For the past week or so, the word “suffering” has been on my mind. If ever a paradox existed in the Christian worldview, “suffering” is its name.
Suffering is something that Jesus seems equally set on removing from some and promising for others. It’s something that we’re called to address and correct, and something that we’re called to embrace. It’s something that is an integral part of the life of a Christ-follower, and something we’re promised ultimate escape from. How are we, as Christians, supposed to make sense of this?
While Scripture provides a number of paradoxical ideas concerning suffering, perhaps the most troubling conflict for me involves questions of suffering’s place in the Kingdom of God. I am of the theological persuasion that the Kingdom of God is not only to be found in the life after this one (i.e. “Heaven”) but is also present in what God is doing here and now. And our role as followers of Christ is to prepare ourselves and the earth for the eternal reign of Christ. Essentially, we’re called to bring Heaven to earth as best we can.
In light of this, many of the things we are called to do as heralds of the Kingdom make perfect sense. We are called to make peace, which is something that we would hope to see for eternity in Christ’s kingdom. We are called to live a life of love which is something else we would hope to see exist eternally in the Kingdom. We are called to rejoice and worship which we would expect to see play huge roles in the Kingdom. And then, among the list of things that we would expect to be present in an eternal utopia, we find the peculiar call to suffer. It is relatively simple for us to see the purpose that suffering has on this side of the grave (Romans 5:3-4 makes the benefits of earthly suffering explicit ). But what role does suffering play in the eternal Kingdom? More precisely, why are we being trained to suffer if we are promised ultimate and eternal escape from it?
These questions have weighed heavily on me recently as I have reflected on the call to suffer. I only barely understand what that means and how it ought to affect the direction my life takes. I have quite a ways to go in terms of comprehending the role and purpose of suffering. But, if you will indulge me, I have a theory concerning the role suffering plays in the eternal destiny of Christ-followers.
Let me reiterate that this is a theory. It is not something that I can explicitly back up with Scripture, and I’m not sure that it’s even something that fits well with God’s nature. I recognize the possibility probability that I am wrong, and I am open to correction and dialogue. But so far this is the best way I can figure to reconcile our call to suffer with the promise of the eternal Kingdom. So consider this an exercise in theoretical theology. Here goes…
Consider the following statement: “To be in the presence of God is to suffer.” Is that statement true? I have no idea. But what if it was? What if God is so excruciatingly holy and righteous and good that we could not stand to be in His presence without encountering unfathomable suffering? Consider God’s comment to Moses that no one can see Him and live (Exodus 22:30). This is the same God who reigns in the Kingdom. If to merely experience Him by sight is to face certain death, then what would it be like to exist fully in His presence? I imagine it to be unimaginable.
Could we someday find ourselves on the shores of eternity anticipating an island getaway only to be faced with a raging volcano? And could we learn to be content with this situation? Could we discover that the volcano is ever more beautiful and worthy of our eternity than any beach-front paradise could have promised to be? To enter into the full presence of God will be a beautiful thing, but I suspect it will be a difficult transition. The rusty and raw cog of humanity grinding up against a grand and glorious gear of God. I suspect that there will be friction. And how much more there would be, were the whole beautiful machine not lubricated with the blood of Christ!
Lest you think that I have neglected the role of the Spotless Lamb in all of this, Christ plays two large and indispensable roles in this theoretical framework. First, it is by His righteousness alone that we are even welcomed into the presence of God. Without His work, we would find ourselves hopelessly unwelcome in this eternal Kingdom. Second, Christ serves as our guide and our advocate as we experience the suffering that is necessitated by the collision of a holy God with a most unholy people. Without His taking our hand and leading us into the presence of God, we would find it unbearable and ultimately un-beautiful. But by His leadership we find a way to understand this suffering for what it truly is: an incredible intersection between God and ourselves. Until, perhaps, the day arrives when we become so overwhelmed by the presence of God that we learn to experience the suffering in a new way – in a way that draws us closer to God. And just as a deep tissue massage hurts in the beginning only to become enjoyable in the end, we may find that, by Christ’s guidance, we begin to appreciate what we would have first described as suffering. The sensation has not changed, but our perception of it has; in the same way that we are called to reimagine suffering on earth and see it as the refining tool that it is, we may come to reimagine the suffering that we experience in God’s presence. We may come to appreciate it. We may come to enjoy it. We may wish to spend eternity in it.
So, if Heaven is suffering, what then is Hell? Eternal bliss? In a way. But a bliss that people are not willing to embrace. In C.S. Lewis’s wonderful parable The Great Divorce, Lewis gives us a picture of Heaven as a place where the grass is too real for some people to walk on; it cuts their feet like razor blades because they are unprepared to engage the reality of Heaven. It is common to hear people say that Hell is the absence of God. But what if it was the opposite? What if Hell was the full presence of God without the welcoming embrace of Christ and without His guidance and advocacy? What if Hell is to attempt to experience the full suffering that God’s presence brings about, but to attempt to do so without the help and hope of Christ? Surely, this would be hellish. I imagine we might describe God’s presence here as “wrath.”
Parenthetically, I recognize that 2 Thessalonians 1:9 defines eternal punishment as exile from God’s presence, but I also take into account verses like Romans 2:8 (among others) that define punishment as the presence of God’s wrath. How is it that God can manifest His wrath without being present? I do not say this to disregard the verse in 2 Thessalonians, rather I say it to suggest that we not formulate an entire theology based on one description among many.
So then, what role does suffering play in preparing us for an eternal Kingdom? Perhaps it serves to ready us for our encounter with the divine. An encounter so real that it causes us to experience unparalleled suffering as we are overcome by its unparalleled beauty. An experience so unfamiliar and uncomfortable that can only be endured by the power of Christ, and to attempt to do so without Him would be…hellish.