This is part two of a series of posts about the way Christians have sought to explain suffering and evil in light of God’s goodness. It’s all from Thomas Oden’s book Classic Christianity. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1.
He begins with the observation that in many cultures, suffering is explained simply: You get what you deserve. So, if you’re going through something hard, it’s because you did something wrong…
It may seem absurd that so much of a human history and acculturation have so often been formed around the seemingly odd premise that suffering is a punishment. But that correlation appears virtually everywhere in the history of human experience, and especially in morality and religion. The logic is unsparing; if we receive the due reward of our deeds, and if we suffer, the thought suggests itself that we suffered because of our evil deeds.
The Common Experience of Suffering for Others: The Social Nature of Suffering
The deeper level of the perplexity of suffering is not when people suffer for their own sins—that has a ring of justice. It is rather when they suffer for the sins of others—that seems unjust.
Your neighbor may have to suffer innocently for something you have done (even inadvertently). Who does not know how it feels to suffer from something someone else has done? Sad but true, there appears to be universally experienced a profoundly vicarious aspect to human suffering. It is as if all humanity had become mixed in a transgenerational stew where one person’s willed evil causes others to suffer. No one comes out unhurt. One generation hurts another. One member of a family system hurts another.
The premise of individualism does not help toward a solution of an enigma that is intrinsically social: there is an inexorable, ever-changing relational interweaving of human beings in covenant histories: the histories of tribes, cultures, languages, associations, and nations.
It is odd that the most profound forms of human intimacy are revealed in suffering. We are cursed by others, yet no one discerns exactly from whose voice the curse came. We are blessed by others, yet often these blessing seem to come from nowhere.
The Consequences of Sin are Socially Transmitted in Subsequent History
Why has it recurred so convincingly within so many cultures that human beings are cursed and punished by their own or other’s bad choices, which Jews and Christians call “sin”? The consequences of sin, like all self- determined historical acts, become locked into causal chains. These consequences cannot be simply stopped. It does no good to say; “Stop the world, I want to get off.” To pretend that the consequences of sin could be suddenly halted would be to suspend the present natural order of cause and effect where one person’s bad choice causes another to suffer. To change that would require the redesigning of the world totally, and no one is up to that.
This is why Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Augustine argued that evil is not substantially or originally existent in our created nature, but that it has emerged out of an unnecessitated history, a result of human freedom—self-chosen and abused. Its history is basically self-determined by will, not necessitated. That is not our created nature, but our fallen nature. It has a history- everything east of Eden. If so, the view that evil is natural to humanity needs correction, as does the mistaken view that evil is as old as God.
Consequent Innocent Suffering
Sufferings for the most part appear to be the inevitable consequences of the corporate sins of humanity working intergenerationally to affect persons mostly but not wholly innocent of their own original acts of wrongdoing. Each individual then places his or her own distinctive stamp upon the history of sin. My flawed choices are added to a history of flawed choices. When we make wrong uses of good creaturely gifts (like sex and power and wealth and influence), when we choose the lesser good above the greater, it is often the case that others who did not make our choices have to suffer the consequences of our bad choices.
These causal chains flow like all natural ordering flows, from person to person, mother to daughter, family to family, neighbor to neighbor, seller to buyer, nation to nation (Jer. 31:29-30). What we sow will somehow be reaped, if not by us, by others who may suffer from our choices. Our choices propel unwelcome and unintended reverberations into others’ futures.
That all sins stands under the penalty of death is proven by this empirical fact: There has never yet been a sinner who has not in time died.
In the late Judaic apocalyptic tradition, grossly unfair distributions of rewards and punishments were viewed as proof of the anticipated end of history, the final resurrection of the just and unjust. Jesus’ resurrection meant the beginning of that end time. We leap ahead of our story by referring to the resurrection meant the beginning of that little, since it comes immediately after the cross, our current subject. The resurrection would provide a way by which the faithful may come to participate already in the end time, when all wrongs shall be righted.
Much of the Old Testament viewed prosperity as a sign of God’s favor, and adversity as an indication of divine displeasure over sin. But such a view was inadequate to explain innocent suffering, such as that of Job. Finally lacking a formal solution to his urgent queries, Job submitted himself to the infinite majesty of God, confessing that “no plan of yours can be thwarted”; Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). In this way the evil of suffering led to the good of repentance. “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me—till I entered the sanctuary of God. Then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground” (Ps. 73:4-18)