The chapter on sin from Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism includes a short discussion of sin’s cosmic consequences. Because of sin, there is a kind of distortion of God’s creation. When sin entered the world, the whole creation was subject to futility, corruption, and death. This is Paul’s pained message in Romans 8, where he talks of a creation groaning under the strain of that corruption and waiting in hope of redemption. Something is wrong.
The decay, disease, and death we take for granted is all the evidence we need.
For Athanasius, the cosmic fallout of sin is a key reason for the incarnation. If forgiveness were the only issue, God could have done it without becoming incarnate—at least in Athanasius’s view. The incarnation works to undo the desolation of the fallen creation.
Christ takes on death itself, both as a physical reality and as a corrupting spiritual and moral force. Our salvation is about so much more than the things we’ve done wrong. It is far deeper, more profound, and consequently more beautiful than that.
This is challenging language for evangelicals accustomed to thinking about sin and salvation primarily in personal terms. Keller adds this to his discussion of sin but these insights also have profound implications for a theology of suffering.
In my work as a high school theology teacher, I regularly encounter students who seem enormously attracted to the idea that God causes suffering. For some, this is a scandal. For others, it seems justifiable. As they see it, we deserve to suffer because we are sinful beings. The link between sin and suffering is construed in individual terms: Because I sin, I deserve and should accept whatever suffering God gives me. The only real comfort is knowing that it must be part of some greater purpose and for God’s greater glory.
Though there is something valid about this perspective, it ultimately runs contrary to the Gospel. It is true that human beings are sinful.
We certainly bring a certain amount of suffering on ourselves and on one another. I may deserve death or even hell in some sense. But this view fails to take account of God’s character. God’s work in the world has very little to do with what we deserve. It never has had much to do that. Looking at his beautiful, beloved creation fallen into ruin, half destroyed, wasted almost beyond recognition, God was moved with compassion. There is no talk of deserving and no question of God inflicting more pain. God is good. God is love. He repairs what is broken, restores what is lost, and heals what has become desperately sick. This is God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. This is the Truth: undeserved, unfettered love and grace overflowing and bringing life where there was once only death.
There is a childish comfort in believing that God’s power means control, that God orchestrates every event according to a precise plan rather than working in and through a world that still isn’t quite right. Releasing the illusion that everything makes sense means embracing a world that is less neatly composed and more ambiguous than we might like.
It also means opening the eyes and heart to a world that is mysterious and strangely beautiful. When we accept that God’s work is persuasive love rather than coercive control, we begin to see what God is doing.
All around us, there are signs of rebirth. There are lives changed and families restored. The more we see that, the more readily we can participate in it as we begin to ask ourselves a new question. When we stop asking why God causes suffering, we can start asking what he’s doing about it—and how we can cooperate in that work.
Annie Bullock lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and three children. She is a Humanities Instructor at Regents School of Austin and the author of Real Austin: The Homeless and the Image of God.