The Origin of Suffering from Genesis, Part I
Suffering in life is the universal experience for all human beings, regardless of gender, sex, social class, or culture, even for atheists and theists. Suffering is evil because it is composed of pain, wickedness, burden, weakness, and other negative components. Throughout the history of humanity, religions, philosophies, cultures, societies, and individuals have endeavored to comprehend the cause of suffering, even suggesting that it is the purpose of the common experience of human beings. Thus, there are numerous interpretations regarding this grave, profound topic, even within the cycle of Christian writings. In other words, it is going to be a long journey for us to explore the subject. Before I start dumping my research materials on you, I first want to reflect on the Book of Genesis in order to focus on the origin of the pain of the world.
In the beginning, there was no suffering. Before creation, nothing and no one but our triune God, who subsists in the unity of the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, existed. With one will and purpose, one God made the cosmos to glorify and honor him. This powerful Deity is portrayed as Ĕlōhîm, the divine title of sovereignty and providence. Babylonian, Greek, or Assyrian mythologies describe the birth of the universe as the result of wars among many gods. These gods were angry and jealous. To have more authority and dominion, they fought against one another. Some prevailed and others perished. The Bible, however, teaches us that unlike those gods who were unstable and even erratic, there were only perfect joy, peace, and love within our God. The Father, Son, and Spirit had magnificent fellowship, so that there was no brokenness in God (I will explain and write more about our triune God in the future).
This infinite Deity, who lacks nothing, chose to create the universe. When God spoke, things began to exist and function as he structured them according to his divine will. On the first day, in Genesis 1:4, for the first time in the whole Bible, one of the most common Hebrew words, yet, one of the most powerful words appears: good, tov in Hebrew. Tov contains numerous meanings such as good, pleasing, pleasant, delightful, clean, pure, cheerful, happy, kind, joyful, etc. After God said, “Let there be light,” light was there and God saw that light was good in v. 4. Except on the second day, every time God spoke and made creation, the author of Genesis recorded that God saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
God’s pronouncement that “it was good” can have two interpretations. First, the condition of creation was perfect. This implies that God did not find any fault or mistake in all the things that God willed. Everything was made exactly as God wished and planned. Here, let’s pause and imagine what kind of standard our God has. For example, my mom and dad have a different standard for cleanliness when it comes to cleaning my room. For my mom’s standard, if I spend about three minutes cleaning my room, she would say, “Good.” But for my dad, even if I spend an hour, it would not satisfy him, because his standard of cleanliness is much higher than the standard of my mother. Going back to the standard of our perfect God, he probably has the highest standard ever. It would be impossible to please him, for he has all the riches, honor, and glory. Yet, when he designed all the mechanics of the universe and when they were done as he desired, God saw and said, “It is tov.” The quality of creation met God’s standard.
It gets even more interesting when God finally made male and female in his divine image and likeness. Only after he made them, God said, “It is very good” or “Tov meod” (Gen. 1:31). It is the highest acclamation that God used as an approval after seeing the creation. The lifeless objects became life abounding; the suns, moon, and earth began to provide life giving energy that makes the grass grow green, flowers blossom, and trees bear fruits; the lumps of clay became animated being bearing the image and likeness of God. Everything was designed by the sovereign God, executed by the life-giving and life-making Spirit, the Holy Spirit. Everything in the beginning was damn good according to the perfect standard of our perfect God.
Second, God’s declaration that “it was good” also expresses God’s satisfaction with the outcome. The beauty of the vast universe, the result of God’s animated words, satisfied him so much that through the author of the Book of Genesis, God demonstrates his excitement and joy by saying that “it was good” six times. It pleased him with the utmost satisfaction that it was good and very good as an aroma of burnt offerings pleasing to the LORD. As the narrative of Genesis unfolds in later chapters, God only sees the wickedness and evil heart of humankind except for the very few righteous persons like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, David, Job, etc. The first chapter of Genesis captures the goodness of creation and the way in which the goodness satisfied our good LORD.
As I reflected on our God and explored the narrative of the workmanship of our Maker, at least until the first sin of Adam and Eve, we do not recognize any pinch of suffering or brokenness. This is the most critical starting point in approaching the issue of human brokenness: the origin of pain was neither in the will of God, nor in the eternal fellowship of the triune God, nor in God’s actual handiwork, nor in the Creator-creation relationship. In God’s holy and mighty plan, suffering was never a part. It never existed before creation, and even after creation until a particular moment of the history of human beings.
The revelation that there was no suffering differentiates itself from the interpretations of suffering found in other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. They teach that life itself is suffering as an inevitable component of our lives. Instead of deliverance from the cycle of brokenness, accepting one’s distress as normal and even the result of one’s karma is the true liberation of reaching the stage of nirvana. Those religions believe in samsara, the eternal cycle of births and deaths, and that some individuals can achieve victories over samsara. However, Christianity claims that there will be a final end of the evil and an ultimate judgment for sinners, the true liberation from pain and brokenness, e.g., poverty, sickness, shame, fear, toil, injustice, racism, discrimination, etc. This is our hope in the triune God.
If in the beginning, there was suffering, and if God had no power or even interest in handling the matter, how can he deal with our present brokenness as he promised and spoke of in the Bible? On the one hand, our experience of the pain of the world is very real. However, studying suffering should not begin with our experience, but with reflection on who God is and what He does, especially the God who revealed himself as the Father, the Son, and Spirit, because he is the Maker of all human beings, the one who has specific ways for us to respond to the brokenness and even has a perfect plan to save us from the evil. For this reason, I will expound more on the Trinitarian theology or the doctrine of the Trinity in order to answer these two questions. But, at this moment, we must remember that God constructed everything so perfectly that there was no room for pain to exist before the extraordinary event initiated by God.