The puzzle of suffering - part 1

By JubileeCentre 17 Oct 2012
by Guy Brandon
This two-part post on suffering is hopefully a new way of sharing material with our supporters and wider readers, allowing (and encouraging) them to contribute to works-in-progress and help shape new and developing ideas. It also introduces the idea of 'Categorics': a pro-active critique of our culture's inherent flaws, rather than an 'apologetic' defence of Christianity. Please share this on Facebook and comment below if you would like to.


House cast (wiki commons)Gregory House is a cynical and self-centred but brilliant doctor of diagnostic medicine. Played by Hugh Laurie, House is a deeply flawed character, alternately arrogant and insecure, offensive and vulnerable, who uses the physical pain of a leg injury as an excuse for avoiding intimacy and for abusing prescription drugs. Emotionally impaired, he compensates for his lack of relationship skills with his intelligence, relying on psychology and inductive reasoning to understand how people think and feel.

House doesn't set out to heal people - he sets out to solve puzzles. He generally considers a case a success if he can diagnose the problem. If there is a viable treatment, that's just another part of the puzzle; if there is no cure and the patient dies, he has still won. He usually leaves his team to care for the patients themselves and tries to avoid actually meeting and engaging with them, preferring to consider the symptoms in isolation from the person. It's a winning formula for a TV show, running to eight seasons and winning several critical awards along the way.

One of the many reasons that House is such a successful series is because it represents a triumph of the rational over confusion and uncertainty. Given enough information, training and raw intelligence, the world can be made a less chaotic, threatening, untamed place. The same is true the BBC's critically-acclaimed reinvention of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective, Sherlock Holmes (to which House is a tribute in medical drama form). Being smart is suddenly fashionable: bright is the new black.

Strangely, though, this doesn't get us very far when dealing with the problem of suffering. Worse, it can even be counter-productive.


The question of pain

Over the last 2,000 years Christian theologians have offered any number of arguments ('theodicy') for why an all-powerful, all-loving God would allow evil to exist in the world he created. In the second century, Irenaeus argued that suffering is necessary for humans to develop spiritually, becoming more moral and growing closer to God. A more recent version of this, articulated by C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, is that evil has to exist in the world for free will to exist; without evil, humans are reduced to robots who are unable to choose to love God or each other. In the fourth century Augustine argued that God created a good world (Gen. 1:31). Evil came into creation through Adam and Eve's rebellion, predisposing us to evil and its effects ever since. He argued that evil was not a created thing in itself, but a lack of good, in the same way that darkness is an absence of light. Other theodicies or defences have focused on logical problems with the argument that suffering implies God's non-existence; the idea of evil suggests the existence of an absolute ethical standard, for example, which we can only have if we acknowledge the reality of God to start with. C. S. Lewis argued that the problem is really that our human minds aren't fully capable of grasping the nature of God; we don't understand what 'love' is, and therefore have a distorted view of suffering.

Over the centuries people have found these and similar rational explanations more or less convincing and have offered various counter-arguments against them. Ultimately, though, after 2,000 years the question has not gone away. The implication is that such answers are useful up to a point, but don't - or more likely can't - get to the heart of the problem.


The Bible and Suffering

The Bible's own approach to the problem of suffering is diverse and honest. Different biblical writers seem to come from very different perspectives on this - and some of them seem to show different views depending on their immediate circumstances.

So, for example, in the Torah suffering is never blamed on God's injustice; where it is mentioned, it is frequently viewed as a punishment for disobedience (e.g. Deut. 28). The prophets often saw suffering as a direct result of human injustice and oppression by the rich. Alternatively, it was again a result of human sin. Ezekiel 18 contains a discussion around a proverb that was apparently popular at the time, in the 6th century BC: 'The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge' - the expectation that sin would be punished down the generations (as warned in Exod. 20:5). Ezekiel 18 seems to mark the end of this idea of corporate punishment: only 'the soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father...' (Ezek. 18:20).

Israel was supposed to be the model community that drew other nations to God. Care for the vulnerable was supposed to be part of its make-up; the encouragement to look after 'the alien, the fatherless and the widow' occurs dozens of times in the Old Testament. Suffering, where it occurred, was frequently a result of failing to carry out this command.

Curiously, the question of suffering as originating from God - or as evidence of God's non-existence - didn't seem to cause a problem for the authors of the Torah and the Prophets. It's possible that part of the reason for this is the difference in our cultural viewpoints, though this does not explain it entirely. We are used to looking at the world from a 'me-centred' perspective; the ideology of consumerism has permeated our faith, as it has permeated everything else, leading us to ask what God can do for us to make it worth our while to follow him. In any case, these writers focused overwhelmingly on suffering caused by human injustice.

It is not until later that this problem is contemplated. The Psalmist admits that his faith was seriously challenged by the knowledge that evil people prosper while the righteous may suffer (Ps. 73). Job questions God's judgment in allowing bad things to happen to good people, though - like the psalmist - he never claims that God does not exist. The premise of the book of Proverbs is that Wisdom - essentially the 'right way to live' - should bring contentment and prosperity as well as being pleasing to God. Job subverts this idea by suggesting that there is still a right way to live, even if it doesn't always bring happiness. Despite his suffering, Job clings to his integrity and refuses to curse God (Job 2:9-10). Isaiah (45:7) relates that God creates bad as well as good, and the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes that suffering is simply incomprehensible.


Jesus' perspectives on suffering

In the New Testament there are also a number of viewpoints about suffering. The prevailing view in Jesus' time seems to be that suffering was a result of sin - whether one's own or someone else's, as in the story of the man born blind (John 9:2). This ties in with the Old Testament belief that 'the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' In this instance, however, Jesus states that the man's blindness was due to neither his own nor his parents' sin, but had happened 'so that the work of God might be displayed in his life' (raising perhaps even more questions). On other occasions, he implies that suffering was directly caused by sin (John 5:14, 'stop sinning in case something worse happens to you').

The bottom line is that as far as the Bible is concerned, suffering occurs for many reasons - our own sin, other people's or, most problematically, for no comprehensible reason at all.


Asking the right questions

In his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, the science-fiction comedy author Douglas Adams wrote about an enormous computer, Deep Thought, that had been created to calculate the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. The programme takes 7.5 million years to run, at the end of which Deep Thought pronounces the answer: '42'. Asked if that's all it has after 7.5 million years, the computer replies, 'I checked it very thoroughly... and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is.'

The question of why an all-powerful and all-loving God allows suffering is like the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. (It's worth noting that Douglas Adams was a committed atheist who was heavily influenced by Dawkins, and would probably have been utterly horrified by this analogy.) There is far more to the question than is immediately apparent, and misunderstanding it only prompts us to give answers that people can't or won't accept.


You can read part two of this article here.


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