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Yesterday I had an intro post on: If there is a God, why is there so much suffering? This series of posts may be a little too detailed for some, but for anyone interested it will be here. This first post is about: PERSPECTIVE…keeping the big picture in mind…and the “already but not yet” aspect of our salvation. I think it lays an important foundation for further discussion...

The Bible isn’t just a random collection of stories. We need to remember that the Bible is telling the story of God’s plan for this world, and that all of history is moving towards the climactic conclusion. The biblical metanarrative (big plan or overarching theme), simply put, is:

Creation (of the world) → the fall (of man into sin) → the cross of Christ → future hope of re-creation (new heaven and earth)

I appreciate how N.T. Wright, in his book Evil and the Justice of God, reviews Old and New Testament history emphasizing that the Scriptures are “written to tell the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do about evil.” [1]  In a similar fashion, Randy Alcorn emphasizes that too many Christians view their faith in bits and pieces, and instead “we should see it as a holistic worldview, a large scale belief system based on the unfolding of redemptive history.”[2]

In Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we read of God’s creation of a perfect world where no sin or suffering was present. The world we live in today is not the way it was originally created or meant to be! Unfortunately, in Genesis chapter 3, we read about the “fall of man.”  Sin entered the world through man’s rebellion, and the earth was cursed.

Yet, even in the midst of this tragedy, a hint is given in Genesis 3:15 (“He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel”) predicting the eventual defeat of Satan by the coming of Jesus Christ. Soon after in Genesis 11:27, Abraham is introduced to the story and through his descendants the Savior would indeed be born. Christ came to save people from their sin (Matthew 1:21).

The atonement is a critical piece of the puzzle for a theology of suffering. It seems that too often (in more modern times at least) we place the primary focus of Christ’s death on our personal or individual salvation. Of course, Christ did come to save individuals and offer each of us forgiveness from our sins. However, we forget to place this within the broader metanarrative of Christianity. Christ also came to redeem the earth and deal with evil on a much larger scale. It is not only about us! Romans 8:18-23 emphasizes that even creation groans and is awaiting redemption.  N.T. Wright summarizes the life of Christ well when he states,

“The Gospels tell the story, centrally and crucially, which stands unique in the world’s great literature, the world’s religious theories and visions: the story of the Creator God taking responsibility for what has happened to creation, bearing the weight of its problems on his own shoulders.” [3]

Related to all this, we need to keep in mind the “already, but not yet” aspect of our salvation. Genesis chapters 1 and 2, and Revelation chapters 21 and 22 serve as bookends for the metanarrative of Scripture, reminding us that the world was once perfect and will once again be perfect. In the second coming of Christ, we will see the culmination of God’s eschatological plan for this world. Justice will be served! Evil and suffering will be vanquished once and for all! The earth will be re-created and made new!

Meanwhile, we are living in a time of overlap between these two times.

Christ’s first coming → Christ’s second coming.

In Christ’s first coming the Kingdom of God was initiated or inaugurated, yet it has not come in its fullness yet. The future invaded the present, but only in a limited sense. It is a tension. Joni Eareckson Tada states it this way

“Yes, Jesus took up our diseases (Isaiah 53:4). His cross is our ship to heaven; his miracles give us glimpses of paradise; he ladles out foretastes of bliss by a thousand blessings large and small. But they are all just that – glimpses, foretastes. We’re not in heaven yet.” [4]

Too often, especially in modern evangelicalism, we tend to think of our salvation as primarily something in the past. But salvation is not only a past reality; it is also our future destiny! We have been saved (past tense), but we are also being saved (living out our faith in the present), and one day in the future our salvation will be complete in the new heaven and earth. Meanwhile, we still live in a fallen world, where we are awaiting the return of Christ. We have not arrived, but are on our way!

The grand metanarrative of Scripture and the “already but not yet” tension, while not providing an “answer” for suffering, can help give us perspective. In the book Angry at God, the author quotes C.S. Lewis:

“Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think it is a hotel, and other half thinks it is a prison. Those who think it is a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide it is surprisingly comfortable.” [5]

The point is that our expectations about life can determine much of our response to life. Perspective changes everything. We know how the story ends, which can make our present sufferings more tolerable. First Peter 1:3-9 is an encouraging passage that emphasizes our future “inheritance” in heaven and how this should be our hope and give us joy. For someone who is enduring terrible suffering these comments certainly do nothing to resolve their present pain, and are not meant to sound trite or simplistic. Yet, realizing our place in God’s plan for this world is an important foundation for a Christian theology of suffering.

[1] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2006), 45.

[2] Randy Alcorn, If God is Good (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 59

[3] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2006), 94.

[4] Joni E. Tada and Steve Estes, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 60.

[5] Michele Novotni and Randy Peterson, Angry with God (Colorado Springs: Pinon Press, 2001), 78.