The Problem of Suffering
When it comes to Christianity everyone gets that nagging question at some point, if there is a loving benevolent God who cares about me, why does suffering occur? If a news broadcaster decided to air stories on all the suffering in the world that occurred every day, with no ad breaks with cute little puppies, kittens (ok, maybe that's slightly cliched) or children playing in between stories or uplifting music, or gossip even, no sane person would be able to watch it for long without being depressed or traumatised. Sometimes I can agree suffering helps us develop. However, there are many instances where suffering does not help you develop, especially if it ends up killing you. To be fair, suffering can reveal who we truly are and bring the best and worst out of people. When Christians ask why does God allow poor people to suffer, atheists and other groups are often accused of doing nothing or not helping the problem. Blaming atheists and non-Christians for the problem is somewhat harsh when in fact many do care I’ve met atheists and non-Christian's in general who are charitable people. Some donate to charity, some work in orphanages among other things and some work for disaster relief organisations to use some better known examples.
For me the issue is not so much asking why God allows suffering to occur but why he does not render any assistance when it does occur. If he is omnipresent and sees every single bit of suffering that occurs at every moment, surely he would feel compelled to act, unless for reasons unknown to us he cannot. This would call into question whether or not he was omnipotent. That or he is totally apathetic to suffering, which is far from the accepted option by believers. It is either that or somehow, at the very least, he is desensitized to it because there would be no way any sane being could witness all the suffering going on in the world at every moment and remain sane. Often we feel compelled to act when we see or feel suffering, or at least some small voice in our head tells us it is not right. If we were made in God’s image would he not have this feeling to? There are times when people experience or see a particular form of suffering to the extent it no longer affects them, either due to psychological trauma or becoming desensitized. Not doing anything because of psychological trauma most likely cannot apply to God, leaving either the speculative theories that he became desensitized or apathetic sometime after the events of the bible. This is assuming we were, according to Genesis, made in God’s image and that he is therefore able to feel emotion and able to relate somehow to humans, which according to the rest of the bible is the case. Certainly, in the Old Testament and New, God is portrayed as having strong emotions and not always in a good way.
Often the response to why does God not intervene is that we are expected to render assistance. I could accept this if God was not both more qualified and more capable of rendering assistance than anyone else. It is kind of like a scenario where two people witness someone fall into a river and that person cannot swim and are now in obvious distress. Say, one of the witnesses cannot swim and the other is a trained lifeguard who can swim well. It would be highly unreasonable for the lifeguard to demand that the person who cannot swim rescue the person in the river and not do anything themselves. In other words God, like the lifeguard, is far more qualified and capable of rendering assistance. Some Christian’s point out that not putting yourself in danger if will lead to serious injury or death, to rescue someone is selfish and not Christian, but really it’s not if it means making any qualified rescuers job harder because they now have to rescue you as well as the person who originally needed help.
Suffering and Original Sin
Original sin is a concept found in Christianity that is absent from Judaism. It is often used to explain why people are born with disabilities and why God would allow this to happen. It seems a bit unfair that a child could be born disabled because of the sins committed by other people, people they do not even know. No one asks to be born into the circumstances they end up in; certainly, no one asks to be born disabled or born into poverty because, as so many Christians put it, we live in a broken world due to sin. It makes it seem like these people are being punished for the sins of others before they are even born or old enough to know their own name.
Sometimes I wonder why does God allow people to be born disabled to the point they do not even know their own names or recognize their family. How would it be fair for these people to be sent to hell? How can they know the name of Christ when they do not even know who they are themselves? In the event God is not in control or able to control this, so that it does not occur at all, why does he not heal the victim or help them at the very least? While those who believe in miracle healings would not agree with this, how is it fair for one individual to be healed from their ailment while others continue to have it, if God treats everyone equally (and from some study in theology I have doubts about that), why does he only heal a select few despite the fact there are others who would deserve healing just as much as the individual that supposedly experienced miracle healing. More than once I have heard, the response that God does not heal disabled in order to make them more dependent on him and less likely to run away and end up in hell. Not only does this make God’s act sound like one of desperation, it also sounds about as right as a parent breaking a kid’s leg to make them more dependent on the parent. The statement also begs the question, if God is so desperate to stop people going to hell, what is preventing him from fixing the problem.
The whole issue of God not intervening and being omnipotent is put one way by a Greek philosopher:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”
-Epicurus, 341 BC, Samos – 270 BC, Athens
It is supposedly refuted by the theory that God either does not want to, or is not able to, intervene due to free will. This theory is somewhat sketchy at best. Indeed, the book of Romans even states that God hardens some people’s hearts so others can believe more strongly which rather sucks for the individual whose heart is hardened.
There have been some claims that people have been healed of disabilities, but there is a significant problem with these miracles. When one is born or goes a long time without the functionality of an organ or limb they would not know how to use it (and their brain would not be used to it either) in the event functionality was restored. For example, a recent case involved a man who had been rendered blind from a young age, he underwent surgery some years later, and his sight was restored. His brain was no longer used to interpreting visual stimuli anymore, and he went blind again. Similarly, an almost deaf person simply having the volume turned up on their hearing aid by a few decibel results in considerable headaches because they are not used to loud sounds, having your hearing fully healed by a miracle would result in something of a migraine. Indeed, the last thing that a deaf person undergoing a miracle healing would want to hear and probably would hear, are loud exclamations of thanksgiving to God for the miracle in the middle of a church service. Someone who has lost functionality of a limb from a young age would not be able to use it if it was suddenly restored, at least not for some time. In fact, people who seriously injure a limb will not be able to use it to the same capacity as before the accident for some time (depending on the nature of the injury), muscle elasticity and tension can also be significantly affected by prolonged disuse of that muscle resulting in atrophy. So miracles such as someone walking who could not walk before would require the regeneration of muscle tissue and an increase in muscle elasticity and tension, in their affected limb, or limbs, if this were to work. Someone who has had use of an organ or limb that they have lost through their lifetime rather than being born without being able to use it would probably be less likely to experience the degree of disorientation as a result of miracle healing if it were real. Although some defects that cause blindness or poor vision can now be corrected thanks to advances in technology and our understanding of human physiology these are far from healings by divine intervention. Without our understanding of human physiology and the work of those involved in medicine, it is doubtful these miracles would have occurred. As it is, I was never keen on the idea of having disabilities healed, only because I never believed one individual had more right than any other person with a disability to be healed, and I for one would not want it unless it meant others would be healed to.
Belief in miracles is hardly unique to Christianity either, Hindus believe in miracles as well and believe they are answered by the gods they believe in, despite the fact that Hinduism is a vastly different religion from Christianity. Islam also believes in miracles. Also, the religious ecstasy some Christians get that they say is the Holy Spirit can experienced by members of entirely different religions. This includes the practise of trembling and falling over (for lack of better description) often employed by congregation members with the pastors encouragement, during a healing service especially in Pentecostal churches.
Christian Perspectives on Suffering
Another common rationale for suffering is it teaches us what happens when we are disobedient. The example of a child touching an element on a stove after being told not to touch it is an example. Although a favorite among some pastors when approaching the subject of disobedience, this example is extremely limited if the same child got hold of some cleaning product that would kill them and went to drink it I am quite sure most, hopefully all, parents would intervene at this point, not go ‘well they need to learn a lesson so I’ll let them drink it’. Or in another example although children often do not get why roads are so dangerous especially with lots of traffic, this hardly means a parent should not act if their child is about to get hit by a car because they have run onto the road after not being told to. Not acting, and the subsequent injury or death of the child that was not doing as they were told, would probably be considered negligent by most. Yet, according to some Christians the reason God does not intervene is so we will learn from our suffering and disobedience, this only works to a point and you cannot learn anything if you are dead or so severely injured you either end up brain-damaged or take months to recover, if that occurs at all.
An analogy I heard once on a Christian radio station was that a boy in a village had to go out into the forest as part of his ‘coming of age’ and his transition into adulthood within the tribe. The boy spent the night alone, or, so he thought until the next morning as his father was watching him while remaining unseen through the whole thing. This is used to say that God does watch and is near in times of trial. While it is not a poor analogy for the idea it tries to convey I am quite sure, that if the boy in this story had suffered more than a few cuts and bruises in this trial, like getting attacked by a wild animal that would highly likely kill him that, the father would have intervened. It would appear that God does not intervene at any point when suffering will do far more harm than good.
- Some Christians say that life is a test for judgement day. There are varying takes on this idea between different denominations to the extent some Christians think it is a test to select Christians to reign with God in heaven. If life is a test, it is not a very fair test. People are not given the same amount of time, the same opportunities and nor does it seem that disabled people are given much assistance from God when required which would mean they have as much chance of doing well as somebody who is not disabled. In most academic, and hopefully all, academic circles not giving disabled students assistance so they had the same chance of doing well as everyone else in examinations would probably be considered discriminatory. Nor does the idea of life being a test by God take into account that people born into functional families, or living in functional households, are often better off than those in less functional ones. To be a fair test there would have to be some semblance of equality between everyone and there is not.
The Book of Job, is considered to be the one of the most important books of the Bible on the theme of suffering, yet if the book is taken literally it implies that God had a betting contest with Satan, the latter being neither omnipotent or omniscient lost and Job was the test subject to determine whether or not Satan was correct that Job would forsake God (I’m not sure how you have a betting contest with an omniscient being to start with, being omniscient would be a distinctly unfair advantage). Although God provided Job with a replacement family, it is never explained why he did not resurrect his original family. Job would have to live with the knowledge that his true family was still dead which, regardless of how God Faring in the story he was, is still likely to be unpleasant. Unless God lied and told Job his replacement family was his real family. It also states in the Bible that God does not tempt us beyond that which we can handle (1 Corinthians 10:13), while heart warming for most believers it is not much help for anyone struggling in their faith and I have not found it to be true in my experience with Christianity or I probably would never have left.