Human Suffering, God’s Punishment?

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.

4 responses to “Human Suffering, God’s Punishment?

  1. I very much agree. To some degree, isn’t that the answer that Job got? Or, should I say, the lack of an answer? His only explanation was: God is God.

    Some want to attribute everything that happens in this world to some element of God’s plan. I disagree. Bad things happen. Things that God doesn’t want to happen happen. He has set up the world in such a way that both good and bad can occur.

    What we know is that God cares. I see that in Jesus’ tears at Lazarus death.

    God cares.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Both Job and his friends believed in the doctrine of divine retribution…one reaps what he sows. That is why Job’s friends were certain he was guilty of sin because they could not conceive of a world in which the innocent suffered or in which suffering was not a sure sign of one’s guilt before God. Likewise, Job believed as they did and that is why Job felt so unfairly treated…only the guilty suffer but he was innocent and therefore could not understand why he was suffering since he had done nothing to reap such woe.

    As for Jesus weeping over Lazarus…yes God cares and empathizes with us. I plan on addressing that and more at some future point on how Christians should respond to human suffering.

    Thanks for stopping by the blog.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  3. I’ve just discovered your blog and have been moved by reading your entries regarding the Christians response to suffering. We so desperately need to welcome the lament back into our worship.

    As a third generation Pentecostal believer, I am astounded at how easily my faith community has forgotten our roots as outcasts crying out “How long?” to our Lord. I suspect, in part, we’ve lost our way with the false Positive Confession (name it, claim it) message. We’ve been duped into thinking that to complain to God is to quench the Holy Spirit. If we would only been honest with God, even if it means we honestly feel forsaken, then He will act.

    With you, I don’t know why God allows the suffering we encounter. Yes, we can turn to apologetic textbooks and explain it intellectually, but those platitudes don’t comfort me in my moments of pain. I may not know God why God allows me to suffer. But I do know what He does when I suffer — He suffers with me (e.g., when our Lord saw the mourning of Lazarus sister, we are told, “Jesus wept.”).

    I do want to add one comment in response to something you said in this blog entry. You wrote, “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.”

    When I was in seminary (mid to late 1980s), the AIDS epidemic in America was in full swing, and my seminary held a full day symposium on AIDS. One of the questions addressed: “Is AIDS God’s affliction on the homosexual?”

    The only lecture (actually more of a sermon) that I recall from that day was a thoughtful message by one of our Old Testament faculty. The gist of his message was that in the OT, God does indeed afflict people(s), but when He does so, it is always with the purpose of drawing a wayward people back to Him. It is an expression of His love. As parents, I think we can identify. There are times when it would be easier to let things slide and not discipline our children, but we love them too much not to discipline them.

    Concluding his message, my OT professor said that he didn’t know whether or not AIDS was an affliction sent upon homosexuals. But if it is, then it is not a message of God’s condemnation of them but one of God’s concern for them.

    I’ve taken this truth from that simple message. Whenever a person (or group of people) is suffering or afflicted, whether or not that affliction is from God, they feel forsaken by God, rejected by Him. That’s why Jesus echoed Psalm 22:1 from the cross. We don’t need to tell them their suffering is a punishment from God. First, we don’t know that to be true. Second, at some level, they are already wondering whether it is true. The Christian response is not to accuse, but as you’ve laid out in this series, it is to listen, lament, empathize, and serve.

    jeff

    • Thank you for your comment. While the reasons will vary from one church tribe to another, I think the lack of lament is a problem in many Christian groups. My suspicion is that in addition to some bad theology, the problem is also an outworking of the American cultural influence upon Christianity in America.

      Also, thanks for sharing that point about divine punishment in the OT having a redemptive purpose. I still have questions about why God would be bringing divine punishment upon people if his wrath has been poured out in the crucifixion of Jesus.

      Any ways, thanks for taking the time to comment and share some great insight.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

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