[K:NWTS 11/1 (May 1996) 23-26]

Suffering and Eschatology

Bill Green

Kerux V11N1A3

With the recent emphasis in North American evangelicalism on a gospel of "Health and Wealth," and the "Name it Claim it" mentality, it appears that the real biblical teaching on the place of suffering and hardship in the Christian life has been lost. This should not strike us as strange, however, for from the very earliest days of Christianity this type of a triumphalist gospel has threatened to obscure the call to true discipleship—the call to identify with the humiliation of the cross in order to show forth God's glory and participate in Christ's resurrection.

In this article I will seek to show that Christian suffering can only be properly understood and undertaken from a biblical view of eschatology.1 We will be focusing our discussion on 2 Corinthians 4, taking into account the context of Paul's discussion.

There has been much debate over just who Paul was responding to in his letter of 2 Corinthians.2 In this regard Hafemann appears to have shed some light on this debate in a detailed, exegetical study of key passages. He maintains that the opponents in 2 Corinthians appear to have been teaching that suffering in the Christian life was evidence of a lack of the presence of the Spirit, and thus Paul's apostleship was in question, since he obviously suffered wherever he went!3 I think that we can see definite parallels between the Corinthian situation and present day "spiritual enthusiasm." In Latin America, where I work (and I believe in North America as well), "charismatic" tendencies often demonstrate three elements: 1) A kind of "realized eschatology," a triumphalism, but usually only in the personal sphere. Emphasis is laid upon complete healing in all circumstances (thus suffering is due to lack of faith). Poverty is seen in the same light. 2) There is paradoxically a tendency toward legalism. The "initiated," blessed with the added gift of the Spirit, seem to look for added rules to keep in order to demonstrate their spirituality. The law may have functioned this way for the Corinthian opponents, and thus Paul's detailed discussion in 2 Cor. 3. 3) Under the baptizing power of the Spirit, there arise many self-proclaimed "apostles" claiming the unction of the Holy Spirit, claiming direct revelations and usually demonstrating some highly visual and sensational gift (healing, prophecy, tongues, etc). What I have observed first hand seems to provide very close parallels with the Corinthian situation. Spiritual enthusiasm of any age may demonstrate the same tendencies. The "super-apostles" that Paul mentions in 2 Cor. 12, and his discussion on "boasting" in chapters 10-12 appear to assume a party in Corinth which sat in judgment of Paul's behavior, principally his apparent lack of "power," which would imply a lack of the Spirit.

Turning to Paul's answer, then, we see that Paul carefully balances what has been called the "already" and the "not yet" in his response to the faulty view of suffering. In 2 Cor. 3:17, 18, Paul affirms the "already " of the gospel, in that the Christian is being transformed by the Spirit of Christ from glory into glory. This transformation is marvelous, and results in a tremendous spiritual power unleashed in the Christian's life. As Paul says a little later: "afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed."

Nevertheless, the "already" of the Christian life must be strictly balanced by the "not yet," and Paul details this aspect in 2 Cor. 4:7-18. The glorious gospel is communicated in "jars of clay," and Paul's existence is a paradox of cross/resurrection. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that there is a logical connection between his suffering and the spread of the gospel. In verses 10 and 11, Paul says that the death of Christ is manifested in his body so that Christ's life might also be manifested.4 And in verse 17, Paul states boldly that his sufferings are producing an eternal weight of glory in him. These statements merit a much more detailed treatment than we can give here, but serve to show that for Paul the eschatological realities—"already/not yet"—had an intimate relationship to each other, and a particular relationship with his suffering. The inaugurated redemption of Christ is accomplished through an historical process that Paul defines as a "crucifixion." Christ passed through Golgatha on his way to glory, and he takes the whole Church with him. The suffering of the Christian, then, is far from a proof of the lack of the power of the Spirit. Quite the contrary, says Paul. Suffering for the Christian is proof of his unity with Christ, and his "resurrection-transformation" takes place by means of becoming weak in the eyes of the world, in order to show that "the all-surpassing power is from God, and not from us." Only when we understand the true nature of the eschatological realities inaugurated by Christ, can we comprehend the usefulness of the suffering of Christ's church. The very weakness of the Christian is the channel by which God manifests his grace and power, and so Paul says that he will boast in his weakness: "for when I am weak, then I am strong."

Much of Latin American evangelicalism has been distorted by a blind importation of a North American triumphalist gospel. I believe, however, that we are already seeing the burning out of much enthusiastic religion. Their quick and superficial solutions are less and less credible. I also believe that we are seeing a spreading of a biblical sensitivity to the Church's calling, to be a firm witness to the Resurrected Christ and his kingdom, even when that calls for bearing a cross. I have personally spoken with fellow Christians who have been taken captive and tortured because of their participation in deeds of love toward the poor, labelled by their governments as subversive and even communists. These brothers know very intimately what Paul was talking about. The Church today needs to recover a biblical perspective on suffering, if we are going to be effective witnesses. Not only the enthusiastic tendencies I have mentioned, but many of our own views, are essentially a capitulation to a worldly view of suffering—that which is the unexplainable and undesirable. Let us recover a biblical perspective of suffering as that necessary process through which the Church must pass on the road to glory. Let us be valiant, let us support one another better in our suffering, and let us above all be faithful to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Iglesia Christiana Reformada
San Jose, Costa Rica

End Notes

1 I refer the reader to my Master's Thesis entitled "Suffering and Eschatology: A Critical Study of 2 Corinthians 4 with Particular Emphasis on the Relationship of Suffering and Eschatology in Paul" submitted to Calvin Seminary in May 1989. In this study, I am able to explore in much more detail the nuances which Paul brings to bear on this timely subject.

2 Dieter Georgi, The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

3 See Scott Hafemann's excellent work in his doctoral thesis, Suffering and the Spirit (Tubingen: J. D. B. Mohr, 1986).

4 Most commentators tend to water down verses 8, 9, considering that Paul feels that even though he might be battered, nevertheless God would always keep him safe (cf. for example R. P. Martin, 2 Corinthians [Waco: Word Books, 1986], p. 86). But this is far from Paul's thrust. A careful study of the words used show Paul to be saying that even if physically he is crushed, even killed, yet God will never forsake him, and his ministry will bear the fruit that God desires.