Lately, I have been reflecting on questions surrounding suffering: how can a good God, who is in control of everything, allow suffering to exist? Why does He allow it? Don't these questions disprove Christianity?
A surprising response to these questions comes in the form of a question: What is your 'answer' to the existence of suffering?
Often, when people question Christianity's claims on why suffering exists, they haven't thought through the logical out-workings of their own position. When you look at the intellectual and practical implications of other worldviews, Christianity's answer to 'How can a good God allow suffering?' doesn't seem as far-fetched.
I recommend the book If I were God I would end all the pain. This book has been really helpful as reflected on these questions.
In working through some of these questions I aim to be as respectful as possible, while still asking honest questions of your position. I am sure I provide only a very basic understanding of other belief systems and I apologise for my ignorance.
Hinduism has the following two beliefs (as well as others): Reincarnation and Karma. Every being, when it dies, will be reincarnated as another being. All life is sacred and we are all attaining to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth and enter nirvana; blissful non-physical existence.
Karma is the belief that every action will reap its reward. If you are undergoing suffering it is due to evil you have done in this life or a previous life, so there is no such thing as innocent suffering.
This may be satisfying intellectually, as it makes some sense and cannot be disproven. How many people remember their previous lives? But to be consistent there are some unnerving implications.
For example, why have health and safety laws? Recently, there has been some tightening of laws pertaining to the forestry industry in New Zealand. This is the result of a number of deaths in the industry in the past few years. To be consistent with the Hindu beliefs of Karma and Reincarnation, why bother making safer laws? Everyone who dies in accidents has been reborn; if they were good they'll be living better lives!
Death loses its awfulness and any suffering experienced by genocide or torture is deserved. We look at innocent suffering and feel nauseous. With the Hindu belief, however, all suffering is deserved.
Buddhism originated from a man named Siddhartha Gautama meditating about suffering. This led to the development of a way of life by meditating with a pure heart in order to attain wisdom. With this, suffering will cease as you let go of all desire for the physical and enter nirvana. In fact, desire is the cause of suffering.
I struggle to reconcile this view with the famine we see in parts of the world. Those people are suffering because they desire food to live. They should meditate and that will alleviate them of their suffering? Well no. If they spent their time meditating they would not harvest the little food they do have.
And what of the death of a loved one? Should I meditate and not desire their presence with me? Is it not right to crave relationships and to mourn when they're gone?
The belief in Islam did not originate from seeing suffering, but it does speak on it. Islam means 'submission' and a Muslim is one who submits. If you are suffering you should submit to Allah's will for your life. Allah determines all, but is not moved by anything.
The Muslim has to accept this and is not allowed to question it, indeed to question the will of Allah is blasphemy. So is the idea that he experiences pain, which means he cannot empathise with you if you are suffering.
This belief allows for suffering to have a purpose. If you are suffering it is so that God may test your heart and so you may be made pure.
Not all Muslims practise the following, but it is one of the implications; if someone is suffering it is because Allah has determined it. Who am I to go against what Allah is doing? If you are suffering you must learn to endure. There are examples of devout Muslims not giving aid to others because they believe this so strongly. However, there is something we find distasteful about this, hence not all Muslims practise it.
Atheists have observed the world and have come to the conclusion that all suffering is random. There is no rhyme or reason to it. Stuff happens. Deal with it.
This leads to the question of 'is suffering wrong?' The answer: 'no.' Suffering is not wrong, it just is. This answer is extremely dissatisfying for the suffering person.
It might stack up intellectually—suffering happens to everyone at some stage—but in the midst of the throws of it, it is not in the least comforting. I have heard it said that there is no atheist in the fire.
We do not know all the reasons for pain in this world, although we do know that humanity has rebelled against God and that is ultimately why any suffering exists. This, however, doesn't speak to the suffering person; and this is where Jesus comes in, making Christianity's approach to suffering unique.
'For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.' – 1 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 18.
Christianity hinges on Christ's death and resurrection. The person in suffering can cling to the fact that God humbled himself and suffered with us. He is a God who understands and can empathise with us. We can ask God why and cry out and He will hear us. He has done time and time again.
Eventually all pain will end in heaven and that is what we look forward to. It may seem like foolishness—it is certainly blasphemy to Muslims—but it is the truth.
Some helpful books are How long O Lord by DA Carson, If I were God I would end all the pain by John Dickson and, of course, the Bible—especially the book of Job.
It is helpful to remember that before any conversation on the matter of suffering takes place with friends or family, we must remind ourselves that everyone has undergone some form of suffering. This topic is to be dealt with gently and humbly.
First published April 22, 2016
Rachel Bartlett lives in Christchurch, New Zealand with her husband James and her puppy Pip. She helps out with after-school Bible studies on Wednesday afternoons.
Rachel Bartlett's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/Rachel-Bartlett.html