1 The Old Testament on suffering
The Old Testament, honoured by both Judaism and Christianity, does not provide easy answers to the challenges of suffering: instead, it gives us stories full of tension and faith. Avoiding simplistic reductionism, these scriptures portray a good and sovereign God who presides over all things, but who, nonetheless, also appears to allow events to happen that he does not think are good. Sometimes God appears to act directly in creating events that cause the suffering (e.g. in Lev 26:25 a plague is unleashed; cf. 2 Chr 7:13). At other times, the event that causes suffering occurs in opposition to God’s revealed will (e.g. Prov 6:16–19 catalogues seven ‘things that the Lord hates’, yet all of them happen in this world, creating great evil and disorder, presumably against his ‘will’). Amid this tension, worshippers of Yahweh are to cling to the Lord who made a covenant with them, listening carefully to his prophets while practising epistemic humility by trusting in God’s goodness and provision (Deut 29:29).
Thus the Old Testament displays an abiding tension in which the believer is asked to face the suffering and problems in this world by affirming the holy goodness of God, despite the frequent appearance of events that might seem to give evidence otherwise. Hence, when the thinkers of the Enlightenment began to engage with this tension much later in history, they were not the first to discover this tension; nor were they the first to ask hard questions, since these challenges had always been a major part of the Jewish tradition. As we will see, however, such questions were less asked about God and more directly asked to God.
Reconciling trust in Yahweh with hardship and suffering is central to Israel’s story, and that dynamic is one reason that later Christians found (and continue to find) the Christ event so powerful: in the Christ event, God acknowledges the deep and multi-layered trouble in this world even as the incarnate Son enters his fallen creation to make right what has gone wrong. In Christian accounts of suffering, the Creator God thus accomplishes the work of re-creation, defeating the sin and suffering that have intruded into his good creation. But before we reach that conclusion, we need to gain a proper appreciation of the key movements in the story of the Hebrew texts. To that end, we will move from creation to the fall and then look at the tradition’s handling of the resulting tensions.
1.1 The goodness of creation and the problem of the fall
While later textual traditions (e.g. 2 Macc 7:28; Heb 11:3) affirm that God created the visible out of the invisible or non-existent (creatio ex nihilo), the Genesis narrative highlights the Creator bringing order out of that which was ‘formless and empty’ (tōhū wābōhū; cf. Levenson 1988; May 1994). From its beginning, Genesis emphasizes that the Creator God brings about good in all that he makes, orders, and sustains – ultimately calling it ‘very good’ (Gen 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31; cf. McFarland 2014). It is so good, in fact, that God rests from his creative efforts for a day, apparently content with what he had thus far accomplished (Gen 2:1–3).
At the pinnacle of this good ordering of creation emerges ʾadam: humanity as male and female, uniquely imaging this Creator God and his relationship to his creation (Gen 1:27). As that image, humans were called to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1:28). In other words, the narrative portrays a good Creator who entrusts especial care of his creation to human creatures (e.g. Levering 2017: esp. 109–226). They were to walk with God, to care for their neighbours, and to cultivate a healthy relationship with the land (cf. Bonhoeffer 1997). This was God’s original design and expectation. Only with this positive creation narrative as background can Christians begin to make sense of the horror of suffering: lament later becomes important because the hurt and problems are contrasted with the original promise of good that somehow became lost or distorted.
Alongside the doctrine of this good creation, therefore, an understanding of what became known as the ‘fall’ is also foundational for a classical Christian account of suffering (see Anderson 2009; Blocher 1999; Johnson and Lauber 2016; McCall 2019; Nelson 2011). In Genesis 3 – a narrative which has historically been used as a starting point for reflection on the problem of sin’s entrance into human experience – a crafty serpent appears, casting doubt about God’s words and intentions into the minds of his human hearers: ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ (Gen 3:1, NIV).
This strange encounter appears to presuppose that an element of the not good – in the form of a deceptive serpent – has found its way into God’s otherwise good creation. The text leaves the strange elements (e.g. why a talking snake? Where did evil come from? Why did God allow evil to enter the garden?) undeveloped and unexplained; perhaps because of this, some Christian traditions (e.g. Anselm, Milton) expanded on that theme, placing great weight on an angelic rebellion that they believed happened prior to humanity’s first sin and which later provoked the temptation humanity faced in the garden. Although these are fair questions about the snake, evil’s origin, and the like, the text – which is what we have to deal with – does not answer them. As it stands, the text points us elsewhere, to the nature of human rebellion and to the consequent sin and suffering in the whole world. Now Adam and Eve are naked and vulnerable, their eyes are open, and they are afraid (Gen 3:6, 7, 10). Shalom – the Hebrew concept of expansive wholeness and peace – has been deeply disrupted at multiple levels: now human relationships with the Creator, with their neighbours, within themselves, and with the earth have all been corrupted (Gen 3:11–24; cf. Plantinga 1995). Each of these disruptions (i.e. human to God, human to human, intra-human, and human to the earth) opens us to suffering.
In Gen 2:16–17, God warned that to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would bring death. Since Adam and Eve did not immediately die physically, many Christian interpreters believed this warning to indicate not immediate death, but the entrance of unexpected forms of suffering and painful aspects of life that anticipate the ultimate grief of death. Adam and Eve were exiled from the tree of life; now all live in the shadow of this failure. Humanity’s relationship to the earth is rendered unpleasant and difficult rather than mutually enriching as originally intended (Gen 3:17–19). Further, contrasting Cain and Abel’s story (Gen 4) with the original intent of communion shows that neighbour relations are now bent in adversarial rather than supportive directions (cf. Moberly 2009: esp. 94–99). Although one might affirm that there was a positive use for pain prior to the fall (e.g. heat from a fire could helpfully warn a person to draw back), the strictly negative or purely disruptive aspects of pain and suffering follow from this disordering of God’s ordered creation. Christians have, therefore, at various times examined each of these four main relationships (to God, neighbour, oneself, and the earth), with different traditions regularly focusing on one relation more than the others. They are generally consistent, however, in tracing suffering back to the early events of Genesis.
1.2 Holistic accounts of sin and suffering
Even though various traditions disagree on details and their implications, all of them place a tremendous amount of theological weight on the three opening chapters of Genesis as they try to make sense of suffering. They frequently categorize particular evils into three groups: the moral, the natural, and the demonic (e.g. Plantinga 1982). This categorization allows us to see how God might relate distinctly to different kinds of corruption and the ongoing reality of suffering.
Philosophers and theologians (e.g. Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Calvin) have often considered human agents to be a microcosm of the universe, so that Christian accounts often understand their actions either to foster shalom or to hinder it for the rest of the creation (e.g. John of Damascus, ‘The Orthodox Faith’ 2.12). The misuse of human agency (i.e. moral evil) causes suffering through power differentials, jealousy, or ‘hard hearts’ (callousness or lack of compassion). Narratives describing how people repeatedly rebelled against God, hurt one another, and suffered under the consequences permeate the Old Testament. Even early in Genesis, God makes a sober assessment of the human plight: ‘the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth’ (Gen 8:21). But, although this disordering of the human heart leads to disharmony and pain, the Old and New Testaments also leave room for disharmony and pain that is not so easily traced back to moral evil. Within the canon, there are both occasions of a retributive understanding of suffering (Deut 27:11–28:68; Ps 37; e.g. Prov 10:3, 9; 11:5–6) and suffering that cannot be so easily explained (Eccl 7:14; 8:14; see also Walton 2008: 650–654).
Sin does cause suffering, if only in the diminished capacity of the sinner to experience the goodness of God. Further, when God presents his judgments, repentance leads to restoration and peace, whereas rebellion eventually leads to destruction. But even in the clear cases in which sin leads directly to suffering (see the warnings of the prophets below), God is slow to anger; he repeatedly urges sinners to repentance, and he is quick to restore the repentant to his fellowship and to wellbeing. The connections between sin and suffering are much too complicated to allow the reader to draw simple cause-and-effect connections between any particular case of suffering and personal sin (cf. the ‘retribution principle’, in which God punishes people as a direct consequence of their sin). The Old Testament (see especially the entire book of Job) and then later Jesus himself (e.g. John 9:2–3) reject such unnecessary and overly simplistic correlations that blame an individual for their suffering.
A great deal of human pain and suffering occurs not because people hurt one another but because natural forces create destruction. Theologians and philosophers commonly group tragedy resulting from earthquakes, tornadoes, flooding, and the like into another category: natural evil. Although some are clear that this is really not ‘natural’ at all (e.g. Hart 2005). When people are struck by such ‘acts of God’, at the very least we take it as a sign that the original shalom God was creating is not currently being achieved in its fullness. This establishes a link between protology and eschatology: to understand the larger story of suffering, one must look both backwards and forwards, yet always being mindful of the present situation. Creation reveals an original harmony (protology); the fall asserts that things are not as they should be (present experience); and hope promises that one day God will not simply restore but make things gloriously good at a level not yet seen (eschatology). The Apostle Paul taps into this tradition when he observes creation is currently ‘groaning’ as it longs for deliverance (Rom 8:19–22). Paul does not here create a new idea, but draws on the Jewish eschatological expectation that one day surprising levels of earthly harmony will be restored – a harmony represented in the Old Testament by descriptions of former adversaries in the animal world now living at peace together and with humankind (e.g. Isa 11:6–9; 65:25).
Finally, Christian traditions have sometimes categorized forces that oppose God and his rule under the label ‘demonic evil’ (e.g. Anselm, ‘On the Fall of the Devil’; Boyd 2001; Wink 1984). Modern scholars and theologians have commonly understood such demonic forces metaphorically as a phenomenon located in the individual, a cosmic force to which all beings are victim, and/or the systems of evil that perpetuate sin (e.g. Bultmann, Kasmann, liberationists; see Croasmun 2017). However, these forces of evil have commonly been traditionally understood in personified form as Satan and other particular, and often personal, demonic forces.
In an effort to make sense of the serpent in Genesis 3, strange figures like the nephilim (Gen 6:1–4) and the ‘watchers’ (e.g. 16:1; 86:1–4), the Satan (Hebrew śāṭān) or Devil (Greek diabolos) in places like Job 1–2 and Zechariah 3, a fairly large consensus emerged that suffering cannot be explained merely in terms of human agency or natural disasters but also involves larger forces that appear to be at enmity with God – a theme we will see repeated in the teachings and ministry of Jesus. While Ezekiel 28 has been employed by many Bible readers (and now rejected by many scholars!) as a source for explaining Satan’s origins, the apocryphal book of Wisdom explicitly links Satan’s envy with death’s entrance into the reality of human existence (11:24). The Book of Revelation (12:9), written later, similarly links the ‘great dragon’ with ‘the Devil and Satan’, identifying this composite figure as the deceiver of the world.
However, many Christians throughout history have believed that God promised from the beginning that this non-human force of disruption and suffering will be overcome (Gen 3:15). Even though this serpent-like enemy will still cause havoc and pain, suffering and death will not be the final word for God’s people. Further, the scriptures sometimes link these hostile spiritual forces acting contrary to God not only to heavenly figures but also to earthly powers (e.g. Ezek 28). The book of Revelation draws upon this tradition as it seeks to make sense of the church’s pain in the midst of persecution and suffering. Yet, as theologically mysterious and potentially problematic as they may be, the biblical texts always present the Creator God as kingly and sovereign over all the world, somehow over these evil powers and the pain they inflict (Job 1:9–12; 1 Kgs 22:19; Judg 9:23; 1 Sam 16:2, 14–23) – tolerating them for a time, but eventually annihilating them. In other words, the Old Testament does not present a Gnostic or Manichean account of evil and suffering, but a much more mysterious and complicated view of a Creator God who reigns and yet does not affirm all that happens in this fallen world as ‘good’.
Some texts (e.g. Deut 11:26–28; Josh 23:15–16; 24:20) assert that blessings and curses will result from obedience or disobedience, respectively (cf. Coats 1981; Westermann 1978). Other texts simply threaten that curses will directly result from rebellion against God (e.g. Lev 26:14–16; Deut 28:15–68). Some texts view suffering as divine punishment inflicted upon disobedient humans – both corporately (e.g. Jer 24:8–10) and individually (e.g. 2 Sam 12:13–15) – also proclaiming that, if the people would repent, they would be restored and experience relief from sufferings and the arrival of fresh waves of flourishing (e.g. Exod 15:26; Lev 26:3–13).
The Old Testament treats body, mind, will, and affections as inseparably interconnected, a holistic view that seems at odds with the modern tendency to divide suffering into physical, psychological, spiritual, and social categories (cf. Wolff 1974). For example, God’s Spirit departs from Saul and an ‘evil spirit’, also from God, then torments him so that he raves and is overcome with anger (1 Sam 16:14–16; cf. 1 Sam 18:10–11); but the lyre-playing of David calms him. Saul’s physical, psychological, spiritual, and social experience are all part of an integrated whole (for more on disease, illness, etc., see Amundsen 1996; Seybold and Mueller 1981).
Nevertheless, these same scriptures also affirm that not all suffering or pain is a direct result of divine punishment. For example, Mephibosheth was crippled, not because of this own sin but because of an accident that happened as people hurried about (2 Sam 4:4), which could still be related to the general disruption of shalom in this fallen world. Nor did the common experience of ‘leprosy’ (ṣāraʿaṯ – now more closely linked with something like psoriasis rather than what is known as leprosy or Hansen’s disease today) necessarily mean the person afflicted had done anything especially wrong: rather, it was a sign that the good creation was now distorted and littered with what was ‘unclean’ (e.g. Lev 13:8). Other texts, however, directly link ‘leprosy’ to particular acts of unfaithfulness (e.g. Num 12; 2 Kgs 5:27).
When illness of whatever sort came upon people, it was understood that only God had the ultimate power to heal (e.g. Exod 15:26) and deliver (Brown 1995). Not trusting him to deal with physical illness (cf. Jer 30:17) or with suffering from oppressive outside agents (e.g. Deut 1:31–33; 2 Chr 16:1–10) might be deemed unfaithfulness. Hezekiah thus becomes a model of crying out to God amid sickness and suffering: while Isaiah – speaking on behalf of God – tells Hezekiah to get his house in order because his sickness would lead to death, the weakened man does not stoically accept the prophetic utterance but instead ‘turned’ to God and prayed, even weeping bitterly (Isa 38:1–2). Rather than be upset that the ill king did not merely accept the bad news, God responded positively to his sincere prayers, extending Hezekiah’s life by fifteen years (Isa 38:4–6).
Turning to God for healing was meant not simply to bring health but also to provoke praise (e.g. Jer 17:14; Ps 103:2–3). Healing was never merely thought of as physical or mental in isolation, for Yahweh both ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds’ (Ps 147:3; cf. Ps 34:18). Accordingly, the texts that deal with suffering sometimes link acts of repentance, prayer, and praise with the sought-after healing (e.g. Jer 3:22; Ps 50:15). The prophets and the people even wrestle with God, not accepting the punishments God foretold, but returning instead to the Lord in humility, obedience, and love, because God is always ready to forgive and restore the repentant (e.g. Jer 15:1–21; Joel 2:13).
The conceptual tension remains unresolved: the sovereign creator God originally made all things good, but that good creation has been disrupted by original and ongoing rebellion from both human and non-human forces. This disruption has disordered – and continues to distort – human relationships with God, others, oneself, and even the earth, producing pain and suffering that culminates in death. The biblical texts continually reject easy solutions: God is neither absent nor ignorant, nor is he a puppet master or mad scientist. Instead, Israel’s sovereign Lord is holy and compassionate, wise and patient, just and gracious (e.g. Num 14:18; Neh 9:16–17; Ps 86:15). Based on that theology, biblical authors respond to suffering by advocating the practices of lament and praise, to which we now turn.
1.3 Lament and praise
In the biblical texts, God consistently calls his people to be truthful – both regarding his character (i.e. God is holy, good, compassionate, and loving), as well as about their sin and the real suffering of the world. Abandoning a truthful account of one or the other might produce an easier problem to solve, but that would be worthless in real life. Job, who appears to try to disentangle this intellectual puzzle, is unable to solve it. Instead of attempting to resolve a philosophical quandary, Israel is encouraged to respond to the brokenness of the world and their lives at the personal level, crying out with both corporate and individual laments to the God who heard them (see, e.g., Billings 2015; Brock and Harasta 2009; Pinn 1999).
Hebrew has several different terms to express lament, all connected to some form of suffering and often death. To provide only a few examples: sāpaḏ and the related mispēḏ most often refer to the mourning rites, like wailing and the tearing of one’s clothes, demonstrated at someone’s death. Qînāh denotes a poem that is chanted in mourning; ’ābal often indicates mourning rites for the dead, but it can be used metaphorically (Isa 24:4). Nāhāh signifies the wailing itself that occurs with mourning.
Some laments call for corporate participation: for example, King David’s lament over Saul’s death spoke not only for himself (1 Sam 1:17–27), but for all of Israel. The book of Lamentations, which is filled with sorrow, questions, and longings, calls for the whole community to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Long after the event, gatherings in Jewish synagogues would annually remember this devastation by reading this book and joining the chorus of lament, mourning an institutional hurt that God had not yet relieved. Individual worshippers sometimes also embodied their lament by rolling in the dust of the earth (e.g. Mic 1:10; Jer 14:2) and even ashes (Ezek 27:30), pointing to humanity’s humble beginnings and the sober expectation that suffering so often ends in dissolution and futility. Lament was often the expected response to suffering and death (e.g. 2 Chr 35:25): not only family members but also, if they could be afforded, professional mourners were involved, and this mourning generally lasted seven days.
Within the Old Testament, it is probably the Psalter that has proven to be the resource most often drawn upon by believers dealing with various forms of suffering. Many scholars estimate that approximately thirty to forty percent of the Psalms could be roughly categorized as some form of lament (e.g. Waltke, Houston, and Moore 2014). Apart from a single psalm (Ps 88) that almost exclusively focuses on pain and darkness without significant mention of hope or promise, most of the laments move between fear and hope, questions and confidence, complaint and praise, but not in consistent proportions. All of these lamentations (even Ps 88) are examples of worship, for here the author or community of faith takes their fears, frustrations, hurts, and grief directly to Yahweh, believing that ultimately all the chaos of this world occurs not outside of his sovereignty but in some mysterious way within his watch and care.
Lamenting worshippers pose their questions directly to God. As only one example, Ps 101:1 asks: ‘Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’ This form of direct address is possible because God is not a distant deity, but the living hope of Israel (cf. Pemberton 2012). Sufferers often feel forsaken (Ps 22:1), forgotten (Ps 42:9), judged (Ps 74:1), and abandoned by their God (Ps 115:2). ‘Where is your God?’ is a taunt that others employ against suffering believers (e.g. Ps 42:3, 10; 79:10). Similarly, the question, ‘How long?’, presented directly to Yahweh, recurs throughout the Psalter (e.g. Ps 6:3; 13:1–2; 35:17). Even though this good and holy God cannot be considered evil nor personally do wickedness, evil and suffering clearly happen in this world that Yahweh created and sustains (Isa 45:7). Because of this tension, the worshipper can only resolve to bring these concerns directly to God. Further, these laments and prayers display the humility of those who remember that they are but clay (see Isa 45:9), finite creatures rather than infinite Creator (Job 38).
Rather than presenting God in his sovereignty as a puppet master who directly pulls every string and personally makes everything happen, the laments in the scriptures point in a different direction. The texts show how Israel viewed Yahweh as the sovereign king of a kingdom. Though events may happen in his realm that the king doesn’t personally do or even approve of, that king is still in some way responsible for what has taken place under his reign. In some sense the king could have prevented any and all threats from entering the land; but when he doesn’t, complaints can appropriately be voiced directly to this king. This is always within the context of recognizing the Creator-creature distinction between God and human beings, and being mindful of human limits in understanding and power. Nevertheless, maintaining a view that this sovereign king is good – despite the presence of the sin and suffering experienced in his land – depends on an expectation that the king will one day fully restore justice and usher in shalom.
Given that the relationship of this God to his people is emphatically and intensely personal, lament was the appropriate response to their suffering. God repeatedly calls them to voice their hearts to him: far from being a sign of unbelief, therefore, their heartfelt expressions of concern, question, fear, ache, and pain were profound expressions of trusting in the Lord, especially when they can find neither answers nor earthly deliverance. In all their suffering, whether as a consequence of rebellion (Num 32:15–23) or in the complete absence of any direct connection to some personal sin (as with Job), the Lord of Creation and God of the Covenant calls them to turn to him in trust, to rely on his abundant compassion, his quick forgiveness, and his company on their dark path (e.g. 2 Kgs 13:23; 2 Chr 36:15; Ps 79:8–9; Isa 49:13–15; 63:7; Zech 10:6). God in his compassion never forgets that we are but dust (Ps 103:13–14), and thus, even if for a time God appears to have deserted his people, he is inclined towards mercy and he promises to restore and gather those who trust in him (Isa 54:7–8; Lam 3:32; cf. Matt 23:37).
By the end of the book of Job, God does not give Job a direct answer to his questions about his own suffering (cf. Ham 2013). As with Job, the scriptures also do not explain why some who follow Yahweh do not, in their lifetimes, appear to escape their pain and suffering even as the wicked often appear to prosper (e.g. Ps 94:3; cf. Prov 11:10). The indirect answer, however, is more important than any solution to the intellectual conundrum could be: while God may not deliver some people from the trials of this life, he promises to be with them in the midst of their troubles (cf. Dan 3). And for Christian readers, the answer to Job was not ultimately a sentence, but a person: in the Son becoming incarnate, God himself becomes Job (Kapic 2017). In Christ we encounter the sympathetic high priest who personally knows not only the pain of suffering, but also of feeling forsaken.
Christians will later deduce that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection constitute the substance of the answer to this problem, although the New Testament authors articulate no abstract philosophical explanation for suffering. Far from advocating the establishment of a new earthly political power as the way to end their suffering, they present to us a very human Messiah who is hurt, betrayed, and ultimately suffers unto death. They make further connections: the Father of Israel is none other than the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The eternal Son sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit becomes genuinely and fully human (e.g. John 1:14), experiencing pain and suffering, facing the darkness of that same death and hell which Christ and we so deeply lament: Jesus becomes the embodiment of Psalm 22’s lament (Kapic 2011; see the whole of Ps 22 as the context of the cry of dereliction in Matt 27:46 and Mark 15:34). Through his suffering and death (Ps 22:15, 30–31; cf. John 19:30; Heb 5:7), followed by his resurrection and ascension (1 Tim 3:16), Jesus uniquely brings his people the promised deliverance. Thus, while those who hang on a tree as a lawbreaker are under the curse (Deut 21:22–23), Jesus in some mysterious way enters into the curse in order to restore the blessings to those who by faith are found in him (Gal 3:10–14; cf. Rom 6:23). However, before looking at the material in the New Testament, it is necessary first to examine passages from the prophets regarding suffering.
1.4 Prophetic voices
Hebrew prophets were less concerned with predicting the future than with shaping it. Prophets sent by God proclaimed that if the people did not repent of their rebellion, God would destroy their violent and corrupt ways of life – in short, serious suffering would follow. These prophetic warnings, however, contained promises of escape. Jonah, for example, reluctantly warns Nineveh that in forty days the city will be overthrown (Jonah 3:4). His reluctance derives from his fear that they will actually repent, and – much to Jonah’s dismay – the Ninevites took his denunciations seriously and changed their behaviour (3:5), thus avoiding the disaster that had threatened them (Jonah 3). But years later, the prophet Nahum’s call for repentance apparently goes unheeded, and the city is destroyed (see Nah 1–3). The narratives in the prophetic books thus display the two roads of judgment: the people could submit to his verdict condemning their behaviour and turn back to Yahweh in repentance, thus often escaping painful consequences; or they could harden their hearts and ignore his calls for repentance, opening themselves to having his judgment violently thrust upon them.
In the discussion of rebellion and suffering in Israel’s history there also lies a fascinating thread of what is often called ‘remnant theology’ (cf. Hasel 1972). This tradition becomes vital to Jesus’ self-understanding and to later Christian approaches to the problem of suffering. Generally called the ‘servant songs’ (i.e. Isa 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–7; 52:13–53:12), the canonical book of Isaiah includes four poems that highlight a strange and hopeful idea: a remnant could suffer on behalf of others, and in a vicarious manner could bring deliverance and protection for the larger community. Here emerges the imagery of a Spirit-filled suffering servant, who, in his gentleness, brings justice to the earth (Isa 42:1–4). This remnant – whether corporate or individual – represents Israel (49:3), bringing light and salvation (49:6). He speaks not to condemn but to sustain the weary (50:4–5), although in the process he would willingly absorb the blows and afflictions he does not deserve (50:5–8). The servant figure who emerges is ultimately exalted, ‘lifted up’ (52:13), not as an impassive personage but presented as a figure who took on the pain of others and was ‘so marred’ that ‘his appearance [was] beyond human semblance’ (52:14). He exhibits manifold evidence of suffering, from physical distress to rejection and scorn, filled with sorrow and grief (53:2–3). This picture contains a vital element of the remnant motif, especially as it describes the suffering servant who absorbs the pains of others:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:4–6)
Sobering images of a lamb led to slaughter (Isa 53:7), of oppression and judgment, of exile and isolation – all of these came upon the servant figure who was innocent of violence or deceit (53:7–9). Somehow by bearing the iniquities of others, suffering in anguish, ‘he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for transgressors’ (53:12). Here Isaiah presents a remnant theology in which this one could act on behalf of others (cf. Mark 10:45). This Hebrew idea illuminates Jesus’ self-understanding in contrast with certain messianic expectations of others (cf. Bock and Glaser 2012), such as that in a single ‘day of the Lord’ the Messiah will bring destruction and save Israel, ushering in a purely earthly kingdom, bringing total devastation to the Gentiles (cf. Ridderbos 1962). Instead, Jesus’ vision shapes later Christian interpretation of the Messiah’s suffering and death as offering them the basis for life and redemption (e.g. Green 1990). At the same time, for Christians, reading the salvific work of Christ through the lens of Isaiah provided a powerful prospect for a fresh approach to the problem of ongoing human suffering and pain.
2 The New Testament on suffering
While the Old Testament provides the soil out of which Christian approaches to the problem of suffering grow, the massive tree that centres the garden is Jesus the Messiah. In New Testament perspective, all of Christian theology can only centre on this Messiah – the one filled with the Spirit beyond measure (John 3:34), the one who became the representative and fulfilment of Israel. This Messiah was the king who uniquely inaugurated the in-breaking kingdom of God (start with Wright 1992; 1996). Earlier messianic expectations had heavily used royal imagery, and by the first century they were often understood in predominantly earthly political categories that expected deliverance from this-worldly political enemies (e.g. Rome); instead of merely fulfilling those overly narrow expectations, Jesus reinterprets and redirects them (cf. France 1971).
Whereas the Old Testament often links suffering with experiencing divine judgment – though certainly not always – the New Testament often portrays suffering as being linked to following Jesus and being willing to face difficulty for his name’s sake, as in persecution. The story of Jesus’ own suffering reshaped how believers viewed suffering in general for several reasons. First, Christians claimed that God in Christ had entered into human pain and suffering. Further, they honoured those who willingly endured suffering that resulted from following this Messiah and sacrificially serving others in his name. Finally, because the imitation of Christ was central to the concept of being called ‘Christian’, to undergo times of suffering because of that imitation transformed their whole view of suffering.
Only after his life, death, resurrection, and ascension do the followers of this Messiah reconstruct their understanding of what suffering is and how to respond to it. In doing so they are not rejecting the Old Testament but affirming its fulfilment in the Messiah. This reconstruction will be clarified by a brief examination of Jesus’ healing ministry, his death, and finally his resurrection and ascension.
2.1 Signs of the kingdom: healings and help
Jesus was not naive about the problem of sin and suffering or about human rebellion against God. Yet in responding to suffering he directs people not only to the past and present but to the future, giving Christian theology a distinctively eschatological turn. He brings promises of future hope into one’s present situation, accompanied by tastes of a new creation. As Immanuel, God with us (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:22–23), Jesus is presented as consistently gentle, concerned, and compassionate in the face of suffering (e.g. Matt 11:29; 20:34; Luke 7:13). He does not present himself as a politician seeking to gather and expand military or earthly power, but as the kingly Son of Man who has come to rescue others (e.g. Matt 20:28; Luke 19:10). He speaks and acts as a servant who identifies with the most vulnerable and weak, ultimately showing genuine solidarity with others as he undergoes temptation (Heb 2:18), suffering, and even enters into the darkness of death (e.g. Mark 10:45). But before turning to the significance of the cross, we must pay attention to his deeds and words – not simply to understand Jesus’ messianic identity, but also to see how they shape Christian conceptions of pain and suffering.
Jesus both warns against equating personal suffering with personal sin (John 9:2) and consistently exhibits a sensitive kind-heartedness and empathy towards those who suffer. Many have argued that this compassion, expressing his love, is his strongest and most common passion (e.g. Warfield 1950; cf. Voorwinde 2005; 2011). Spiritual union with Christ, then, means that Christians are not only endowed with Christ’s attitudes but also consciously seek to imitate him, thus reshaping the Christian concepts of how believers should experience and treat suffering.
When John the Baptist (who was suffering in prison) sent messengers to Jesus asking if he was indeed the expected Messiah, Jesus tells them to report what they see and hear: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’ (Matt 11:5). Rather than offering a non-physical spiritual or philosophical answer, he points at the relief of concrete, genuine, present forms of suffering. John the Baptist had explicitly drawn on eschatological passages of judgment, reflecting Isaiah’s warnings of ‘terrible recompense’ and the ‘day of vengeance’ to come, warning (in John’s words) of the ‘axe’ and the ‘winnowing fork’ that are on the way, and the ‘chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Matt 3:1–12; cf. e.g. Isa 29:20; 35:4; 61:2). Jesus responds to John, not by directly denying aspects of judgment, but instead directing the hearers to parallel passages in Isaiah that stated God’s promises of healing, passages that John seemed to ignore or downplay (e.g. Isa 29:18; 32:3–4; 26:19; 35:5–6; 61:1). Jesus is telling John and all who were to follow that he was bringing healing and hope, and that the expected judgment was not going to fall on those who deserved it, but upon him, their suffering servant (cf. Dunn 2003: 445–455; Kapic 2018: 75–88).
Furthermore, the healing Jesus brings – drawing on Isaiah – addresses not merely physical suffering (e.g. being blind or lame) but also the associated non-physical suffering, such as financial distress, social and religious isolation, feelings of divine abandonment, and psychological trauma. For example, in the healing of the Geresene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20), the man is liberated not only from the possession of the league of demons within him, but also from a space of intense social isolation and religious uncleanliness among the tombs; this also implied not only psychological healing but also opened up economic changes that might naturally follow as this person is able to function well within society again (cf. France 2002). Similar multi-layered healing could be read fairly from almost all of the miracles of Jesus, as this was never merely about one’s spiritual nor simply their physical wellbeing, but about their whole selves (e.g. Mark 5:25–34; Luke 37–43; Luke 17:14; John 11:38–44).
Word and deed go together for Jesus, who went about ‘teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people’ (Matt 4:23). Jesus frames his reply to John the Baptist in terms of healings, thus fundamentally shaping how Christians understand the ‘good news’ about this king and his kingdom. People looked to Jesus not merely for his teachings, but also for his power to end their suffering; many people consequently brought to him those most deeply wounded and hurting (e.g. Matt 4:24; 15:30–31; Mark 7:32–37; 9:25). When he healed them, he also often pronounced them ‘clean’ (e.g. Matt 8:3–17), connecting their physical healing with the forgiveness of sins (e.g. Matt 9:1–8) – since, for shalom to again take root, it must penetrate social situations and even into one’s heart. Shalom is ‘the reign of God’s peace and justice; the restoration of wholeness in the created order’, which Christ embodied and exhorted his followers to emulate (Gorman 2015; see also Fikkert and Kapic 2019). This holistic healing thus signified the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. It was with this significance that Jesus then sent out his disciples to ‘proclaim the good news’ that ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’, and told them to ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’ (Matt 10:7–8) as the sign of that coming.
We noted earlier that the Old Testament indicates the presence of evil powers that oppose God and his reign. The New Testament also takes up this theme, stating that Jesus not only relieves guilt but also defeats the evil powers that enslave people (e.g. Russell 1981; Schlier 1961; Twelftree 1985; 1993). Jesus and his followers sometimes spoke of suffering as related to demonic activity. Jesus himself, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, faces ‘the tempter’ there (Matt 4:1–11). Whereas the original Adam, facing a serpent, had given into temptation and opened the way to suffering, this last (eschatos) Adam (1 Cor 15:45) resisted temptation and was faithful in the midst of suffering; whereas Israel roamed the wilderness for forty years (Josh 5:6), Jesus as the true remnant faced forty days and nights in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, yet he never gave in (Luke 4:1–13). He then begins his ministry of proclamation, filled with the Spirit and declaring ‘release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free’ and he proclaims ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4:14, 16–19).
The authors of the New Testament often described this captivity and oppression as coming from hostile forces and evil powers, including ‘the ruler of this world’ from whom they need rescue (John 12:31; Matt 6:13; cf. Matt 5:37; 13:19; John 16:11; 17:15). They also connect Jesus’ acts of healing diseases and blindness with rescuing these people from the grip of ‘evil spirits’ (Luke 7:21; cf. Acts 19:12–15). Similarly, when Jesus liberates a man from demons, he sends him home to declare all that God has done for him (Luke 7:38–39). In its broadest sense, the ‘good news’ meant healing for the physical and spiritual needs of the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘captives’, though such liberation was not always experienced in the present. These evil forces sometimes had very human representatives (e.g. Wink 1984; Dawn 2001), as we will see in the book of Revelation in its comments about the demonic ‘Babylon’ (more on this in section 2.4).
The Messiah also shows great power over nature (e.g. Twelftree 1999). Observing this phenomenon reshapes the views of Christ’s followers about God’s attitude towards their earthly needs. Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes (e.g. Mark 6:35–44, 8:1–9; cf. Ps 23:1, 72:6; Ezek 34:25–31) or filling empty nets with an abundance of fish (e.g. Luke 5:1–11; John 21:1–11) were acts not just of power, but of God’s compassion. And Jesus is unafraid of the deep waters that had previously represented chaos and threat (e.g. Job 38:8–11; Ps 89:9–10; Dan 7:3), walking on the water without aid (Mark 6:48–51). Nature, even in an apparently life-threatening storm, submits to his command that the violent wind and waters ‘be still’ (Mark 4:39). The gospel writers seem to link this power over nature – especially when it threatens harm (cf. natural evil) – to his divinely given authority, which not only rebukes those winds and waves but also brings peace (Mark 4:39, 41; cf. Matt 8:27). Besides informing early views of his identity as the Son of God, Jesus’ demonstrated power over nature gave his followers confidence that natural disasters are outside neither the concern nor the control of God. Thus Jesus in many ways embodies the vision of the Psalmist when he declares of God: ‘You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them’ (Ps 89:9; cf. Hays 2016: esp. 66–69). Subsequently, when believers faced the suffering that comes from forces of nature, they could connect the Creator with the Redeemer, knowing that Jesus both knew what it was like to live in the midst of a storm and also had the power to quiet it. Later readers in the midst of personal suffering could find great refuge in texts like this.
Finally, a major contributor to suffering both in the ancient Near Eastern world and today is material poverty (cf. Schottroff and Stegemann 1980; Longenecker 2010). As such, it should not be ignored that one of the signs Jesus mentions to John the Baptist is that the ‘poor have good news brought to them’ (Matt 11:5; Luke 7:22, euangelizontai). Showing a kind of partiality to the poor similar to that in Mary’s song of faith (Luke 1:46–55), his first sermon expositing Isa 61:1–2 links the person and work of Jesus with both physical healing and material wellbeing (Luke 4:18–19). This is not a new message, since God had always called his people to be particularly concerned for the poor (e.g. Ps 72:1–4, 12–14; Prov 29:14; Isa 11:4; Jer 7:5; 22:1–4), but now the Messiah himself proclaims it. Just as God had expressed his anger towards ancient kings who neglected the poor (e.g. Isa 1:10–17; 3:14; Jer 22:1–30), so now this messianic king pursued not just the concerns of the physically broken, but also of the prisoners, the sojourners, and the fatherless, all easy victims of oppression (Ps 146:7–9). Therefore he is especially welcomed by the disenfranchised, women, foreigners, children, and the marginalized (e.g. Matt 8:8–10; 9:2, 22, 28–29; 15:28). But what he primarily offers is himself (cf. Barclay 2015; Kapic 2018), overflowing with grace and forgiveness. Those who received him also saw that they needed to address their own injustices towards the poor (e.g. Luke 19:1–10). Those who were unwilling to care for the physical needs of the suffering in their presence would face the very sober question: ‘Are you a sheep or a goat?’ (Matt 25:31–46). Similarly, 1 John links the Christian’s experience of God’s love in Christ with concern for the material needs of others, even connecting ‘hating’ others with ignoring their poverty (e.g. 1 John 3:11–4:21). The relief of material suffering was important to Christ and to the community of faith that followed him.
This Messiah came not merely to liberate humanity from the problem of guilt, but to bring about a work of new creation, which includes caring for physical and material needs (Fikkert and Kapic 2019). It is along these lines that the early church, after seeing the resurrected and ascended Christ, intuitively began to share their possessions with one another (e.g. Acts 2:42–47), thus pointing not only back to a pre-fallen condition free of suffering, but forward to a future glory in which the suffering that arises from neglect and need will no longer exist.
2.2 The suffering of Christ
Although Christians sometimes speak as if Jesus only suffered when he was on the cross, it is far more accurate to see the cross as the culmination of his lifelong sharing in the suffering of the world (e.g. Garrett 1998; Matera 1986; Tyson 1986). Early on, his own family lived not in comfort but experienced the challenges of migration to a distant land, danger, and later had resettlement in Galilee (Matt 2:13–23). But he also knew what it was like to be betrayed, to be hungry, to be spoken harshly against, to be doubted. Jesus not only suffered sleepless nights; he confronted suffering and death. These encounters produced not a stoic detachment in him, but rather he was ‘greatly disturbed’ and ‘deeply moved’ as he wept (John 11:33–38). He spoke of suffering and death as threats that overshadowed the world and as enemies he would overcome.
But the biblical texts do not treat the suffering of Christ as if it only made him to be one more sufferer like us. Rather, they treat his afflictions as accomplishing something for others. Matthew explicitly picks up the theme of the ‘suffering servant’ from Isaiah (especially 52:13–53:13) to highlight Christ as the servant whose ministry brought holistic healing, ultimately by means of his own suffering (8:17; cf. Isa 53:4). The book of Revelation presents the now-enthroned Lamb (see esp. Rev 5:6; 7:17) as having removed the suffering of his people. Jesus’ self-identification as ‘the Son of Man [who] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt 20:28) frames his whole life, and took him to his death on their behalf. He did not stand at a distance to judge, remote and rejecting, but drew near to absorb their sin and suffering (see, e.g. Matt 8:17; cf. Isa 53:4).
A difference of viewpoint between Jesus and Peter illustrates how much of a shift in thinking Christians would later make: whereas the disciple (surprisingly) identifies Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:29), he still does not understand the nature of Jesus’ mission, expecting him to redeem Israel by earthly or external power. But this approach to victory sees the problem as merely outer and material. Jesus rebukes this approach, telling them instead that his suffering, death, and resurrection are necessary to his mission (Mark 8:27–38). Looking back, the disciples see that Christ’s suffering was central to the salvation story of Israel (Luke 24:25–27). Acts continues this pattern of linking Jesus’ suffering to the suffering servant imagery in Isaiah (e.g. Acts 3:13–14 and Isa 52:13–53:12; Acts 8:32–3 and Isa 53:7–8). Because the cross and resurrection shifted how the church viewed suffering, later Petrine theology also draws from Isaiah (‘by his wounds you have been healed’; 1 Pet 2:24 and Isa 53:4, 11) to show the vicarious nature of Christ’s pain. That is, Jesus’ suffering can liberate believers from fear in the midst of their suffering because pain is not the final word for those tended by the ‘shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Pet 2:21–25).
The theme of disciples ‘taking up their cross’ (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27) does not mean that they, like Jesus, atone for the sins of others. Instead it illustrates the fact that their lives are not independent of his but derive from the life of their Messiah (see Gal 2:19–20). This means that they, like him, will be subject to persecution from the world, will fight spiritual forces, and will pursue a new set of values that look to the outsider like a kind of self-demotion. The suffering will take the form of hardships that result from willingness to serve others and follow the Messiah that the world opposes.
No Christian understanding of suffering can make sense apart from this now central imagery of the cross (cf. Bauckham 1998; Treat 2014). The sacrament of the eucharist, exhibiting the body and blood of Christ as symbols of his identification with his people and his death on their behalf, thus become a key factor in shaping the church’s identity (e.g. Byars 2011: esp. 183–308; Pitre 2011; 2015; Koenig 2000). As John makes clear through Jesus, without feasting on the body and blood of Christ there can be no life in him (e.g. John 5:22–58). John writes that the dual movement of the Son of Man both as descending to us and as being lifted up (e.g. John 3:13–15; 8:28; 12:32–33), both of which point to the event of crucifixion, are necessary aspects of his mission. With great irony, Jesus’ death on a cross transforms one of the most horrific forms of torture the world has ever known into a symbol of the hope of forgiveness, healing, and life (Hengel 1977). The Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection become the means for a new creation which promises shalom and eventually a freedom from suffering and pain.
2.3 Resurrection and ascension
Jesus’ suffering is not the final word in the New Testament: he is raised from the dead, ascends to heaven, and lives at the right hand of God the Father. But even before his own resurrection, he was credited with raising people from the dead. Jairus’ daughter is raised even while Jesus performs other miracles (Matt 9:18–19, 23–26; Mark 5:21–24, 35–43; Luke 8:40–42, 49–56); Jesus tells the dead son of the widow of Nain to arise (Luke 7:11–17); and he calls his friend Lazarus, who was left dead in the grave, to come out of the tomb (John 11:38–45). All of these people had to face death again, so that these events are only a foreshadowing of the ultimate defeat of death and all suffering, and not the final victory (cf. Allison 1985).
By contrast, when Jesus himself is raised, a new world breaks into the old one, and it grips his followers (for extensive background, see Wright 2003). Even though Jesus had already connected laying down his life with taking it up again (John 10:17), the disciples did not absorb that connection until later. When they approach Jesus’ tomb, they still do not know what to expect. Their uncertainty is deep enough that they need repeated reassurance, first from an angel, who tells them, ‘Do not be afraid’, and, ‘He is not here; for he has been raised’ (Matt 28:5b); and then from Jesus himself, again telling them not to fear (Matt 28:10). Gospel accounts record that one of the reactions to the risen Jesus by his disciples was to worship him: when ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’ see Jesus at the tomb, they ‘took hold of his feet and worshipped him’ (Matt 28:1, 9). Similarly, Thomas responds to the risen Christ by saying, ‘[m]y Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). The new situation is jarring enough for the disciples that the first words of Jesus to them at several post-resurrection meetings is the word ‘peace’ (e.g. Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 21, 26). One may take the word ‘peace’ (Greek eirēnē, cf. Hebrew šālôm) in this Jewish context to carry the nuances of shalom and thus to imply holistic wellbeing, healing, and the removal of suffering (Beck and Brown 1986). The combination of these themes constitutes a promise for the future, that their death-defeating Messiah will eventually deliver them from all suffering into a kingdom of shalom where he reigns as king.
The Christian understanding of suffering therefore requires not only the cross, but also the empty tomb. These two pivotal images represent the promise that the Messiah had overcome the three great enemies of humanity – sin, death, and the devil – and that he had secured the eventual end of suffering (cf. Aulen 1969; Rutledge 2017). Early Christians could thus have courage and hope no matter how bad things became for them, because they worshipped a crucified and resurrected Christ who always reigns in glory as Lord (cf. John 2:21; Rom 4:24; 10:9; 1 Pet 1:21).
The New Testament therefore proclaims Jesus as the firstborn from the dead (e.g. Col 1:18; Rev 1:5) and that those who are united to him by the Spirit are part of a new creation (e.g. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). If there had been no resurrection, then all this preaching and eschatological hope is in vain (1 Cor 15:14). But because he did, in fact, rise from the dead, Christians no longer live under the tyranny of death nor mourn the deaths of others as those who grieve without hope (1 Thess 4:13). And they can have this attitude, not because they are naive about pain, suffering, and death, but because they are convinced it is not the final word. Jesus’ resurrection anchors the great hope of the early church: ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor 15:26), and Jesus has secured that victory, having risen from the dead and reigning now in heaven (cf. Torrance 1976; Dawson 2004). When his people suffer and are in trouble, the king who now sits at the right hand of God (e.g. Luke 22:69; Col 1:3; Heb 1:3; 1 Pet 3:22) intercedes for them and attends to their needs (e.g. Acts 7:55–56). He is their sympathetic high priest, whose risen life continues forever and who is ready to save them as they draw near to God (Heb 7:24–25; cf. Rom 8:34). Christian views of suffering are thus shaped from the root upward by the eschatological hope anchored in the Christ event.
2.4 Suffering, endurance, and cosmic redemption in the New Testament letters
Few writers shape Christian conceptions of suffering as much as the Apostle Paul. Himself no stranger to facing all manner of afflictions, Paul even seems to provide a catalogue of his hardships (e.g. 2 Cor 11:23–29), listing trials and suffering he faced as a result of his ministry (cf. Fitzgerald 1988; Hafemann 1990). How these parallel, and differ from, other ancient literature need not detain us here, except to say that Paul mentioned these trials not to show himself superior in strength or energy but rather to glorify his God (e.g. 2 Cor 1:8–9). His weakness displayed God’s strength. He took this suffering not as invalidating his prophetic calling but as a sign of apostolic authenticity (cf. Gal 6:17; 1 Cor 2:1–5; 2 Cor 11:23–29; Phlm 1:30; 2 Tim 1:11–12). Even as he dealt with a ‘thorn in the flesh’ which was accompanied by ‘a messenger of Satan to torment’ him (cf. the Old Testament, which saw physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering as interrelated), Paul comforted himself with a divine revelation given to him by the risen Christ: ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:7–9).
Paul does not deny the reality of pain and suffering, especially when received as a result of following Christ; but he affirms that these challenges cannot destroy the promises secured by the crucified and risen Lord (Black 2012; Bloomquist 1993). The followers of Christ may be hard-pressed but not crushed, feel perplexed but not despair, face persecution and know they are not forsaken (2 Cor 4:8–12), since believers also participate in Christ’s death and in his resurrection. Thus, even if death itself should overtake the followers of this Messiah, Paul promises that ‘the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence’ (2 Cor 4:14). Those who faced pain and suffering in this life still have the promise of eventual shalom. In the meantime, their suffering is not wasted, but often produces endurance, character, and finally hope (Rom 5:3–4). Further, believers who suffer and experience Christ’s comfort are also then able to comfort others in their suffering (2 Cor 1:3–7). Because they are members of the Body of Christ, believers who suffer on behalf of others can view their afflictions as ‘completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body’ (Col 1:24), not in the sense of atonement, but in the sense of ministry. Paul thus left an example of such suffering for later believers to emulate (e.g. 1 Cor 4:8–13; 6:7; 9:1–27). Suffering wasn’t an excuse to stop loving, but an opportunity to show God’s love even amid one’s own weakness (2 Cor 8:1–2; 1 Thess 1:2–7; 2 Thess 1:3–5). ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (Rom 8:35). Paul reminds his readers that, because they are united to the risen Christ, suffering is not the final word for Christians, but instead one day they will fully share in Christ’s glory (2 Cor 4:14; 2 Thess 1:7; 1 Cor 15:20–34). Christians join with the groaning creation that longs for the fullness of shalom again to be the reality on earth as it is in heaven (Rom 8:18–25). Until then, Paul encourages Christians to ‘not lose heart’, for ‘even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure’ (2 Cor 4:16–18).
Petrine theology similarly asserts that suffering does not indicate that one is outside of God’s favour, but can be taken as a sign of living within it (cf. Beker 1994; Elliot 1981; Jobes 2005: esp. 225–296). The suffering associated with doing evil (e.g. murder, thievery) is not in view here, but afflictions that result from bearing Christ’s name (1 Pet 4:15–16). Whereas the gospels record Peter as trying to convince Jesus to avoid suffering, the epistle of 1 Peter treats suffering for the sake of doing right and proclaiming the gospel as being of no great consequence (e.g. 1 Pet 2:19–25; 3:13–17), citing Christ’s suffering for the sins of others (1 Pet 3:18) as an example of enduring affliction for the sake of righteousness. The king will make all things right, but in the meantime his people struggle and suffer as ‘exiles’ and ‘aliens’ (1 Pet 1:1; 2:11) who are ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (see Sacrifice and the Old Testament) (2:5). They ‘share the sufferings of Christ’ and can look forward to ‘the revelation of his glory’ (4:13; cf. 1:6–7). The theme here of suffering because of persecution for the faith (e.g. 4:14) becomes increasingly important in the early centuries of the church when persecution also led to martyrdom, which gained an especially prominent role in modelling radical self-sacrifice for the faith (Horbury and McNeil 1981; Frend 1993).
The book of Revelation similarly focuses on suffering as a result of persecution by evil spiritual and earthly forces that oppose God and his people. The opposition to God comes not only from individuals but also from institutional and group entities (like nations, commercial enterprises, entire societies, political movements, etc.) that exercise oppressive and wicked power (cf. Boesak 1987; Fiorenza 1985; Sweet 1981). While experiencing a kind of exile, the letter speaks of the city on the seven hills, Babylon (i.e. Rome), as an entity that creates suffering for many. The letter ‘to the angel of the church in Smyrna’ (2:8–11) links suffering of the believers there with a group it calls a ‘synagogue of Satan’ (2:9; cf. 3:9). These and other spiritual entities exclude believers from everyday commerce (13:17), deceive the world (11:7–10; 13:3b–4, 8, 14; 18:11–19; Rev 20:3), attempt to deceive the church (2:20, 24), and imprison or kill Christ’s followers (2:10, 13; 6:9–10; 12:17). The believers face pressure from political, economic, social, and other sources. Thus the book warns against accepting the ‘mark’ of the beast (perhaps the emperor cult) in order to avoid current sufferings (cf. Thompson 1990), because a larger divine drama is unfolding, and that idolatry will not go unheeded by the true God (e.g. 14:9–11; 16:2; 19:20).
Although it may appear that the church is losing against the forces of evil and will never emerge from suffering, Revelation reinterprets the empirical evidence, revealing forces and dynamics that are invisible to the worldly eye. It reveals principalities and powers that seek to crush the people who belong to the divine king. But this king and his people will eventually prevail (19:11–16), and be liberated from suffering, and they will reign together (20:4–6). Then the ‘new heavens and new earth’ will become the home of God with his people (21:1–4).
The narrative power of the book of Revelation is that it enables those undergoing persecution and even martyrdom to see their suffering in transcendent terms, knowing that unseen powers are at work – that heaven will descend on the earth, and that God will dwell with them there (cf. Matt 6:10). Tyrants will no longer have power over them, nor will plague, disease, and distress any longer afflict them, but they will live with their king in his kingdom (Rev 19:6–9). An even greater shalom than that of the Garden of Eden will be theirs in the New Jerusalem (21:9–26). What is most healing about this vision is not a prospective change in location, but the promise of unhindered communion with God. Sin, death, and the devil are all overcome. God himself wipes their tears away (7:17; 21:4).
Other New Testament voices could be added to this discussion (cf. Talbert 2018). James addresses economic and social suffering that grows out of prejudice and injustice (e.g. Jas 2:1–13; 4:1–12; 5:1–5). Hebrews calls on the people of God to contrast their present challenges with the benefits they receive from their sympathetic high priest who suffered on their behalf (Heb 4:15), even enduring the cross ‘for the sake of the joy that was set before him’ (12:1–2). ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested’ (2:18). Like the saints who went before them (2:11), they also should push forward in faith and hope even when circumstances are difficult and bleak. God has always sustained and cared for his people, supremely in the coming of the Messiah; so now believers can, by his Spirit, gain courage in the midst of hardship knowing they will never be abandoned.
3 Theological challenges of suffering
While countless volumes have been written on different theological questions related to the challenge of suffering, here we only have space to mention three themes that can at least point readers in relevant directions.
3.1 Philosophical speculations and ecclesial responses
Theodicy (1985, first published 1710) by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) tries to resolve the tension between affirming the goodness and power of God and the existence of evil (see Leibniz 1985). Leibniz seeks to make a defence of the ways of God (thus the work’s title) without trying to explain each particular instance of evil. As hard as it might be for us to imagine, he claims that our world must be ‘the best of all possible worlds’, and that events in it therefore do not contradict divine justice or purposes. The tragic 1755 Lisbon earthquake, however, was thought to seriously erode the plausibility of this thesis. Voltaire’s Candide is the classic refutation-by-mockery of Leibniz’s idea and all similar proposals, maintaining that no amount of goodness to follow this life could possibly make right the horrendous suffering in this world, whether death by volcanic eruption or the violence of rape.
In the wake of the Enlightenment, those outside and inside the church continue to debate how to reconcile the claim that God is good, omniscient, and omnipotent with the horrors and apparent irrationality of so much pain and suffering in this world (see Rice 2014 for an accessible survey). Some writers (e.g. process theologians and open theists) attempt to rationally resolve the tension by diminishing or reimagining God’s attributes, while others seek to make peace with it by saying that evil and suffering in some way foster necessary growth for creatures (e.g. Hick 2010) or by focusing on the creature’s freedom (cf. Plantinga 1977). Others, who find some or all of these approaches objectionable, often end up denying God’s existence altogether, convinced that the tension amounts to an outright contradiction. The claim that one cannot even identify evil and good apart from an affirmation of some kind of transcendence (thus reducing the matter to Nietzschean ‘will to power’ dynamics) does not tend to satisfy the questioners, nor does it resolve the tension. These modern philosophers and theologians, as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Alvin Plantinga, each seek in their own way to bring some rational sense to this nagging problem. The common impulse is to try to answer or explain so that irrationality might be avoided.
Whatever the legitimacy of such an approach, the church has historically responded to the challenge of suffering less often by seeking abstract answers for the problem, and more by proclaiming the gospel and engaging in practices that seek to alleviate pain. Elenore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness (2010) is a contemporary and significant philosophical and theological work that navigates these questions in fresh ways, using narrative to enable people to live in the face of suffering. Stump draws on what she calls a ‘Franciscan’ way of knowing in contrast to a ‘Dominican’ one: the latter is more analytical and uses abstraction to categorize, while the former is more driven by stories and the typology that emerges from them. She pushes her readers to consider evil without trying to explain it away, making space not only for pain but for God’s presence and grace in the midst of it.
Turning from a philosopher to biblical scholars and theologians, those such as Henri Blocher (2004) and N. T. Wright (2006) have also moved away from seeking to simply reconcile philosophical syllogisms about suffering; instead, they consider how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus changes this world, even redeeming the darkness of real suffering (cf. Kapic 2017). Such an approach takes seriously the fact that humans are undeniably confounded by the presence of suffering, answering that the Messiah has entered Israel’s story and redeemed his people, which makes living in the midst of pain not only bearable but hopeful. It also encourages Christians not merely to receive God’s peace, but to work for and extend that peace to others.
In the patristic period, church leaders (e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, etc.) often affirmed that God was not the author of evil – even as they confessed some form of divine sovereignty and the goodness of the Creator despite their sober acknowledgement of the pain in this world (see, e.g., Harrison and Hunter 2016). While seeking to avoid forms of dualism, they responded to suffering not so much by seeking an abstract philosophical explanation (although they did that, too) as by moving their people to worship in general and, more specifically, to lament, fasting, acts of mercy, and especially justice (cf. Hauerwas 1990; Swinton 2007). Rather than debate how a good God could allow babies to be abandoned on trash heaps, they gathered the abandoned children, cared for the poor, and tried to heal the sick. Rodney Stark (1996), for example, writes that these practices grew out of a young church responding to the suffocating injustice and suffering around them; and that, as a result of these world-altering practices, Christianity experienced exponential growth, moving from being a tiny sect to becoming a world religion. In other words, from its earliest days, Christian identity was wrapped up in concern for those in pain and determination to minister to them. Rather than being paralysed by the insoluble questions of why people suffer from a plague, or how God could do it or even allow it, they more often moved into actual care for the vulnerable and needy. Again, because the early church followed the example of a crucified Saviour who wept and bled but now was at the right hand of God, even horrendous events like martyrdom or hunger or nakedness were less often viewed as God’s abandonment, and more as painful elements of a sinful and broken world (e.g. Perpetua’s martyrdom). Even in all their weakness and suffering, they still believed they could experience God’s presence and mercy. The ancient church did, however, occasionally have to make it clear that suffering and even martyrdom were not to be sought out, but accepted only as one was overtaken by such circumstances (Frend 1993). Overall, the church became a people and a space where others could experience some relief from suffering and gain hope to meet one’s hardship.
Practices shaped the Christian community – beginning with the liturgy, which consistently brought believers before the reality of a suffering servant who lived, died, and rose on their behalf. Their ministries to the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten also transformed their lives. By prayers and fasting, songs and offerings, these humble believers were formed into people who lived with a defiant hope, seeking to bring the light of Christ to the darkness of this world. So while the post-Enlightenment approach to the matter of suffering answers the problem with sentences, the ancient and medieval church more often sought to respond by relieving the pain of others and by worshipping the Lord who suffered for them.
3.2 Does God suffer?
Only in the context of their practical rather than theoretical approach to suffering can one properly understand the early church’s confession about God’s relationship to it. The confession of many early church leaders that God was ‘impassible’ was not driven primarily by inherited pagan philosophy – a common but overly simplistic stereotype – nor with a goal of presenting God as distant or unconcerned (apathetic in the modern sense of the term). Rather, it was used to help make sense of the strange wonder and beauty of the condescension of the Son and the gravity of his suffering and death. Working from the common assumption that the Creator is not the creation, and thus is not subject to entropy, destruction, coercion, or death, it was affirmed that God cannot ‘suffer’. Rather than affirming God is ignorant or unconcerned, they were affirming that the Creator cannot be manipulated by outside forces (thus ‘passive’) and therefore cannot suffer. And yet, part of the wonder of the incarnation is the revelation that this very God, who cannot bleed or die, has willingly taken on a human nature; and thus, as God incarnate, the Christ is open to all manner of suffering, temptation, pain, and even death (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria 1995). In this way the impassible God experiences real suffering as the God-man (e.g. Gavrilyuk 2004; Weinandy 2000; Cameron 1990). Rather than trying to undermine God’s compassion, concern, or care for his creation and his people who suffer, those holding this emphasis were trying to ground this revelation more fully in the Christ event.
Modern commentary on the ancient affirmation of divine impassibility often alleges that it demonstrated an intellectual dependence on Hellenism more than on the Hebrew Bible (cf. Fretheim 1984; Gavrilyuk 2004 provides numerous examples) and wonder if such an approach is not hard-hearted, or at least indifferent, toward real pain (e.g. Farley 1990). After all, Israel’s ancient prophets often spoke of God’s anger, his compassion, and his deep concern for Israel – this God who attached himself to these vulnerable and sometimes hard-hearted people was often described as responding in ways otherwise considered as ‘passions’ or forms of suffering. How could these emotively loaded words fit the idea that God ‘does not suffer’ or that God is ‘without passions’? Though careful philosophical attempts to make sense of Christianity in light of the horrors of evil has continued in a post-Auschwitz world (e.g. Swinburne 1998; Pinnock 2002; Van Inwagen 2004), many have been concerned that a particular defence of ‘impassivity’ sounds not only sterile but cruel. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2010: 479) once wrote, ‘[o]nly the suffering God can help’.
The ravages and horrors of war have led biblical scholars (e.g. Heschel 1962) to push more strongly against the idea of divine impassibility. Christian theologians joined in by questioning the idea that the human nature of Jesus alone was what made God able to ‘suffer’, since they concluded God himself has always been a suffering God, and this passion or willingness to suffer is simply exemplified on the cross. Most significantly, Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God (1974, English ed.) captured the imagination of the theological world and beyond, expanding on the tradition of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross (see also Hall 1986). Moltmann affirmed not only divine empathy and solidarity with humankind as the way of understanding and healing achieved by the ‘death of God’ on the cross, but also that this suffering was distinctly experienced within (ad intra) the life of the Triune God. His account resonated far and wide, quickly moving outside of Europe and is now deeply appreciated (even if modified) around the world, from Peru to Japan. While Moltmann’s analysis of God’s suffering had become deeply influential and accepted by the start of the twenty-first century, some philosophers and theologians have recently pushed back. Many disagree with the way contemporary theologians have misrepresented or misunderstood ancient and medieval sources, and they express concerns that Moltmann’s results undermined the uniqueness of the incarnation and its significance for framing God’s relationship to suffering (cf. Keating and White 2009). This debate is far from over, as it necessarily touches on all manner of doctrines (e.g. Trinity, Christology, theological anthropology) as well as having deep significance for pastoral care.
3.3 Liberation and suffering
Particular questions and insights into suffering naturally arise out of communities in which oppression is the common experience, as opposed to affluence or ease (Boff and Boff 1987). Since space here is limited, we can only mention a few examples to illustrate the Christian conversations that speak to the political, cultural, and economic struggles facing the Body of Christ (that is, the church) globally.
The theme of liberation has gained prominence in global theology and liturgy. Drawing heavily from the Exodus motif and prophetic voices (e.g. Micah), Christians in communities that have experienced great injustice have reclaimed the biblical call to liberate those who suffer. They often interpret the Exodus as an event that did not proclaim the salvation of people’s ‘souls’, but sought freedom to worship Yahweh and freedom from politically oppressive rulers, unjust economic systems, and disordered social dynamics (see esp. Exod 1–16 for the background narrative). The exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt was a moment of liberation that related to every aspect of their lives, from the ability to safely have as many children as they wanted to how much they would work and when they would worship. Picking up on biblical motifs like this, Gustavo Gutiérrez (1973) sought to revolutionize the church’s theology. He wanted it to be shaped less by the affluent and powerful and more people ‘from below’, by those who personally lived with pain and suffering, poverty and death – these were the voices that Christian theology needed to hear in order to reform itself. Suffering in this theological process becomes less of an afterthought and more of an original driving force that shapes how one is to understand God, the incarnation, the Spirit, and the church. David Kelsey’s massive study of theological anthropology (2009) reflects this modern sensitivity when he argues that Christian anthropology should consider beginning not with an idealized vision of humanity as in Genesis, but with a vision of the broken and hurting as found in the wisdom literature, for example in Job.
While early expositions of liberation often emerged from Latin America (e.g. Gutiérrez 1973; Boff 1987), similar treatments are found throughout the world: whether from Asia (e.g. Song 1986) or South Africa (Frostin 1988), each new analysis offers its distinctive contributions – but they share a starting point of affirming the reality of suffering and its importance in making sense of God, the world, and a believer’s faith. Starting ‘from below’ (with painful human existence) rather than ‘from above’ (in some medieval, academic, scholastic manner), this sensitivity to suffering then re-shapes all theological topics (e.g. Sobrino and Ellacuría 1996). Few works demonstrate this re-shaping more ably than James Cone’s classic, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), where he powerfully explores the paradox that lies at the heart of Christianity – that it is a religion centred on a crucified Saviour. And thus, to understand correctly the one who hung on a tree, people should listen to the cries and insights of those who bore witness to the hangings of beloved ones at the hands of tyrannical people and systems. Only in this way can a vision of the true God break through the distortions of a theology constructed by those so accustomed to power they have lost sight of what it means to be identified with the Messiah who was crucified as a criminal.
In some respects, Black theology (e.g. Cone 1970; Pinn 1999), feminist theology (e.g. Fiorenza 1983), Womanist perspectives (e.g. Williams 1993), ecological concerns (Fischer 2009), or queer theology (e.g. Tonstad 2018) have similar lines of development. Some non-Western theologians have, however, asked to what extent these theologies still reflect Western academic presuppositions far more than is usually realized, and thus are not truly reflecting a theology ‘from below’ (e.g. Chan 2014; cf. Reed 2017). Even with their disagreements and differences, each of these approaches maintains a similar thread: this God is present in the pain, marginalization, and struggle of his people, and in this dynamic one discovers more clearly who God is and then how to approach this world in ways that can oppose remaining injustices and inequalities on the earth. Among the great variety of approaches real disagreements remain: for example, some writers purposely anchor their theology of suffering in a distinctly christological manner, while others move more towards relativist presuppositions, according to which Jesus (not always explicitly mentioned) primarily serves as an example or symbol, rather than as the Son of God and the locus of divine self-revelation.
Another area in which Christian examinations of suffering are receiving renewed attention is in the area of disability studies (e.g. Swinton 2016; Brock 2019). While it had often been assumed the so-called ‘disabilities’ were problems to be overcome, some have raised questions as to whether Christians (and others) have too often confused difference with suffering (e.g. Eisland 1994). Should a condition like Down’s syndrome be immediately categorized as suffering and thus viewed as a problem to be solved? Should Down’s, for example, instead be seen as a distinctive human experience that enriches the church and world, rather than as a condition to mourn? The cause of suffering may not lie in the syndrome itself, but the inappropriate responses of those who chiefly consider those who have Down’s syndrome to be merely ‘other’ and therefore to be ignored or hidden away. Navigating these questions is profoundly difficult, but Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas, Amos Yong, Brian Brock, and John Swinton are leading fresh inquiries that bring together theology and experience, seeking to understand suffering that often lingers, in one way or another, around those living with ‘disabilities’.