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The Problem of Suffering Reconsidered

Suffering is not like technology or fashions in clothing or architecture. Suffering is like childbirth or sunlight. It is one of the unchanging features of the human condition.

It’s easy to rediscover God in a moment of crisis and lose him again as life regains normalcy. But any piety that depends on circumstances is a house built on sand. Circumstances change, and at death all will change at once by disappearing, leaving each of us with the only two realities we can never escape, to all eternity: ourselves and God. These are the two essential foci of our lives; everything else is circumstance circling around them, like planets orbiting a double star or like the albumen surrounding a double yolk.

Though truth is our mind’s natural food, sin has made it “natural” (or rather, normal) for us to be so unnatural as to lose our appetite for it. And so we forget or ignore God until a large and sudden crisis looms and then forget him again when it passes.

This habit is the opposite of the good habit, or virtue, of piety. Piety moves us to give—first of all to God, then to our parents, ancestors, country, and all in authority over us—the reverence and respect that is due to them. It is a part of justice, and like every virtue, it is an application to a specific area of virtue’s most general rule, the rule of the three R’s: right response to reality.

Our habitual forgetfulness of piety is probably one of the reasons we suffer. It prevents a God who is not only infinitely more good but also infinitely more loving, and not only infinitely more loving but also infinitely more kind and compassionate than we can conceive, from letting us have the settled contentment we crave. We need crises, for we have spiritual sleeping sickness and need frequent alarms. God, therefore, stoops to conquer—stoops to use crude measures like national crises to remind us of our permanent needs and our constant situation.

In fact, suffering and even crisis is our normal situation. The bubble of pain-free and ordered living that we modern Americans think of as our normal state is highly abnormal judged by historical standards. In most cultures throughout human history, people could expect to experience monthly about the same amount of physical pain most of us encounter in a lifetime. Remember, for instance, that anesthetics and pills were invented only about a century ago.

This is probably one of the reasons why people in scientifically advanced cultures tend to be more secular and people in scientifically primitive cultures tend to be more religious: not because religion is based on scientific ignorance or because any scientific discovery has ever disproved a single doctrine of the Christian faith; but because science’s child, technology, has conquered or mitigated so many of life’s pains and limitations that it has put us into this soundproofed bubble that God has to burst just to get our attention. As C.S. Lewis put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain).

Of course, God no more enjoys using this megaphone than a good human parent does. The fact that he does use it means one of two things: either we need all the pain we get, and it is for our own good and allowed only out of perfect (and perfectly wise) divine love; or else we do not need it and yet Omnipotence allows it—in which case Omnipotence is not Love.

To quote Lewis again, “Is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t” (A Grief Observed).

We might want to add two minor amendments to this argument. First, we might change Lewis’s necessary to good. The tortures of the saintly martyrs were not all strictly necessary for their salvation, but they must have been good for them in the long run, hollowing out hidden places in their souls that in heaven could “contain” more of the light and joy of the beatific vision.

Second, we might interpret Lewis’s use of the word we collectively rather than individually. Not all of my sufferings may be for my good; some may be for others’ good. And when I love those others as myself or more than myself (which I shall surely do in heaven, at least), then I shall rejoice as much or more in this vicarious use of my sufferings as I shall rejoice in whatever personal profits they yield to me. Vicarious atonement, the innocent suffering for the guilty, “my life for yours”: This great mystery lies at the very heart, at the very crux, of Christianity—and of reality, if Christianity is true.

It is a mystery, of course, not a proof. Apologetics can show that it is possible and show us clues in nature and in history that invite us to enter the mystery by a leap of faith. But it is a leap in the light, not a leap in the dark.

The clues abound. All of nature operates by the principle of “my life for yours”—you never ate a hamburger or conceived a baby without it. And all of history and fiction is full of heroic Christ-figures who pluck a string deep in our heart when we hear of them. Who but a fool would call Sidney Carton a fool at the end of A Tale of Two Cities? “It is a far, far better thing I do than ever I have done; it is a far, far better place I go than I have ever been.”

What Can We Know of God’s Character?

The problem of suffering raises two major problems for apologetics: the existence of God and the nature, or character, of God. In Scripture, the first problem never arises. Only “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). It is the second problem the Bible claims to shed light on—light not obvious, perhaps not even available, to human reason. It is obvious from nature that God is real and intelligent and powerful; it is not obvious to everyone that he is good.

Human history manifests three basic concepts of God’s nature, and the problem of evil—which includes the problem of suffering—is a touchstone that sharply distinguishes them.

On the one hand, there is paganism, with its many gods and goddesses, none of which is all-wise and all-powerful. None of these gods controls all of nature or all of human life because none of them created it. The idea of the creation of the entire universe out of nothing by a single omnipotent God is an idea that has never occurred to any known religion throughout history except that of the Jews (who claim it was revealed by God) and those who learned from the Jews, mainly Christians and Muslims.

Paganism (as I am using the term)—the notion that God is not (or the gods are not) omnipotent—is far from dead. One form of it is “process theology,” which claims that God is in process, in change, is still growing, still evolving, and is not yet powerful enough to conquer all evil.

Another form of paganism is pop psychology (which, judging by the shelves of bookstores, is America’s favorite religion). Paul Vitz says that modern America is the most polytheistic culture in history: It worships not thousands of gods but 260 million.

A religion with a God or gods who are not able to conquer evil can still have some God or gods who want to, who is or are all-good. This allows us to love God, rather like a big brother, but not wholly to trust him to conquer evil. (Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People is an example of this solution to the problem of suffering.)

A second religious option, more Eastern than Western in origin, is pantheism. The god of pantheism, unlike the god or gods of paganism, does not confront any forces outside himself (or itself) simply because there is nothing outside god. Pan-theism means that everything is god and god is everything. God never created a universe. Pantheism is not only false, it is 15 billion years behind the times: it has not heard the good news of the Big Bang.

Pantheism solves the problem of evil simply and radically: it declares that God is equally present in both good and evil. He has a dark side, like the Force in Star Wars. Vishnu the Creator and Shiva the Destroyer are equal manifestations of Brahman, “the One without a second” in Hinduism. Transposed into biblical terms, this means that Satan is not God’s enemy but part of God himself.

The other form of pantheism says that God is equally absent from both good and evil—that the distinction between good and evil is created by unenlightened human consciousness. In both forms, god is not the God of the Bible, where “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The god of pantheism, like the gods of paganism, is very American. He is nonjudgmental. He does not discriminate between good and evil.

This notion of God allows us to love God only if we are either pop psychologists who have sunk below moral discrimination or mystics who (claim to) have risen above it.

The third notion of God is that of Judeo-Christian-Muslim theism: God is both all-powerful, unlike the gods of paganism, and all-good, unlike the God of pantheism. This notion of God raises the problem of why the righteous suffer to new heights of difficulty. It seems that God either must lack the will to right all wrongs or the power to do so. For if he wants to conquer and eliminate all evil, and if he can do whatever he wants, it seems to follow that there should be no evil.

The evil of sin can be explained by human free will. But what of the evil of suffering, especially unjust, undeserved suffering? If there is God, why is there Job?

There are only two possibilities: either God is wrong or we are. Either these sufferings are not good or they are. Either we do not need them and yet God allows them, in which case he is either wicked or weak or stupid; or we do need them, in which case “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, KJV). All things, even the most horrendous and inexplicable tragedies.

We live by faith, not by sight. If we live by sight, we will probably conclude when tragedy strikes, “So that’s what God is like. Deceive yourself no longer.” If we live by faith, by trust, by “the fear of the Lord [that] is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), we will conclude that God is the one who knows what is good for us and that we are the ones who don’t, rather than vice versa. (Is that an unreasonable conclusion?)

In Arabic, the word for this attitude of trusting submission of our will to God’s, the word for this thing that is the beginning of wisdom and the essence of piety and the heart of all true religion, is islam. 

The history of religions if full of ironies. In the name of the religion that is named after this solution to the problem of unjust suffering, some who call themselves Muslims created a vast new explosion of the problem of unjust suffering. Islam also means “the peace that results from submission.” (It is etymologically akin to the Hebrew shalom. ) It is the peace that comes only from submission to God’s will. This is the “peace the world cannot give.”

T.S. Eliot says that Dante’s line “in his will, our peace” is the single most profound line in all literature. What is ironic now is that in the name of the religion whose very name connotes peace, young Palestinians commit suicide to murder Jews in order to derail the peace process.

God and Evil: Either/Or?

The other apologetic question raise by suffering, the existence of God, is more familiar, and deservedly so because if there is no God then both apologetics and theology are not just changed but eliminated.

Suffering, and evil in general, is the only argument atheists ever point to that seems to refute the existence of God. Other arguments seek to put God in question (e.g., the very concept of God is not meaningful); or claim that God is an unnecessary hypothesis, like the Abominable Snowman; or point out the foibles of theists (e.g., people who believe in God supposedly commit more murders, proportionately, than atheists); or point out the practical disadvantages of theism (e.g., interference with one’s sex life); or show that belief can be explained without God (e.g., Freudian psychology). But there is no other logically persuasive argument that concludes God does not exist from any other premise than the existence of evil.

When Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa, he found at least three serious objections to every one of the thousands of theses he argued for except the most important, foundational one of all—that God exists. Though he could find dozens of arguments for God’s existence (from which he selected five), he found only two against. One was the problem of evil. The other was the apparent adequacy of the natural and human science to account for all that we experience without God—which does not conclude “therefore there is no God” but only “therefore it is not necessary to suppose that there is a God.”

Aquinas’s formulation of the problem is: “If one of two contraries be infinite, the other is totally destroyed. But ‘God’ means infinite goodness. Therefore if God exists, no evil should be discoverable in the world. But there is evil. Therefore God does not exist.”

The question is answerable: “As Augustine says, God would not allow any evil to exist unless out of it he could draw a greater good. This is part of the wisdom and goodness of God.”

Not only is the argument against God that appeals to the data of evil answerable, but this very same data (evil) that seems to count against God can be used as the premise of an argument for God in at least two ways.

One way is by reflecting on not evil itself but our knowledge of evil. How is it that we can judge a thing to be evil? Unless such judgments are all meaningless or false—unless the terrorist massacre of over three thousand innocent civilians isn’t really evil, and we are merely “judgmental” when we claim that it is—we must have some true knowledge of what is really evil. But this means that we must also have some true knowledge of what is really good. Without knowledge of the standard we cannot judge by that standard.

But the relative goods we know are measured by the standard of the absolute good. Just as eleven is two integers closer to infinity than nine, a saint is closer to ontological perfection than a worm. But nothing in the created world is absolute goodness. Therefore, unless we discount, subjectivize, or relativize all our judgments of good and evil—which is exactly the move the secularist makes to avoid this checkmate—there must be a God.

Another way of using evil to prove God is by noting that we protest evil. We hate evil, even when our pseudo-Christian ideologies tell us to hate nothing. Innately and inescapably, we desire good—all good—and fear evil—all evil. To fear evil is to desire good. But every innate, natural desire corresponds to a real object. We may desire unreal objects, like seeing the Land of Oz or being Superman or witnessing the Red Sox win game seven of a World Series, but we do not desire them innately and thus universally.

We do desire food, drink, sleep, sex, knowledge, beauty, and companionship innately and universally, and all these things exist. We also desire goodness—all kinds of goodness—innately and universally. But we desire goodness without limit. We are not wholly satisfied with finite goodness. We have a lover’s quarrel with the world, no matter how good or beautiful we find the world. In fact, this dissatisfaction with the world arises in us most poignantly when we experience the most, not the least, goodness in this world.

From these two premises that come from our own experience—that every innate desire corresponds to a real object and that we have an innate desire for unlimited good—we logically conclude that infinite goodness exists. But infinite goodness is another term for God. Only God is infinitely good. Therefore God exists.

There is one more argument from evil to God. It is quite eccentric, but it may be a valid argument. (I am not sure.) Let us assume there is no God. If there is no God, there is no Creator. If there is no Creator, there is no act of creation. If there is no act of creation, then the universe, or the sum total of all matter and energy, was not created. If the universe was not created, it was always here. There was no first moment. However many cycles of change, or catastrophic changes, or relatively big bangs there may have been, there was never any Big Bang, no absolutely first event. So there has already been infinite time. If we could take a time machine and journey into the past—which we probably cannot, even in principle, ever do physically, but which we can certainly do mentally—we would never come to an end (i.e., an absolute beginning).

So far, the argument seems logical. But we now add a premise that, while it may be unnecessary, is nevertheless a premise most atheists admit: namely, cosmic evolution. By this I mean not just the evolution of species of plants and animals on this planet by “natural selection” but evolution in the broader sense of progress in order throughout the cosmos.

From relatively undifferentiated matter (“star stuff”) emerge galaxies, solar systems, and life-supporting planets, and on these planets emerge increasingly complex and increasingly conscious forms of life until self-conscious, rational entities appear. Then, within the history of these entities, which we know firsthand on this planet as ourselves, there is further progress from barbarism, ignorance, and animal-like violence to enlightenment and peace.

Most atheists accept both these premises. But if both are true, why have we not yet reached perfection? The history of time is a history of progress, and there has been an infinite amount of time already; so why has progress reached only a finite level? Another way of posing this is: Why is there still evil? According to the atheistic premises, there should be no more evil already. But there is. Therefore one or both of these premises must be false.

Of course the atheist, faced with this argument, will probably modify his second premise, the one about progress, in order to save the first premise, the one about infinite time and no act of creation. So it is not an argument that refutes atheism as such, only “progressive atheism”—that is, atheism plus the idea of progress.

Another move made by the apologist—or rather by God himself in revealing this move, which found its way into the scriptures of all three Abrahamic religions—is to trace suffering back to sin. The story in Genesis 3, however literally or nonliterally it is interpreted, necessarily involves the distinction between these two kinds of evil, physical (suffering) and moral (sin) and connects them causally: We suffer because we sinned.

This we is not individual but collective. It is the human race, it is human nature itself, that must suffer and die, as a necessary, just punishment and inevitable consequence of sin.

The connection between sin and suffering is like the connection between jumping off a cliff and breaking your bones, or like the connection between overeating and obesity. It is not like the connection between not studying and getting an F or like the connection between stealing cookies and getting a spanking. It is a natural, intrinsic, necessary, and inevitable connection, not one set up by an outside authority and therefore revocable.

The reason for the connection between moral evil (sin) and physical evil (suffering) is the connection between the soul (psyche) and the body (soma), the psychosomatic unity. Once the soul declares its independence from God, the body declares its independence.

The soul’s authority over the body is a dependent authority. Its Creator and Designer delegates it. It is like the authority of a knight over his squire: If the knight rebels against the king, his squire is no longer bound to serve the knight.

(Thus the centurion who asks Jesus by the mere word of his command to heal his servant understands the chain of authority and who holds it when he says, “For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one ‘Go,’ and he goes” [Luke 7:8]. His soldiers know that the centurion is transmitting the authority of Caesar, lord of the world. The centurion has authority over his soldiers because he stands under, and submits to, the authority of Caesar. Similarly, Christ has authority over life and death because he transmits, stands under, and submits to the authority of his Father ]John 5:30]. Authority is always exercised through submission, for it is delegated, it is hierarchical.)

The unsolvable mystery of suffering is not why we must suffer, but why must. The distribution of suffering is the mystery, not the existence of it. There is a general causal connection between sin and suffering, but not a particular one. This was not yet wholly clear in Jesus’ time, for his disciples asked him this question about the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). They were surprised when Jesus answered, “Neither.”

Job’s three friends were also convinced that each individual received the sufferings his sins deserved; that is why they were convinced that Job, the greatest of sufferers, was the greatest of sinners. They were astounded when God said he was angry at them for not speaking rightly of him (Job 42:7).

But if God is all-just and all-powerful and all-knowing, it seems he must give each individual what he deserves.

But no. The best man who ever lived was the “Man of Sorrows.” Many Jews simply could not believe Jesus was the Messiah because he was covered with suffering and disgrace. This is a key to Job: As a Christ-figure he suffers not for his own sins but for the sins of others. Job atones for his three “friends” by sacrifice (Job 42:8), as does Christ for us.

In fact, the “righteousness of God,” or “justice of God” that Paul announces as the main theme of Romans (Rom. 1:17), the world’s first systematic Christian theology, is the atonement via the crucifixion. The only man who deserved no pain suffered the most—and this Paul calls God’s “justice.” Sin and suffering are connected, but not individually. Both original sin and vicarious atonement are mysteries of solidarity. For both are mysteries of heredity—the first physical, the second spiritual heredity (via the “new birth”).

Our being as humans is not only social but also familial. We are by essence not only environmental but also hereditary creatures. And heredity cannot be confined to biology and the body; it is spiritual as well, because we are not ghosts in machines or angels in disguise but rational animals with psychosomatic unity. Everything in the fathers is visited upon the children: physical and spiritual, cranial capacity and original sin, or original selfishness, which is observable in any infant.

Our incorporation into Christ is as psychosomatic as our incorporation into Adam. It is not faith alone, but faith and baptism, that makes us his, according to his own words: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). His blood shed for our sins came from Mary, the second Eve. Redemption, like sin, is psychosomatic, spiritual and physical at once. Unless Christ rose physically, he cannot save us spiritually (1 Cor. 15:17).

Such mysteries of solidarity as original sin and baptism are not the neat little nuggets of popular wisdom we expect. Like the history of science, the history of theology is littered with human expectations that reality has rejected and built largely of surprises that reality has revealed and our minds have boggled at.

Christian Wisdom about Suffering

Let us attempt to summarize, in a few propositions, the surprising Christian wisdom about suffering that we find in divine revelation and will not find in the New York Times, in self-help books, on Oprah, or in a consensus of “leading experts.”

1. Suffering is not a biological necessity. We were not created in a state of suffering. We suffer because we sinned, and we die because we sinned. God did not design us for death but for life, and he did not design us for suffering but for joy: the joy of sanctity, the bliss of self-forgetful love.

2. God has intervened miraculously in our history, and even in our very human nature, our essence. In Christ God added human life to himself so that in Christ man might add divine life to himself. This transforms our sufferings, and especially our death, which is the consummation of all our sufferings and losses. It transforms them into a means of salvation and sanctification and glorification. We may now say of suffering what the old hymn “Open Our Eyes” says of death: “Thou hast made death glorious and triumphant, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the living God.”

3. Because Christ entered into our sufferings, suffering is now a way of entering more deeply into Christ. We are never closer to Christ than when we share his cross.

4. This intimacy through suffering, when freely chosen, can bring about something exceedingly strange and wonderful: a deep, strong, and unmistakably authentic joy. To experience even little sprinkles of the joy of the saints is to praise the depth of the divine mercy in allowing us to share this unique and incomparable intimacy with Christ.

The difference between the Creator and the creature is incomparably greater than the difference between suffering and joy. That is why his sufferings are incomparably better than all the world’s joys—not because they are sufferings but because they are his. It is an utterly profitable bargain to accept his cross, because he is on it.

5. Suffering has become redemptive not only for the one who suffers but also for the ones for whom he suffers. Vicarious atonement is a mystery, but not an exception: We can share in it. If we are “in Christ” (that primary mystery of solidarity, of incorporation), we, like him, can offer up our sufferings to the Father—and he uses them. They become seeds, or rainwater, and something beautiful springs up that we seldom see in this life.

If you offer up your sufferings today, in faith, to the Master of the universe, then someone else, perhaps a hundred years and a thousand miles away, will have the strength to live and love and hope—and if not, not. There is no power in the universe greater than suffering love. Love without suffering is like water; suffering without love is like potassium; put them together and you get an explosion. That explosion shattered the chains of hell and opened the gates of heaven two thousand years ago. And it continues.

How does it work? In his movie Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen plays an atheist son of a Jewish family who in an argument asks, “If there is a God, why are there Nazis?” His father replies, “How should I know? I don’t even know how the can opener works.” The wisdom of Job: we don’t know. To quote C. S. Lewis again, ” When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer’…Like ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand’” (A Grief Observed).

We don’t have to understand; we have to trust and obey. To use Lewis again, “Now that I come to think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them. . . . What’s left is not a problem about anything I could do. It’s all about weights of feelings and motives and that sort of thing. It’s a problem I’m setting myself. I don’t believe God set it to me at all” (ibid.).

God is less concerned with almost everything else than we are. Our feelings are our tyrants. All the saints tell us our feelings are less important than we think, and warn us not to rest our faith, our hope, our love, or our deeds on them. Surely God is far more compassionate than we are; but he has compassion on us, not on our feelings; on our sufferings, not on our feelings about them.

Our sufferings are, or can be, holy. Our feelings are not. Our choices to love and our deeds of love are holy. Our feelings of love are not. Feelings are indifferent to holiness (which is our end, our destiny, our fulfillment). But suffering is not indifferent to holiness. Suffering is essential to holiness.

In the two thousand years since he entered “the wild weather of his outlying provinces” (as George Macdonald put it) to show us the meaning of suffering, to enact the meaning suffering and of love, nothing essential has changed. Nothing has been added or subtracted from our essential human condition: not the Fall of Rome, not technology, not anesthetics—and not the fall of two tall buildings on 9-11-01.

But one essential change has happened. Christ’s coming and dying and rising has changed everything—or rather the meaning of everything. Especially the meaning of suffering.

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