When it comes to reconciling the existence of suffering with the belief that the world was purposefully created by some sort of intelligent Higher Power, the explanations we hear from theists generally fall into one of the following three categories:
– the Divine must not be All-Powerful (and thus might want to prevent suffering, but lacks the clout),
– the Divine must not be All-Good (and either doesn’t care about creature suffering, or perhaps inflicts it maliciously),
—and the most prevalent explanation (at least among the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam):
– the Divine—specifically, “God”—is indeed All-Powerful and All-Good, and everything really is for the best “in the big picture” (one that humans often fail to grasp).
Given that the last explanation is not only the most popular but also the most puzzling, I researched apologetic literature for the fine details on exactly how theists defend their belief that suffering fits in with “greater” Divine Plan. To date, every answer I’ve come across fits into at least one of the five following sub-categories:
(1) Suffering is punishment for wrong-doing (this encompasses the Western notion of punishment for personal sins and “original sin,” as well as the Eastern notion of karma—that punishment is for sins in this life or past lives)
(2) Suffering is sent for our benefit (even when it’s not punishment for wrong-doing)
(3) Suffering must exist for Greater Good of Free Will (depending on the theist, belief in a rival demonic god can fit into this explanation)
(4) The manner in which “everything is for the best” is simply beyond the comprehension of the finite mind of man
(5) Suffering is just an illusion
In contrast with the multiple explanations I found from theists, non-theists generally have only one answer: the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering.
Before I go into my examination of which of these explanations is the most likely to be true (or possible combination of explanations), I first need to explain my use of the word truth. For this task I will borrow the wording from Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, in which Hawking writes that before any theory can be considered “good”—that is, a candidate for “truth”—it must pass two tests:
(1) it must accurately describe a large class of observations, and
(2) it must make predictions that agree with future observations.
This leads to one last need to define my terms: what do I mean by “a large class of observations” as it relates to suffering? My proposal is that a viable explanation for suffering must be able to describe and predict suffering in the following three categories:
Suffering that people bring upon themselves
– the spendthrift who ends up bankrupt and homeless
– the thief who gets caught and suffers in prison
– the drunk driver who kills himself in a car crash
Suffering that people bring upon innocent people
– the kindergarten class mowed down by a gunman
– millenniums of slavery
– millions of civilians crippled and slaughtered by warfare
Suffering inherent in nature
– the suffering that comes with old age as the body breaks down
– nature’s prey/predator setup: that survival requires life to feed upon life
– disease: malaria, leprosy, birth defects, etc.
– natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.
So my outline for reviewing the eight explanations for suffering will be the following:
I. THE SUPERNATURAL EXPLANATIONS
I. A: In the “Big Picture,” everything is for the best because …
A.1 – suffering is punishment for wrong-doing
A.2 – suffering benefits us
A.3 – suffering must exist for the greater good of Free Will
A.4 – it’s beyond our understanding
A.5 – the perceived world is just an illusion, hence suffering, too, is just an illusion
I. B: The Divine is not All-Powerful
I. C: The Divine is not All-Good
II. THE NATURALISTIC EXPLANATION: the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering
—and the question I ask is “Which explanation (or combination of explanations) can most accurately describe and predict a wide set of observations?”
. . .
I. THE SUPERNATURAL EXPLANATIONS FOR SUFFERING
I.A. In the “Big Picture,” everything is for the best
I.A.1 – SUFFERING IS PUNISHMENT FOR WRONG-DOING
The most straightforward interpretation of this explanation is that only the guilty suffer. An example of this type of thought can be found in Leviticus 26:
If you obey all of my commandments, I will give you regular rain, and the land will yield bumper crops, and the trees will be loaded with fruit long after the normal time! … You will chase your enemies; they will die beneath your swords …
But if you will not listen to me or obey me, but reject my laws, this is what I will do to you: I will punish you with sudden terrors and panic, and with tuberculosis and burning fever; and your eyes shall be consumed and your life shall ebb away … Your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its crops, nor your trees their fruit. … you will flee before your attackers; those who hate you will rule you …
Leviticus 26:3–5, 7, 14–16, 20, 17, TLB
One of the weaknesses of this explanation, however, is its failure to make sense out of why so many wrongdoers escape punishment. This point is noted in the bible itself by the character named Job:
Ask anyone who has been around and he can tell you the truth, that the evil man is usually spared in the day of calamity, and allowed to escape.
Job 21:29–30, TLB
Another problem with this “pain is always deserved!” theory is that it requires believers to justify the suffering of animals and of people too young to have committed conscious wrongdoings. Challenges include trying to figure out what guilt of the gazelle could have sentenced it to the terror of being torn apart by a pack of hyenas, and just what crimes have been committed by the over million infants and toddlers every year that bring on their punishment of death-by-diarrhea dehydration.
The fact that the innocent are just as likely to suffer as the guilty is another point made in the Book of Job:
Innocent or evil, it is all the same to [God], for he destroys both kinds. He will laugh when calamity crushes the innocent …
Job 9:22–23, TLB
To address these weakness, Jewish and Christian theologians who embrace the pain-is-punishment theory supplement it by explaining that “original sin”—Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden—brought about God’s wrath not only upon themselves, but corrupted the whole planet, causing us to live in what may be called a “fallen world.” That is, the Garden of Eden had been a paradise: no natural disasters, no disease, no death, and all creatures were vegetarian. But once Adam and Eve took a bite of fruit from the forbidden tree, well, that’s the root cause of why mosquito saliva carries malaria, and why polar bears devour baby seals, and why the earth’s crust is made up of giant plates that move and sometime collide into one another.
Two questions I leave for theists to debate among themselves:
(1)Does the Bible even say this? Many defenders of this explanation will cite Genesis 3:17 as their source: that God “cursed the ground” in reaction to human’s disobedience. And because the ground is “cursed,” well, that explains natural disasters, disease, and why life’s creatures survive by feeding upon one another. Yet this interpretation is hardly supported by the text, for everything about this “cursed ground” in Genesis 3 is associated only with the difficulties of food gathering:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.
Genesis 3:17–19, NRSV
—or in other words, Genesis 3:17–19 serves the role of an explanatory myth, explaining why humans’ daily task of feeding themselves can be such a daily hardship. To extrapolate the likes of toddlers with tumors from these few words strikes me as a rationalization stretched beyond the breaking point of believability.
Besides, if the biblical answer to questions like “Why does God permit genocide?” and “Why are there earthquakes?” was as simple as “God cursed the ground: we live in a fallen world,” it seems that the character called God would be a bit clearer on this, and that this stance would be stated consistently throughout the Bible (for example, God certainly could have explained this to Job when He spoke from the whirlwind). But as we continue on, we’ll see that the Bible offers a variety of explanations for suffering (from “you deserve it” to “it’s for your own good” to “Don’t ask!”).
(2)For those theists who think Adam and Eve’s first offense against God’s “Don’t touch!” rule can indeed explain everything from tapeworms to tsunamis, this leads to the question of whether this explanation should fit under the category of “In the Big Picture, everything is for the best,” or the “God is not All-Good.”
The idea of the Law of Karma (originating in Hinduism, and incorporated by most of the subsequent Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) offers what I feel is something of an improvement on the pain-is-always-punishment explanation: rather than saying that God’s fury over the theft committed by the naïve newborns Adam and Eve led to a punishment felt by every living creature, even kittens (which seems a tad over-reactive), karma tells us that people are punished only for their own misbehavior—but the catch is that the misdeeds could have happened in this life or a past life.
If [suffering] is insurmountable, then reflect on the fact that this trouble is due to your own actions in this, or a previous, life. Understanding that suffering comes from karma will bring some peace as it reveals that life is not unjust. Otherwise sorrow and pain might seem to be meaningless.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life (pp. 131–132)
So when it comes to, say, infants born with birth defects so severe that they suffer painful deaths in early childhood (those born with holes in their stomachs or hearts, or with bulging skulls because of too much fluid in the brain, or the horribly deformed “Harlequin babies”), the Law of Karma tells us that these suffering babies are not victims of life’s arbitrary cruelty. Rather, these infants must have been sadistic prison guards or murderers (etc.) in past lives, and their pain-filled reincarnations are simply their deserved karmic punishment.
Now, explanations such as:
– “babies get cancer because we live in a fallen world” and
– “the so-called victims of Hiroshima and Auschwitz were just getting payback for sins committed in a prior life”
—are difficult to “prove wrong,” as they have the convenient aspect of citing root causes that are unobservable. But the unobservable aspects put these explanations in the same category as explanations like “evil and invisible space aliens are the root of all suffering” and “suffering exists because the Invisible Pink Unicorn wills it so!” We can’t prove that these are wrong either, but that’s hardly a reason to accept these types of zero-evidence-based explanations as correct (or even worth considering as “possibly correct”).
My feeling is that this “pain is punishment” hypothesis—whether explained by the claims of Karma, the story of Adam and Eve, or any other mythological tale of divine retribution—is the least satisfying out of all the religious explanations for suffering: it explains only a limited number of observations for those who bring pain upon themselves, and requires a tortuous stretch of the imagination when attempting to explain every other situation. But it’s only one of the seven supernatural explanations for suffering, so let’s move on.
I.A.2 – SUFFERING BENEFITS US
Certain biblical passages tell us that pain should not be considered punishment, but a gift from God sent to improve our character:
Young man, do not resent it when God chastens and corrects you, for his punishment is proof of his love. Just as a father punishes a son he delights in to make him better, so the Lord corrects you.
Proverbs 3:11–12, TLB
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
James 1:2-4, NRSV
In the Book of Job, one of Job’s “friends” (so to speak) also depicts suffering as divinely-prescribed therapy:
By means of … suffering, [God] rescues those who suffer. For he gets their attention through adversity.
Job 36:15, NLT
… it was to prevent you from getting into a life of evil that God sent this suffering.
Job 36:21, NLT
On the one hand, the suffering-benefits-us explanation is arguably better than the pain-is-always-punishment explanation, as it can make sense out of select instances of suffering in all three categories:
Suffering that people bring upon themselves
– The alcoholic whose loss of job and family leads to a life turnaround: a sober and healthy lifestyle, and regaining all that had been lost.
Suffering that people bring upon innocent people
– Victims who mature as a result of suffering, increasing their courage, compassion, empathy, and patience.
Suffering inherent in nature
– Pain is often a beneficial signal of danger: it motivates us to get off that hot stove, and to work hard to satisfy our pangs of hunger and thirst. And suffering today can make us stronger tomorrow: just as our muscles grow stronger when they repair themselves after the strains of a vigorous workout, our characters can grow stronger when tested through vigorous strains of adversity.
—or in other words, there’s some truth behind the cliché “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Yet even that cliché contains the caveat “whatever doesn’t kill you.” What is the benefit, however, when this alleged gift from God does kill you? Or as the Rabbi Kushner put it when trying to figure out why God lets small children fall out of open windows:
It can’t be to teach a child a lesson about exploring new areas. By the time the lesson is over, the child is dead.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People (p. 24)
The suffering-benefits-us explanation is all the more difficult to make sense of when applied to mass tragedies: the hundreds of thousands of innocent Rwandans hacked to death with machetes during their civil war, the millions who perished in Nazi concentration camps, the millions of children who continue to die every year from disease and famine, and so on. When I pursue this point with theists who offer the “suffering benefits us” explanation, I’ve found that most take one of two approaches:
– some admit that the “suffering benefits us” explanation can’t be applied across the board—that pain is sometimes best explained by other reasons (we live in a fallen world, it’s a side consequence of Free Will, it’s all beyond our comprehension, etc.);
– some will insist that even mass tragedies are hidden blessings from God, as the survivors learn vital lessons. As for the stricken, they’re no doubt enjoying a blissful eternity in heaven. (And although believers tend not to do so, if the wish-filled and evidence-starved premise of “heaven” is truly accepted 100%, one might even celebrate disasters that claim the lives of millions.)
I.A.3 – SUFFERING MUST EXIST FOR THE GREATER GOOD OF FREE WILL
This explanation has it that in order to make ethical behavior meaningful, God had to give man the Free Will to accept Him or reject Him. And allowing people to be free means that in addition to giving humans the capacity for compassion, God also gave us the capacity for destructiveness—toward ourselves and others. Thus this approach encompasses the pain-is-punishment explanation and expands upon it: suffering results not only because we can choose to hurt ourselves, but we can also choose to hurt others.
Defenders of this explanation will often point out that God could have created a world free of suffering by withholding Free Will, but that such a world would have been meaningless: something akin to a world of pre-programmed robots. The only way to obtain the tremendous value of having people who could genuinely love each other and do good deeds was to also permit them to reject that path. (This explanation, at least according to some theists, also explains the existence of Satan: angels too have the choice to love or hate God.)
So if we apply this theory to trying to explain why, for example, God didn’t stop the gunman Thomas Hamilton from firing 109 rounds into a kindergarten classroom and splattering the walls with the blood of its sixteen children (Scotland, March 1996), the “suffering must exist for the Greater Good of Free Will” explanation has it that interference from God would have inhibited Hamilton’s Free Will, the higher priority.
Yet even if one does accept this reason for why God allows humans to behave inhumanly toward one another, the theory doesn’t hold up well when applied to suffering that has nothing to do with human Free Will, such as natural disasters. It would be difficult to make the case that human Free Will played a role, for example, in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck eleven countries, killing over 225,000. Similarly, much of the suffering of animals in the wild—famine, disease, the whole predator versus prey set-up—exists independently of human behavior or misbehavior. It seems unlikely that anyone could make a convincing argument that “human freedom to turn away from God” is the reason that infant sandtiger sharks will devour their siblings while still in utero.
When I pursued this point with those who offer the “Free Will” explanation for suffering, I once again found that theists tended to expand their explanation with supplements: we live in an evil and fallen world, Satan rules the earth for the time being, God’s kingdom will soon return, suffering is sometimes beneficial, that the infinite mind of God cannot be comprehended by the finite mind of man, etc.
I.A.4 – IT’S BEYOND OUR UNDERSTANDING
According to some interpretations, this is the message of the Book of Job: that we’re just too finite to understand the Infinite Mind of the Divine:
Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: … “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. … Who decreed the boundaries of the seas when they gushed from the depths? … Have you ever once commanded the morning to appear, and caused the dawn to rise in the east? … Has the location of the gates of Death been revealed to you? Do you realize the extent of the earth? Tell me about it if you know!
“Where does the light come from, and how do you get there? Or tell me about the darkness. Where does it come from? Can you find its boundaries, or go to its source?
“Can you hold back the stars? … Can you ensure the proper sequence of the seasons, or guide the constellation of the Bear with her satellites across the heavens? Do you know the laws of the universe and how the heavens influence the earth?”
Job 38:1, 4, 8, 12, 17–20, 31–33, TLB
One theist I spoke with admitted that although explaining the suffering of the innocent was beyond her, she nonetheless found comfort in the belief that suffering in this life will somehow make sense in the next life—that we are being prepared for a “glory beyond all measure,” as described in 2 Corinthians:
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16–18, NRSV
The most convenient aspect of the “we’re too finite to understand” argument is that it doesn’t have to explain anything: theists can admit that they simply don’t understand how suffering could possibly exist if God is All-Good and All-Powerful, yet still accept this explanation. But my feeling is that saying “We can’t understand!” doesn’t quite qualify as an explanation for suffering—it only says “I hope that suffering will make sense in the next life.”
For those who point to God’s whirlwind speech at the end of the Book of Job and claim that God (or at least, the Judeo-Christian version of God) is the one who’s telling us that suffering is beyond human understanding, my reply is that of the following two explanations:
(a) even though an Almighty Being created the whole universe and then wrote us a nearly 2,000-page book to fill us in on some of the details, He omitted a coherent explanation for why suffering was part of His Program because, our intense interest notwithstanding, we just wouldn’t understand;
(b) the human who authored the whirlwind speech couldn’t figure out a coherent explanation for suffering, and concluded that “God says He won’t explain it to us!”
—the latter is more plausible.
I.A.5 – THE PERCEIVED WORLD IS JUST AN ILLUSION, HENCE SUFFERING, TOO, IS JUST AN ILLUSION
A crudely brief summary of this Eastern perspective is that we are all at One with Divinity—like small drops of water in a mighty ocean—and if we could just free ourselves from our delusion of individual existence (through meditation and prayer and the like), our suffering would cease.
My own delusion of individual existence firmly in place, I suppose I’m a poor candidate to even comment on this belief. Yet I can’t help feeling that this explanation attempts to make sense of human suffering only. Can the “delusion of individual existence” make sense out of the terror and agony that an antelope must feel when being caught and devoured alive by a cheetah? Can this delusion of individuality explain the suffering of an injured cheetah that can no longer catch prey and slowly starves to death?
Or maybe because the entire perceived world is just an illusion anyway, animals in the wild are not actually suffering—our own lack of enlightenment just leads us to think they are.
Or … maybe this explanation is yet another example of human guesswork—one that relies on a theoretical solution that’s impossible to disprove, yet offers no compelling reason to accept.
I. B: The Divine Is Not All-Powerful
To be continued in Part 2.
(“The Problem of Suffering: the Seven Supernatural Answers vs. the One Naturalistic” is an adaptation of endnote #32 from Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, pp. 238-246.)
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