The Kingdom and Suffering

The seventeenth century philosopher and theologian Gottfried Leibniz argued that if God is good, loving, and powerful, then this must be the best possible world, because what other kind of world would such a deity create? 

The problem, of course, is that we can imagine a better world.   One of the common clichés people mutter at us in our times of grief when a loved one passes on is, “well, she’s in a better place now.”

So, if there is such a better place, such a better world, then why is there this one and why do we have to be in it, if God loves us so much?

If the Kingdom of Heaven is better than here and now, then how can this possibly be the best of all possible worlds?  And if this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, then what does that tell us about God?


What if the Kingdom of Heaven can come about only because of this world?  That is, what if the Kingdom of Heaven requires this world in order to come into existence?  What if, in fact, this world creates the Kingdom of Heaven, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is a consequence of this world?  

The Kingdom of Heaven would then grow from this world and would not entirely—or even at all—be separate from this world.

Some may object to this for various reasons, but ask yourself, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? 

The short answer: it is God’s people.  It is the church.  It is the Bride of Christ.  Therefore, this world is necessary for the Kingdom of Heaven to exist, because it is the people of God living in this world who are and who become that Kingdom.  This then is the best of all possible worlds, since it is the only world that can create or become the better world of the Kingdom—which is paradoxical unless you realize that the Kingdom is co-existent with this current world: the Kingdom, in a very real sense, is now.

Jesus explained it very clearly:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

When we ask, “is this the best of all possible worlds?” we must recognize that this world includes the Kingdom of Heaven in seed form at the very least. 

Ask yourself this when you peer at Jesus sleeping in the manger, “is this baby the best of all possible human beings?”  The baby is no less the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the World, than the resurrected Lord.  One could say that this world is the baby to the adult that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

An analogy from scripture would be Joseph; after the death of his father Jacob, his brothers were fearful, scared to death, that Joseph would seek vengeance against them for all the awful things they’d done to him, like selling him into slavery, and for all the awful things he’d gone through after that.  So what happened?

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 51:19-21)

Consider, too, that even the death of the righteous—what most would consider an example of the core problem in the issue of suffering being unjust and an affront to the existence of God—is, counterintuitively, considered to be a positive good, a blessing even, based on a few biblical passages.  As I’ve pointed out before, it is death that makes our redemption possible in the first place; our exclusion from the tree of life, God’s concern that we not be allowed to eat from it and “live forever” (see Genesis 3:21-24), was not done because he hated us, because he was mad a us, because he wanted to make us squirm; it was because our being mortal was the only way he could save us: God had to become a human being, become one of us, and then die for our sins.  If human beings were not mortal, he could not die for us and if he could not die for us…then we could not be saved.  This is why Satan and the demons are doomed: they are immortal and beyond help or hope.

We die because God loves us; and love is the core of the Bible, the center of everything. 

Matthew 22:34-40 – Love

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ i 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ j 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

            Love is the core of the Bible. Jesus pointed out that it was on the twin commandments, to love God and to love people, that the whole Bible hung (Matthew 22:34-40).  Paul emphasizes it in his writing, too. He explained that all the commandments in the Bible could be summarized with a single commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14).  This concept is also a core concept in Judaism. The story is told of a Rabbi who was forced, on pain of death, to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  His response was to say “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.  All the rest is commentary.” 

Because of love, Christians should be the most optimistic of people. 

The way of the world is to be gloomy, to always expect the worst, to believe that ultimately there is no hope.  The world embraces pessimism.

            The reason we keep going in the face of problems, in the face of setbacks, in the face of discouragement and nothing going right is precisely because of this thing called love.  We keep our zeal, our spiritual fervor, we keep on serving the Lord because we know God loves us.  And his love inspires us to love the people around us, and to press on.

            Think about how a young man or woman feel in the first throws of love.  Nothing else matters.  The world is beautiful and all is right with the world.  Nothing else matters as long as he or she is loved and loves in return.

            That’s what our relationship with God can do for us.  That’s the power of true love.

            What did Paul write about grief, about how we react when someone dies?  Not that we aren’t sad, but that we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Because we know God loves us, we can face the worst without despair.

            We understand that things will work out for our good.  As Paul wrote, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

What does suffering tell us about God?  Counterintuitively: Number one thing that suffering tells us about God: God loves us.  Why?  Because, like our friends when we grieve, he is right there with us.  He not only suffered on the cross for us, he also suffers with us.  And he never leaves us for forsakes us.  Like your loved ones, your friends, your family, God loves you and he is right there with you, grieving with you.  He may say nothing.  You may not feel him.  But he is there. Because he loves you.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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