The Problem of Suffering
Atheistic, Pantheistic and Christian worldviews on suffering
A Generic Worldview on Suffering
How does secular Western society regard suffering? Here, most people never give much thought to God, Jesus Christ, why they are here, ethics, truth, the soul, immortality, death and so on. They live in a spiritual void of work, materialism and pleasure seeking, and rarely think about the difficult problem of suffering.
When they do think about suffering they tend to adopt the humanistic view that it is ‘unfair’, or it is caused by the selfishness of human beings, or by chance through natural disasters. Suffering appears to have no real purpose. And most will reject the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God arguing that such a God would not allow suffering, link. Nevertheless, such a society is moved with compassion when it encounters suffering, and some start thinking about their own eternal destiny.
Our lives are continuously bombarded by events which lead to suffering and pain, either physical, emotional (mental) or both. From a pragmatic viewpoint (ignoring spiritual concepts), we can identify four generic causes or sources of suffering:
- Ourselves: we drove too fast, ate the wrong thing, smoked, invested badly, or said the wrong thing
- Others: man-to-man conflict as in burglary, rape, ethnic cleansing, or war
- Avoidable physical or emotional disaster: we ignored a medical problem, built on a flood plain, or married the wrong person
- Unavoidable physical or natural disaster: largely unpredictable earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, floods or cancer
Most worldviews will agree that these are the main causes of suffering, although Christianity goes deeper by adding a spiritual dimension. Also, we need to ask “Is there a purpose for suffering – some objective reason why it is happening?” Let’s take a deeper look into how different worldviews handle suffering.
Atheistic Worldview on the Problem of Suffering
Atheism is the denial of, or lack of a belief in God or gods. Many atheists or agnostics also describe themselves as Humanist. To deny God or gods (strong atheism) demands a knowledge of everything and is an undefendable position. In practice, most atheists, like agnostics and sceptics, simply lack belief in God or gods (weak atheism) and pursue an atheistic lifestyle link, link. Atheism makes bold statements about life:
Atheism is a vigorous and a courageous philosophy. It is not afraid to face the problems of life (like suffering), and it is not afraid to confess that there are problems yet to be solved. It does not claim that it has solved all the questions of the universe, but it does claim that it has discovered the approach, and learned the method, of solving them.Positive Atheism , italics added
Atheism on the Cause of Suffering
Atheists use suffering as an argument against the existence of God, link. They take the biblical truths that God is all-powerful, loving and perfect, and assume that such a God would create a perfect universe (a debatable assumption). But the universe is not perfect, as in suffering, and so atheists conclude God does not exist. Having eliminated (or, more accurately, refused to consider) God, atheism is restricted to a narrow worldview based upon what man and man alone can discern. Atheistic reasoning and philosophy is void of any concepts or truths that could come from a higher transcendent source beyond mankind aka the biblical God. There are no ‘absolutes’ – everything is relative, link and so the absolute concept of the biblical Fall of man as being the cause of suffering is discounted.
So, by default, the atheistic answer to the problem of suffering is rather weak and simplistic. Atheists and secular humanists tend to hold a very pragmatic view on the cause of suffering, accepting it as part of an evolved world – a fait accompli. They maintain there is always a down-to-earth logical cause for suffering and no other explanation is needed. As outlined above, they maintain suffering arises from people and unfortunate events, link. For example, ‘my house flooded because it was built on a flood plain‘, ‘my car crashed because the brakes were faulty‘, or ‘I developed lung damage because I smoked‘. So in response to suffering, atheists and humanists may argue:
“Suffering happens from acts of evil, from nature, through our own stupidity or any of another 1000 reasons. No supernatural explanation needed”
“War (and subsequent suffering) exists because of intolerance or greed of leaders”
Atheists react to suffering by aiming to alleviate it. This approach echoes the thoughts of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and the thoughts of C. S. Lewis:
Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering [Epicurus]
Pain (suffering) insists upon being attended to [C. S. Lewis]
Some atheists argue that ultimately man through his reasoning and intelligence will be able to subdue suffering e.g. he will better predict earthquakes and tsunamis, and eventually cure most cancers. It is argued that the proper response to suffering is simply to make the world a better place by eradicating the factors that cause it:
“I deal with this suffering on earth by reminding myself that we are able to adapt to our environment”
“We find cures and medical and scientific help to all sorts of things all the time”
Atheism on the Purpose of Suffering
When it comes to the purpose of suffering, some atheists argue that, from a strictly Darwinian sense, suffering must provide some benefit – it must have some biological or social value. Nietzsche (a strong atheist) argued that the suffering of life is productive:
To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but … without cruelty there is no festival”Good Reads
On the other hand, Richard Dawkins and atheists in general argue that suffering never has any ultimate purpose, reason or objective, link. They argue that the universe and nature is indifferent to suffering:
For nature, heartless, witless nature, will neither care nor know [Alfred Housman, poet & atheist]
Some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it [Dawkins quotes]
As one atheist put it: “good things happen and bad things happen in equal measure, because that’s the way the world is”. In fact, the Bible also suggests there can be a randomness to suffering (see below). Put another way, atheists tend to hold a simplistic, pragmatic and indifferent worldview of suffering and argue that there is no objective reason (purpose) why a person should continue to suffer.
Pantheistic (New Age) Worldview on the Problem of Suffering
Let’s move from the pragmatic view of suffering held by atheism to more philosophical worldviews. Pantheistic beliefs are at the heart of Hinduism and sects of Buddhism and today have been adopted by many New Agers. Many Hindus view suffering as punishment for misdeeds committed in this lifetime or past lives.
New Ager’s believe all things are divine, or a part of god: people, rocks, trees, stars, etc.. In other words, god is in everything and so must be an impersonal god. How can we relate in a personal way to a rock? This pantheistic worldview, link implies that all events and situations, including suffering can be controlled by an enlightened mind (mind over matter). As one pantheist puts it:
The power to eliminate suffering is within everything
Here lies their dilemma. All pantheists (New Agers) suffer physical and emotional pain at some point in their life. But Pantheism implies that we are fundamentally perfect and holds that evil (and consequent suffering and disease) is an illusion. After all, if evil exists and all is god then evil is god! Indeed, cancer is god. But pantheists suffering cancer might question that it is an illusion. C. S. Lewis vigorously attacked this sort of contradictory philosophy, link!
So what went wrong? Why evil and suffering? Pantheism cannot answer this question philosophically and resorts to the pragmatic view of atheism. So New Ager’s resort to blaming modern society, as in evil governments, capitalism, male-dominance and dogmatic monotheistic religions, link. But how do they account for suffering arising from earthquakes and tsunamis?
Biblical Worldview on the Problem of Suffering
Atheism, Humanism and Pantheism fail to deal with the problem of suffering on a deep philosophical level. They simply accept that that is the way the world is and may try to alleviate it. Some even deny that suffering is a reality! Does the Bible and Christianity have any more to add? Is there a deeper understanding of suffering, a deeper reason or purpose for suffering?
Consider a sapling on the edge of a wood. It leans away from darkness towards the sunlight in order to grow strong and quickly. Here, photosynthesis converts energy from an external source into chemical energy enabling the tree to grow. In contrast, a sapling in the dark centre of the wood will be relatively weak since it cannot find sunlight.
This process is analogous to biblical teaching. A believer leans towards their only hope of real life – the living Christ. The resurrected Christ offers man that real external and transcendent input, just like the sun provides it for a tree. Man is offered an understanding beyond the range of human perception and free from the constraints of a material world. Contrast this with the grounded worldviews of atheism, humanism and pantheism, which are constrained by humanistic thinking; they are like saplings in a dark wood with no transcendent input!
So when it comes to suffering, Christianity has indeed more to offer than worldviews void of any transcendent input since believers receive truth from Christ Himself.
The Cause of Suffering
The standard, rather blunt and cold scriptural explanation for suffering is found in the New Testament:
The sin of one man, Adam, caused the whole of subsequent humanity to suffer and be subject to death (Romans 5:17-18, paraphrase)
… (and) as a result of one man’s sin the whole created universe groans and suffers” (Romans 8.20-22, paraphrase)
The knock-on effect is human physical and mental suffering, and a physical world with ‘natural’ disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts and famines.
The apparent injustice of all of humanity suffering because of one person does not seem compatible with the notion of a loving, personal God. The standard theological answer to that is that the seemingly unfair problem of programmed suffering is balanced by the offer of free reconciliation to God through the death and resurrection of one man, Jesus Christ:
Just as through one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, through one Man’s obedience many will be made righteousRomans 5:19
Of course the sceptic may ask ‘Isn’t God now being two-faced, offering both programmed suffering and reconciliation to Himself in the same package? Where is the proof of free reconciliation, and what does it mean in the midst of suffering anyway? Surely there was a better way to achieve a relationship with God than through blood, pain and death?’
On a pragmatic level, Christianity is in broad agreement with Atheism, Humanism and Pantheism in that man is the cause of evil and consequent suffering – either from his own stupidity or from man-to-man. But Atheism, Humanism and Pantheism cannot explain suffering arising from natural events, or from sickness and disease, and so reply ‘that’s just the way the world is’! In contrast, Christianity goes deeper and considers all suffering (man-to-man, nature-to-man, sickness and disease) to be the result of man’s God-given free will – and man’s wrong choice. So for instance, Christianity sees natural disasters like earthquakes and the consequent suffering to be a result of man’s rebellion against God. Nature (creation) was originally good – very good – but due to man’s wrong moral actions God cursed the ground (Gen 3.17) and nature suffered (see the curse of the Law):
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it … the whole creation groansRomans 8.20-22, NKJV
Here we see that suffering from natural disasters was not God’s original will and design. As mentioned, man is the primary cause of these events (for a compatible scientific explanation of our corrupted world see increasing entropy). So when we read:
I make peace and create calamityIsaiah 45:7, NKJV
this doesn’t mean that God created evil as an entity, or that God desires calamity and suffering. Rather, ‘calamity’, (Heb ‘rah’ – also meaning adversity, affliction or distress) is decreed (ordered or ruled) by God on the world as a consequence of man’s wrong (moral) actions, link. Again, consider:
You who love the Lord, hate evil!Psalm 97:10
Here we see that evil cannot be created by God since to ‘hate evil’ would be to hate what God has created, an action totally incompatible with ‘loving the Lord’. St. Augustine agrees. He reasoned that:
All things that God created are good; 2) evil is not good; 3) therefore, evil was not created by God
So Augustine reasoned that evil was not created, but arose from man using his free will to choose wrongly. He concluded that the essence of evil is a falling away from God. Put another way, if all ‘things’ were created by God (Jn 1.3), and evil was not created by God, then evil is not a ‘thing’ or separate entity. Rather, it is the result of man’s moral rebellious action, starting in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3).
The Randomness of Suffering
In reality we observe that some suffer much more than others. Sometimes this is for geographic and cultural reasons e.g. famines in Africa, but often suffering seems to be ‘roulette-like’; there seems an element of unfairness and randomness to suffering.
The Bible admits to this in a fallen world. Since nature currently groans under God’s curse it displays an element of randomness; calamity occurs to some and not to others seemingly by chance:
The race is not to the swift … neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favour to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
One dies … wholly at ease and satisfied … while another dies with a bitter soul, never even tasting anything good (Job 21:23,25)
Jesus recognised this randomness when He said that the 18 people killed by the falling tower in Siloam were no worse sinners than everyone else in Jerusalem (Lk 13.4). In this, Christianity agrees with Dawkins on the perceived randomness of suffering (see above); man’s rebellion against God has resulted in a perceived unfairness which God never intended.
All this illustrates the fact that the kingdom of God is not yet fully established on earth. On the other hand, there are many instances when believers in Christ experience miraculous release from suffering, or protection from suffering – as in healing. God promises help to those who love Him. These are instances of the kingdom of God on earth – now – and illustrate how the philosophy of suffering in Christianity departs from the fatalistic view of random suffering in atheism.
Is there a Purpose or Reason for Suffering?
We have discussed the fundamental cause for suffering from a biblical viewpoint. But does the biblical worldview give us a purpose for suffering (a God-ordained objective perhaps)? It has been suggested that link:
- Suffering keeps this world from becoming too attractive
- Suffering can bring out the best in people
- Suffering makes us sympathetic to others
- Suffering teaches us how to pray
- Suffering makes us more dependent upon God
- Suffering can be for correction or chastening (Heb 12)
- Suffering helps to purify us
The last two points are related. How does suffering ‘purify us’? If we are believers then suffering tries our faith in a loving and faithful God:
These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold”1 Peter 1:7, NLT
To paraphrase Oswald Chambers: ‘Faith being worked out into reality must experience times of unbroken isolation – God’s character must be proven as trustworthy in our own minds as we come against everything that contradicts Him’. In other words, feelings of isolation from God as a result of our suffering are necessary if we are to prove for ourselves that God is ultimately totally trustworthy.
We should also add that suffering glorifies God when He heals us and releases us from suffering. The Bible says that Christ ‘takes our infirmities’ (Mat 8.17). Many testify to this and see their victory over suffering e.g. cancer as a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God (Heb 11.30-34).
But not all are healed and we see that the kingdom of God is often ‘not yet’ (Heb 11.35-38). Today, there are many Christians suffering persecution and even martyrdom. So, in standing upon the command of Jesus to “heal the sick”, we must also exhibit grace and humility and rely entirely upon the move and power of the Holy Spirit.
So how do we respond when God seems to allow us to go through suffering? The biblical figure of Job had precisely this experience with loss of family and health. Moreover, in Job’s case it was Satan’s will and not God’s decree that caused his suffering (Job 1.12). In response to all his problems Job maintained that he had lived a good life, full of integrity and good deeds (Job 29 and 31). He even openly acknowledged his faults (Job 31.33,34).
Not surprisingly, Job was angry and perplexed at all the disasters in his life. Why had God done this? In answer to his dilemma, God shows Job His supreme sovereignty and that His ways are ultimately best (Job 38-41). Like Job we ultimately have to humble ourselves before God and remember our position before the eternal, holy, incomprehensible God. Like Job, we might ultimately see strands of truth, wisdom and purpose in suffering. The New Testament puts it like this:
We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purposeRomans 8:28
Why Christ’s Suffering?
Surely the greatest purpose of suffering is seen in the suffering of Christ. Whilst on the cross Jesus cried “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” or “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34, Psalm 22:1). For this brief time of pain on the cross Jesus, the Son of God, was separated from His Father as He bore the sins of humanity. The Bible says sin separates man from God, but through the shedding of Christ’s blood man can now come into the holy presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-20).
So there was a plan and deep purpose in His suffering. After His resurrection Jesus once more explained the purpose of His suffering to His disciples:
All the things that are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled … it is written, that the Christ (the Messiah) would suffer and rise from the dead … and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from JerusalemLuke 24:44-47
On Christ’s suffering Augustine concluded:
For what else could have been so necessary to build up our hope and to free the minds of mortals despairing because of their mortality than that God should show us how highly He valued us and how greatly He loved us? And what could be a clearer and more evident proof of God’s great love than the Son of God – so undeserving of evil, should bear our evils.On the Trinity, 8:10, link
Put simply, God’s supreme plan was to show His love for man by suffering for him:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son …John 3:16
and God’s supreme purpose of Christ’s suffering was to redeem man from his morally fallen state:
… (so) that whoever believes in Him (the Son) should not perish but have everlasting lifeJohn 3:16
Given these very fundamental reasons for Christ’s suffering it is perhaps understandable, why, in the near future, all mankind – all nations – will come to worship Him as He rules over the nations from Jerusalem:
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’s and He rules over the nationsPsalm 22:27-28
On a pragmatic level, Atheism, Humanism, Pantheism and Christianity all agree on the problem of suffering. They maintain that evil and the consequent suffering stems from man’s wrong actions. They also agree that suffering often seems to occur randomly, seemingly ‘by chance’.
But only Christianity offers any deep explanation of the cause (origin) of suffering. And only Christianity attaches any meaning or purpose to suffering; namely, that it draws us closer to others and, ultimately, to God. Moreover, Christianity maintains that the one true living personal God of the Bible identifies with our suffering because He has been there in Christ – so He knows and cares!
A Parable of Suffering: a Drive down the Road of Life
How do the various worldviews react to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami? This was caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and killed more than 250,000 people.
Imagine humanity racing down the motorway of life and arriving at various road signs. Some take the sign to ‘Postmodernism City’, the home of atheists and humanists. Like the rest of humanity, these citizens have great compassion for those caught up in the tsunami, but, since God is officially non-existent, they can’t blame Him for the disaster. Instead, they have to find some other explanation – just ‘chance’ or a natural blip in the evolutionary process perhaps? And since they maintain we are annihilated at death, those who died in the tsunami have simply ceased to exist.
The rest of humanity doesn’t like these ‘cold’ concepts and races on down the motorway. Some take the next turning – to ‘New Age City’ (twinned with ‘Pantheism City’). These citizens seriously seek God through meditation, and the idea of endless cycles of birth, death and reincarnation in order to work off their bad karma. Unfortunately, since God is impersonal and seen in various forms (humans, animals, and nature), they find it difficult to put the blame for the tsunami in any one direction. Nevertheless, they hold out some hope for the victims since they believe their souls will live on in the next cycle of life.
Most people turn off the motorway to the ‘Voidism City’. These citizens have never really given much thought to God, Jesus Christ, why we are here, ethics, truth, the soul, immortality, death, and so on. They live in a spiritual void of work, shopping, TV and holidays, but nevertheless are moved with compassion for the tsunami victims. They even start thinking about their own eternal destiny, although most reject the notion of a loving God since He would have prevented the tsunami. Others are inconsistent in that they blame God for the tsunami, but forget to thank Him for the blessings of a golden sunset, snow covered peaks, the song of birds, the colour of flowers, or a holiday!
Only a few are now left on the motorway of life and these turn off onto a narrow road sign-posted ‘Heavenly City’. They have read in the Bible that ‘broad is the road that leads to destruction, and narrow is the road that leads to life’ (Mat 7.13,14). These citizens can’t explain why the 2004 tsunami happened, although they read in the prophecies that, at the end of this age, ‘the sea and the waves will roar’ and ‘the nations will be in distress ’(Luke 21.25). In faith they accept that the groanings and convulsions of our earth are the result of man’s rebellion against God (Romans 8.22), but they also believe in a personal God who has identified with suffering by dying for their sins on a cross. And so, should they die tomorrow (as in a tsunami), they are safe with God in that Heavenly City:
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down (i.e. our body is destroyed), we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens2 Corinthians 5:1