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The topic of human suffering is a subject many Christians struggle with, and is an issue many theologians have written about over the centuries — so it's definitely not something I can fully address in a single blog post!

But there are some general principles we can find in Scripture that many Christians can/do accept, which should act as a starting point to addressing this subject, such as:

  • We live in a fallen world due to sin (Gen 3), and so things aren’t perfect and neither are people, therefore suffering can happen from illness, nature, and human action (or inaction).

  • Not all suffering is necessarily “bad”, from a Christian perspective. For example, if we are made to suffer due to our faith, we should rejoice to be counted as partakers in Christ’s suffering —

1 Peter 4:12-16

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker.

Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.

And,

Matthew 5:10-12

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

  • Sometimes suffering can be used to test our faith to make us stronger, which we see an example of with Peter in the Gospels:

Luke 22:31-32

“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

And also in James’ epistle:

James 1:2-4

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

  • Lastly, sometimes bad things just happen for no good reason. This kind of relates to point one, but with a bit of a different explanation to point out that just because someone suffers, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were under any judgement or that they were any worse than another person — though there are certain times where God's judgement was on someone, but these things are explained in Scripture so we can expect them (see: Acts 12:22-23 and 1 Cor 11:28-32). We can infer consequential suffering from Jesus’ teaching when he speaks about a local tragedy of a tower collapsing and killing some people:

Luke 13: 4-5

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No […]

Can we do anything about it?

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Christianity isn't about trying to philosophise about why we suffer, but rather it's to do with how we respond to suffering. We accept that it's a reality of our lives and world, and then go about trying to make it better.

James makes the point in his epistle when explaining that “pure religion” is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). This is similar to what Isaiah declared about the type of worship that God is truly interested in:

Isaiah 58:6-7
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Notice the theme here? To worship God is to relieve the suffering and injustices of others.

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Jesus takes this one step further in Matthew's gospel, when he equates feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger as doing those things directly to Him!

Matthew 25:40
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

All this is now what Paul calls “the ministry of reconciliation” which God has given us to do because he reconciled the world to himself through Christ (2 Cor 5: 18-29). Now we take that reconciliation to others and alleviate the suffering of others through the power of Christ in us, which will hopefully lead to the ultimate healing that only salvation brings.

As an end point, I’ll just state that I don’t believe “all things happen for a reason” as people often like to say when bad things happen, because that usually implies that everything happens for a divine reason. A God-ordained reason, or fate.

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Now, in a deterministic/cause-and-effect sort of way, then yes, “all things happen for a consequential reason” in some form, but that’s about as much as I’d ever use that phrase to mean. Either way, it shouldn't be an excuse or reason to just ignore or accept suffering and evil in the world.

We, as Christians, have been given the responsibility and ministry of confronting human suffering head on, so let's take every opportunity to do so!

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Recent Posts

Does Easter Have Pagan Origins?

| 22nd March 2021 | Easter

Does Easter Have Pagan Origins?

Much like any major Christian holiday, there are the usual arguments and accusations about how it’s all just pagan festivities with a “Christian mask”. Easter is no different, and usually gets hit the hardest over its so-called “pagan roots”, or in the month or so preceding it, Lent being some “invention of the Catholic Church”. Table of Contents The Lenten Fast The Easter controversy and why we celebrate it when we do Is the Name “Easter” really the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre? Chocolate eggs and bunnies? Concluding Thoughts Further Reading and Sources I like to try and observe Lent, as it is one of the most ancient customs in the Church, which led me to researching its origins, along with the Easter celebration, to see where they have their basis. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that much of the accusations against Easter and Lent as “pagan” are either fabricated or is just misinformation. So let’s examine the different aspects of Easter to see how we got from Passover to resurrection, to little bunnies and chocolate eggs! The Lenten Fast A forty day fast prior to Easter has been a long established practice within the Church dating back to possibly within the first century. This is well established from ancient letters we still have available, such as from Irenaeus in the second century: For some consider themselves bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more. In fact, others fast forty days … And this variety among observers [of the fasts] did not have its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors.–Irenaeus (c.180) Notice here that Irenaeus mentions that this was a practice passed onto them by their “predecessors”, a term often used in conjunction with the Apostles themselves, or those who immediately came after them, putting the origins of this Lenten fast much earlier than when Irenaeus wrote in 180, and also possibly having Apostolic origin. The Easter controversy and why we celebrate it when we do Back in the days of the early church, there arose a controversy around the celebration of Easter (or “pascha” as it was known then). But no, before your imagination runs wild, it wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds and still had nothing to do with “paganism”. The dispute was over which day to hold the festival! Yep, the controversy really is as mundane as that. In fact, it was one of the issues raised at the council of Nicea to be discussed and hopefully settled, and is officially known as the Quartodeciman (lit. Fourteenth) controversy/dispute. It’s called this due to the issue being over whether the Easter celebration should follow the Jewish pattern of Passover on the 14 Nisan or not and simply follow the days of the week (Friday and Sunday). It became a bigger issue when the not only the Jewish community of believers wanted to follow this method, but when the Gentile Asian communities also claimed that their Quartodeciman practice was of Apostolic origin! It was a disciple of John the Apostle, and bishop of Smyrna, called Polycarp (c.69–c.155) who followed this practice in one of the seven churches of Asia as well as Melito, bishop of Sardis (died c.180). Irenaeus tells us that, in his old age, Polycarp visited the bishop of Rome to discuss this matter with him as the Roman church had diverged from the Quartodeciman custom and celebrated the resurrection according to the day Jesus rose instead: Sunday (the first day of the week). We gain an important glimpse about this whole dispute from Irenaeus though, when he tells us of the meeting between Polycarp and Anicetus: Neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him. … And they parted from each...

BOOK REVIEW: Four Views on Hell 2nd edition

| 17th March 2021 | Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: Four Views on Hell 2nd edition

This is a guest post by David Jakubovic. The views are that of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of That Ancient Faith. A 20 year update of the 1996 book by the same name, this slim volume (211 pages) is a helpful cross-section of current evangelical thought on Final Punishment, sampling Denny Burk on Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT hereafter), John Stackhouse Jr on Conditional immortality (CI hereafter), Robin Parry on Christian Universalism (CU hereafter) and Jerry Walls on (a Protestant) Purgatory. Preston Sprinkle pens both Introduction and Conclusion, plus there are Scripture, Author and Subject indices. The Introduction sets the scene, listing the 3 historically available views along with speculation about post-mortem purgatorial sanctification, before clarifying that it is not the existence of hell that is here in doubt: “They agree that hell exists, but they differ on what this hell is like.” (11) Sprinkle lists verses used by all 4 views, then introduces the academic background of the 4 essayists. He finally issues a substantial challenge to the reader: “You, of course, will probably agree with only one of the following essays and disagree with the other three. But keep in mind: disagreement is not refutation. We must be able to refute the evidence of the views that we disagree with and then provide more compelling biblical evidence for the view that we uphold.” (15) Burk kicks off Chapter One (‘Eternal Conscious Torment’) with a startling parable. He visualizes a man torturing creatures in increasing order of complexity and dignity: first torturing a grasshopper, a frog, a bird, a puppy and finally a human baby. Burk states: “In each of the scenarios above, the ‘sin’ is the same – pulling the legs off. The only difference in each of these scenarios is the one sinned against…The seriousness of the sin is not measured merely by the sin itself (pulling off the legs) but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against.” (19, italics his) This macabre thought-experiment is of course a gruesome version of Anselm’s ‘Status Principle’, namely that to sin against an infinitely good God merits infinite or eternal punishment. But fellow pro-ECT essayist Walls squashes this analogy: “There is profound disanalogy in the parable that undermines the central point he wants to establish. This resides in the fact that we do not have the power to do anything to God that is remotely analogous to the harm the character in the parable inflicts on helpless creatures ranging from grasshoppers to human infants. Indeed, God is so far above us in power, glory, and moral perfection that we are utterly incapable of harming him.”1 Burk even ventures that ECT “will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God.” (20) Yet it is grossly incongruous to place ECT side by side with notions of ‘joy’, ‘goodness’ or ‘justice’ as these are universally understood. The very philosophical logic behind the ‘Status Principle’ is itself highly suspect, as Kronen points out when dismantling the ‘Classical Doctrine of Hell’ (CDH): “It is by no means obvious that an offense against an infinite being must be punished by the sorts of torments envisioned by CDH. One might sin more or less gravely against such a being, and in that case it does not seem that just any sin against an infinite being would merit eternal, continuous, and excruciating pain.”2 Spiegel adds that “human guilt is at most maximally great, not infinitely great”3, meaning that human guilt is still finite: “Finite guilt, however great, presumably does not warrant endless punishment in the form of ECT.” (Spiegel, op. cit. 41) He adds that, under the ‘Status Principle’, even the first sin you commit as a child is enough to incur ‘infinite guilt’, but this does not allow for the vast spectrum of p...

What does the word "Catholic" mean?

| 08th March 2021 | Etymology

What does the word "Catholic" mean?

For many people today, non-Christians and (low church) Christians alike, when they hear the word “Catholic”, certain images spring to mind: the Pope, the rosery, Catholic school, big old churches buildings, choirboys, maybe monks or statues of Mary even; and sadly more recently, sex abuse scandals. But generally speaking, all of these are actually aspects of Roman Catholicism — a particular branch of Christianity, and not what the word “catholic” truly means as we’ll see when examining how the early church used the word and what the original Greek word means. καθολικός (katholikos) The Greek word where we get the English word “catholic” from is καθολικός (katholikos) meaning “universal”, which comes from the Greek phrase καθόλου (katholou), meaning “on the whole”, “according to the whole” or “in general” (catholicus in Latin). In non-ecclesiastical use, it still retained its root meaning in English in some literature from the 1800s, though that usage has fallen out of common use in modern times. The first reference to this word can be found in Acts 9:31 when speaking about “the church throughout [all] Judea, Galilee, and Samaria...”. The words “throughout” and “all” are καθ (κατά) and ὅλης (ὅλος) respectively in Greek, which together come to form the word καθολικός. The earliest historical use of the word in the context of the Church can be found in one of the letters of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, written around AD 107, where he writes: Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. From here on we begin to see that the word catholic was used in reference to mean “orthodoxy” (the word “orthodox” means “right belief”) as opposed to the non-orthodox heretics who were then by definition not catholic as they were not ‘according to the whole’ which was, as Jude wrote, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The Catholic Church, in its original and Apostolic sense, would have meant the entirety of the Body of Christ across the world; i.e. all of the believers wherever they may be, rather than it being “universal” in the physical sense that the institution of “church” should be all encompassing (like as an official, global institution that all must attend). The difference may be subtle, but it’s an important one. Historical Use of the Term As we saw above, Ignatius was the earliest Christian writer we have who applied the word katholikos to the Church. Some people object to using Ignatius as evidence of this, as some of the letters attributed to him are considered spurious (not authentic), though scholarly opinion on this is pretty universal in which are genuine letters as neither Eusebius nor Jerome makes any reference to the eight spurious epistles. Justo L. Gonzalez explains in his book, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation, Volume One: The original meaning of Catholic church referred to this episcopal collegiality, as well as with the multiform witness to the gospel in several canonical gospels. … It was the church “according to the whole,” that is, according to the total witness of all the apostles and all the evangelists. The various Gnostic groups were not “Catholic” because they could not claim this broad foundation. … Only the Church Catholic, the church “according to the whole,” could lay claim to the entire apostolic witness. (pp.81,82). The other early uses that appear after Ignatius are in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (around AD 150), “…and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place…”, and then also in the earliest New Testament list from around AD 177, the Muratorian fragment the phrase is found three times: “…in the esteem of the Church catholic …...

Is The Rapture Biblical?

| 21st September 2020 | Eschatology

Is The Rapture Biblical?

Most people have some idea about what the rapture is – or do they? Generally there is an idea or concept of a form of escapism from the world when Jesus returns, which happens pre, mid or post tribulation and in some connection to the millenium. Now, if you understood any of those terms, you are most likely on, or aware of, the Dispensationalism side of things. There’s a lot of doctrine all bundled together in “end times” beliefs, and a fair bit of speculation around “the rapture” with its timing and logistics etc. which makes the whole thing a but murky, but nonetheless, it’s pretty much taken for granted as a staple belief within the Evangelical world. But has this always been so, and does it have any biblical basis? In short: sort of. What is The Rapture? This is the primary verse where the doctrine finds its footing: …then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. — 1 Thessalonians 4:17 On the face of it, that is a pretty obscure (and short) text, yet so much has been written on and speculated about around this event.  I’m not going to cover every aspect of rapture doctrine here, but rather want to just highlight the context of this verse and its parallels in Paul’s other letters, as this seems to get lost under centuries of doctrinal baggage, which, incidentally, also the leads to the next point to look at: is the rapture biblical? The origin of The Rapture The word “rapture” itself comes from the Latin word rapere, which means: “to seize” or “to abduct”. It is a translation from the Greek word that is rendered as “caught up” (ἁρπάζω / harpázō) in our English Bibles today. For many, asking if this belief is biblical is a non-starter because it is assumed so based on 1 Thess. 4 so obviously it is. But this is a presupposition, reading the modern ideas of what “the rapture” means into the text. The modern idea being that Jesus comes back briefly (and maybe secretly), whooses all the Christians into the sky and takes them to heaven, away from all the troubles on the earth, before coming back later to do a proper “second coming”. John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century theologian, is often credited with creating this premillennial rapture doctrine, followed closely by C.I. Scofield who wrote a best-selling annotated Bible which promoted Darby’s rapture views in its footnote commentary. This particular Bible became wildly popular across America in the early 1900s and ended up solidifying the futurist dispensational viewpoint for generations to come within Evangelicalism. Despite the popularity of Scofield’s Bible, what it (and Darby) taught was a novel idea which had not been seen nor heard of before in the previous 1800 years of Church History, yet many Christians accepted it without hesitation, likely due to it being part of the exposition alongside the Scripture they were reading, and therefore a seeming authority. I realise there is somewhat of an irony here in that I’m acting similarly like an authority telling you that this belief is wrong whereas Scofield was writing as though it were accurate, but in an even more ironic twist, just a handful of verses later, the same letter to the Thessalonians says to “test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). This is what I would invite you to do: don’t just take my word for it, test everything and see if what I say is accurate. The context of The Rapture So what is the context of these verses, if not about being whisked away into the sky with Jesus? A couple of things, but one slightly more obvious than the other, though still overlooked by people, I’ve noticed; the other requires knowing some more about the ancient Greco-Roman culture of the time. Firstly, we only need go back a few verses to see what Paul is writing about here: he begins the passage in verse 13 by say...