Looking at How the Bible Can Help Us With This Thorny Subject
Definitions are important. What is pain? According to the National Library of Medicine it is, “a signal in your nervous system that something may be wrong. It is an unpleasant feeling, such as a prick, tingle, sting, burn, or ache. Pain may be sharp or dull.” Emotional/mental pain can be just as debilitating and serious an issue. The pain-reducing industry is a multi-billion dollar one for a reason. Americans on average spent $10,224 per person on healthcare in 2019 and over $187.8 billion on mental health services in 2013. These are staggering numbers. One of things we will think through in this short essay is why is the world so interested in finding solutions in things that can only alleviate symptoms, not provide answers for what is really going on?
When the biblical case is made this truth is really not all that surprising. Looking too deeply into it would mean the world would have to deal with the truth that not only does God exist, but that they have a responsibility towards him (Rom. 1:18-25). Therefore, establishing the creational, and post-fall, situation is vital to grasping how best to lead men and women towards dealing with grief and distress.
The Christian understanding of pain begins with the fact that death, illness, emotional hurt all have their beginning not in the natural order of things, but in the consequences of the fall of Adam and the covenantal judgment he brought down upon the human race. They are interlopers to the true life of mankind. This is especially important in helping those dealing with distresses and encouraging them towards an answer for the trial. If pain is a part of God’s judgment for sin, that can make pretty obvious sense. Adam sinned, we sinned in Adam, and part of the consequences for sin is in how human beings hurt one another. The logic is clear. But why would God allow that to happen at all? John Frame calls the problem of evil, “the most difficult problem in all of theology, and for many atheists it is the Achilles’ heel of the theistic worldview.” It is important to remember, especially when dealing with the atheists that everything comes back to definitions. What is good? What is evil? And who has a right to tell anyone else what those mean. This is largely Frame’s response to the theodicy question. He notes,
Unless God’s standards govern our concept of goodness, there can be no talk of good or evil at all. If there is no personal Absolute, values must be based on impersonal things and forces, like matter, motion, time, and chance.
This idea is echoed in Christ’s words to the rich young man in Luke 18:19. Only God can determine good and evil. This was the whole difficulty with Satan’s inquiry to Eve and why Eve should have known better (and Adam should have taught her better). There is no “has God really said?” He either said it or he did not. There is no middle ground here. No room for interpretation. This is meant to give peace in crisis, but Adam’s response just added to the whole failure of all three parties to comprehend the nature of God and what he was doing in and through the making of the world, and why Adam’s sin was so great.
To begin to answer the question of what Adam was, and the creation was, before he ate of the forbidden fruit, and what that can tell men about this question the stage needs to be set. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “What is the Chief End of Man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Commenting on this Thomas Watson writes, “We glorify God, by being contented in that state in where Providence has placed us. We give God the glory of his wisdom, when we rest satisfied with what he carves out to us.” This was the great sin of Adam. His lack of contentment in what God had provided for him, something he should have learned from the creation itself. Contentment is the secret of faith (Phil. 4:6-7). This what Adam missed, and what all fallen men continue to grope in the darkness for. Herman Bavinck in the summary of his Reformed Dogmatics published as Our Reasonable Faith notes that Adam, in his being created in God’s image, was given knowledge of reality and of truth. In the image of God man:
raises himself above the level of images and enters the realm of concepts and ideas. By means of thought, which cannot be understood as a movement of the brain but must be regarded as a spiritual activity, man deduces the general from the particular, rises from the visible to that of invisible things, forms ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. . .
His interactions with the created world would not only teach him about God, but about how God’s world worked and how he himself was to operate in that world. It is in considering this that the image of God informs how Adam interacted and was to interact with the creation. The image provided for Adam similar instruments that God himself had:
All these abilities and activities are characteristics of the image of God. For God, according to the revelation of nature and Scripture, is not an unconscious, blind force, but a personal, self-conscious, knowing, and willing being. Even emotions, dispositions, and passions such as wrath, jealousy, compassion, mercy, love, and the like are without hesitancy ascribed to God in the Scriptures . . . . Scriptures could not speak in this human way about God if in all his abilities and activities, man were not created in the image of God.
What this means is that Adam, and by consequence all who came from him both covenantally and by natural generation would share in this image and receive the full measure of this created reality in body and soul. When it comes to the problem of pain seeing that humans were not only made to not have pain, but that the coming of Christ and the re-establishment of the image of God means understanding, however meekly in our weakness, that pain is but another of the stains of Adam’s sin that Christ is now washing away in His redeeming work should be of great assistance.
If this is true, that this was not a part of God’s good creation something had to happen to bring this into the world, and if what Christianity teaches about God is accurate to who he really is than for sure neither is this the fault of God nor outside his sovereign decree
So what are we to do with all this and how does God through Christ provide hope in the midst of the darkness?
James Anderson answers the question in this way, “Thus it’s reasonable to infer that God’s primary purpose in allowing the fall was to showcase his glory both in the original creation and also in his powerful and merciful restoration of that creation from its rebellion and corruption.” What is going on in this response is an argument towards God’s glory. As Anderson notes everything that God does is for this purpose, so even if humans cannot grasp the totality of it, believers can see from the results (notably through Christ) that the reasoning behind the Fall was to bring a greater understanding of who God is to his creation. Jonathan Edwards provides clarity:
And therefore, the external glory of God consists in the communication of these [attributes]. The communication of his knowledge is chiefly in giving the knowledge of himself: for this is the knowledge in which the fullness of God’s understanding chiefly consists. And thus we see how the manifestation of God’s glory to created understandings, and their seeing and knowing it, is not distinct from an emanation or communication of God’s fullness, but clearly implied in it. Again, the communication of God’s virtue or holiness is principally in communicating the love of himself. And thus we see how, not only the creature’s seeing and knowing God’s excellence, but also supremely esteeming and loving him, belongs to the communication of God’s fullness.
This seems like a lot, yet if taken at face value it provides a comforting reminder of the truth of a passage like Deuteronomy 29:29.
In closing, it has been shown that only in and through Christ and only in the context of the Christian Bible does the problem even make sense. Some contemporary philosophy does not even see this as an issue. Albert Camus says:
Believe me there is no such thing as great suffering, great regret, great memory . . . everything is forgotten, even a great love. That’s what’s sad about life, and also what’s wonderful about it. There is only a way of looking at things, a way that comes to you every once in a while. That’s why it’s good to have had love in your life after all, to have had an unhappy passion- it gives you an alibi for the vague despairs we all suffer from.
This is of course nonsense from the Christian perspective, but it far too often is the view of so many contemporary people. It makes the challenge from an apologetical standpoint an interesting one. One must convince people death is bad, before they can be shown that life is good. This is not a new thing, but it is a conundrum for most people, and unintelligible to others. Van Til pointed out the problem Camus was trying to avoid. He notes, “Camus (reportedly) said that if there is even one fact in the universe that has meaning, then all is lost (from an existential, philosophical standpoint).” As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ we take great peace in the fact that even our pain has meaning, that it has a purpose in God’s perfect providential plan.
Here is the place the Christian can offer hope to this present evil world, for there is meaning in pain. Pain shows the fallenness of creation and points to our need for Christ, and our comfort in Christ. Helping men and women to understand that truth is part of our answer to this problem, that really is not a problem in light of who God is and what He has done for us in His Son.
A word more:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church