Emma and Charles had already lost a few children way too early, something all too common in their day. After the death of their 10 year old daughter, Annie, Charles couldn’t even bring himself to even attend the graveside service. Annie’s untimely death may have been the impetus that moved Charles to publish some ancient philosophical ideas he had honed with the power of the scientific method and the full weight of the Enlightenment behind him. These were ideas, which included his religious skepticism, that he had held without publishing for over two decades, apparently out of love for his wife, Emma, and out of respect for her devout belief in God, the afterlife, and the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Annie’s death apparently relieved him of those inhibitions and Charles Darwin went on to publish his revolutionary materialist, naturalist views in “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Suffering and death in the world, not least that which pervaded his own life, certainly influenced Darwin’s beliefs about the randomness of life.
Suffering, and especially death, can lead one to the conclusion that life is ultimately meaningless, without real purpose. Even the ancients going on only what they could observe and experience directly of the world could come to the same conclusion. You really see a hint of this in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, in which you find the well-known refrain, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2).
Now I don’t believe the message of Ecclesiastes is that life is really meaningless. Life in this world lived for it’s own sake certainly is, whether it be for personal pleasure or pride or both. As Ecclesiastes indicates, pleasure is fleeting and pride only lasts as long as the memory of future generations. The pain of aging and illness will quickly rob the largest storehouses of pleasure; and most people will not be remembered at all a couple generations after they die (Do you know your great, great grandmother’s name? Add another “great”?) Nevertheless, just from observing the cycles of life, the sun rises and sets and then does it all over again, and again, and again. In our modern time we know that we are literally spinning around in circles as we swirl around the sun once every 365 days only to do it all over again and again … That alone can give you the impression that we might just be going around in circles chasing our tails until we die. And die we will. Generations come and generations go and death eventually takes us all.
And if that is all there is, then what exactly is the point of it all? Is there even a point at all? Is it all one big accident, or as Ecclesiastes indicates are we really headed somewhere after all “if we fear God and keep his commandments…”, namely to the judgment of a personal God (Eccl 12:13-14). Suffering and especially death can drive one to the former rather than the later, sadly.
If there really is an all-powerful God who cares, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? And the question about suffering is inextricably connected to the question of meaning. Does life with so much suffering ultimately have meaning and purpose? The Bible’s answer is a definite and resounding yes. It also gives us a reason for why there is suffering.
Quite simply the Bible’s explanation is there is suffering because of sin. We live in a fallen world because there was a fall; we live in a broken world because humanity broke God’s commandment. The first three chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3, establish this claim: God created humanity to reflect his glory through stewardship of creation under God’s authority. When Adam and Eve, enticed by the tempter, decided to live for their own pleasure and pride instead of for God it brought the disastrous consequences that God had warned them about – spiritual death and suffering, which would eventually result in physical death.
Genesis 3 tells us that human sin lead to a painful curse that affects not only humanity but the creation itself. This is echoed and amplified in Romans 8 when it says:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 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 corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:18-25 (ESV)
Interestingly, here Paul says the creation was “subjected to futility.” Futility is the same word that is translated “vanity” in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Yet Paul tells us that although it was subjected to futility, it was not without hope. Life in this world lived for its own sake is certainly futile, but God did not leave us without hope and greater purpose. Restoration is available for ourselves and, as a consequence, for creation itself.
Suffering is the consequence of sin in a general sense. Just as all of humanity, the righteous and the wicked, all enjoy the general blessings of God, which are still very much a part of our fallen world (see Matthew 5:45), all people, good and bad, will suffer to one degree or another under the consequences of the curse and the general judgment of God on the earth and humanity. The convulsions of a fallen world under the curse because of sin affects everyone to one degree or another, good or bad. Death itself is the ever-present reminder of the general judgment of God on the world that affects everyone, righteous or not.
Recently Kirk Cameron became a lighting rod for heated criticism when he suggested God allows powerful storms like the recent hurricanes as a reminder of our need to humble ourselves, to stand in awe of God, and to repent. For this one progressive Christian pastor and author basically called Cameron a jerk and an A-hole for suggesting such a thing.
If he thinks Kirk Cameron is bad, I wonder what he would think of John Wesley, who wrote an entire sermon in response to a deadly and devastating earthquake entitled, “The Cause and Cure for Earthquakes.” Wesley was much more explicit.
“I am to show you that earthquakes are the works of the Lord, and He only bringeth this destruction upon the earth. Now, that God is himself the Author, and sin the moral cause, of earthquakes, (whatever the natural cause may be) cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures; for these are they which testify of Him, that it is God” which removeth the mountains, and overturneth them in his anger; which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.” (Job 9:5, 6) ~ John Wesley – Sermon 129:1
Wesley goes on to tie natural disasters to the curse brought about by “the original transgression,” the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. He also considered natural disasters to be a part of the general judgment of God and a reminder of our need for humility and repentance in the face of such temporal judgments, especially to be prepared for the final judgment still to come. And lest we be tempted to think it was easy for Wesley to preach that in his day, we must realize that he himself fought against theology within the church influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and deism, even mentioning famous skeptics like David Hume and Voltaire by name. Wesley’s message was better received among coal miners than Anglican priests and bishops.
For both Cameron and Wesley, natural disasters and the suffering they bring, or even suffering in general is not without reason and purpose. Neither are they completely inscrutable. If you believe the Bible, the reason is clear, although we may not understand everything on a individual case by case basis. But, again, the question of suffering and meaning are closely connected.
In a pastoral care class I took in seminary, the professor stressed emphatically that we should never try to explain or give reasons for someone’s loss. She strongly suggested not only that we may not know the reasons, but that there really are no meaningful reasons. The best we can do she seemed to suggest is to make meaning for ourselves. I understand we certainly don’t want to jump to conclusions or to give pat answers to complex questions, but I sensed she was leaning too far toward nihilism. I asked, “Are you saying there really are absolutely no reasons at all?” After a pregnant pause, she said she was not saying that, but her hesitation spoke louder than her words.
Some want to avoid questions of meaning and purpose altogether. They suggest that we can’t know if God actually is somehow involved in disasters, pestilence, famine, and war. They suggest that we can’t be sure that there is any reason and purpose behind these things at all. In criticizing Kirk Cameron one progressive Christian said, It’s not God, it’s just science,” implying that it is just the way the world is, without rhyme or reason, period.
The Bible, in comparison to other ancient stories like the Babylonian creation story and in comparison to some modern scientific accounts, indicates that creation is not capricious and neither is suffering. The flood, for example, didn’t happen because the unpredictable gods were just annoyed by the noise of humans, nor was it just an accident of natural forces. The flood happened in response to sin and wickedness upon the earth (Genesis 6).
Of course this does not mean that every time tragedy strikes someone God must be punishing them for specific sins in their life. Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, the book of Job, and even the teachings of Jesus and the story of his own life show us that in this fallen world, sometimes the innocent and the righteous will suffer. Sometimes this is at the hands of sinners, Jesus being the prime example. Sometimes it will be because of accidents, natural disasters, and disease, which God allows to afflict the righteous for a season. Job is perhaps the best example of the later. Sometimes the same event may be a specific judgment against the wicked and a general time of testing through trials and tribulations for the righteous, but the general judgment of God due to the fall is the reason for it at all. Jesus himself used a report of Pilate slaughtering Galileans and a deadly accident, a tower collapse, to remind everyone that they weren’t worse sinners than anyone else, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
This really is a basic Biblical worldview and the framework that makes sense of the redemption from the curse that God wrought in Christ. I think Wesley was right when he said, it “cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures.”
The Bible is the revelation of a personal and intelligent God, who created the universe out of nothing, not out of necessity, but out of love. This God is transcendent, being so much greater than and independent of the universe, but simultaneously very much present and involved in all of his creation. He created us out of nothing for something very important, to be his image-bearers. Using our freedom to live by our own desires rather than the will of the One who created us throws everything out of order. But God is merciful and has provided a way for us to be reconciled to him to once again bring harmony and peace back to the world. Our sin subjected the world to futility, but not without hope. The consequences to sin were built in by God himself and those consequences are not without meaning and purpose. They are a reminder that we need to remember how small we really are and how awesome God really is, especially in mercy and grace when we do repent and return to him (just look at the context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 and think of that in light of the prodigal son of Luke 15).
As someone slips from this theistic worldview, into more deistic or pantheistic worldviews, the less likely he or she will take sin and its consequences seriously. Conversely, the less seriously we take sin and its consequences, the more likely we are to hold deistic, pantheistic, or atheistic worldviews. It is no secret that the doctrine of hell, the eternal suffering of unrepentant sinners, which Darwin rightly saw as having been taught most clearly by Jesus himself, was another factor in his ultimate rejection of the Christian faith. He wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last. What perhaps is scarier than the thought that nothing really matters is that everything really does forever. But God in his mercy through His Son Jesus Christ has made a way for the vilest of sinners to be forgiven and set free from hopelessness and despair.
Haratio Spafford owned a thriving law practice in downtown Chicago. He and his wife Anna had one son and four daughters. In 1871, roughly 12 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species,” pneumonia took the life of his young son. That same year much of his business and its assets were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. By the fall of 1873 his business had bounced back. Around Thanksgiving that same year his wife and four daughters boarded a ship for a trip across the Atlantic. Mr. Spafford stayed behind to deal with an unexpected business problem. He planned to catch another ship to meet his family in Europe. On that voyage, the ship carrying his family collided with another and sank. While Anna barely survived clinging to debris, his four daughters drowned and were lost to the sea. While being pulled out of the water, Anna it is said, knowing her girls had been lost, expressed confidence in the midst of deep grief that one day they would understand why.
When Mr. Spafford got word of what happened, he boarded a ship to join his grieving wife. On that voyage across the fathomless waters that had robbed him of his children, H.G. Spafford penned the lyrics to the beautiful hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”
The creation has indeed been subjected to futility, but not without hope.