I recently was listening to a compelling and fascinating message from John Piper titled “The Purpose of God in the Pain of the World,” (The Purposes of God in the Pain of the World | Desiring God), which was a sermon he preached based off of Romans 8:18-25 at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. in September 2022. Piper gives a summary of a basically Edwardsian and Reformed understanding of God’s purposes for suffering in the world, which I agree with based on my interpretation of the Biblical corpus.
In that sermon, Piper talks about the purposes of God in pain in a metaphysical sense, and says this:
Second, the reason this world of pain and misery exists is because God subjected the natural world to futility in hope. God put the natural world under a curse, so that the physical horrors of that curse would become a vivid picture — a parable, a drama — of the horrors of moral evil, or sin. In other words, natural evil — physical suffering — exists in the world as a signpost, a parable of the horrors of moral evil. Physical suffering exists to show how outrageous sin against God is.
It is worth asking, Why does God make physical suffering the consequence of moral evil? The essence of sin is not physical; it’s not the movement of muscles or the touching of flesh. The essence of sin is when Adam and Eve said to God in their hearts, “I don’t trust you anymore to provide the best life for us. I think I know the best life. I reject your kind of limiting love. I reject your wisdom. I reject you, and I vote for me. I will decide right and wrong.” That was the beginning, crude essence of sin, and it was not physical.
Rather, it was a moral blow to the face of God, and as such it merited thousands of years of horrible, physical misery in the world. Romans 8:18-21 says, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope . . . ” So it wasn’t Adam or Satan who subjected the world to futility “in hope.” God is the one who designed hope in the sufferings of the world.
Then the passage continues by saying that God “subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” That’s what’s coming, and we say, “Hasten the day, O God.”
When Adam and Eve sinned morally, the world was touched physically. (See Genesis 3.) Why would that be? One reason is this: Sin by its very nature blinds us to the seriousness of sin. Sin does not see the infinite outrage of slapping infinite holiness in the face. Sin can’t feel that outrage. What can sin feel? It can feel hunger, cancer, lacerations, broken bones, disability, death. People don’t lie awake at night wrestling with the outrage of their indifference to God. But they do lie awake at night when their bodies are touched with pain — which is the siren, the trumpet, of the outrage of the evil of sin.
And don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that every pain in a person corresponds to a specific sin in that person. That’s not true. Remember how they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3). Physical suffering is a global trumpet blast of the outrage of sin against God.
I really like this interpretation because of how it weds things that are physically empirical to its “true meaning” in theological symbolism.
But my question is this: if physical pain is a “parable” or a “drama” of a spiritual reality (which I think an orthodox interpretation of the Biblical account suggests), what do we make of the experience of pain predating man receiving the “Image of God” (whenever we accept that is imparted to him), or even that pain and suffering are necessary features of our world system to even bring life and further evolutionary development about?
In other words, if a physical reality is primarily meant to symbolize a theological reality for Image-bearers, how do we account for that physical reality existing prior to anatomically modern humans being given the capacity to understand the theological reality it is meant to symbolize, especially if we assume that the physical reality of pain was brought about as a curse in response to man’s disobedience?
One route is to say that God reveals pain’s “true spiritual meaning” in the same way he does for childbirth (e.g., Romans 8) or marriage (e.g., Ephesians 5), in the sense that these are also revealed to be “parables” or “dramas” of greater theological realities (the New Creation and Christ’s marriage to his Church, respectively). But the difference is that those things are “baked into the cake” of the human experience, for example, and aren’t necessarily things that the Bible seems to suggest were introduced in response to a prior human activity (with possibly the exception of childbirth, although Gen. 3 suggests it only becomes more painful for women, not that it wasn’t painful prior to Adam and Eve’s transgression or that it did not exist). That is not the case for physical pain, suffering, and death, which all seem to be introduced as responses to man’s disobedience.