The Role of Suffering in Redemptive History

This was written for submission to the RELI 3304 course at Southern Methodist University by Student, JT Martin, who is also the sole contributor to this blog.

It is impossible to understand the role of redemption in the relationship between God and humanity if one neglects to consider the role of suffering in the history of redemption, though some would disagree with suffering playing any sort of role in anything which is redeemed or redeemable (Brown and Parker). A few questions must be considered as one susses out the role of suffering, if one exists at all, in the redemption of creation. What is the role of suffering in the Biblical story? Does the suffering of innocents go hand in hand with redemption? Does suffering mark any particular changes in the relationship between God and creation? These questions about suffering can only be answered when one considers the whole of redemptive history and its arc through scripture from creation to the cross, alongside a healthy examination of theologians from modernity and antiquity. To highlight the particular reason for the consideration of these listed questions about suffering in relation to redemption the following thoughts must be laid out. Given, as I have suggested in previous work, that all knowledge is revealed by God to humans (Martin, 2020), it is essential to consider how suffering is seen in scripture, the circumstances of its existence, and its experience by biblical characters. By examining suffering in scripture, God may enable the articulation of any particular changes in the relation between God\’s self and creation which are marked by suffering. Finally, should there prove to be suffering which marks a relational change between God and creation the question of the interplay between suffering and redemption at the cross is paramount, especially given the innocence of Christ (Luke 23:47)? 

The principle investigation into the role of suffering in redemptive history must first surely be, as has been discussed in the introductory writings in this work, an investigation of the role of suffering in the biblical story. To provide a summary of this investigation five texts will be considered, Genesis, Judges, Mark, Philippians, and Hebrews. Beginning with the story of the flood in Genesis, there is without a doubt a connection between suffering and the redemption of creation; this is evidenced by God, in a sense, redeeming creation by eradicating all the flesh, humans, who were poisoning creation with their violence (Gen 6: 11-13). This mass eradication and suffering, caused by God, also marked a change in the relationship between God and creation as it was a precursor event to the foundation of the Noahic Covenant (Gen 8:20 – 9:17). A few other examples that arise within the chapters between the flood and the story of Joseph, include the Abrahamic covenant which includes a promise of suffering, and the act of circumcision which is painful but marks the covenant between God and the Abrahamic descendants. 

From Judges, we see the following cycle, marked by suffering and redemption: The Israelites are in the good graces of God (Judges 1:1-2), they disobey or do not fully obey (Judges 2:1-2), God turns their enemies into burdens against them (Judges 2:3), and God raises up a judge when they remember Him (Judges 2:16). This cycle exemplifies the connection, first witnessed with the covenant scenes within the Genesis story, between suffering and changes in the relationship between God and creation. Judges offers a specific change that is repeated throughout the cycle, it is the redemption and restoration of a specific part of creation being restored into a covenant relationship with God. Moving into the new testament with the Gospel of Mark, traditionally understood in most academic circles as the earliest of the Gospels, one finds the first depiction of the crucifixion of the Messiah, Jesus, resulting in His death, and ultimately, as the other Gospels record, His resurrection.  

But what did this death and resurrection actually mean for the relationship between God and Man? Paul\’s letter to the church in Philippi offers significant interpretive insight into this question. Starting with Philippians 1:29, Paul begins a motif of joining faith and suffering as the first being \”in Christ\” and the second being \”for Christ\” this at least shows that after the cross those who believe are called to suffer for the one in whom they believe. This one, in whom they believe and for they suffer, is Jesus, who is heralded as the messiah. Moving forward through Philippians one arrives at 2:8 where Paul discusses Christ\’s obedience to the Father, which results in the death on the cross. It is Paul\’s remarks in 3:9-11 which offer the most significant information for understanding the question at hand. That righteousness is dependent on the giving of God in tandem with the presence of faith, which enables one to know Christ, share his sufferings and attain resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:9-11). The key point here is that faith results in the knowing of Christ, and this key piece cannot be brought into existence without the death and resurrection of Christ. So it is from the death and the resurrection of Christ, that one is capable of coming to faith in Christ, enabling the knowing of Christ. How does this fit into the thematic development witnessed in the Old Testament? The general letter Hebrews answers this question, by developing an understanding of Christ, which shows Christ as being the greatest of High Priests (Heb. 4:14-5:10). Which enables Christ to be the final sacrifice which enables the redemption of creation to God (Heb. 9: 11-28). This understanding of Christ allows the following understanding of the death and resurrection: that Christ\’s death is the final suffering which enables the redeeming of creation, and his resurrection is what ensures the impartation of righteousness to those who are redeemed. In other words, the suffering of Christ on the cross and just before are the moments of suffering which occur just prior to the establishment of a new covenant, which is a change, between God and creation. 

The Biblical story shows again and again that suffering is linked to changes in the relationship between God and Creation, and that it specifically marks changes in that relationship. With this being seen in the exploratory work above, there are still a few questions that must be considered: Does the suffering of innocents go hand in hand with redemption? What are the mechanics of the redemption of creation? The pivotal investigative point for the first question is the crying out of Christ on the cross, this will be examined through the lens of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The second question will require an ample discussion of relevant theories, primarily that of recapitulation, and penal-substitutionary atonement. 

Turning to the Gospel of Matthew, one of the most memorable renditions of the crucifixion of Christ is seen. One of the aspects which makes this rendition particularly interesting is its contribution to the question of what it means for the God-man to suffer. It is in this rendition of the Gospel where readers bear witness to the following: \”And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? \”(Matt. 27: 46). This moment, where Christ, God in flesh, is crying out to God, who fully exists within his own person, \”…why have you forsaken me?\”(Matt. 27: 46) after being put through extreme torment can only be understood as a moment of intense suffering. This moment of suffering is best recognized as the moment where the sins of the world rest upon Christ, where he experiences the fullness of the wrath of God, and his humanity is driven from the presence of his divine spirit. This separation of the two natures within the person and being of God incarnate can only be understood as the human of Christ suffering and experiencing the state of humanity as it is tainted by sin. Through death, the physical body is purified of the taint of sin and through the resurrection the body is joined anew with the divine spirit of Christ raised as an example of the restored and redeemed humanity. It is through this process that the righteousness of Christ who fulfilled the law is imparted to those for eternity who are led to accept Christ in faith, alongside this righteousness it is Christ\’s death as an innocent (Luke 23:47) which allows his innocence to be imparted to us in the salvific moment. The suffering of Christ and death of Christ as innocent and righteous goes hand in hand, as a contingent reality of the world, which is tainted by sin with the redemption of creation. 

From these examinations, it is seen that at minimum the suffering of Christ is essential to salvation as a result of the taint of sin on man, this contributes to penal-substitution theory, and that through his death and resurrection man may be restored to its original state prior to sin, both in body and in spirit, this contributes to recapitulation theory. Between the recapitulation of creation, through the impartation of righteousness and innocence, and the resurrection, and the penal-substitution of Christ as the sufferer of the wrath of God and penalty of sin for creation, salvation becomes possible for creation. The atonement and restoration of creation through these means were marked, as many other changes in the relationship between God and creation were, by suffering, specifically the suffering of the God-man on the cross. Suffering is seen as playing the role of marking changes in the relationship between God and creation, suffering is seen as the experience of humanity just prior to redemption throughout history. It is only by understanding these things that the tragic horrors of history can be understood, it is only by understanding suffering as a contingent reality for restoration that the cross of the messiah can be understood. It is only by understanding the role of suffering, that the relationship between God and creation can be understood. When a man suffers, man is redeemed, but let there be no mistake the suffering by the hand of other humans is not redemptive suffering, though it can be redeemed by God, it is only the suffering brought upon man by God such that man may know of his need for God, this is redemptive suffering, for it is suffering that yields in the redemption of Man. 

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