Christianity clearly teaches that Jesus has paid our debt of sin for all time, for all sins, for all people. So why does suffering still occur? How come everything isn’t sunshine and lollipops in our lives? Well, let’s back up a bit and remember who God is and who we are. God is the creator of all that exists, of all things visible and invisible. Among the invisible things are the laws of physics, of celestial mechanics, and the laws that tell us that for every action and there is an equal and opposite reaction. Simply put, our actions (and our inactions) have consequences. Yes, Jesus has paid the penalty for our sins, but that doesn’t mean that the laws of the universe have been repealed. When we suffer as a result of sin, we are experiencing the worldly consequences of the sinful actions (or inactions), not punishment for those sins.
Evildoers will always be among us, until the end of time. Oftentimes, we are evildoers, too. The evil that we or others do has consequences in this world. When someone sins, that sin reverberates in the lives of other people. Like a stone dropped into a still pool of water, the waves spread out and affect the entire pool. The driver of an automobile drinks four alcoholic beverages before getting behind the wheel and, while driving drunk, slams into a pedestrian in a crosswalk, killing the pedestrian. There is nothing inherently evil in either the alcoholic beverage or the automobile. The evildoer isn’t these inanimate objects, but the driver of the automobile. The ripples of this sinful act spread out to cause suffering to many other people, including the family and friends of the victim and the family and friends of the drunk driver. This suffering is a consequence of the sin that the drunk driver committed, but it isn’t the punishment for that sin.
The drunk driver in the example above may spend years in prison as a consequence of his or her actions. But if that driver sincerely repents and puts their trust in Jesus for forgiveness, their sin is forgiven. The civil authorities in this world are still responsible for meting out justice according to the laws promulgated for the wellbeing of society as a whole. The prison sentence must still be served. The family of the dead pedestrian must still bear their grief and suffer the loss of their loved one. However, all of those are consequences of sin, not punishment for sin.
Suffering can also be the result of natural disasters: Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and lightning strikes are a few examples. Suffering can also arise from diseases, birth defects, disabilities, aging, wars, crime, and death of a loved one. These are all consequences of living in a fallen world. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God by disobeying him in the Garden of Eden, their sin did not only affect them, it affected all of creation, and every human being born through natural means thereafter. The whole world has been groaning under the curse of sin ever since the Fall. The suffering resulting from the examples above is a consequence of the Fall of humankind into sin when Adam and Eve first disobeyed God, it isn’t a punishment for our sins or the sins of others.
Many false preachers and prophets point to natural disasters and diseases and seek to connect them to specific sins that people or nations are committing. By doing so, they unwittingly are seeking to rob Jesus of his glory, and denigrating the sacrifice that he made once and for all on the cross. Such false preachers and prophets mistakenly teach that our forgiveness is something that we must somehow earn by our good behavior. They ignore the clear message of the Gospel, which teaches that we are saved by faith through grace and not by any works that we do. Doing good works is a consequence of being saved and trusting in Jesus. If we had to rely on our good works for our salvation, we would never have the assurance and peace that comes from knowing we are saved – saved because Jesus, the Son of God, has already done all that is necessary for our salvation. Nothing we could ever do would be enough to pay for even one sin.
Sins will be committed. Suffering will come, even into the lives of the most fervent Christians. But thanks be to God, such suffering is only a consequence of sin, not a punishment for sin. The punishment was born by Jesus Christ on the cross. And nothing we do adds anything to his victory over sin, death, and the power of the Devil.