“And the Lord God said to the snake, Because you have done this you are cursed more than all cattle and every beast of the field; you will go flat on the earth, and dust will be your food all the days of your life: And there will be war between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed: by him will your head be crushed and by you his foot will be wounded. To the woman he said, Great will be your pain in childbirth; in sorrow will your children come to birth; still your desire will be for your husband, but he will be your master. And to Adam he said, Because you gave ear to the voice of your wife and took of the fruit of the tree which I said you were not to take, the earth is cursed on your account; in pain you will get your food from it all your life. Thorns and waste plants will come up, and the plants of the field will be your food; With the hard work of your hands you will get your bread till you go back to the earth from which you were taken: for dust you are and to the dust you will go back.”
Gen 3:14-19 (BBE)
The Big Question: Why? – In times of great suffering like the flooding of New Orleans, the terrorist disasters of 9-11 or the recent Tsunami, ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ are called to give an account of their belief in a God who is in control of all things. How can God let this happen? So often the answers given seem to be insufficient to our reason, especially to those who themselves endure the suffering. Moreover, even when Christian theologians give answers which are perhaps intellectually cogent, these explanations somehow still seem empty—unable to comfort those in great pain. The question of how a loving God could let so many people suffer is arguably the most important question of our time. Never have we seen such widespread suffering in the world than at the close of the 20th Century and the opening of the 21st.
Take, for Example, Natural Disasters. Tornadoes twist their way through neighborhoods destroying homes and taking lives, Hurricanes demolish the coastlands and claim countless victims. Earthquakes split the earth open and swallow the people and take out the foundations of massive man-made structures. Sea Storms sink ships. Floods drown entire communities under a violent current. Volcanoes spew brimstone as if the earth ready to spew out hell itself. Blizzards bury people alive and suffocate homes. Forest fires burn up the earth, natural habitats, and homes.
Or what about sickness and death? Massive famines in Africa leave people starving to death and born deformed from malnutrition. The AIDS epidemic spreads like wildfire taking millions of lives in China, America, Africa, Europe, and all over the world—and there is no cure. The terror of cancer is indiscriminate and without a cure. Babies are born with countless deformities; some are born addicted to crack cocaine and must receive special weaning treatments from birth to survive (not to mention those babies which are aborted before birth). Others are born with Cystic Fibrosis (another incurable disease) and told they should not expect to live very long. Heart attacks and strokes await every man and woman with time. Not even doctors can keep up with the full extent of known malfunctions of the human body. The Young boast of their youth and inwardly take for granted that death is far away. Yet even perfectly healthy children die in their sleep or have brain aneurisms without warning. A-timer’s disease wipes out the fond memories of yesterday along with self identity, leaving an aged wife to ask her husband on their 67th year anniversary “Who are you? What are you doing in my home?!” This is just as heart breaking for the husband as it is for the wife. Unexpected fatal accidents leave loved one’s wishing they had a last chance to say “I love you.” So many are paralyzed and cannot walk, others who cannot move anything but their head. Others are blind having never seen the light of day, still others who are deaf and have never heard the sound of music; or worse, there are those who can neither hear nor see, and death awaits the best of people. All human beings are on death row. The graveyard is inescapable; inevitable; everyone’s permanent retirement plan. All are born with a hyphen by their name on their tombstone awaiting death which ruins the best of friends and invites the human race to morn day and night.
Yet our bodies begin to decay long before death, making it slow and painful. Organs stop functioning, skin looses its life and shrivels up, bones become soft and break under the slightest pressure. Our souls cry for long life, yet our bodies demand that we decay and die off: lungs collapse, hearts explode, arteries clog the veins, eye sight fails, hearing is lost, and strength is drained with age. Death stares even the strong youth in the face, reigning like a King over all the earth with absolute authority over all lives, making them temporary vapors in the large schema of our universe. No one chooses the day of her death, yet death finds his victims unsuspecting, like a sudden jolt of electricity or a midnight ambush. Life is but a vapor, a blade of grass, a fading flower, a shot of wind, a burning match, and the reality of death deeply disturbs the human mind and awakens us to our vulnerability, so we bury it in the grave of our conscience for a sense of peace.
Begging the Question: The Hollow Answers – Pure science has no answers to such questions as “Why do we suffer?” or “Why do all people die?” Science can only affirm the grim reality of suffering and death, but she is inadequate in answering all of life’s deepest questions. All too often ministers of the Gospel can say little more than “We trust that God has a plan,” or “Just as we suffer, we know Christ also suffered.” Seemingly even more inappropriate at such a time, ministers will say, “We know that God still loves us.” I do not deny that such answers are true. The problem is that all of these answers nonetheless seem to beg the question: But why do we suffer so terribly? Perhaps the worst thing a minister could say, however, is that God has nothing to do with our suffering and dying. Somehow, in the midst of controversy, ministers often become more interested in getting God “off-the-hook” than translating a sovereign God into the equation of purposeful suffering.
Suffering as a Proof of God’s Righteousness – Because I know that questions like these go through my own mind, I am guessing that in a time like this, they also are running through your mind. Often Christians—having experienced a great work of grace and tasted of the new creation which is to come—begin to see the world with such new eyes that they are awakened afresh to the beauties and glories of life, the world, and the universe. They begin to use the glory of creation as an empirical evidence for the love of the creator. “How could there not be a God? There is so much beauty in the world!” they might say. And of course “God is love.”
Yet creation is, from another angle, probably a poor exhibit for proof of a benevolent creator God. All the world is under an unavoidable curse of sin, suffering, and death. How do you tell a kid who has been abused, neglected, raped, beaten, whose brother is incarcerated and whose best friend just walked into fatal stray bullets in the midst of gang retaliation, etc., “God [the sovereign and omnipotent One] loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”? These things beg for explanation.
Perhaps this is another reason why I find biblical Christianity to be philosophically responsible–the scriptures do not overlook the weight of the curse that everyone experiences to one degree or another in this life. This seems to be major reality check against unwarranted optimism. Suffering and death are either a just punishment for a humanity born in rebellion against that which is infinitely worthy of allegiance, or there is no God (at least no God who is all-powerful and all-loving). It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said in his apologetical book Mere Christianity:
We have two bits of evidence about the Somebody. One is the universe He has made. If we used that as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that He was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place). The other bit of evidence is that Moral Law which He has put into our minds.” – Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers Inc. 1980, 29.
In the end, creation is a good proof for the glory and creative genius (if that’s the right word) of the creator, but not necessarily His love. That piece of the puzzle must be found at the cross, where that other doctrine of which creation is an exhibit is also to be met–the doctrine of sin. Instead of flooding the earth all over again, or sticking a planet-size dynamite stick into the earth, Christ was sent to bear the curse on our behalf—that’s why I can say as a Christian that the world speaks of the great glory of our Creator, and equally of the great rebellion of humanity.
God’s Purposes in Suffering – Ultimately the weight of the curse is a cosmic thunderclap of the righteous indignation of God Himself. It is a shocking exhibit of God’s hatred of sin. Once the existence of God is presupposed, this is the pressing question: Why has God allowed so much suffering? The answer will not be much welcomed in a world that already takes no delight in the things of God. But God is not in the dock here; we are. Where was God in 9/11? He was behind it all, weaving a million glorious purposes of wrath mixed with grace; drawing straight with crooked lines; enslaving the sinful intents of those who were the instruments of so much destruction to fit his sovereign and pure purposes of judgment and mercy. Many people suffer and die in times of calamity, and this is His judgment, but many people (by God’s gracious plan) turn to such a worldview as Christianity in those terrifying times. The teachings of the scriptures about man’s being estranged from God and God’s being angry at evil in the world begin to make more sense in times of suffering. God uses death and suffering to spread the message of the gospel, because it is so often the bad news (that the world is cursed and estranged from God’s favor) that prepares the soil for the seed of the good news (God’s grace in Jesus Christ). Why does God allow suffering? For the display of His Glorious righteousness and grace, for the everlasting enjoyment of His people who are saved through the greatest display of righteousness and mercy: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.