Understanding Suffering

Suffering is to endure pain or anguish, whether willingly, as in the case of martyrdom, or unwillingly, as in the case of cancer. Christians throughout history have responded to suffering differently than other religions and philosophies.

Suffering Is Real

Contrary to some Eastern religions and Christian Science, Christianity holds that suffering is real. Also, Christians do not hold to Buddhism’s contention that suffering can be removed from an individual’s life by removing all desire. Neither do Christians agree with the classical Greek philosophers that suffering has no meaning and is simply bad luck. For Christians, suffering is both real and meaningful.

Because Christians also believe that God is good, however, they are then pressed to explain why a good God would allow suffering and evil. Although some Christians prefer to leave God’s ultimate reasons for allowing suffering to be a mystery only revealed in heaven, most Christian theologians have sought to explain it, and, in one form or another, this explanation ultimately appeals to what is called the “greater good.” Namely, Christians argue that God may allow great suffering in this world but He does so because it is a greater good to allow suffering and to accomplish other very good purposes, than to disallow all suffering.

Unlike some Eastern religions, Christians don’t believe God can actualize contradictory states of affairs. Therefore to accomplish some valuable things requires that He cannot do other valuable things. “For example,” as theologian John Feinberg wrote (1994), “God can either remove evil or give us free will. If he removes evil, he isn’t guilty for failing to give us free will. If he gives us free will, he isn’t guilty for failing to remove evil. He can’t do both conjointly, so he isn’t guilty for failing to do both.”

Suffering Is Meaningful

Almost all Christians believe that suffering is meaningful even if they don’t always know, or may disagree on, what a particular instance of suffering might mean. Some of the most common Christian explanations for suffering follow.

Adamic Suffering

The Bible teaches that suffering first afflicted, and continues to afflict, humankind because of Adam and Eve’s free choice to sin. Genesis reports that Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and that God then punished them. The woman would be ruled by her husband and would endure greater pain in childbirth (Gen. 3:16); the man would toil over a ground now cursed, presumably enabling every pestilence (Gen. 3:17, Rom. 8:20); and they both were banished from the Garden of Eden, which removed access to the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22-24). Intimate fellowship with God was broken and they were largely on their own. Adam and Eve’s children sinned because they inherited only what Adam and Eve could give them: a sinful nature. Much of the reason the human race sins, suffers, and dies is that Adam chose sin (Rom 5:12).

God gave Adam the free will to choose between good and evil, but Adam chose evil. In short, the fault was Adam’s. Thus Tertullian (ca 155-230) wrote “That man’s liberty alone can be charged with the fault that it committed itself…. Yet, if God had intervened, He would have rescinded the liberty of man’s will, which He had permitted for a specific purpose.” Like Tertullian, most Christians throughout the ages have proclaimed that God gave Adam free will, but Adam used it wrongly and this resulted in sin, suffering, and death entering our world. Although now scoffed at by secular society, entrance of suffering to our world through the fall of Adam has been a fundamental concept in western civilization as exemplified by John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which begins:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe.

The New England Primer, which educated generations of children in the 16th through 18th centuries, rhymed: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Christians have offered two major explanations concerning why Adam’s offspring suffer the penalty of his wrongdoing. The first explanation is called federal headship. In this view, God appointed Adam to be the representative head of the human family and when our representative sinned, we all sinned. Federal headship is likened to a president of a country declaring war against another nation. Even though the president may not ask every voter’s opinion, they are at war nonetheless. When Adam sinned, then, he represented all of humankind. In Adam, Augustine writes, “… all are understood to have sinned, whereby sin is brought in with birth and not removed save by new birth.”  According to this explanation, the human race was condemned along with their representative Adam. Therefore, humans can be pardoned by aligning themselves with Jesus, which Scripture refers to as the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 47-49; Rom. 5:15-21). Just as Adam’s sin is imputed to his descendants, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to those who believe in him.

Although not accepted by all Christians, a second explanation concerning why we suffer for Adam’s sin is called natural headship. Natural headship is related to the traducianist view (from Gr. tradux, “a shoot or sprout, especially a vine’s branch that must take root to propagate the vine,” i.e., we are all like vines from our parents) that just as humans receive their physical nature from their parents, so they also receive their souls. Augustine wrote that the first humans were created good but of their “own will” they corrupted themselves and then “begot corrupted and condemned children…. And thus, from the bad use of free will, there originated a whole train of evil, which, with its concatenation of miseries, convoys the human race from its depraved origin, as from a corrupt root….” Natural headship, as theologian Millard Erickson (1932- ) put it, is that the “entirety of our human nature, both physical and spiritual, material and immaterial, has been received from our parents and more distant ancestors by way of descent from the first pair of humans. On that basis, we were actually present within Adam, so that we all sinned in his act. There is no injustice, then, to our condemnation and death as a result of original sin.” This relationship is illustrated in Hebrews 7:9-10 where Levi, Abraham’s descendant, is said to have paid a tithe through Abraham, even though he wasn’t born yet, because he was in the loins of Abraham when Abraham made the tithe.

Although not all Christians agree that we receive our very souls from Adam (esp. many Reformed theologians and the Roman Catholic Church, who hold that each soul is specially created), all agree that Adam did pass a corrupted nature on to his children. The transmission of Adam’s corrupted nature to all of humankind imputes them as guilty and results in their individual sinfulness and therefore suffering. Since all are then, by birth, sinners, all deserve to die. This penalty for sin is illustrated in Luke 13:1-5, which is Jesus’ most pointed discussion concerning why God allows suffering. Here Jesus responds to why some were murdered on one occasion and to why some were killed by the collapse of a tower on another. Jesus points out that those who suffered weren’t “worse sinners,” but adds “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Here Jesus links death to sin. Theologian D. A. Carson (1946- ) commented that Jesus “does not assume” that those who suffered “did not deserve their fate. Indeed, the fact that he can tell those contemporaries that unless they repent they too will perish shows that Jesus assumes that all death is in one way or another the result of sin, and therefore deserved.” Even though the concept of original sin or ancestral sin is unpopular today, it refuses to go away because it alone answers why humans do so much evil. So Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) wrote that man should be studied because “we are the origin of all coming evil.”

Punitive Suffering

Scripture is clear that God sometimes punishes the unrepentant (Gen. 19:15, Jer. 44:13). Also, God ordains government leaders to punish those guilty of wrongdoing (Rom. 13:4; 1 Pet. 2:14). And this isn’t just for their reformation. In the entire Judeo-Christian tradition capital punishment of murderers has been considered the murderer’s just end. The Book of Revelation declares that God will bring suffering on those who resist His will and persecute the believer (Rev. 11:5). And, finally, hell is the ultimate punishment of the unrepentant (Matt. 25:45; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; Heb. 10:29; Jude 1:7), although the suffering of those in hell will be greater or lesser depending upon how clearly they knew God’s will (Luke 12:47-48). Thankfully, those who trust in Christ are not in danger of eternal punishment (John 3:36) and do not need to fear it (1 John 4:18).

Consequential Suffering

The Bible teaches that people often suffer the natural consequences of their own sins and others’ sins. In other words, much suffering doesn’t result from direct punishment by God but is simply the ordinary moral effect of creatures acting badly. This is because God’s commands aren’t established by God arbitrarily, but are established because the breaking of His commands harms our relationship with Him, other creatures, and ourselves. Thus Paul writes that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” fulfills the Mosaic Law with all its commands because “love does no harm to its neighbor” (Rom. 13:8-10). C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) put it, “Moral rules are rules for running the human machine.” Christians teach that individuals are responsible for their actions and that their actions are meaningful and carry great responsibility. A drunk driver may cripple her children. A gambler may impoverish his family. As Oxford Philosopher Richard Swinburne (1934- ) wrote, “if God is to allow us to acquire knowledge by learning from experience and above all to allow us to choose whether to acquire knowledge at all or even to allow us to have very well-justified knowledge of the consequences of our actions—knowledge which we need if we are to have free and efficacious choice between good and bad—he needs to provide natural evils occurring in regular ways in consequence of natural processes.” Solomon points out that when people suffer the consequences of their own mistakes (e.g., knowingly building a city below sea level with inadequate sea walls in an area subject to hurricanes), many nonetheless blame God (Prov. 19:3).

The Bible is clear, however, that not all suffering is the direct result of an individual’s sin or mistakes. Job was afflicted with the loss of his possessions, family, and health, but not as a result of his own sin or foolishness. Also, when the disciples asked Jesus about a man born blind and whether, “this man sinned or his parents,” Jesus replied that it was neither, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3).

Sacrificial Suffering

Sacrificial suffering is suffering one willingly takes on, usually to alleviate the suffering of others. Jesus demonstrated sacrificial suffering and called his followers to do likewise.

Humankind’s sinfulness could not simply be forgiven lest the lesson to creatures was that rebellion against God is easily remedied. Thus God gave his only son, Jesus, to pay the penalty for sin. Just as Adam’s sin and subsequent punishment was unique, so Christ’s suffering himself to be tortured to death on the cross to atone for humankind’s sin is unique. Jesus’ suffering was unique in its foretelling: much of the Old Testament foretells Jesus death and Jesus himself declares well in advance the exact purpose and exact nature of his suffering (Matt. 16:21; Mk. 10:32-34; Jn. 12:32-33). Jesus suffering was unique in its perfection: Jesus suffered even though he was not under Adam’s curse nor guilty of any sin (Jn. 8:46; Heb. 2:10, 4:15). Jesus suffering was unique in its selflessness: rarely might someone die for a good person, but Jesus died for his enemies (Rom. 5:6-10; Eph. 2:1-5). Jesus’ suffering was unique in its worth: Jesus was God, and that God would suffer a humiliating death on the cross sets him apart from the impersonal religions of Hinduism and Buddhism and the detached god of Islam (Jn. 1:1; Tit. 2:13). Jesus’ suffering was unique in its accomplishment: His suffering paid the price for all the sins of everyone who trusts in him (Jn. 1:29; Heb. 2:9; 1 Jn. 2:2). Jesus’ suffering was unique in its resolution: after his crucifixion Jesus raised himself from the dead (Jn. 2:19; 10:17-18). Thus, Christians agree that God allows evil and suffering, but point out that our God also endured evil and suffering to free those who trust him from both forever.

Christians also must follow Christ’s example and live sacrificial lives for others. “To this you were called,” writes Peter, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). In other words, sometimes Christians will indirectly bring suffering upon themselves as a result of sacrificing their time, money, or health to help others.

In fact, being of service to God and others even to the point of suffering is the hallmark of the Christian life. Jesus said that his disciples must “deny” themselves and pick up their cross daily (Luke 9:23). Christians are to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). Thus while Paul was in prison he wrote that he endured “everything” for the sake of the elect (2 Tim. 2:8). Jesus concludes his parable of the Good Samaritan (where a Samaritan sacrificed his time and money to help a man who had just been beaten and robbed), with “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:30-37). In other words, just as Jesus “humbled himself and took on the form of a servant,” washed the disciples’ feet, and then suffered a torturous death to redeem his enemies; the Christian is called to endure hardship, even suffer, for Christ and others.

Christ’s example is, as Paul put it, “folly to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:18). This was a far cry, as Rodney Stark points out, from the teaching of the classical philosophers who “regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions—defects in character to be avoided by all rational men.” Many adherents of eastern religions reject helping those who suffer because that might hinder them from working off the bad Karma that they had accrued from prior lives. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), an opponent of Christianity, was correct when he complained that “Christianity has sided with everything weak, low, and botched; it has made an ideal out of antagonism to all the self-preservative instincts of strong life.” Self-sacrifice for those who can in no way help you is also logically foreign to evolution’s concept of “survival of the fittest.” Nonetheless, Joseph A. Amato (1990) writes that “Christianity defines our Western sense of suffering…. Christianity made self-sacrifice the first principle of the moral world.”

Some examples follow.

Lucian (120-c180) wrote, “It is incredible to see the ardor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator has put it into their heads that they are all brethren.” Circa 260 A.D., when a plague besieged Alexandria, Dionysius wrote that the Christians “were not sparing of themselves,” visiting and tending to the sick as unto Christ and “many who nursed others to health died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves.” Julian the Apostate called it a shame that heathens did not support their own, while “among the Jews no beggar can be found, and the godless Galilaeans [Christians] nourish not only their own, but even our own poor.”

Not only were Christians at the forefront of caring for the poor, the orphan, the elderly, the lame, the blind, the leper, and the mentally ill, but, as Andrew Crislip put it, the hospital with its “dedication to free, professional, impatient medical care; and an insistence on the dignity of and compassionate care for the sick had its origins in fourth-century monasticism.”

The Rule of Benedict which governed monastic life from the sixth century on instructed, “take the greatest care of the sick, of children, of guests and of the poor, knowing without doubt that he will have to render an account for all these on the Day of Judgment.”

Christians were largely responsible for the abolishment of Sati in India, of foot-binding in China, and of human sacrifice among the Amerindians.

Henry Dunant (1828-1910) founded the Red Cross and co-founded the Young Men’s Christian Association. The Red Crescent, which operates in Muslim countries, sprang from the Red Cross. Tens of thousands of Christian churches and para-church organizations operate hospitals, orphanages, elder care centers, and shelters in almost every country in the world.

Fellowship Suffering

Suffering in the same way as another often brings an immediate sense of fellowship and bonding between the sufferers. They each feel they know the other in a way others cannot comprehend. Thus Paul wrote that he wanted to know the “fellowship” of sharing in Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10). In other words, far from seeing suffering as only negative, the Bible teaches that it is a privilege for the Christian to suffer for the cause of Christ: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29). Peter writes that Christians should not be surprised at the painful trials they suffer but should rejoice that they “participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). This sense of privilege in suffering is common to human experience. Battle veterans often glory in the hardship shared in a conflict and soldiers like thinking they did their share during a war. Christians throughout the ages have accepted persecution and caring for the poor and the sick as an opportunity to share in Christ’s sufferings. Identification with Christ in times of persecution and suffering is the ultimate proof that one is a Christian.

Protective Suffering

The Bible reveals that sometimes God allows some suffering to avert greater suffering or sin. Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery but God used it to later rescue his family from famine, causing Joseph to exclaim, “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45:5). Even someone’s death may save one from future suffering: “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil” (Isa. 57:1). Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from the sin of pride (2 Cor. 12:7). Those who take communion in an “unworthy manner” may be judged and thereby become weak, become sick, or even die so they will not be “condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:27-32). Of course we discipline children to stop them from running into the street so they won’t be hit by a car.

Evaluative Suffering

Suffering also has value in testing, proving or evaluating one’s faith. This is what happened in the Book of Job, where God pronounced that Job was a righteous man but Satan contended that Job’s righteousness was only because his life was easy. Similarly, Paul wrote that the Christians endurance of suffering was “evidence” that God’s judgment was right about them. The believer’s patient endurance of suffering proves faith (1 Pet. 1:7; 2 Thess. 1:4-5). The repentant are to “prove” their repentance “by their deeds” (Acts 6:20), which include being faithful under trial. Thus Jesus said that it is those who “endure to the end” that will be saved (Mark 13:13). Believers who triumph in the Book of the Revelation are those who do not love their lives too much to “shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11). Paul writes that if believers endure, they will reign with him, but “if we disown him, he will also disown us” (2 Tim. 2:12). In other words, true believers will faithfully endure suffering and thereby prove their belief.

Regarding the plague in Carthage (252), Cyprian in Mortality wrote that the “horrible and deadly” pestilence was necessary for examining the “human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted….”

Educational Suffering

Historian Joseph Amato wrote, “From Plato and Aristotle to the Stoics and Epicureans…. None conceded any intrinsic good to suffering itself…. Certainly the person victimized by circumstances and fate was neither idealized as holy nor as given any special wisdom.” In contrast to these philosophers, the Bible teaches that humans can learn much from suffering. Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil plunged their descendants into a lifelong education of both. We are learning the hard way that God is right and that sin is destructive. We learn that our choices mean things and that wrong choices may cause great suffering. Most parents have suffered or have witnessed enough suffering so that they warn (educate) their children not do certain things, first and foremost, to prevent their children from making choices that might injure or kill their friends or themselves.

Part of educational suffering is character development. Paul wrote that suffering produces perseverance which in turn produces character and character encourages believers as they recognize that they are becoming more like Christ (Rom. 5:3-5). Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians produced a “godly sorrow” that led to repentance (2 Cor. 7:8-11). Even Jesus, who committed no sin, endured suffering to become the perfect sacrifice since the baby Jesus, before he resisted temptation and willingly chose suffering, would not have been the perfect sacrifice (Heb. 5:8-9).

Suffering Rewarded

Death and dying expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) said that for those who reject the belief that suffering will be rewarded in an afterlife “suffering has lost its meaning.” But for the Christian, suffering has meaning because the Bible reveals that in the life to come the Christian’s sufferings will be rewarded and they will never suffer again. Jesus said that those who mourned were blessed because they will be comforted (Mat. 5:4). Paul wrote Christians must share in Christ’s sufferings to share in his glory (Rom. 8:17). From the perspective of eternal glory Paul calls our suffering “light and momentary” (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Peter wrote that the Christians who suffer grief in all kinds of trials can rejoice because they are receiving the goal of their faith: “the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:9). Jesus said that those who are hated, excluded, or slandered on account of him should “leap for joy” for the great reward awaiting them in heaven (Luke 6:22-23).

Christians who apprehend the truths of the Good News only through the eyes of faith and yet endure suffering by faithfully continuing to honor God thereby tacitly indict Satan and his angels who rebelled against God, even though they actually saw his face. Thus, Christians will be qualified to judge the world and even judge angels (1 Cor. 6:2-3).

In Revelation the Lord says that the faithful will overcome and so will inherit His kingdom (Luke 12:32; Rev. 21:7) where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). The faithful “will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 22: 5). It is no wonder then that Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). Francis Quarles (1592-1644): “The way to bliss lies not on beds of down, and he that has no cross deserves no crown.”


Joseph A. Amato, Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering

D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord?

Andrew T. Crislip, From Monastery to Hospital

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology

Eusebius, The Church History

John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil

Peter Koslowski, ed., The Origin and the Overcoming of Evil and Suffering in the World’s Religions

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples

Timothy S. Miller, The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire

Amanda Porterfield, Healing in the History of Christianity

Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity

Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

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