During the epistolary debate we’ve been following recently between Bart “What’s-God’s-Answer-to-Suffering?” Ehrman and ex-Bishop N. T. “The-Kingdom-is-Inbreaking” Wright, Ehrman comes, ahem, right out and says to Wright at one point: Just answer the question! What does the Bible say about all this suffering? What kind of a God would allow it?
To be fair, Wright alludes to an answer — basically, that the resurrection inaugurated a new way of life that is yet to be fulfilled — but doesn’t quite come out and say it. And today, I encountered a passage in Romans that could have sufficed; in it, Paul seems to explain quite clearly what suffering means and what God intends to do about it.
The passage in question occurs in Chapter 8:18-25, where Paul explains to the community at Rome:
“I consider that the sufferings [there’s that word! – ed.] of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”
So Paul admits there is suffering. But it is “nothing” compared to what is coming, presumably when the Kingdom of God is established at the imminent end.
“For creation [Paul continues] was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it [presumably, God – ed.], in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
Here, Paul seems to say that God purposely made humans to suffer just so they could be “set free.” Passages like these are why every student of theology thinks Paul is hard to read. He is. But his point is clear-ish: people suffer now because God somehow uses that pain to set up something glorious in the future.
“We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
In other words, human suffering can be compared to the pain of labor — pain that serves an interim, but greater, purpose. And then he gets to the really deep part of the passage:
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.”
The answer to present suffering, says Paul, is to hope in the unseen — to have faith — that the pain is but a stage toward redemption.
So Wright might have answered Ehrman’s question like this: God created us to suffer so that we might, through faith, endure that suffering as a temporary stage through which we pass toward something so glorious it makes our present pain seem “as nothing.”
Now, if you don’t believe in eschatological themes or the resurrection — as Wright, um, rightly points out — this explanation of Paul’s won’t satisfy. But there it is.