For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
--2 Peter 3:9
In the immediate aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, MSNBC sat down with Emergent mega-church pastor Rob Bell. The interviewer put a direct question to Bell in light of the tragedy. “Either God is all-powerful but doesn’t care about the suffering of the people of Japan, or he does care about the people of Japan but he isn’t all-powerful. Which is it?”
Bell’s initial answer was vague. He talked about God’s empathy with human suffering, and of how the Bible’s story of renewal can be clung to in dark times. In other words, he said a lot without really addressing the question. The interviewer called him on his evasion and restated the question: “Either God is all-powerful but doesn’t care about the suffering of the people of Japan, or he does care about the people of Japan but he isn’t all-powerful. Which is it?” Bell’s second response essentially amounted to a verbal punt. He said this was a “paradox at the heart of the divine” and that we should not try to unravel this mystery.
That was it.
A missed opportunity
I found myself cringing inside as I listened to Bell respond. Now, in his defense I will say that the interviewer’s question was very direct, and getting hit with a question like that under the glare of television cameras cannot be a comfortable thing. Yet despite this I couldn’t escape the feeling that Bell had missed an opportunity.
I wish Bell had responded to the interviewer’s question about God’s goodness in the face of human suffering by acknowledging that it’s a question that’s on many people’s minds. That said, it’s too small a question. If we want a Biblical response to it we have to step back and look at the big picture.
CREATION – The Bible’s answer begins in its first chapters, where we’re told that God made a world that was good and whole, full of peace, and devoid of suffering. God never intended the death and destruction we’ve witnessed in Japan to be part of the human experience.
FALL – Nor would it have been but for our sin. Among the many results of the Curse, the Bible tells us that the earth itself is broken. Romans 8:19-20 describes an environment that is “in bondage to decay” because of our sin. The Fall didn’t just affect human beings, it also had a detrimental effect on the earth itself. The planet which God intended to be a wholesome home for human thriving is now broken, and is often a source of drudgery and pain to people.
REDEMPTION – Jesus died to reverse the Curse by eliminating its cause: sin. The Bible tells us that the ultimate answer to human suffering is the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf. Only by removing the Curse can God’s original plan for humanity be redeemed, and this includes the earth itself. Only God is powerful enough to remove sin, and only God is loving enough to do so at tremendous cost to himself.
RESTORATION – This raises an obvious question: if the death of Jesus ends suffering, why are people still suffering after the death of Jesus? The Bible answers this question in numerous places, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in 2 Peter 3:9. There God tells us that the reason he’s delaying the consummation of his plan: in order to eradicate sin permanently he must judge sinners eternally, and his desire is that no one should face eternal damnation. He is withholding the full restoration of a suffering-free world out of patience, giving unbelievers time to repent and be saved.
But his patience will not last forever. One day he will return and put everything to rights. The hope we have for the end of suffering lies in the New Heavens and the New Earth promised in Scripture.
The power of the Gospel
I wish Bell had explained all this during his television interview, and I wish he’d said with both humility and boldness that the reason God hasn’t wiped out all suffering yet is that he is waiting for everyone watching the interview on television to repent, and to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. That way they’d be guaranteed to partake of the perfect world yet to come, devoid of human suffering.
Of course this made me wonder if I would have had the humility and boldness to do this myself had I been in Bell’s place. Do I really believe the Gospel of Jesus is the answer to the world’s problems? Do I believe it enough to graciously yet clearly say so when a non-Christian world is seeking answers to the problem of pain? So much of the time the people I know are quite content to just get on with life and never ask the big questions. It is a tragedy to go silent about the power of the Gospel to heal, especially at a time like this when many people are being confronted with life’s brokenness and asking big questions.
What do you say to people when life’s pain prompts them to wonder if God cares about them; or whether he is there at all? Is your confidence in the Gospel of Jesus strong enough to hold him up for people to see when they’re in pain?
Very soon, no doubt, you will have an opportunity to hold Jesus up to someone in pain. Perhaps it will be a major world crisis they’re watching on TV, or perhaps it will be a crisis in their own life that causes them to ask where God is in the midst of it. With grace and humility, let us hold Jesus up before a world in need as God’s answer to human suffering.
That’s the only answer that demonstrates both his extensive power to remove suffering at its source, and his boundless love to do so at his own cost.
For more insight to this question, get the book, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty, by Joni Eareckson Tada, from our online store. Or read the article, “What is God’s Answer to Human Suffering?” by Peter Kreeft.
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