Many Christians today take it as an article of faith that God must deliver Christians from trials and tribulations. This is an age in which Benny Hinn’s ridiculous books have sold millions and he is but the latest charlatan selling health and wealth to gullible Christians. Why is such a view, that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy and not to suffer so plausible to so many? There are a variety of answers.
The first answer is that this is nothing new. There have always been competitors to the Christian teaching on suffering. Martin Luther railed against what he called “the theology of glory,” i.e., a theology which replaces Christ with something else or seeks to get to God without Christ the Mediator. The theology of glory I have in mind is the reigning American triumphalism of revivalist (and Reformed) evangelicalism. Almost weekly some well-meaning evangelical announces that there is a coming revival. Bill Bright has been announcing a revival for years. Meanwhile real, weekly, church attendance rests at 10% (weekly) and rather less who attend to the means of grace in two services.
If there is precious little empirical evidence for this alleged revival, why the apparent excitement? Another partial answer is the powerful influence of Modernity upon American Christians. One of the chief doctrines of Modernity has been the doctrine of progress, that things are getting better every day in every way. As a schoolboy I remember teachers reciting this as a mantra. Such an idea of progress, whether personal or corporate (social or ecclesial) is not Biblical. Its founded in the doctrines of the universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. Its founded in the notion that God has left the world to us, and we must make of it what we will. Its founded in a denial of the doctrine of original sin.
The Modern doctrine of progress has fit hand-in-glove with inherent flesh- and world-denying tendencies of American fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are famous, of course, for what they are (or used to be) against. In days past, they were against movies, cards and liquor. Now they make movies and produce cards with Jesus’ picture on them. I guess liquor is still mostly taboo, but they have often identified the “world” not as an ethical category, but an ontological category, so that they have identified the “world” with creation so that it is their very flesh they must overcome. This is, of course, a mild sort of gnosticism and it is not hard to find Gnostic strains through fundamentalism in the modern period to this very day.
Some years ago, in Chicago, I heard on one radio station, a fundamentalist offering secret knowledge (gnosis) about how to speak in tongues, for $29.95, “send now before midnight.” On the other end of the dial, at the same time, I heard a hyper-dispensationalist explaining how the Pauline epistles are “not for today.” He too would give me the secret insights for a sum. It was dueling mystery religions and, ironically, the combatants would deny they had anything in common at all.
Both, however, are children of the “higher life” movement. Both were offering, in their own ways, the secret to overcoming my humanity. Like the old monks (whom they would repudiate) both were calling me not to trust in Christ and his righteousness imputed to me, but to take that next step toward the blessing, whatever it might be.
So it is that both are also the children of Modernity, both are more or less Pelagian, both really believe in Progress (personally, morally, if not socially) but both are also selling world-flight. Doubtless both of them also hold the sort of premillennial eschatology which features deliverance from the tribulation through the rapture, followed by a seven-year tribulation, a sort of purgatory/second chance for those who missed the first bus, followed by the earthly millennium — during which Jesus, the Lamb of God, offered once for all, is said to reign on an earthly throne, in Jerusalem, watching Jewish priests offer sacrificial memorial lambs. The golden age is said to be followed by Armageddon and then, eventually the judgment. The point here is that, the view that God ought to deliver his people from rather than through tribulation has been fed and made plausible by the Modern American desire to conquer nature through the use of technology.
Part of the attraction of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth is that it is a form of esoteric knowledge. The other part of the attraction is that the rapture is said to come before suffering and in order to deliver Christians from suffering. It is not surprising that this view has gained such immense popularity at the same time as the rise of Modernity.
One of the most obnoxious forms of triumphalism to afflict the American church is reconstructionist postmillennialism. It is most ironic that reconstructionist postmillennialism, is actually quite like dispensational premillennialism in significant ways. Like the hyper-dispensationalist and the Pentecostal, they are more closely related than they might like to acknowledge.
The other side of world-denying premillennialism is the rise of a new version of postmillennialism which, though somewhat more world affirming, also features a golden-age, in their view, brought about by the preaching of the gospel. Though some versions, at least, teach a great apostasy in the church before golden-age, postmillennialism has similar attractions as premillennialism, secret, esoteric knowledge, a future earthly golden-age and progress. The influence of the Modern doctrine of progress is even more obvious in the case of contemporary postmillennialism.
In recent decades, however, under the formulations of David Chilton, R.J. Rushdoony, G. Bahnsen and others, a “world-flight” of another sort has become more prominent. These reconstructionist postmillennialists (in distinction from the more traditional Postmillennialism of C. Hodge and B.B. Warfield) are deny the necessity of suffering for the Christian. Instead they argue that the suffering described for the church was actually completed prior to A.D. 70. This new postmillennial school is now advocating a version of what appears to be triumphalism.
By triumphalism I mean the attitude which tends to think of the church as “irresistibly conquering throughout the centuries…seemingly more interested in upholding its own rights and privileges than in promoting the salvation of all.” (P.F. Chirco, s.v., in The New Catholic Encyclopedia vol. 14, 1967, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press)
There is evidence that Scripture itself addresses and rejects triumphalism. One writer describes Paul’s opponents at Philippi as having the following positions, “…the attaching of little significance to the Cross, a confident triumphalist theology, a strongly realized eschatology, and religious and moral perfectionism through obedience to Torah, especially circumcision. (C. Mearns, New Testament Student, vol.3, 1987,194-204.)
It is the contention of this essay that both versions of triumphalism/world-flight are mistakes. Rather, the Christian ethic and eschatology entails that we affirm this world as essentially good, if fallen, and that we are called not to flee (or be secretly raptured from) suffering for Christ between the first and second advents. Suffering for Christ is not an exception, it is the rule for Christians, it is a mark of this inter-adventual age. Our model is the incarnation itself. All true Christians affirm that Jesus was true man and true God. The Apostle John says that anyone who denies the humanity of Christ is anti-Christ. Jesus, the God-Man, the true man, the Second Adam, actively obeyed his Father and suffered through his entire life, and especially in his passion and death. This is the pattern for the Christian life.
Amillennialists, who hold that there is no earthly golden-age, that we are now in the millennium (i.e., Rev. 20 symbolically describes the inter-adventual period) predictably, find themselves between these two poles. There is a great deal which has been fulfilled by the first advent of Jesus. Thus Paul says all the promises of God have their yea and amen in Christ. Yet there is a great amount of tension between what has been fulfilled in principle and what is yet to be consummated. A. Hoekema, an amillennialist, finds a great deal of incentive for godly living in the tension produced by the amillennial stress both on the “already” aspect and the “impending” (consummation) aspect of eschatology.
For instance, this tension implies that the struggle against sin continues throughout this present life. Yet the struggle is to be engaged in, not in defeat, but in the confidence of victory. We know that Christ has dealt a death blow to Satan’s kingdom, and that Satan’s doom is certain. (The Bible and the Future, 71)
This is true not only on an individual level, but a cosmic level as well. The relationship between the already and the not yet is not one of absolute antithesis, but rather one of continuity. The former is a foretaste of the latter. The New Testament teaches that there is a close connection between the quality of our present life and the quality of the life beyond the grave. To indicate the way in which the present life is related to the life to come the New Testament uses such figures as that of the prize, the crown, the fruit, the harvest, the grain, and the ear, sowing and reaping, (see. Gal.6.8) Concepts of this sort teach us that we have a responsibility to live for God’s praise to the best of our ability even while we continue to fall short of perfection. (TheBible and the Future, 71)
It is in response to popular trend of reconstructionist triumphalism that I offer a brief examination of the role of suffering in the New Testament as a mark of the progress of Redemption and the impact eschatology upon the ethics of the New Testament. The purpose of this study is not to be exhaustive, but suggestive of a third way of viewing our relationship to this world and the question of “world-flight.”
Far from being a mere adjunct to the Christian life, suffering is, in the New Testament, an almost essential mark of the Christian life. Contrary to triumphalism, it is suffering which more often than not is a sign of blessing, not wealth or power. The relation of suffering to the personal eschatological questions has not been totally ignored by the church. The eschatological necessity of suffering is implied in the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. We are first to persevere through sin and temptation. Secondarily we are to persevere through persecution. This is a reflection of the Biblical doctrine of suffering.
Suffering is a pervasive theme in the NT. Several factors figure prominently in this theme of the suffering of Christians in the NT. A brief look at a few passages should be enough to establish the thesis that in the New Testament that suffering is eschatologically necessary. That is, Christian suffering is a mark of the New Covenant.
It is a commonplace among NT writers that when those who are opposed to Christ lash out at us, it is, actually Christ who they seek to hurt. It was understood in the NT that the same rejection of Christ which led to his crucifixion would continue. So expected was it among the church that Paul tells the Thessalonians in 3.4 that he foretold that “we are about to suffer, just as also it occurred and you know.” (Barker Lane and Micheals, The New Testament Speaks, 153)
Such a common notion lies behind such passages as Phil 1.13,20 and esp. vs.29; Romans 5.1-11; 8.35-38; 2 Cor 1.3-11 and especially vs.5 where he makes the striking statement that the “sufferings of Christ overflow unto us”.
I. Key Terms
The key verbs are Anechomai, Pascho, Adikeo, and their derivatives. Anecho has reference to relieving words (Heb. 13.22) and other objects. It often has reference to receiving things from men, or in the case of 2 Timothy 4.3 not receiving or bearing with sound doctrine. Though the word is middle in form and thus we would expect it to be deponent in meaning, it is used as a passive exclusively in the N.T. Anechomai is not used often in the NT to refer directly to suffering. It is worth noting where it does, because of the passive force of the word. In 1 Corinthians 4.12 It has the sense of “enduring or receiving” sufferings. In 2 Thessalonians 1.4 the word is used to describe the Thlipsin which the Thessalonians endured.
Adikeo generally is used to designate “hurting” “injuring” someone. In Acts 25.10, Paul declares that he has not injured (Edikesa) the Jews. The first text using this verb which tends toward the idea of enduring hurt is 1 Corinthians 6.7 where, using the passive form, Paul exhorts them to be willing to be wronged, (Adikeisthe). In 2 Corinthians 7.12 he uses the verb to describe a “wronged” party in a dispute.
This term also occurs in the Apocalypse. In 2.11 the Lord promises that the second death will not harm (Adikethe) the overcomer. In 6.6 it refers to “damaging” the oil and the wine. 7.3 uses it of doing “harm” to the earth. The only deviation from this pattern is in 22.11 where John characterizes some one who acts unjustly with this verb.
Pascho of course is the NT verb associated most often with our Lord’s vicarious suffering. Of the three this word occurs most frequently in the NT. In Matthew 16.21, 17.12, (see. parallels Mark 8.31, 9.12), Luke 22.15, 24.26,46, Acts 1.3, 3.18, 17.3, Hebrews 2.18, 5.8, 9.26, 13.12, Pascho refers to the suffering of Christ on the cross. Thus, in these contexts, given the centrality of the cross in the gospels, the message of the cross provides the core meaning for this word in the NT.
This verb, however, is not applied just to Christ. In Acts 9.16 Luke records the words of the ascended Lord which Ananias is to carry to Paul, “I will show him how much it is necessary (Dei ) to suffer for my name.” Applied to us, the word has a derivative meaning. We suffer not the outpouring of God’s wrath, for Christ has suffered eschatologically once for all, but in the NT epistles especially we suffer the outpouring of the wrath of the world, Satan, and the powers of this age.
The verb Dei, is the term most often used to communicate necessity. It is also central to the thesis of this paper. It is relatively easy to demonstrate the force of Dei in the N.T. The clearest example is John 3.14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so also it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up.” It is necessary in that it is the requisite for salvation. (v.15) It has this sort of force in many places throughout the New Testament. It with passages like John 3.14,15 in mind that we are speaking of “eschatological necessity”.
Theologically we speak of consequent necessity. It was not necessary for God to save man, but having willed to save some, the cross became a necessity to the accomplishment of the Divine will. Our suffering does not have the same necessity. But it does have a derived necessity. It is derived from our union with Christ. I hope to show that union with Christ, in the NT, necessarily entails suffering. We suffer because of our union with Christ. We suffered and died in Him. So also do we now suffer subsequent to His suffering.
Nowhere in the gospels, perhaps nowhere in the NT is the union between Christ and believers and its implications taught so clearly than in John 15.1-17 Jesus outlines the fact that He is the vine and those who are united to Him by the Holy Spirit, true faith, bear fruit. Jesus says he will consummate this union by laying down his own life for his friends, those whom he has chosen.
Beginning with v.18 he outlines the implications which union with Christ has for believers. “If the Kosmos hates you, keep in mind that the Kosmos hated me first.” The world does not hate those who are “united” ethically to it. The servant is not greater than the master. The master suffered, so the servant should not expect to escape a similar fate. Jesus is describing a normal part of the Christian life. That Christians in any era should be free of suffering is, as we will see, an aberration.
In Rom 5:1-11, (especially vs.4) where Paul takes it as a given that identification with the death of Christ entails suffering. It is the almost casual way he goes about describing the relationship of suffering to the glories of the Gospel that it is striking. (see. Galatians 3.4)
Paul says in v.3 that because of our relation to Jesus, we boast in suffering. Robert Schuller is wrong. Paul is not saying that “when things get tough, the tough get tougher.” Rather he is saying that our sufferings (Thlipsis), demonstrate the eschatological (and consequently) ethical antithesis between the Christian and the World. Suffering is an affirmation of our union with Christ. This is the prelude to the locus classicus for the doctrine of imputation, which is another aspect of our union with Christ.
Romans 8.18ff. Paul compares the sufferings (Pathemata) of the present age semi-eschatological with the glory to be revealed in us. For this revelation creation itself is anxious. What is the object of the anxiety? The redemption of our bodies. (v.24) He is looking for the resurrection. Because of our weakness and groanings (because of suffering?) the Spirit intercedes for us. Vs.35: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Thlipsis or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
These are not just random selections of difficult things used in contrast with Christ’s love. These are real life experiences shared by the Roman Christians before and after the reception of the letter. The references are unmistakable. This is part of the reason Paul turns their attention for comfort to the unbreakable golden chain of God’s decrees in 8.28-30.
In 1 Cor 13.3 Paul lists things with which perhaps the Corinthians are familiar. Among them is giving one’s body over to be burned. Clearly there is a reference here to martyrdom. It was apparently common enough in the first century, that Paul could casually mention it as an example, without having to explain that Christians sometimes were martyred for the faith.
In 2 Corinthians 1.3ff, Paul’s doxology to the Father, one of the things for which Paul is grateful is deliverance from Thlipsis (vv.4ff.). We are familiar with the benefits of suffering from this passage, namely patience, but this is not the only reason Paul mentions it.
In vv.4,5 he is contrasting the comfort God gives to his saints through the Holy Spirit, with the sufferings which are ours of a course. He even speaks of Christ’s Pathemata abounding, or overflowing to us. Paul even identifies his (and our) sufferings with Christ’s. What does he mean?
We saw in the gospels with reference to Christ, Pascho has a technical meaning. This is proof of the derivative meaning I posited earlier. Paul is arguing that identification and mystical union with Christ necessarily means that we endure persecution at the hands of those who still hate Jesus. Because of that identification and union our sufferings become, in one sense, part of a continuum with Christ’s. The discontinuity is that his are perfect and propitiatory and ours derivative. (see. W. Michealis, TDNT vol.5, s.v. Pascho )
The comfort we relieve comes from Jesus. A reciprocal relationship is envisioned. In v.7 Paul says that his hope for the Corinthians is firm because he knows they are experiencing this reciprocal relationship.
Phil 1.29. This passage establishes unshakably that in the mind of Paul, there was a necessary correlation between election in Christ and suffering. Let me quote the passage beginning with vs.27
Only this, conduct yourselves worthily of the gospel of Christ, then whether coming, I see you or being absent hear about you, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit (in the One Spirit?) working as one man for the faith of the gospel, and not being frightened in any way by the ones opposing you, which opposition is proof of their destruction, and of your salvation, and this salvation is from God. Because it has been granted to you not only to believe but to suffer on behalf of Christ, having the same struggle which you saw regarding me and now hear regarding me.
Several things become abundantly clear in this passage. First, Paul correlates opposition to the gospel and adherence to the gospel. Both are proofs. Opposition is proof that one is reprobate. Adherence and “co-working”, Sunerchomai is proof of salvation. This destruction is proleptic. The opponents are still opposing.
So also the salvation is proleptic, since we are still struggling (Agona) In v.29 he argues that the cause of this antagonistic relationship is that being in union with Christ necessarily entails suffering.
We cannot fail to notice the second correlation, that of the grant to believe and also to suffer. Just as there exists a corollary between belief and unbelief, so also there is a corollary between election and suffering. We can no more escape suffering than election. For Paul both are sovereign donations of God. Neither can suffering be limited to the first century by some artificial construction, since in that case we would have to restrict election to the first century.
The force of 2 Thessalonians 1:5 is equally clear. Paul praises God for their faith and he boasts in their perseverance. Notice that he does not boast in their dominion but in their perseverance. The notion of “eschatological necessity” explains why Paul uses the phrase “counted worthy of the Kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”
The kingdom here is both present and future. The present suffering indicates membership in the present kingdom and inheritance of the future kingdom. If there are three marks of the true church, then perhaps this is a mark of the true Christian, suffering.
Paul is not the only writer in the NT to make use of this notion. In 1 Peter 2.19-23 Peter contrasts two kinds of suffering, that which is incurred justly and that which is incurred unjustly. The former is commendable, the latter is not. What is important to notice here is that first suffering is commendable, and second, (v.21) he says “you were called to this”, i.e. suffering. Why? Because Christ is our eschatological-ethical example, and because of our union with Him we are to follow in his footsteps. Peter places suffering in the category of Christian duty. (see 1 Peter 3.14-18.) It is clearer nowhere else than in 1 Peter 4.12ff. that suffering is the normal lot of the Christian, because of our Spiritual connection to the ascended Christ.
With all this common NT background it should not surprise us to see it reappear in the Apocalypse. If for the sake of argument the recapitulation reading of chapter 12 is allowed, then the relationship of the Dragon to the Woman is colorful allegory of the didactic truth which we have clearly seen elsewhere. Indeed, the entire Apocalypse is a series of progressive parallels intended to explain to suffering Christians (Rev. ch’s 1-3) in the cities of Asia Minor, why it was, Jesus having ascended to his royal glory, they continued to suffer at the hands of opponents and authorities. Jesus’ explanation, through the visions given to John, is that it is, in effect, a mark of this age. This is the age of the tribulation, the slaying of the prophets, the wasting of God’s people, so that only a remnant will remain at the coming of the Lamb in wrath.
The doctrine which I have tried briefly to establish in this paper is the eschatological necessity of suffering. Suffering, because of our union with Christ, is consistently represented in the NT as a fruit and proof that we are united with him. Because we are Christ’s body, and the antithesis between Christ and the World continues, the world pours out its hatred for Christ upon us. We in turn receive assurance of faith, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit as we fill up and share in Christ’s sufferings.
Christian suffering, which the Apostle Peter distinguishes sharply from suffering for the sake of wrongdoing, is part and parcel of being a Christian. It is to be expected. Inasmuch as it is a mark of this age, for the Christian, it is necessary. Therefore we ought to expect it. We ought not be surprised when “fiery trials” come upon us.
This view is in stark contrast with both premillennialists who find that Christ’s teachings in Matt 5-7 do not apply today (for whatever bizarre reason) and those postmillennialists (e.g., Gary North) who regard Jesus’ sermon as applicable only for those who are oppressed so that they will not apply in the coming golden age. The view advocated in this essay rejects both these approaches as, at once too other worldly and not heavenly minded enough. Just as Christ our Savior suffered in his flesh, so shall we. Just as he was raised, if he tarries, so shall we be raised. Just as he has been glorified, so shall we be glorified, where glory belongs, in heaven, with the Savior.