- If God punished Jesus for our sins, why are we still suffering?
- Why does God need to punish sin at all?
- How does God use suffering to shape or grow Christians?
- How do we explain babies born with AIDS in Africa?
- What was the purpose of Job’s suffering?
- How should Christians respond to suffering practically?
- If suffering is caused by God doesn’t that make him an agent of evil?
- Couldn’t God have created us in heaven in the first place?
- What about suffering that doesn’t appear to have any redeeming or positive purpose?
If God punished Jesus for our sins, why are we still suffering?
We need to be careful about being too ‘transactional’ in connecting sin and suffering, because there are overlapping concepts at work. The biblical worldview is that we are living in the period between the two comings of Jesus, which means that the new age of forgiveness and freedom has started, but the old age of sin and suffering is still a reality until Jesus returns (John 16:33). That means we expect our piece of the world’s suffering due to God’s general judgement on sin (Rom 1:18). In terms of the judgement for our own sins, Jesus has indeed taken this away (Heb 10:17-18). But God still disciplines his children for their good, including specific trials to shape us, and chastisements to turn us from sin to holiness, as Heb 12 explains. But this is fatherly discipline rather than judicial punishment, and it is far short of what we would ultimately receive without Jesus’ work on our behalf (1 Peter 4:17-19).
Why does God need to punish sin at all?
There are a number of theoretical or speculative questions we can ask about how God could have made the creation, and how he could have dealt with sin. The Bible does not directly deal with this kind of hypothetical, of course. But we can address such questions by looking at what the Bible says about God’s character, because God always remains faithful to himself (2 Tim 2:13). In the case of sin and punishment, we know that God’s character is perfectly loving (1 John 4:16), and this opens up the thought that God could simply overlook sin. However, God is also perfectly holy and just (Hab 1:13), which would make God inconsistent in merely ignoring sin. This dilemma is resolved when God offers his own Son on the cross for our sins, which satisfies his justice, but at the same time lovingly pardons our sin: “so as to be just and the one who justifies” (Rom 3:26). Hypothetically, God could have just pardoned sin, but then he wouldn’t be the same God of justice that the Bible reveals to us.
And practically speaking, while we may like the idea of a God who overlooks our own sins, we are not so keen on him overlooking the sins of others against us. So the one-dimensional idea of God as love-and-only-love is not really satisfying for daily life.
How does God use suffering to shape or grow Christians?
There are various ways that God uses suffering in the life of the Christian. Hebrews 12 mentions chastisement to turn us from sin (Heb 12:4-6) and grow us in holiness (Heb 12:10-11). Peter says that it is part of our sharing in the glory of Jesus’ own death and resurrection (1 Peter 4:13-16). James says it refines our faith and develops our perseverance and maturity (James 1:2-3). And Paul says that our comfort in suffering equips us to comfort others (2 Cor 1:3-4), it makes us long for heaven (Rom 8:23), and it makes us more and more like Jesus (Rom 8:29).
How do we explain babies born with AIDS in Africa?
Up-front, we have to say that the Bible doesn’t try to explain every case of suffering, and the suffering of infants is one of the hardest things to fathom in God’s plan. But if we believe that God is both just (Gen 18:25) and loving (1 John 4:16), then when we come to end of our wisdom on the issue we have to trust that God is at work even in dire poverty and illness. However, we do need to be careful that we don’t invent a category of ‘innocent suffering’ and ignore the fact that the whole world is caught up in sin (Rom 3:12), even infants (Psalm 51:5). And so the whole world is caught up in God’s judgement on sin (Rom 1:18). If the argument is that this is still disproportionate suffering, again we need to calibrate our argument to the ultimate and deserved judgement that God is patiently holding back from everyone (2 Peter 3:9-10).
What was the purpose of Job’s suffering?
The implied question here is that surely there is no purpose that could justify the intense suffering that God put Job through? However, the supreme counter-example is that God the Father planned the suffering of his own Son for the purpose of our good (Heb 2:9). Likewise, Joseph is able to look back on his life of hardship and acknowledge God’s good purposes (Gen 50:19-20). And Job himself, without ever knowing the purpose of his suffering, acknowledges the rightness of God’s plans (Job 42:1-3). But Job himself saw meaning and purpose in his suffering, both acknowledging the reality of God’s general judgement on the earth (Job 2:10) and growing in his knowledge of God and himself (Job 42:5-6).
Beyond Job’s personal horizon, the purpose for the incident was for Job’s faith to be vindicated as a trust-relationship rather than mere self-interest, as Satan asserted (Job 1:9-11). That vindication was both to the supernatural beings looking on at the time (Job 1:6), and to us as the readers (Rom 15:4). Although not the only purpose, it is true then to say that Job’s suffering was for us (1 Peter 1:12).
How should Christians respond to suffering practically?
Three ways: care, comfort, and pray. What is the most appropriate help will vary according to your discernment of the stage of grief and suffering the person is in. Don Carson says,
“Frequently in the midst of suffering the most comforting “answers” are simple presence, help, silence, tears. Helping with the gardening or preparing a casserole may be far more spiritual an exercise than the exposition of Romans 8:28.”
Similarly, Nicholas Wolterstorff says,
“What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”
If suffering is caused by God doesn’t that make him an agent of evil?
Agency is a slippery concept. A more biblical starting point is the idea of sovereignty – that God is in total control of everything, including both human choices (Isaiah 44:28) and natural events (Amos 3:6). However, when evil is committed by those of whom God is in control, can we attribute that evil to God? The Bible does not seem to do so, instead speaking of human evil somehow being used in the purposes of God (Gen 50:19-20, Acts 2:23), and God still calling such people to account for their own evil. Philosophically, we can say God is not an ‘agent’ of anything, because to be an agent is to acknowledge a greater power that stands behind, whereas God is the ultimate power. More correctly we can say that others are God’s agents, whether wittingly or unwittingly, either through their good and God-aligned motives, or through their evil and anti-God motives. Either way, they are still not outside of God’s plans (Job 42:1).
Couldn’t God have created us in heaven in the first place?
This is the ultimate hypothetical – why not cut out everything between Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22, and skip to the happy ending? Again, the Bible doesn’t deal directly with this kind of question, and our attempted answers can stray a long way from Scripture. One response is to talk about the process of God bringing us into relationship with himself, and the need for free-will to operate before we can have a genuine relationship with God. This kind of solution often ends up making God somewhat impotent and hands-off, which is not a biblical picture (Prov 21:1).
What the Bible says is that God planned to send Jesus to redeem us from sin and ultimately bring everything under his Lordship. And that plan was made ‘before the creation of the world’ (Eph 1:4-10). So it must be said that God planned for both the sin and the suffering of this world, including the suffering of his own Son, with that end in mind. Ephesians 1 says this is all ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’, and so it would appear that in the end, we will look back on the history of this world, including all the suffering, and we will praise God for all eternity in response (Rev 7:10-12). At that point at least, we will not wish that God had ‘cut-to-the-chase’. We might even speculate a little and suggest that while Adam and Eve could appreciate the goodness of Eden, they could not have truly appreciated the glorious depths of God’s self-sacrificial love for us in Christ, which we have now seen through the biblical narrative of the fall and the cross.
None of that makes suffering easier, but it does open up the possibility that God has purposes for suffering that we will see and appreciate, in the end.
What about suffering that doesn’t appear to have any redeeming or positive purpose?
The Bible sets up a number of general purposes that God has for suffering, such as his general judgement on the world (Rom 8:20-23), and his discipline of Christians for their growth in faith and holiness (James 1:2-3). Most forms of suffering would seem to have potential purposes under one or both of these headings. However, some kinds of suffering, like those that result in people losing their faith, seem to be counter-productive to God’s purposes.
Again, we need to test whether our sense of justice here is biblical, or whether we are assuming that we ‘deserve’ some base level of goodness from God. Romans 9:21-24 is a challenging passage that suggests that, if the (just) default is eternal destruction, we should wonder that God saves anyone, not rail against God for not saving everyone (cf. Luke 18:24-27).