The Problem of Evil and the Bible (Part 4)

Cross on top of mountain

III. The Necessity of Suffering for the Righteous in This World

            Another aspect regarding a biblical theology of suffering has to do with the fate of the righteous in this life. In particular, the Bible asserts that it is necessary for the righteous to suffer and endure much evil in this world in order to inherit the glories of next. While this is somewhat of a mystery, it permeates the pages of the Bible and is at the forefront of many of the biblical authors’ minds.

First, in Gen 12-50, the writer tells the story of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Throughout these chapters, we hear of the many sufferings that they went through. From Abraham leaving his family and country out of obedience to Yahweh to the barrenness of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel; from enmity between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau to the cruelty and hurt done to young Joseph by his brothers; from Joseph’s imprisonment for purity to famine destroying the land of Canaan and Egypt, the Patriarchs went through immense suffering and trials, the ultimate test being waiting for God to fulfill his promises to them, namely, the promises of innumerable offspring, the land of Canaan, and the blessing of the nations. In the NT, the author of Hebrews reflects upon this saying, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them…Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”[1] According to the epistle to the Hebrews, then, the Patriarchs went through great sufferings and endured both moral and natural evils in order to receive “something better” which is later clarified as resurrection in the New Jerusalem.[2]

Another OT story about suffering comes from the book of Job. This part narrative, part poetry book tells of a righteous and innocent man whom Yahweh allowed terrible and horrendous evils to fall upon. When Job’s wife exhorts him to curse God and die because of this suffering, he piously replies, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10).[3] The book of Job overall seems to refute the popular idea at that time that those who are rich and wealthy are blessed by God because they are righteousness and those who are poor and suffer are cursed and punished by God because of their sin and unrighteousness. Job then argues the contrary: the righteous will undergo even more trials, evil, and suffering in this world than the unrighteous.

Moving to the NT, the most atrocious evil recorded in the Bible is probably the crucifixion of Jesus.[4] As an innocent man, he was betrayed, unjustly tried, flogged, crucified, and killed by the Jewish religious elites and the Romans. Prior to this throughout the Gospels, Jesus thrice predicted that he would be crucified, die, and be raised on the third day.[5] In these sayings, he states that his sufferings must happen, in other words, it was necessary that he suffer. Here, we see the first glimpses of the Christ narrative and Christian gospel: that suffering (cross) is the necessity for entering into glory (resurrection).

The last example that we’ll look at from the NT is the Apostle Paul who endured tremendous suffering for Christ’s sake. Even from the moment of his conversion and calling, Jesus said this of Paul in Acts 9:16: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”[6] The subsequent chapters in Acts then flesh out this statement in that it narrates Paul’s life and ministry enamored by trial and hardship. There are several places also where Paul lists his sufferings in his epistles and often strangely boasts about his sufferings rather than his strengths.[7] Overall, Paul’s theology of suffering seems to be summarized best in Rom 8:17: “we suffer with him [Christ] so that we may also be glorified with him.”[8] In other words, suffering and enduring evil and pain for the sake of God and his righteousness in this life is the necessary constituent for entering into the glory of resurrection with Christ in the age to come. This consumed Paul’s mind so much that he says his life goal is to share in the narrative of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11).

Overall, the red thread throughout these biblical examples is that suffering is a necessary part of the Christian life and that enduring evil and pain for the sake of Christ in this world is prerequisite for attaining the glory of the resurrection of the dead in the age to come, an age where evil, pain, suffering, sorrow, disease, decay, and death will be no more. It is to these matters that we will turn to next in part 5.

[1] Heb 11:13, 39.

[2] Hence the phrase “be made perfect” here. See Heb 11:35; 12:18-29. Note that we will take up the issue of eschatology and how it relates to the problem of evil in part 5.

[3] The Hebrew word for “bad, evil” is the adjective ra’ and can be used of both physical harm or disaster and of moral evil, perverseness, or malice. It is often times in contrast with tov (“good”) as it is here in Job 2:10. See NIDOTTE 1154-55.

[4] Theists and nontheists alike define “evil” as some sort of “extreme pain, the suffering of innocents, physical deformities…injustice,”[4] and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion fit these criteria (Peterson, Reason, 146).

[5] The first is in Matt 16:13-23; Mark 8:27-33; Luke 9:18-22. The second is in Matt 17:22-23; Mark 9:30-32; Luke 9:43b-45. The third is in Matt 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34. In all three instances, the Greek word dei is used, which means “it is necessary, it must.”

[6] Again, the Greek word for “must” here is dei – “it is necessary.”

[7] Cf. Rom 8:17-25; 1 Cor 15:30-32; 2 Cor 2:12-13; 6:4-10; 11:16-33; Phil 1:12-30; 2 Tim 4:14-18.

[8] Suffering with Christ precedes being raised in glory with him.

One comment on “The Problem of Evil and the Bible (Part 4)

  1. David McKinney says:

    I have enjoyed your posts. You mentioned Job. In 1990, I had major surgery. My father in law brought me my first study Bible. I spent a significant amount of time in Job and found out how others handled struggles. It was an inspiration for me. That time and others that I have spent struggling are a part of my story. Thank you for bring that forward. I am looking forward to reading your next post.

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