Recently I was contacted by a university student writing a paper for a Philosophy 102 course. The topic is the interconnectedness of time and suffering (fascinating!). Finding that I created a course called The Beginning and End of Suffering, she asked for my perspective. I’m sharing these ideas here as a series. I welcome your feedback and questions.
This is part two. I invite you to read part one first, if you haven’t already.
My favorite parts of the Bible are the first two chapters (Genesis 1-2) and the last two chapters (Revelation 21-22), because they are the only times when everything is perfect, the way it’s supposed to be. Everything in between (including the time we live in now) is steeped in suffering. We individually and collectively experience periods of suffering that have a beginning and an end, but those are just episodes of a prolonged period of suffering that began thousands of years ago and will end at a point in the future.
Suffering began in heaven
Where, when, and how did suffering begin? There was a war in heaven when Lucifer (a high-ranking angel) led a rebellion against God. He was thrown out of heaven and sent to earth. He became known as Satan, the devil, the dragon, and the serpent (Revelation 12:7-9, Isaiah 14:12-14, Ezekiel 28:14-15).
Some time later (we don’t know how long), the devil was in the form of a serpent, hanging around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Eve went there, even though God told her she would die if she ate from that tree. The serpent told her several lies, which she believed. (These were some of the same lies Lucifer told himself that caused him to rebel against God.) Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, introducing evil (“the curse”) into the human experience. This is recorded in Genesis 3, where the curse is described to some extent. It says that, from that time on, they would experience pain, subjugation, and death.
It’s probably generally accepted that the beginning of suffering was in this story of Adam and Eve. I would argue that it began when Lucifer and a third of the angels rebelled against God and were subsequently separated from Him. We don’t have information about the time between their expulsion from heaven and the deception of Adam and Eve, but I think that the devil and the other fallen angels must have been suffering, being in rebellion against their Creator.
Suffering will end before the new beginning
Most of the Bible is a history of humanity up through the first century AD, but some of it is prophecy that foretells events that were to happen later. Some of those events have happened just as they were foretold, and some haven’t happened yet. Those include prophecies about the second coming, the thousand years (the millennium), the second death (hell), and the New Earth. We’re obviously suffering now, so we must look at the yet-to-be fulfilled prophecies to learn about the end of suffering.
When Jesus returns to earth (the second coming), those who are saved will be taken to heaven with Jesus. That includes some people who are alive at the time and some people who are dead at the time. The dead people who are saved will be resurrected and then join the saved people who never died, and they will go to heaven all together (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). The people who are not saved and are alive when Jesus comes will die at that time; the people who are not saved and who are already dead will just stay dead when Jesus comes (2 Thessalonians 2:8, Revelation 6:14-17). In other words, everyone who isn’t saved will experience the first death when Jesus comes or sometime before.
This article does not discuss how someone is “saved” or “not saved”; I will “save” that for another time, but don’t hesitate to ask if it’s on your mind now.
For a thousand years after the second coming (the millennium), people who are saved will be alive in heaven with God, and they will be reviewing what happened on earth and determining whether God’s judgments are fair and right (1 Corinthians 6:1-2, Revelation 19:1-2). I think that there will be some form of suffering during the thousand years, as I imagine that process will be sobering. Also, it isn’t until after the thousand years that the curse is declared over. During the thousand years, all of the people who are lost will be dead, so they won’t be suffering. The only one alive on earth during this time is the devil, and he’ll be suffering because he has no one to deceive and hurt — and because he is still in rebellion against God (Revelation 20:1-3).
Revelation 20 and 21 say that, after the thousand years are over, the lost people on earth will be resurrected, and the devil will gather them for war. The holy city — containing God, His angels, and the people who are saved — will descend from heaven toward the earth. The devil and his forces will try to attack the city, but God will completely destroy them with fire. This is hell (the second death). God will start over with life on the planet and create the New Earth. It is at this point that “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4); “There will no longer be any curse” (Revelation 22:3). Humanity will again have “the right to the tree of life” (Revelation 22:14), so they will live forever without suffering.
I go into all of this detail because I think the sequence of events is important to understand when and how suffering will end.
Hell isn’t a place — it’s an event
Many people believe that hell is eternal suffering. When I look at all of the Bible passages about hell, I see that that isn’t how it works. To be eternally suffering, one must be eternally alive, and eternal life is given only the saved; the lost are given death, not suffering (John 3:16, Romans 6:23). When I read all of the passages about hell, I see that it isn’t a place; it’s an event that is also known as the second death. It’s not clear how long it lasts (probably not long at all), but there is a definite end to it (nothing but ashes and then the New Earth). It occurs precisely between the end of the thousand years and the creation of the New Earth. If the earth is made new, where is hell happening? If there is no longer any mourning or pain, how could anyone be suffering? I can share more passages about hell for anyone who asks. There are many, and they are encouraging.
Is there a relationship between time and suffering? As Revelation 1:8 says, there is a past, a present, and a future. That seems to be the most important aspect of time. Right now, we can say, Suffering existed, suffering exists, and suffering will exist. However, at some point, I believe we will be able to say only this: Suffering existed.
I encourage you to read part three of this series, in which I further discuss hell.
Note: If you want to see what the referenced Bible texts say, you can look them up on BibleGateway. To understand what the Bible teaches about any topic, we must look at all of the passages on that topic. Every puzzle piece must be in place to see the whole picture. In this series, I’m providing scripture samples for brevity. To learn more, please ask me by commenting below or contacting me privately, and/or do your own study with the help of BibleGateway or a Bible concordance such as Blue Letter Bible.