Suffering

For the devoted Christian, one of the great challenges to one’s faith is the amount of suffering in the world. After all, if God is both omnipotent and all-merciful, then why would He allow so much misery?

There are three basic ways a religion or philosophy can explain away all this suffering. (1) If everything (or mostly everything) is due to chance. (2) If nothing (or mostly nothing) is due to chance, but the universe has no higher meaning or power. (3) If nothing is due to chance, and there is a higher purpose, but that higher purpose cares nothing about suffering, or at least suffering on this earth. The Chinese religions (Tao and Confucian) would pretty much use #1. The Indian religions (Hindu and Buddhist) use #2. As souls are reborn, they are in a higher or lower circumstance depending on how they lived their previous life. But there’s no real purpose behind these rebirths. #3 was used by several polytheistic religions (Greek and Roman) where the gods played their games with humans, as well as Zoroaster, which has two gods, one evil and one good.

So far, so good. But when a religion makes two assumptions: God is all-powerful and all-merciful, trouble arises. You cannot deny that suffering on a massive scale exists. Some of it may be deserved by ones actions, but the great bulk of it is due to the situation one is born into. Either one or the other of the assumptions must be wrong. The western monotheistic religions (Christian, Islamic and Jewish) all have this problem.

It is interesting to look at how twisted the theologians get themselves as they try to explain away this problem. Is the suffering due to the existence of free will? If so, how does free will play into a baby dying miserably in some third-world country? And if free will is such a good thing, why didn’t God create more animals with it? Was man’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, the original sin, the cause of all this suffering? But why should that be?

Are there other answers to this riddle? I’ve heard a variety of them, and none of them stands up to even the lightest scrutiny. It continues to amaze me how far people will go, what logical leaps they will make, what denials they will maintain, to keep their faith. It is probably too painful for the faithful to admit that God doesn’t exist, and either solution #1 or #2 above is the reality. It must also be too painful to admit that maybe God doesn’t have some of the characteristics they wish he did.

June 18, 2005

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