The experience of physical pain and/or mental distress. The words and phrases in the Bible expressing this concept are too numerous to list. The Old Testament, intertestamental literature, and the New Testament present two perspectives on human suffering. On the one hand, suffering is the consequence of the flawed nature of creation. In this view human beings with the exception of the first man and woman are victims, exposed constantly to the perils of a created order gone away. On the other hand, a person's suffering is the direct consequence of his or her violation of God's laws. The same can be true of a collective.
Suffering as the Consequence of the Flawed Nature of Creation. On account of the disobedience of Eve and then Adam, a wretched legacy has been bequeathed to the human race. God cursed the ground, so that human beings can stay alive only through much toil; the pain of childbirth is greatly increased for all women ( Gen 3:16-19 ); death and all the suffering attendant upon dying have entered the world ( Gen 2:17 ).
In this context, the prophets speak about a future time when much of the suffering caused by the flawed creation will be removed for a restored Israel, often with benefits accruing to the nations ( Isa 11:6-9 ; 25:6-9 ; 65:17-25 ; Hosea 2:21 ; Amos 9:11-15 ). Isaiah 65:17 actually speaks of the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
In line with the eschatological promises of the prophets, many intertestamental sources anticipate a time in the future when Israel will be restored to the land in a state of prosperity, sometimes with the help of a messianic figure. Some texts call this the kingdom of God (e.g., Pss. Sol. 17 T. Mos. 10:1). Often there is a differentiation made between this age/world and the age/world to come; the latter follows the resurrection and judgment and is the domain of the righteous alone (4 Ezra; 2 Apoc. Bar.; early rabbinic writings). The age/world to come for the righteous is to be an existence of blessedness, without suffering. In this vein, 1 Enoch 45:4-5 speaks about the transformation of the heaven and the earth, at which time the Elect One, the Messiah, will dwell on earth with the righteous. In many intertestamental texts, Satan is viewed as a contributing cause of the flawed nature of creation and, therefore, the suffering of human beings, so that his removal and along with him all of his demonic subordinates is expected at the eschaton (e.g., T. Mos. 10:1; T. Levi 18:12; T. Judah 25:3; T. Zebulon 9:8; T. Dan 5:10-11; 6:3; 1 Enoch 1; 10:13-16; 54:6; 55; 69:28-29; 90:24; Jub. 23:29; 1QS 4 11QMelch ).
The New Testament continues what is found in the Old Testament and the intertestamental texts. Paul writes that the creation, subject to futility, awaits its liberation from its bondage to destruction, groaning as if in the pangs of childbirth ( Rom 8:19-22 ). Similarly, in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, the Isaian concept of the new heaven and new earth finds expression. Paul attributes the tyranny of death, "the last enemy" ( 1 Cor 15:26 ), to the sin of Adam, the effects of which reach to all human beings and are nullified by the death and resurrection of Christ ( Rom 5:12-17 ; 1 Cor 15:20-22 ). The New Testament also assumes that creation is flawed as a result of the activity of Satan and allied spirits, who wreak havoc on human existence (e.g., Mark 9:14-27 ; = Luke 9:37-43 ).
Unlike the Old Testament and intertestamental texts, however, the New Testament understands the flawed nature of creation to have been at least partially rectified, inasmuch as the influence of Satan and allied spirits on it has been curtailed through the appearance, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. Jesus understands his healings and exorcisms as an assault on the kingdom of Satan ( Matt 12:25-29 ; = Mark 3:23-27 ; = Luke 11:17-22 ; Luke 10:18-20 ; John 12:31 ; 16:11 ). Paul speaks of the exaltation of Christ over all spiritual beings ( Eph 1:19-22 ; Col 2:15 ), and describes believers as those who have been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son ( Col 1:13 ; cf. 1 Peter 2:9 ).
Suffering as the Consequence of Sin. In the Old Testament, the intertestamental literature, and the New Testament, suffering more frequently is causally linked to the sins of the descendants of the first man and woman. God established a moral order in creation, with the result that retributive justice is meted out in life experience. In this worldview, the appearance of suffering in human experience is not random, but has its causal antecedents in an individual's or community's moral decisions. Retributive justice is sometimes conceived as the working out of a moral law imminent in creation, as in the Book of Proverbs. At other times, it is the direct judgment of God manifesting itself through such things as drought, disease, or foreign invasion.
Collective Suffering. In the Old Testament, nations fall under God's judgment for their disregard of God's will. Nineveh faces imminent judgment on account of the collective guilt of its inhabitants; national repentance forestalls the wrath of God (Book of Jonah). The nations of Moab, Edom, and Philistia are singled out for judgment because of their hostile foreign policy toward Judah ( Eze 25:8-17 ). Babylon, though the instrument of God's judgment against Judah, is also destined for judgment for its atrocities committed against the nation ( Isa 21 ; Jer. 50-51).
Israel's covenant at Sinai is a special historical manifestation of the principle of retributive justice. The people are placed conditionally under the Torah: obedience brings blessing, while disobedience brings destruction or exile (Deut. 27-28). In this regard, the Book of Esther stands in contrast to Lamentations. The former is a testimony to God's protection granted to his obedient people against their enemies. "For such a time as this" God raises up Queen Esther to bring deliverance to Israel. On the other hand, Lamentations places the blame for the destruction of Jerusalem squarely on the shoulders of the apostate nation. The Book of Judges, similarly, interprets Israel's suffering through foreign domination as stemming from national disobedience to the law ( 2:6-23 ).
Israel's situation differs from that of other nations, for God, on account of the patriarchs, has promised never ultimately to destroy his people, even when they sin ( Lev 26:42 ; Psalm 106:40-46 ). This may necessitate, however, that God discipline the nation when disobedient to the Torah, so that at times it may appear that God favors the nations more than Israel.
It could also happen that the sin of a minority or even one individual within Israel could have consequences for the nation. The fate of the nation as a corporate entity is bound up intricately with the moral decisions of its individual members. Achan, for instance, disobeys God, but the whole nation is defeated in battle as a consequence of his disobedience ( Joshua 7 ).
Individual sins also have intergenerational consequences. The sins of a man will adversely affect his descendants: "Yet he [God] does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations" ( Exod 34:7 ; cf. also Exod 20:5 ; Num 14:18 ; Deut 5:9-10 ).
The notion that national calamity originates with national sin prevails in the intertestamental literature. The Maccabean crisis was interpreted as resulting from the sin of the nation; Antiochus's persecution was really God's discipline of an unruly people (cf. 1 Macc 1:64; 2 Macc 6:13-16; 7:18, 32-33, 37-38; Jub. 23 T. Mos. 8 ). Similarly, Pompey's intervention in the internal affairs of the Jewish nation, which brought about much suffering and death to some Jews, was understood as precipitated by national sin (cf. Pss. Sol. 2, 8, 17-18). Later, in the context of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the deuteronomistic principle that invasion by foreign powers is God's chastisement of Israel for its sins is reiterated (2 Apoc. Bar. 1:5; 78:3-4; 79:2).
A new element in the intertestamental sources is the notion that the judgment of Israel's Gentile oppressors takes place as part of Israel's eschatological vindication (cf. also the Book of Daniel). As in the Old Testament, it is sometimes asserted that, although the Gentile nations are God's instruments of discipline, they are nonetheless in line for similar treatment at the hands of God. In some texts, the deliverance expected on completion of God's discipline of the nation through foreign domination is the eschatological deliverance foretold in the prophets. One Enoch 90, 93, Jubilees 23, and Testament of Moses 8-10, for example see the Antiochean persecution as precipitating the final, eschatological deliverance of God, whereas Psalms of Solomon and 4 Ezra look for messianic deliverance from Roman oppression.
The idea that national suffering is consequent on disobedience to God is continued in the New Testament. Jesus warns that Israel's rejection of the kingdom of God will lead to the visitation of God's wrath on the nation ( Matt 12:38-45 ; = Luke 11:29-32 ; Matt 21:33-46 ; = Mark 12:1-12 ; = Luke 20:9-19 ; Matt 23:33-38 ; Luke 13:6-8 ; 19:41-44 ). Paul, likewise, believes that the nation is temporarily rejected by God until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in ( Rom 11 ). Cities are also threatened with judgment on account of their rejection of Jesus or his emissaries ( Matt 11:20-24 ; = Luke 10:13-15 ).
Individual Suffering. Apart from an individual's suffering because of his or her belonging to a nation under God's judgment or on account of the sins of a previous generation, the Old Testament (with some exceptions), the intertestamental texts, and the New Testament portray God as dealing with each human being on the principle of retributive justice. When the righteous do suffer, the need for theodicy arises: in order for God to be exonerated from the charge of being unjust, justification for the apparently anomalous situation of the suffering of the righteous must be found.
In the Old Testament, that the principle of retributive justice is operative in the existence of each human being comes to expression most clearly in Proverbs and Psalms. In Proverbs wisdom and the fear of Yahweh are correlated with long life and prosperity; conversely, the wicked and the foolish will die prematurely and be deprived of earthly goods ( 2:21-22 ; Proverbs 3:9-10 Proverbs 3:33-34 ; 5:23 ; 9:11 ; Proverbs 10:3 Proverbs 10:16 Proverbs 10:24 Proverbs 10:27 ; Proverbs 11:18 Proverbs 11:21 Proverbs 11:27-28 ; 16:31 ; 24:19-20 ; 29:25 ). Likewise, many psalms are premised on the notion that Yahweh blesses those who are righteous those who desire to obey him and habitually do so and protects those who take refuge in him. The wicked, on the other hand, he destroys. Psalm 1, for example, compares the man whose delight is in the Torah of Yahweh to a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in its season; the wicked, on the other hand, are compared to chaff blown away by the wind.
But the Old Testament also gives evidence of the irregular working out of the principle of retributive justice. Sometimes, the application of the principle is delayed, so that the righteous suffer for a period of time before vindication. At other times, the correlation between righteousness and longevity/prosperity in this life breaks down altogether. Three types of justification are offered in the Old Testament for the suffering of the righteous: eschatological, remedial, and expiatory.
In the Daniel apocalypse, the suffering of those who are "wise" (11:35) is an eschatological necessity. The period of time in which the temple is defiled and the righteous are oppressed is predetermined, established according to the divine timetable. The individual righteous person is at the mercy of the larger historical designs of God. Nonetheless, at the judgment of the dead, God will vindicate those who are martyred, raising them to everlasting life (Dan. 12).
The suffering of the righteous also has a remedial function. God disciplines the righteous individual, taking preventative and corrective measures in order to keep the heart of the righteous from turning away from him. Proverbs 3:11-12 says: "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" (cf. also Psalm 94:12 ; Dan 11:35 ).
In the Servant Songs of Isaiah, the suffering and death of the servant has a vicarious and expiatory purpose ( Isa 53 ). Although in these texts ( Isa 42 , 44 , 49 , 50 , 52-53) the servant is often a collective noun denoting Israel, in Isaiah 53 the servant clearly is an individual who suffers on behalf of the collective, the people. Daniel 11:35 is another example of the suffering of the righteous having an expiatory effect.
In the intertestamental literature the three explanations for the suffering of the righteous found in the Old Testament also appear.
The eschatological argument for the suffering of the righteous figures prominently in many texts. The application of God's retributive justice is postponed, so that the righteous suffer unjustly in this life. The righteous are urged, therefore, to be patient in their suffering and to wait for the eschatological judgment and salvation of God, at which time they will receive the blessing due to them, whereas the wicked, who are often the oppressors of the righteous, will be punished and destroyed (cf. 2 Macc. 6-7; 1 Enoch 102:3-103:15; 104:6-8; 108:3; 2 Enoch 9:1; 50:1-6; 51:3-5; 65:6-11; 66:6; 4 Ezra 7:18; 2 Apoc. Bar. 14:1-19; 15:7-8; 24:1-2; 44:13-14; Wis. 1-5 ). Often human wickedness and the persecution of the righteous are expected to intensify greatly just prior to the final judgment and salvation of God (cf. Jub. 23; 1 Enoch 100:1-3; 107; Sib. Or. 3.632-51; 1 QH. 3:29-36; 2 Apoc. Bar. 25-29; 70-71; 4 Ezra 5:1-13; 8:50; 9:1-6; 16:70-73).
Continuing what is found in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, many texts understand the sufferings of the righteous as being remedial: they are one of God's means of preserving the righteous as such, thereby retaining for them the benefits of being righteous in either this life or the next. The attitude of the one afflicted should be that of acceptance and even joy that God would relate to him or her as a father who disciplines his children (cf. Sir. 16:12; 18:13-14; 22:27-23:3; Wis. 3:5; Pss. Sol. 10:1-2; 13:9-10; 14:1; 16:1-11; Judith 8:27; 1QH 2:13-14; 9:23-24).
Although the suffering servant seems not to have played a major role in shaping the conceptualities of the extant literature of the intertestamental period, the notion of vicarious suffering and death does crop up now and then, paralleling what is found in Daniel 11:35. The Maccabean martyrs are said to bring God's judgment of the nation to an end (4 Macc 1:11; 6:29; 17:21; T. Mos. 9:6-10:1), and the Qumran community understood its own suffering as expiatory (1 QS. 8:3-6; cf. also Sir 2:4-5). A cornerstone of early rabbinic theology is the view that God manifests his mercy to the righteous in this age, in that he allows their suffering, when received with equanimity, to expiate the guilt generated by previous sins (Sipre Deut 6:5 ;  Mek. Bahodesh 10:1-86).
The three explanations for the suffering of the righteous individual found in the Old Testament eschatological, remedial, expiatory also occur in the New Testament. In addition, a fourth explanation, unique to it, appears: Paul writes that suffering has the effect of ensuring his dependence on the power of God in his apostolic labors.
In the Beatitudes Jesus teaches that the appearance of the kingdom of God will bring an eschatological reversal, so that the righteous who now suffer will no longer ( Matt 5:3-12 ; Luke 6:20-26 ). Jesus also warns his disciples that their suffering will be an eschatological necessity; until the consummation of the kingdom of God, those who follow him and especially those who proclaim him will experience resistance and hostility from those on the outside (or, to use Johannine terminology, "the world"), especially during the period just prior to the end (cf. Matt 10:19-23 ; = Luke 12:11 ; Matt 20:22-23 ; = Mark 10:38-39 ; Matt 24:9-10 ; = Mark 13:9-11 ; = Luke 21:12-18 ; John 7:6-11 ; 15:18-25 ; 17:14 ). The idea of the eschatological necessity of suffering is also found in the rest of the New Testament ( Rom 8:16-18 ; Gal 3:3-4 ; Php 1:27-30 ; 1 Thess. 1-3; 2 Thess 1:4-10 ; Heb 10:32-34 ; James 5:11 ; 1 Peter 2:18-20 ; 3:13-4:19 ; Rev 2:10 ; 4-22 ).
The remedial view comes to expression most prominently in the letter to the Hebrews ( 12:3-13 ). The author instructs his readers to "endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons" (v. 7), quoting Proverbs 3:11-12 to make the point. The Book of James similarly identifies trials as a means of engendering holiness ( 1:2-3 ), as does 1 Peter 1:3-9. Paul also believes that God disciplines believers in order to bring about repentance ( 1 Cor 5:1-8 ; 2 Cor 11:17-33 ; 1 Tim 1:20 ).
Jesus interprets his death as expiatory and vicarious. At the Last Supper he understands himself as the eschatological Passover lamb ( Matt 26:26-28 ; = Mark 14:22-24 ; Luke 22:19-20 ). He also interprets his impending fate as the fulfillment of the destiny of the suffering servant ( Matt 20:28 ; = Mark 10:45 ; Luke 22:37 ). A presupposition of the message preached by the early church was that Jesus' death was vicarious and expiatory. In two passages outside the Gospels it is explicit that Jesus' death is the fulfillment of the vicarious and expiatory death of the servant ( Acts 8:32-33 ; 1 Peter 2:21-25 ).
There is a fourth interpretation of the suffering of the righteous individual that comes to expression in the New Testament. Paul interprets his own suffering as a means of ensuring that he be ever conscious of his own weakness, so that he remembers always that the power at work in him is from God and not himself and so that he is not deluded into relying on his own power ( 2 Cor 1:8-10 ; 4:7-12 ). Similarly, Paul says God sent him a "thorn in the flesh" to keep him from becoming conceited on account of his surpassingly great revelations ( 2 Cor 12:7 ).
The Books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Generally, in the Old Testament, God deals with human beings on the principle of retributive justice. If the righteous do suffer it must be for a reason, which functions as a valid exception to the moral principle that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. But there are some cases of the suffering of the righteous impervious to theodicy. That sometimes the righteous suffer for no apparent reason is the thesis of the Book of Job. Job suffers, yet he is righteous. Although his comforters defend the principle of retributive justice and conclude that Job cannot be innocent, as he claims, the reader knows that they are wrong: Job speaks truly about his moral condition. In the end God never explains to Job the point of his suffering (although the reader is aware of Satan's involvement); instead, he asks Job a series of rhetorical questions designed to make the pint that some things are beyond human comprehension. Job is to accept his suffering without questioning god's wisdom or justice.
The Book of Ecclesiastes also questions the causal relation between righteousness and prosperity. In the author's experience, the fates of the righteous and the wicked are opposite of what they should be, which only adds to the meaninglessness of life ( 7:15 ; 8:14 ; but cf. 12:13-14 ).
Barry D. Smith
Bibliography. J. Carmignac, Revue de Qumran3 (1961): 365-86; J. L. Crenshaw, A Whirlpool of Torment; idem, Theodicy in the Old Testament; C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain; J. S. Pobee, Persecution and Martyrdom in the Theology of Paul; D. Sö le, Suffering; J. A. Sanders, Suffering as Divine Discipline in the Old Testament and Post-Biblical Judaism.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Suffering'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".