I have argued over the years that the main reason why the present world must be regarded as pejorative in relation to heaven or the world to come is not on account of the sin of Adam, his fall from original perfection and the consequential curse on all creation but because God himself purposely subjected it to futility and corruption in hope of the world to come (Rom. 8:20). (1* See my Romans 8:18-25.) Rather than regard sin as the sole cause of all earthly ills, I maintain that it is only an exacerbating factor. (2* Cf. my Not Only But Also.) This seems to be demanded by the mere fact that both Jesus and the apostles in accordance with Jewish belief teach that there are two ages, the present one and the age to come (Mt. 28:20; Luke 20:34-36; Eph. 1:21, etc.). (3* See my The Two Ages.) As early as Genesis we gain hints of the world to come from 1:26,28, cf. Ps. 8:5f., and 2:17. In other words, eternal life which cannot be lived on a temporal earth which has a beginning (Gen. 1:1) and an end (Gen. 8:22; Mt. 24:35) is in prospect from the start. On the assumption, however, that my contention that Romans 8:18-25, like Hebrews 1:10-12, for example, point up the futility and corruptibility, the transience and potential destruction of this world in which sin also figures prominently, it is necessary for us as human beings made in the image of God to seek to justify the ways of God to man. So, on the assumption that it is a benevolent God who has brought creation into being, why all the pain, distress and suffering? Why didn’t the Creator simply make us as he made the angels who do not apparently undergo all the trials and tribulations common to man? While it is comparatively easy to account for the sufferings of the Saviour as being necessary because of human sin, it is not so regarding suffering in general. So, given my premise that the creation has been subjected to futility by divine decree irrespective of sin, what can be said?
Suffering as the Purpose of God
First, to take the bull by the horns, suffering seems to be part of the plan and purpose of God (cf. Rom. 8:18a). Why do we read in Romans 8 itself that we are to be glorified with Christ only if we suffer with him (verse 17)? This question becomes especially acute when we reflect on the fact that so much pain seems purposeless. Apart from anything else we need to recognize the fact that creation itself in the form of heat and cold to go no further (cf. Ps. 147:17; 2 Cor. 11:27; Rev, 7:16) gives us problems. If like Jesus, we suffer for sin (even if in his case it was on our account), that seems reasonable. Peter who has quite a deal to say about suffering in his first letter stresses that while we have no cause to complain if we suffer for evil conduct, we should nonetheless be prepared to suffer even unjustly. This in itself suggests that our heavenly Father sees something positive even beneficial in our suffering. And when we read on the one hand that we must (Gk dei) enter the kingdom of God through tribulation (Acts 14:22, cf. John 16:33) and on the other that we ought to count it all joy when we are tested and put under trial (James 1:2-4), this thought is confirmed.
Why then are we tested? According to the OT man was called to exercise dominion over an intractable creation from the start (Gen. 1:26,28). This in itself required commitment, discipline and hard work beyond the capacity of ordinary men and women, and they were far from being forthcoming in our early ancestors as the brief allusions to Adam (Gen. 3:17-19), Cain (4:12) and Lamech (Gen. 5:29) make clear. There is no suggestion that even Noah was wholly committed even though as a man of faith he responded magnificently and obediently (Gen. 6:22) in contrast with his contemporaries. And others later, like Job (ch. 3) and Jeremiah (20:14-18) who were so sorely tried that they wished they had never been born, found it difficult to understand why they should be tested at every moment by the watcher of humanity (Job 7:18f.) even beyond their capacity to bear it. But in case we have failed to appreciate it, the law itself, like the single commandment given to Adam, was clearly designed to humble those under it and to reveal what was in the heart of man (Dt. 8:2, cf. Ex. 16:4). Verse 16 of the same chapter goes somewhat further and indicates that along with the humbling and testing process there was the promise of good in the end (cf. Jer. 32:39-42).
Under the Law
This is a familiar theme in connection with the law. While Christians can hardly be unaware that Paul taught that the law was in effect a ministry of death (2 Cor. 3), it is frequently stressed in the OT that the law’s intention was the ultimate good of the elect nation (Dt. 4:40; 5:16,29,33, etc.). God required that his chosen people should be a disciplined (Dt. 4:36) and a righteous people (Lev. 26:1-13; Dt. 28:1-14) and as such they would not only be greatly blessed themselves but also a blessing to others worldwide (cf. Gen. 12:2f.; 18:18, etc.). This they could not be so long as they remained stiff-necked and stubborn in their sin (cf. Acts 7:51-53). Yet for all that they had not been chosen for their own righteousness but to demonstrate to the nations that their God was himself a righteous God who was intent on fulfilling his promise to their ancestors (Dt. 9:5). And that promise was ultimately the demonstration of the mercy of God to the nations including Israel itself (cf. Rom. 15:7-13). This, however, in Moses’ time was a long way ahead, but the plan was already being put into effect.
So while Israel should have been humble under the law and a demonstration to the heathen of the righteousness and mercy of God, it was not until Christ as the vine who epitomized Israel came as the end of the law (Rom. 10:4) that the objective of God was achieved.
If Israel as the kingdom of priests and a holy nation failed under the law, we as Christians under the leading of the Spirit are meant to be more successful (1 Pet. 2:9, cf. Mt. 5:13-16; Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13). In light of this James suggests that as Christians we should be more ready than Israel under the law was of being tested, disciplined (Heb. 12:3-11), humbled and rendered more patient in our aim to be more Christ-like and hence made perfect as he was (James 1:2-4). Clearly Paul had the same idea in mind in Phil 3:12-15.
Becoming the Children of God
Why is all this necessary? Though it is true that God is our Creator and we are hence his offspring in that sense (Acts 17:29), in light of the fact that eternal life as the children of God is in view, the main reasons seem to be: character training (Rom. 5:3-5, cf. 2 Pet. 1:5-8), humility as epitomized by Jesus and the pursuit of perfection (maturity) or God-likeness (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; Mt. 5:48, cf. Rom. 8:29). (4* It is significant that throughout Scripture it is the humble, Mt. 23:12, etc., who will be exalted as Jesus was, Phil. 2:5-11.)
Overcoming the World
The Bible presents our Creator God as being sovereign over creation and all his handiwork. Since he has made us in his image, his intention is that we should under him exercise a delegated dominion too (Gen. 1:26,28). In this Adam and his immediate posterity signally failed and suffered curse as a consequence (Gen. 3:17-19; 4:12; 5:29). While still in the Garden of Eden our first forebears rather than ruling creation allowed created things to rule them (cf. Rom. 1:25). Consequently the triumph implied in Psalm 8 failed to be realized. This is in striking contrast with Jesus who was able to tell his disciples at the end of his life that he had overcome the world (John 16:33, cf. Rev. 5:5,12) despite his own trials and temptations (Heb. 4:15, cf. 5:7f.). This point is underlined by the author of Hebrews who tells us that at the end of his period of incarnation Jesus was not only crowned with honour and glory (cf. Rom. 2:7, 10; 1 Pet. 1:7) but also by the grace of God tasted suffering and death for his fellows (2:9).
Contrary to received Augustinian theology we were not perfect to start with (5* Perfection was our goal, Mt. 5:48, not our beginning!) as Adam was reputed to be nor were we born sinful as a consequence of his sin, but as we gained God-likeness as those made in the image of God we were required to rule creation or exercise dominion even over our own flesh. But the flesh has its own powerful passions and desires (Rom. 7:18f.,23; Gal. 5:17; James 4:1) and inevitably acts as persecutor (Gal. 4:29). Thus overcoming the world, the flesh and the devil in the flesh constituted our greatest challenge and one that all failed to conquer. According to Paul setting our minds on the flesh is death and enmity with God, and with such an attitude it is impossible to please him (Rom. 8:5-8). In the event, only Jesus as the Word made flesh succeeded in conquering specifically in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). Only he progressed unsullied from ground to glory (Eph. 4:9f.), and in doing so paved the way of us his fellows or neighbours. In other words, he loved his neighbour as himself in accordance with his Father’s commands and in fulfillment of the law. We are now called to do the same in faith presenting our bodies (flesh) as a living sacrifice in spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1). Given this scenario, suffering is unavoidable.
According to the Bible, not only did the devil succeed in deceiving Eve and the heathen in general (Rom. 1:24-32; Eph. 4:19) but in the event he gained mastery over Adam and the Jews as well despite their having the law. Even we as Christians are reminded that the devil is the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4) and that the whole world lies in his power (1 John 5:19, cf. John 14:30). We must therefore keep ourselves from idols (1 John 5:21). However, the glory of the gospel is that Jesus overcame the devil and was able to say that he, the devil, had no claim on him (John 14:30). This was apparent from his temptations recorded in Matthew 4, for example. And James is able to say that if we as believers in Christ resist the devil (4:7), he will flee from us rampant roaring lion though he is (1 Pet. 5:8).
So, if we are to be like God and conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) and not that of the devil (cf. John 8:44), sin must be overcome as mankind was warned as early as the book of Genesis (4:7). The light of the glory of the gospel of Christ who is the image of God is manifested in us as we overcome by the grace of God.
But while testing and temptation in the course of our pilgrimage through this world would appear to be reasonable in training, disciplining, humbling, sanctifying and perfecting us, can the same be said about the fiery trials, persecutions and hostilities that affect us so readily. Peter is convinced that it can. Like the law (Dt. 8:2,16) these reveal what the true state of our hearts is (1 Pet. 1:6f.). They also do something else, that is, reveal whether like the Israelites longing to return to Egypt (e.g. Num. 11:4-6), we prefer this world to the next as Esau apparently did (Heb. 12:16). After all, since some like Demas, having shown some semblance of commitment to the Christian cause, relapse and go back to the world (2 Tim. 4:10) as the Galatians were tempted to go back to Judaism (Gal. 5:1, etc.), John’s warning that we should not love this world is timely (1 John 2:15-17, cf. James 4:4). The basic reason given for this is that this world for all its genuine goodness is nonetheless purely temporary; it is a testing ground in preparation for the real world, that is, the age to come, that lies ahead of us. The question is whether or not we shall be considered worthy of attaining to that age (Luke 20:35). The danger of being waylaid and weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life is acute and to yield is a recipe for ultimate disaster (Luke 21:34-36). In the circumstances, however, God has deemed it necessary (Gk dei) for trial and tribulation to try us (Acts 14:22) before we enter the kingdom. Even as he was called Paul was warned that suffering was to be his lot (Acts 9:16). This was verified by what happened to him later ( e.g. 2 Cor. 6:4-10; 11:23-29; 12:7-10). However, he was buoyed up by the promise of good to come (2 Tim. 4:18) which after all was a familiar Scriptural theme as numerous references make clear: Gen. 12:2,7; 28:13-15; 32:12; Ex. 3:8; 6:7f.; 18:9; Lev. 26:3-13; Num. 10:29-32; 14:7; Dt. 6:24; 28:63; Jud. 8:35; 1 Sam. 25:30f.; 1 K. 8:66; Isa. 55:3; Jer. 29:10f.; 31:17,33; 33:9; Ezek. 36:11, etc.). The heavenly call (Phil. 3:12-14, cf. Heb. 3:1) and eternal life constituted no small considerations.
Natural evil like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, violent storms, tsunamis and the rest are doubtless designed to impress on us the shakability (Heb. 12:27), uncertainty and temporality of creation and the need to escape from this world into a safe haven where God is our refuge (cf. Gal. 1:4). Like the human body of flesh which is part of it, the visible creation is not only temporary but also corruptible (Rom. 8:20). This being the case, our recognition that it is so should serve as a stimulus to seek triumph over and deliverance from it. And the only way to do this is by committing ourselves to Christ.
Is the Suffering Warranted?
The question of whether the degree of suffering specifically for Christ experienced by some is warranted persists. In our weakness we are all inclined to think not (cf. Heb. 12:11), but the apostles warn us not to falter but rather to follow in the steps of Jesus. They remained convinced that in light of the glory to come pain paled into insignificance (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). Indeed, Paul was prepared to say that the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection which involved his sharing of Christ’s suffering and becoming like him in his death was gain (Phil. 3:8-11). We doubtless need to adopt the same attitude even if we recognize with the author of Hebrews that all discipline is painful rather than pleasant (Heb. 12:11). After all, God is treating us as his children and this according to John demonstrates his love (1 John 3:1-3). If he treated Christ, the Righteous One, in this way (Heb. 5:7-9), then we must expect him to do the same with us. (6* It is noticeable that in his high priestly prayer Jesus does not ask that we should be taken out of the world but that God should keep us from the evil one, John 17:15.) Training which yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness produces family likeness (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11f.) and in this way eternal harmony is achieved (1 Cor. 15:27f.).
Fruit-bearing, of course, is basic to the Christian life but it involves suffering. Lack of it threatens destruction (7* See my Fruitlessness and Destruction.). In his discourse in John 15:1-11 Jesus indicates the importance of our being productive. He illustrates his point with reference to the vine which in order to be fruitful is subject to pruning by God himself. The pruning process is, however, painful but it glorifies God and brings us eventual joy as it did to Jesus (Heb. 12:2). Of course, the same is said with regard to holiness and righteousness by the author of Hebrews (12:10f.) who tells us that short-term discipline for those who are God’s children is for their good. (8* It is worth noting that the shortness of the time of discipline correlates with Rom. 8:18 and 2 Cor. 4:17.)
The Vindication of God
While the gospel enables us as believers in Christ to approach the throne of grace boldly (Heb. 4:16), it certainly does not suggest that we do so boastfully (1 Cor. 1:29, etc.). This world is so difficult to navigate that we are all forced to rely on an alien righteousness, as Luther put it, to achieve our heavenly goal (Heb. 2:9f.; 3:1). Jesus alone successfully kept the law (Gal. 2:16) and fulfilled all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) despite his own difficulties (Heb. 4:15, etc.). This is exactly as God intended (Phil. 2:10f.). And the time will come when despite the severity of the struggle (Acts 14:22, cf. Rom. 8:35-39; Heb. 11:32-40) which resembles the pilgrimage of the Israelites through the wilderness, we shall all fall before the throne of God and give praise (Rev. 5:13f.). When this occurs, God will be amply justified (Rev. 4:9-11).
The Love of God Ultimate
Behind all the pain and suffering of this world we are constantly assured not least in the OT that behind it is the purposeful love of God. Job who lived long before the coming of Christ was perhaps not as aware of this as we are, yet even he maintained his faith.
At the end of the day, as creatures made in the image of God we are called as his children (Eph. 1:4-6; 1 John 3:1-3) to be perfect like God (Lev. 11:44f.; Mt. 5:48, cf. Phil. 3:12-14). In other words, God himself is not only our praiseworthy Creator (Rev. 4:11) but our model. His greatness is reflected in both creation (cf. Job 38-42; Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20) and redemption (Phil. 2:9-11). His love is manifested in his grace and humility. Our aim then is perfection in Christ (Mt. 19:17,21; Rom. 8:29). Of this Paul and the rest of the apostles were well aware and strove despite or rather through or by means of their sufferings to be conformed to the image of Christ (Phil. 3:10, cf. 2 Cor. 1:5f.; 3:18) who himself was the supreme image of God (Heb. 1:3, cf. Col. 1:15). The apostles, like Christ himself (Heb. 12:1f.), were clearly convinced that the temporary pains of this world were well worth enduring for eternal ends (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Food for Thought
If Jesus thought that his sufferings on our behalf were worth his subsequent glory (cf. Luke 24:26; Acts 3:18; 1 Pet. 1:11; Heb. 12:2), how much more ought we to regard ours in the same light (cf. Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). Clearly, where there is no pain, there is no ultimate gain.
On animal suffering, see my Nature Red in Tooth and Claw.
Note: Andersen, Job, pp.66-70,148f.