Reflections on Suffering (Part I)

This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

BubblesWhy do we suffer? This is a question which, unfortunately, we all must ask at some point in our lives. The 2011-2012 academic year was a year in which this question took on a special relevance in my own life, first in a theology class devoted to wrestling with this question and then in my own life with the illness and death of my Grandfather. Life is painful when the lessons of the classroom become the lessons of reality.

Over the next two weeks, I want to offer some reflections on suffering and then propose a potential “answer” (the scare quotes are very intentional here) to the question of suffering. Today, I offer some basic insights into some of the proposed answers to the theological problem of evil and suffering. Proposed answers to this most hideous and painful of all questions have been labeled such things as the “retributive justice” or Classical view, the Consequences view, Meaningless suffering, the Apocalyptic perspective, and the Free Will argument for suffering.

Yet before endeavoring to consider these perspectives, I must emphasize the practicality of this issue—we all will experience suffering and death. That means that when we think about suffering, we must ask that question as a part of the real world. Truly considering why suffering exists necessarily entails our understanding of a practical response to that suffering. If we seek become humans fully alive and living within reality, we must realize that we do not live in isolation from suffering, but instead that we live in a world full of suffering and death. This is not intended to be an “ivory tower” piece offering sage wisdom while ignoring the suffering of the homeless man I passed on the way to school today, the oppression of sex-slaves, or the plight of too many unborn children. Evil and its consequent suffering are real, and they must be combated in the real world, not just talked about from the comfy confines of our laptops.

9780061173929_p0_v1_s260x420The first explanation for suffering I want to note is that of retributive justice—what Bart Ehrman in God’s Problem calls the “Classical View” of suffering. In this view, suffering is ‘karmic’ in nature—essentially the suffering that people encounter is punishment for their disobedience of God’s laws. Ehrman writes that within this view, there are “dire consequences for not following… instructions, given by God.”1 Similar to the argument that suffering results from disobedience, this view also postulates that blessings are the result of obedience to God. However ‘just’ this may seem, the problem with this view is that it does not pass the test of the real world—there are plenty of times when good things happen to bad people or bad things happen to good people. The Biblical story of Job emphasizes this point: Job is innocent of any wrongdoing, yet he is punished even while the wicked prosper. While this view does not hold up in the face of our experiences, our willingness to entertain thoughts of the “retributive justice” of suffering underscores our desire to see true justice done—that sinners be punished and obedience be rewarded.

Another characteristic of humanity is our tendency to blame others for our troubles. If we get in a car accident, it was clearly the other guy’s fault. The “Consequences” or “Contributive” view of suffering indicates that suffering is the result of other human beings. Instead of blaming God for humanity’s problems of evil and suffering, for the starvation in Darfur, the suicide bombers in Baghdad, and inner city violence, this view directs the blame for our suffering squarely at us. Since people cause other humans to suffer, they can (and should) be held personally responsible for their actions. An application of this view is often applied to the Holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe. God did not cause the slaughter of millions of people; the people responsible are the Nazis and those complicit in their horrors. This is also often the perspective taken whenever a scandal rocks the headlines—we want to make those with knowledge of what was going on to be just as responsible as those perpetrating the crimes being committed. The problem with this perspective, however, arises when there is no clear human agent to blame: who do we hold responsible for earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis? In the real world of suffering, the Consequential view of suffering likewise fails to account for all of the evil and suffering in the world. Yet this view also points to an important facet of our conception of suffering—sometimes human beings can and should be held responsible for their actions, especially when they inflict suffering on others.

When thinking about suffering we cannot limit our thinking to clean and sterile philosophical queries which occur in a classroom. We must consider the difficult cases: the holocausts, gratuitous evil against innocent children, and the natural disasters which wipe whole cities off the face of the earth in mere moments. What can we possibly say about suffering which seems to occur for no apparent reason? How do we respond to and view suffering that comes upon us for no apparent reason? Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book, Lament for a Son, recounts the feelings of loss and helplessness he experienced following the unexplainable death of his son Eric. He mourns the destruction of his son’s unique “inscape” and his individual personality; he remembers the good times they had together and realizes that those experiences will never be shared or remembered together again. His suffering is a devastating, crushing feeling of loss, emptiness, and despair.2 Sometimes it seems that suffering defies explanation. There are evils which destroy paradigms, shift worldviews, and forever mark our lives. There are evils which we simply cannot explain in this lifetime, suffering experienced for no apparent reason and without explanation, suffering like that of Job.

Eleonore Stump

The book of Job addresses this question of unexplainable suffering more fully than any other Biblical book. We read Job and question the goodness of God, and perhaps his existence as well. Where is God and why does he allow Job’s senseless suffering? In response to this question, Saint Thomas Aquinas had something of an explanation. According to Eleonore Stump, for Aquinas the book of Job is “trying to instill in us the conviction that there is another life after this one, that our happiness lies there rather than here, and that we attain to that happiness only through suffering. In Aquinas’s view, Job has more suffering than ordinary people not because he is morally worse than ordinary, as the comforters assume, but just because he is better.”3 Although Saint Thomas does not concede that Job’s suffering has inherent explanation in itself, it does have a purpose, namely, preparation for happiness in heaven. Since we are not made for a fallen world, but the glory promised in the new heavens and new earth, any suffering in this life prepares us for that eternal glory.4 In this view, while suffering may not make sense in our current context, a focus on heaven will reveal that our current sufferings are not the end of the story.

This conception of eventually redemptive suffering is closely connected to the “Apocalyptic” explanation of suffering.5 In this model—typically gleaned from Daniel and Revelation—while we suffer now at the hands of cosmic forces of evil, there is coming a day when God will destroy all suffering and reign on earth in peace and concord.6 For the Apocalyptic, “God has the last word.”7 By this explanation, neither individual human beings nor God nor the natural order cause natural disasters. Rather, cosmic forces of evil battling against the Good in the world ultimately cause suffering. The reason that bad people sometimes win and good people suffer is because the world remains under the control of evil, which wreaks havoc on the people of God who seek to “act justly and love mercy and walk humbly” with God.8 Yet this triumph of evil comes only for a time—in the end, justice will prevail, God will be victorious, evil and suffering will be vanquished. For many people, however, the Apocalyptic explanation for suffering is impractical: what does do to address instances of suffering here and now? Eschatological hope can only go so far, only make the pain of an empty stomach subside for so long, only dull the ache of your heart so much, before it becomes meaningless in the here and now. Hope that everything will be set aright in the “not yet” comes as good news—but it sometimes seems too little for the “already” of suffering.

While each of these views tells us something about our conception of human suffering, each remains problematic in some facet of explaining evil and suffering. In my next post, I will propose an attitude for thinking about and engaging suffering in our world.


1 Bart D. Ehrman. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. New York: Harper One, 2008. 33. 2 Nicholas Wolterstorff. Lament for a Son. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. 3 Eleonore Stump. Aquinas. New York: Routledge, 2003. 469. 4 Ibid., 328-357. 5 Much controversy has been surrounded the eternal ramification of the traditional Christian Apocalyptic expectation, where Hell exists as a place for punishment for those who have not followed God. Some see Hell as a justified response for a mostly unpunished life of sin. Others see Hell as overkill and eternal punishment as fundamentally unjust (a finite amount of sin and lawlessness ought to be punished with a finite measure of justice). Full consideration of this topic remains a different subject for a different time, though here it is worth noting that Hell has a far longer tradition of being found right and just than it does as cruel and unusual punishment. 6 Ehrman, 197-260. 7 Ibid., 197. 8 Micah 6:8 NIV.

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