We’ve all heard a story that goes something like this: In the beginning God created a beautiful and perfect universe. To crown his creation, he made humanity in his own image. Human beings were perfect and immortal. Life was serene and wonderful. There were no predatory animals and no death. But then came the Fall. Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command and plunged creation into decay, destruction and death. The perfect creation was ruined. Now God had to come up with a plan of rescue so that he could restore his ruined creation to its original luster.
God did not have an original Plan A, which was followed by a Plan B after Adam and Eve sinned.
But I would like to propose a different story. Suppose God decided he wanted to make a creature who could become a wise, mature being, capable of love and creativity and worship. God knew that such a creature could not become all of this instantaneously. In fact, the only way such a being could achieve such high ambitions was through a long process of development that included challenge and suffering and pain.
To enact this plan, God created a vast universe of great beauty and complexity. As part of this universe, he made one small planet, called Earth. He structured Earth so it included both seas and dry land, light and darkness. He created an abundance of vegetation and animals to inhabit Earth. There was awe and beauty in this world. There were extensive provisions for sustenance. But there were also great challenges and dangers. There were predatory animals, weeds that overwhelmed beneficial plants, and floods and earthquakes and other natural disasters. This earth was the perfect setting for God’s plan.
Last, God made human creatures and placed them on the earth he had made. God knew it would take thousands of years and countless generations to bring his plan to fruit, but he was patient and determined to achieve his purpose. He knew that he himself – in the person of his son – would have to become a part of this creation and a part of the human race in order to achieve his goal. He even knew his son would have to suffer and die as a mortal human person. But he loved his creation so much that he was willing to pay even this ultimate price for its perfecting.
In this version of the story, Adam and Eve were created as mortal beings from the very beginning. Their sin did not plunge the world into turmoil and death. Rather, it simply prevented them from achieving the wisdom attainable only by submission to God and obedience to his command. In this version of the story, God did not have an original Plan A, which was followed by a Plan B after Adam and Eve sinned. Instead, the history of humanity and the world as we know it today is in fact the way he planned it from the start. God and his world are still operating under Plan A.
THE NECESSITY OF SUFFERING
There are a few good reasons to think that this alternate story might in fact be true. The most obvious one is the consistent scriptural emphasis on people being matured and perfected through suffering. Scripture never blames the trouble and suffering of this world on what we call the fall of man into sin. Rather, it repeatedly insists that our experiences of struggle and pain are necessary tools God uses to form us into the mature people he wants us to be. Hebrews 2:10 even tells us that Jesus was perfected through suffering. If the sinless Son of God had to suffer in order to reach maturity, why should the experience of Adam and Eve or you and me be any different?
In the Old Testament, the necessity of struggle and suffering is demonstrated mostly through stories. Abraham had to leave his native country and travel to a distant land without even knowing where he was going. For decades he trusted that God would give him a son even after his wife Sarah was far past child-bearing age. And, when Isaac was finally born and was growing into a young man, God convinced Abraham to sacrifice this son of the promise on Mount Moriah.
After growing up in the court of Pharaoh in Egypt, Moses had to flee for his life and spend 40 years as a lowly shepherd before God called him to lead the people of Israel. After being anointed the next king of Israel, David spent years running away from an insanely jealous King Saul, thus becoming an alien and an outlaw in his own country. The whole nation of Israel toiled for 400 years under the scorching Egyptian sun and the lash of the master’s whip before God delivered them. Then they had to wander in the desert for another 40 years before they could enter the promised land.
Why is there so much turmoil and trouble in the history of God’s people? Proverbs advises us, “My son, do not despise the LORD’S discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because The LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (3:11-12).
Hebrews quotes these verses from Proverbs and encourages Christians to endure God’s discipline with patience because it will produce a harvest of righteousness and peace (12:5-11). Similarly, James calls on us to face trials with joy because he knows they will develop perseverance and maturity in us (1:2-4). Jesus himself called for his followers to take up their cross to follow his example of suffering (Mk. 8:34). Scripture consistently pictures the Christian life as a life of trial and suffering. And there is never any suggestion that things could have been different if only Adam and Eve had not sinned. Human nature was constructed in such a way that only through great challenge and difficulty can it come to maturity.
This is why Paul talks about the subjection of creation to frustration in our behalf (Rom. 8:19-22). God subjected his creation to decay so that humanity could experience the necessary struggle on its path to maturity. But some day, the sons of God will be revealed, the groaning of creation will be over, and humanity and the whole created order will together enter a new age of healing and peace. Thus Psalm 96 pictures the heavens, the earth, the sea, the fields and the trees as all joyfully anticipating the coming judgment of God.
AN IMPERFECT BEGINNING
The second argument that supports the Plan A story is the current state of science and theology. There is absolutely no evidence in contemporary science that a perfect world with no pain or natural disasters or death ever existed. All of the scientific evidence instead points to an earth that has existed for a long time and has gone through a grueling process of development and change, life and death, cataclysmic events and mass extinctions. No perfect paradise ever existed.
In parallel with this scientific evidence, contemporary theology has begun to take a new look at Genesis and the origins of life on our planet. We now realize that predation and death are necessary parts of the created order, because without them the world would soon be overpopulated and despoiled. Genesis nowhere says that God created humans as immortal beings, and the existence of the Tree of Life suggests that its fruit was an antidote to our mortality. Scripture nowhere says, either, that the original creation was perfect. God only says that it was good, and we should be careful not to read our own prejudices into the meaning of good. If God looked at a world that included constant change, natural disasters and predation and death – and called that world good – who are we to say he was wrong?
SIN AND SUFFERING
The third argument that supports Plan A comes from my personal experience and observation. If suffering were indeed the result of sin, it would seem likely that there would be some observable correlation between the two. We would expect that very sinful people would suffer the most and that very sanctified people would have lives of health and prosperity. But that does not seem to be the case. My own experience has included repeated failure and prolonged frustration in my search for a meaningful career, years of struggle with depression and more years of suffering from chronic pain. I certainly do not claim to be the most obedient and sanctified Christian on the block, but neither do I believe that my difficulties are all the result of my sinful lifestyle. Some Christians have very happy and fulfilled lives, while others suffer far more than I have. And I see no evidence that there is a negative correlation between one’s level of spirituality and one’s misery index.
What is true on an individual level is also true on a larger level. On Dec. 26, 2004, a tsunami struck Indonesia and surrounding countries and killed an estimated 230,000 people. On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, causing more than 1,800 deaths and more than $100 billion in damage. And on Jan. 12, 2010. a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, resulting in death estimates between 100,000 and 160,000. Some Christians have been quick to condemn Indonesia or Haiti or New Orleans as particularly sinful and therefore as deserving of these apparent punishments from God. But I do not believe we have the right to make such judgments. In Luke 13:1-4 Jesus warns his disciples not to draw similar conclusions about those Galileans whom Pilate killed or the residents of Jerusalem who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them.
The point is that difficulty and pain and suffering are common human experiences in this present world. No one is exempt. Is some suffering the result of sin? Of course. But which sinful, fallible human person has the right to pronounce if and when a particular illness or death or catastrophe is a punishment for sin? God knew that trials and struggles were necessary for all of us in order to reach the righteousness and maturity he desires for us. Instead of condemning those who suffer as worse sinners, we should heed Jesus’ warning: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Lk 13:5b).
JESUS AND SUFFERING
There is a final argument that supports the Plan A story. It is both the most mysterious and most convincing reason of all. It is a reason that was hidden until the time of Christ. Paul talks in I Corinthians 2:7 about a wisdom of God that has been secret and hidden. This mysterious wisdom was revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. The message, or word (logos), of the cross (I Cor. 1:18), although foolishness to the world, is the power of God that is bringing new life to believers all over the world. Through the foolishness of the cross and Paul’s preaching of that cross, the world is being renewed.
So what exactly is the foolish message of the cross? It is the message inherent in the story of a savior who suffered and died on a Roman cross. God’s greatest triumph and man’s only hope for final salvation center in the God-man Jesus Christ being tortured to death by a small cadre of Roman soldiers outside Jerusalem.
This, then, is the mystery and the foolishness that finally enables people to become the wise and mature beings God has always intended: the suffering of the cross. Jesus’ suffering on the cross finally makes clear as nothing else that pain and anguish are the only path to healing, righteousness and immortality. His suffering is the perfect example we are called to follow. As Peter says, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (I Pet. 4:12-13).
God’s Plan A, the plan to perfect man through suffering, existed already before the creation of the world. Now that Jesus has suffered and died, this secret plan has been broadcast for the whole world to see. This plan does not take the place of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and it does not ignore the reality of man’s sin and all of its terrible consequences. Instead, it complements those familiar doctrines in a way that better fits the available evidence and that helps us to understand the meaning of the suffering in our world. Plus it gives us a deeper appreciation for the wisdom and the providence of God. Our response should be praise to God for the mystery and wonder of his divine plan.
Daniel Boerman, a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a writer who lives in western Michigan. His work has been published in Restoration Quarterly and The Cresset.
Image: The Fall of Man, Vienna Diptych, by Hugo van der Goes. Public domain via Google Art Project.