My Answer to the Problem of Suffering

One of the chief objections to Christianity and religion in general is the presence of suffering and evil in the world. It’s been a question since the beginning of time of course, how can a generally benevolent God or universe allow suffering and evil to exist in the world? I’ve thought about this a lot myself, and I think I have somewhat of a different answer to the question than other answers that I’ve read.

Starting with evil, the first thing we have to accept is that evil doesn’t exist in the form that it’s often talked about. This may seem like a bit of a cop-out, but think about it for a moment and you’ll realize what I mean. Evil isn’t this guy running around out there, nor is it this force that’s acting on us like gravity. We recognize evil in actions and results. Imagine just for a moment if we could somehow gather all the “evil” in the world and put it into one place, say an island somewhere. No one would complain about there being evil in the world as an objection to God then would they? No one would care about evil if it wasn’t always hurting us and causing problems for us. Evil isn’t something that exists out there as a force or an object, it’s a word we use to describe events or objects. The holocaust was evil. Hitler was evil. Slavery is evil. These are things that are described as evil, but evil does not exist by itself.

So evil itself doesn’t exist, evil is only a name we use to describe things that have an adverse effect on us, and that cause suffering. Here I will broaden the question to not only answering the question of evil, but also to the existence of suffering, because most people seem to agree that things like hurricanes and earthquakes, as terrible as they may be, are not “evil,” only natural catastrophes. They may cause as much destruction and sorrow as “evil” does, but evil is a name generally reserved for actions that humans do to one another. So the question now becomes how can a benevolent, all-loving God allow us to suffer? This certainly is a difficult question, and one that the Atheist answer to does display an initial good feeling for. Why do bad things happen to good people? Because life sucks and that’s the way it is. For the non-believer, the problem of evil becomes more of a simple inconvenience. It’s just one of those things that happens that we can’t control, and we just have to accept it.

However, I personally think this answer is disregarding something important, and it’s something that always surprises me. I’m always surprised that more philosophers, be they Atheists or Theists, non-Theists or Deists, never recognize this. We don’t have to be afraid of death. Why should we be? First of all, we’re all going to die, so being afraid of death is, at its heart, entirely pointless to begin with. Second of all, what is the real reason we’re afraid of death? Death can’t be painful, it’s merely the process of all the body’s systems shutting down. As a counterpoint to this, someone might ask “how do we know death isn’t painful?” This captures the true spirit of what I observe about all people when the question of death comes up: we don’t know what it’s like to die or what happens after we die, and that’s why we’re afraid. We aren’t really afraid of death, we’re afraid because we’re going to die and we don’t know what happens afterwards. This really interests me, especially in the light of Christ’s revelation to the world, and in the light of philisophical musings on the subject.

Why should anyone be afraid of death? If you’re a Christian and truly believe in Christ, then you believe you can be saved. If you’re a Hindu and lived a virtuous life, you believe your next life will be better. If you’re a Muslim and you lived a virtuous life, you will be rewarded by going to heaven. Even if you’re an Atheist why should you be afraid? All death holds is the bliss of unconsciousness, the benign indifference of non-existence. How would you suffer if you died and no religion was true? It’s not as if you would be sitting around thinking “darn, I really wish I existed right now.” You wouldn’t be there to think about not existing in the first place! To me, being afraid of death is similar to being afraid of the dark. The reason we’re afraid is because we don’t know what’s there. However, when it comes to death, we’re all going to end up dying anyways, so it would do us all well to accept this and not worry about it. We can recognize our fear of death as only a fear of the unknown, and recognize it as fundamentally irrational. How many times when we were little were we afraid of monsters in a dark room? And how many times did we force ourselves to cross that dark room, realizing that the monsters weren’t really there? We may believe that if we’re good, there’s something good after death, or that there’s nothing at all after death. However, it’s downright irrational to be afraid of death, because if we forget about whether or not what we believe is true for a moment, and only worry about the question of death, we’re going to be just fine after we die.

Now I know that when my day comes, I’ll probably be shaking in my boots. I’m not claiming that my reasoning has conquered my natural will to survive. However, I do think that this makes the argument from suffering considerably weaker. Perhaps the reason that we suffer is that suffering really isn’t such a big deal when it comes down to it. Existentialist philosophers like Camus and Sartre (who were both Atheists incidentally) always talked about the “benign indifference of the universe.” They had accepted that we suffer now, we always have, and always will, and that the universe doesn’t care. The implication here, even in Atheistic existentialist philosophy, is that suffering isn’t such a big deal when it comes down to it. Isn’t that what religions say too though? That what we should be focusing on isn’t this world, but the world to come? Either way, you end up realizing that suffering isn’t really as important as we say it is.

So now we get down to the meat of the question, of how a benevolent, loving God could allow His children to suffer. Let’s take the earthquake in China as an example. The Chinese authorities expect there will be a death toll of over 50,000 Chinese. Many Chinese school buildings collapsed, killing thousands and thousands of innocent children. This makes any person, believer or non believer, question why we suffer and how any God could allow such suffering. However, there are several things we need to remember here.

1.) God didn’t cause this magnitude of suffering, we did. The reason the schools collapsed is because they were poorly built (need proof? In many cases, a government building a few blocks over would remain standing, while the schools would collapse. This implies that the schools were poorly designed.) Had the schools been well built in the first place, thousands and thousands of lives would have been saved. This is often the case with natural disasters. Had the New Orleans levvy systems been maintained, there would have been much less suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. If people took their enviornment into account, often a lot of suffering would be avoided, so it isn’t really fair for us to pin all the blame on God because we ignored obvious warnings.
2.) We clearly don’t need to be afraid of death as I indicated above, so what we’re upset about with the deaths (especially of children) is the seeming unfairness of the whole ordeal. Thousands of innocent children died, and never got to experience all the joys (and sorrows) of life, and thousands and thousands of families were torn apart by this terrible catastrophe.

When we’re upset about death, it isn’t the actual death that we’re worried about. It’s the lack of life that upsets us. It’s the suffering of the families, and the idea of the last thing going through those poor children’s minds was terror and fear, rather than the sense of peace that we all hope for in our final moments.

What’s my answer to these objections? First of all, in some sense, we can be sure those children are in a better state now. Obviously if they’re in heaven or nirvana they’re in a better state. If nothing happens after death, then they are no longer aware of suffering or misery or sorrow. They are not missing us or missing life, because they are not even aware that they are gone. They have entered the eternity of not suffering, which is better than all the woes that afflict us here in life. What we’re doing, when we talk about the terror of death, is putting our own feelings on the deceased. We’re putting our own sorrow and feelings of emptiness on those that have passed on, and claiming that this isn’t fair. What we have to realize first is that these people, no matter what, cannot possibly be suffering, and that we are the ones who are suffering, not them. Why is it sad that all those chinese children died? Because their families will miss them so much, and because they never got the chance to grow up. They never got the chance to become adults, and to make meaning for themselves. This is very sad, but what we must realize is that they are not unhappy about it, we are. In all honesty, those children are just fine now, they’re perfectly fine. We are the ones left feeling empty and sad, not them.

So why do we suffer then? To depart for a moment from these deppressing thoughts, think of running. Running hurts doesn’t it? If you want to become a better runner, you will have to run every day. You will have to run far some days, and other days you will have to run difficult speed workouts on a track. Every time you do this, it will hurt you, and you will want to stop. However, if you really want to improve, you will push yourself and continue running, even when it hurts. You may be racked with pain and soreness. Your workouts may drive you to throw up. However, if you continue to work out, race day will come, and then you will have the ability to excel, and win your race. Only through that suffering, through that working hard and enduring, even when you didn’t want to, could you grow to be a better runner. There is no other way. To me, I believe our lives work much the same way. Every negative experience that has ever happened to me, from my first heartbreak to the death of relatives, has made me a stronger and better person in the end. Only through suffering can we grow and become stronger, better people. I think what’s important is that we are receptive to this process. We have to forgive ourselves and let go of the pain, let go of the heartache and be willing to grow. We have to trust that everything will be ok, that we can overcome our obstacles and make the best of ourselves. If we refuse to forgive, if we just remain embittered and unhappy about our experiences, it will only hurt us and impede our growth in the end.

This may not be the most satisfying answer to the question, and I understand. It’s often difficult, when we are confronted with tremendous pain or heartache, or see such a huge amount of evil things going on in the world, to accept it all as part of growing. We may be tempted to think that suffering from losing a person we love is different from the suffering that comes after a hard running workout, that the two cannot be compared. However, to me, I think that maybe what we see from this philosophy is that perhaps the suffering we endure really isn’t such a big deal. Maybe in the big scheme of things, it really is just the growing pains of living and of growing, just like soreness tells us that a hard run is making us stronger. It may not be solace in the immediate experience of suffering, but perhaps what we can know intellectually is that suffering is the only way for us to grow and become better people. I believe it then becomes our choice whether or not we can grow from suffering. If we think of the runner example one last time, after a hard run when we’re really hurting, we could just decide not to run again and that would be that. Similarly, after we suffer so much, we could just decide that the whole deal wasn’t fair, and just remain embittered and decide not to grow. Or, we could decide to use the suffering, to learn from it and forgive ourselves and try to grow from it, and try to give our lives renewed meaning. The choice is ours. I believe that God gives us the opportunity to grow, and that we have to consciously take this opportunity. It may be difficult, but with life, nothing is ever easy. After all, if everything was easy, how would we ever grow? And if we never grew, we could never change. And if we never experience change, then what’s the point of living in the first place?

 

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Responses

  1. What is the point of living in the first place? You might ask that of the millions of small children who are born into abject poverty, live short lives of unutterable suffering and then die of starvation related causes every year.

    At least 16,000 a day die. What do you imagine is a good god’s purpose in allowing them to be born at all? Most of them will not go to heaven.

    It’s an interesting idea that non-existence is better than existence, but I’m not sure you’ll find a lot of agreement among living human beings. Most of us enjoy life enough that we want to continue doing it.

    Your conclusion that god somehow has a reason for allowing suffering is a classic Christian response to the problem of evil. I could never satisfactorily imagine that an omnipotent loving god had some purpose in mind that could BEST or ONLY be satisfied by allowing millions of children to die of starvation every year. Surely an omnipotent god could communicate a little more effectively with us dumb humans if there’s a message in there.

    • “Surely an omnipotent god could communicate a little more effectively with us dumb humans if there’s a message in there.”

      Cosmological equivalent of the Internet tough guy.

  2. “You might ask that of the millions of small children who are born into abject poverty, live short lives of unutterable suffering and then die of starvation related causes every year.”

    In fact we all might ask them, because it’s our nation’s greed, fueled by all of our personal greed and desire for war and goods that lead countries to break down to the point where those children die in abject poverty in the first place. The earth has enough food for us. There are resources available. We are the ones who refuse to help one another because of our own perverse greed.

    “At least 16,000 a day die. What do you imagine is a good god’s purpose in allowing them to be born at all? Most of them will not go to heaven”

    Why do you assume they won’t go to Heaven? I most certainly never said this. You act as if my conception of God and Christianity is some narrow straightjacket, but you’re the one setting up those parameters, not me. Personally I think God takes upbringing and personal suffering into account when it comes to salvation, so in terms of their ultimate-reality fate I think those children will be just fine.

    “It’s an interesting idea that non-existence is better than existence, but I’m not sure you’ll find a lot of agreement among living human beings. Most of us enjoy life enough that we want to continue doing it.”

    No kidding, my statement is just a general question we have. Given that we’re just going to die, what is the point of living in the first place? Especially with all the suffering mixed in. But you can’t deny that if you didn’t exist you couldn’t suffer and wouldn’t be conscious of not existing, which is preferable to existence, but it’s too late now.

    Your conclusion is actually what interests me here, you seem to borrow a page from the book of that whiney unemployed loser Christopher Hitchens. You assume that because the universe isn’t absolutely totally convenient for humans to inhabit, it means there is no God. You think that because bad things happen to us, there must be no God. Why do you make this assumption? Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps the Almighty has some grander plan which humans are a part of, but by no means the most important part of? Have you ever considered that though God loves us, that does not mean God is going to come running to our rescue every time we manage to blow something? No, you haven’t, you assume that because life can be unfair, it means there can’t be a good and loving God. Let the suffering go Anne, because none of it matters in the long run.

  3. In response to the article, I have but three points that I believe reiterate your arguments:

    (1) Evil is the absence of good (as per St. Augustine) or good that has been distorted.

    (2) Sin punishes the sinner too, of course (as per Hebrews 10:27 and St. Julian of Norwich).

    (3) God uses punishment to refine us into what we were intended to be (as per Psalm 66:10 and St. Irenaeus).

    I agree that the issue of “gratuitous evil” is probably the most thorny part of this.


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