Several years ago I was asked to come speak at a church and address the question of “why does God let children die?” I suppose that since the leaders of this church knew I not only was pursuing a degree in theology but that my wife and I had experienced the death of a child, they thought I might have something to say about such a subject. The truth is, I have a three word answer to the question of why God lets children die or why any suffering exists…I DON”T KNOW!
Of course, since those three simple words were not what they were paying me for, I did spend some time addressing at least three values associated with suffering in scripture which we find being manifested in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. These three values are:
- Redemptive: Jesus suffers death to redeem/save us from sin and death (cf. Jn 3.16; Rom 3.21-26; 5.10; Heb 2.9-10; 9.15)
- Pedagogical: Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice his own life serves as an instructive model for how we should live our lives (cf. 1 Cor 1.20-25; 2 Cor 5.14-15; Phil 2.5-8; Tit 2.11-14)
- Punitive: Jesus suffers death as the punishment for our sins (Rom 3.25-26; 2 Cor 5.21).
As I spoke, I stressed how even in today’s world, when suffering occurs there are times when we can look back and see the redemptive value in such suffering as journeying through such an ordeal drew us closer to God. That has certainly been true in my own life. We even see a pedagogical value in suffering. Having been through the pains of grief, we learn how to be more compassionate and merciful towards others enduring suffering. However, neither of these two reasons adequately explains why suffering occurs. There is no good reason why one child will leave a cancer ward in full remission and another will die. There is no good reason to that would make us say “Ok” when suffering occurs.
However, there is still the matter of punitive suffering. When suffering occurs, is that God’s punishment on the individual or group suffering? Ever?
NO! That was my answer back then and it is still my answer today. I want to explain this because I am tired of hearing certain Christians purporting to speak for God and claim that a tsunami in Indonesia, an earthquake in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, an earthquake in Haiti, and other tragic disasters of suffering are God’s punishment for sin. I want to explain this because I had someone once tell me that my son’s death was a punishment for some sin of mine. I want to explain it because I have heard other parents told that their child’s death was God punishing them. But here is why such claims are wrong.
The New Testament presents a clear and coherent witness that one of the reasons for the death of Jesus Christ was that he died for the sins of the world…the sins of everyone. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he bore the wrath of God by taking our sins upon himself through death on a cross. The death of Jesus on the cross was God’s atonement for our sins. Now either Jesus did bear our sins or he didn’t. I don’t know of any responsible Christian, no matter how liberal or conservative, who wants to make the claim that Jesus did not atone for our sins on the cross. If Jesus did atone for our sins then God is not punishing us for our sins through suffering because our sins have been nailed to the cross. And even those who have not accepted God’s grace in Jesus Christ, Jesus still died for their sins as well.
Some will point to the Old Testament where God did punish nations and individuals for their sin and evil doings. But that was then and not now. We are living in the last days, as scripture speaks of, where God has addressed our sins in the cross of Jesus. Furthermore, one of the fundamental biblical claims regarding God is his just/righteous nature. If God were punishing people and societies today for their sins, to be just (that is, fair) God would need to punish us all.
So why does suffering happen? I DON”T KNOW! But I am quite convinced it is not God’s punishment upon us.
I leave us with the words to one of the stanzas of a popular hymn sang in many, many churches around the world…a hymn written in the pains of suffering boldly declaring the point of this blog post.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
…It is well, it is well, with my soul.