFFERING
Suffering and sin were not a part of God's original good creation. But they are surely a big part of human life today. To understand why things are not the way they're supposed to be we must consider the fall. The biblical account of the Fall helps us understand suffering in three important ways. First, we see that suffering is a consequence of sin. Second, we learn that suffering is not natural to God's good creation but is an intruder. Third, we realize that suffering contains an element of mystery.
Suffering is a consequence of the Fall.
God is the author of neither sin nor suffering. He creates a good world and good human beings who reflect his goodness. Henri Blocher wisely warns, "We cannot be too radical here. The perfect goodness of God's creation rules out the tiniest root, seed, or germ of evil."2 Suffering is not a part of God's creation, but rather a byproduct of sin, as Carson states so clearly:
Between the beginning and the end of the Bible, there is evil and there is suffering. But the point to be observed is that from the perspective of the Bible's large-scale story line, the two are profoundly related: evil is the primal cause of suffering, rebellion is the root of pain, sin is the source of death.3
Genesis 3 makes it clear that as sin enters through Adam so do its consequences—estrangement from God, shame, alienation from others, suffering, banishment, and death. Paul in Romans 5:12-21 confirms this: sin entered the world through one man's sin, and condemnation and death through sin.
On a cosmic scale, therefore, all suffering is an effect of the Fall.4 Indeed, because we live in this fallen world, we will suffer and "reap sin's consequences in the home, the workplace, and the cemetery."5
Suffering is an intruder.
As a consequence of sin, suffering is also an intruder into God's good creation. Michael Williams observes: "By beginning with the story of creation rather than the Fall, Scripture proclaims categorically that sin is an intruder. It is not the product of God's creativity. It does not belong."6 Sin is not the only intruder, but its evil children—suffering and death—have intruded as well.
We intuitively know this but often do not consider its significance. When we encounter suffering, something inside us often cries out: "This is wrong! The world should not be like this! Children should not be abused, senior adults should not get Alzheimer's, missionaries should not be tortured!" Or on a more personal level, we might protest: "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?" Such instincts are valid because they recognize that this world is not the way it is supposed to be. We know this when we consider sin; we know to hate rape, murder, bigotry, and child abuse. We oppose sin and refuse to be at ease with it. In the same way, we are not to be comfortable with the reality of suffering (although we are to be at peace with God in the midst of it) and should do our best to alleviate it.7 Like sin, suffering is an intruder and cannot be welcomed as natural.8 The horror of suffering's intrusion points to the horror of sin, its fundamental source.
Suffering is mysterious.
Suffering is not only a consequence of sin and an intruder, but it is also mysterious. Theologians speak of "the riddle of sin." For example, Anthony Hoekema asserts:
The fact that we can discern these stages in the temptation and fall of our first parents, however, does not mean that we have in the Genesis narrative an explanation for the entrance of sin into the human world. What we have here is the biblical narrative of the origin of sin, but not an explanation for that origin. One of the most important things we must remember about sin… is that it is inexplicable. The origin of evil is… one of the greatest riddles of life.9
The riddle centers on the question: why would Adam and Eve sin? Augustine helpfully taught that Adam was able not to sin and able to sin, so that there was an inherent possibility to sin in him. We agree, but as Hoekema advises: "But how this possibility became actuality is a mystery that we shall never be able to fathom. We shall never know how doubt first arose in Eve's mind. We shall never understand how a person who had been created in a state of rectitude, in a state of sinlessness, could begin to sin."10
The difficulty remains: "how could a sinless will begin to will sinfully?"11 Adam and Eve were created good and did not initially have a corrupt heart to lead them astray. They had a close relationship with the Lord, enjoyed intimacy with each other, and retained authority over creation. It would seem that they had everything in Eden they could possibly want; they lived, after all, in paradise! Collins notes:
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