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Explaining Suffering – or Not

As a follow-up to my notes on God’s Problem, I would like to comment briefly on how a diversity of explanations do coexist, and how they might justifiably do so.

First, despite our best efforts to find logical explanations, in general people use case by case explanations pretty readily. They may believe that one person suffers because of their own sin, another is under the attack of the enemy, and yet another is having his faith tested. Simultaneously, they may look strictly to a future divine intervention to resolve the problem.

Second, I would ask if the problem of suffering is actually a single problem. There is no necessity that all suffering be explained in a similar fashion. It is quite rational, I think, and frequently done, to divide suffering from natural disasters or non-moral causes as one issue while suffering because of wrong moral choices of others or because of evil is quite another matter.

This will even work its way into the creation-evolution debates because of the question of whether physical death predates human sin. Old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists both have to answer this question if they are to claim compatibility with Christian theology. Young earth creationists maintain that both groups are out of bounds on that very issue.

My observation is that any explanation of suffering fails at some point, or at least fails to satisfy.

  1. There is no explanation–suffering just happens.
    This may well be right, though I think there are some reasons why we live in a universe that is so designed as to allow suffering. The problem for this one is that it is ultimately unsatisfying for a great many people. They just can’t accept it.
  2. Suffering as a punishment for sin.
    This one works for some, though it tends to lead to vindictiveness and to erode love for one’s neighbor. Consider the implications of those who believe HIV/AIDS is a judgment on gays and lesbians. The view is corrosive. (Note that this isn’t a valid argument against it being true, though I think there are such valid arguments. The main problem here is that one will inevitably encounter someone who is clearly undergoing undeserved suffering under this view, and that tends to shake one up. Then the question becomes not only why good people suffer, but why God would discriminate between one bad person and another. For example, why would HIV/AIDS be created to punish gays, while somewhat lesser STDs punish promiscuous heterosexuals? (Please note that the question is based on a false premise and I’m aware of that. It is one of the questions, however, that tends to shake one’s faith in the basic premise, as it should.) Alternatively, why would a hurricane hit New Orleans one year, but a relatively quite area of coastline another? Is there supposed to be a correlation between the evil and the response?
  3. Suffering as a test of faith.
    Suffering does test one’s faith and many other things, but the question is whether a God who intentionally puts one into such a test is in accordance with a “loving” God. We can, as I have noted, adjust our view of what “loving” means, but that has its own risks. I tend to think that our faith is tested, but that God here operates in terms of parameters, not precise direction.
  4. Blessing and cursing.
    This is simply a variation on punishment for sin. An additional problem here is that my sin may harm many, and my good deeds may benefit many. I may cause undeserved suffering or undeserved blessing. If I manage the family finances badly, more people suffer than me. One is reminded of Abraham’s question about destroying the innocent with the guilty (Gen. 18).

All of these views have various difficulties, but I think few people adhere strictly to just one. I do think that many tend to claim just one even if they don’t use it consistently. The bottom line here is a very human one–most of us can’t stand not to have an answer. If we see someone else suffer, and we don’t have an explanation that either excludes us from a similar result, or at least limits our liability, life can be too difficult to face.

I still do not have a good explanation. At the root of the way I understand this, however, is the notion that God creates a universe and then largely lets it function. He may intervene in order to have communion with his creatures, but he does not routinely alter the course of cause and effect in the physical world*.

Now I get to return Ehrman’s book to the library, and go back to cogitation. I hope you have enjoyed the journey.

*For this reason I tend to reject the idea of some that toward the “end times” (whenever they may be) we have massive healing and so forth.

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