I can’t help but continue to think about the suffering in the world and how it relates to Christianity. I don’t think people who are not Christian, or indeed not religious at all, don’t wonder about these concepts also. Quite the contrary, suffering so permeates our world that anyone who attempts to downplay it seems obviously wrong. But I continue not to think about the “why” part of the question, but the “how” question. Rather than asking “Why is there suffering?” I ask “Why do people have the concept of suffering?” The former question is answered on the Christian view of the fall into sin (or in various other ways in more depth, see here for a longish response). The latter question I believe Christianity also has an answer for.
I believe that the very question actually presupposes at least the concept of some kind of objective standard of good and evil. Suffering is often defined with such terms as “pain.” The very concept of suffering presupposes that there is some line between what is good and bad, what is pleasure and pain. But these concepts can exist in almost any epistemology. What sets this issue in a new light for me is the very fact that we ask questions about it.
How are we justified in asking questions like “Why is there suffering?”? I don’t see any reason that one can be justified in asking such a question unless they are supposing that there is a very real right and wrong. Someone is suffering. That is wrong. Why must they suffer? But what I must then press is my own question: Why do you think you’re justified in asking that question? It seems to me that a naturalist certainly cannot be justified in asking this question, because on naturalism the concepts of good and evil or right and wrong have evolved into us and are part of nature. They serve evolutionary functions, and no more. So what could justify someone who follows this epistemology to ask a question like “Why is there suffering?”? A possible answer could be that the reason there is suffering is because we have evolved some capacity that understands the world in such terms as right and wrong (similar to Dawkins discussion about the reason we observe that the universe seems remarkable and we seem unlikely within it [my comments here]), but these aren’t objective (we could have evolved a different experience of the world which would perhaps give us entirely different concepts of what suffering is, or a lack of the concept entirely) and therefore can’t serve as an objective answer to a question that seems to demand it. It seems completely unsatisfactory, especially in light of the fact that the question demands an objective answer. Some may be satisfied by it, I’m not arguing against that, what I am arguing is that naturalists haven’t answered the question in an objective sense. They can only pose it as a challenge to competing epistemologies.
So it seems to me that, on a naturalist ontology, we cannot be justified in asking these kinds of “Why” questions. The only answer to be provided is that it is natural. The question demands more. It begs for more. But in order to justify the question, one has to dig deeper than a naturalist ontology (which may be uncomfortable to accept for other reasons) can provide. One has to delve into that realm of theism. It is only when the objective meaning in the universe is personal that such personal, objective questions can be asked. We cannot ask a meaningless, eternal (or circular? self-existant? etc.) universe “Why is there suffering?” when the question itself demands an answer to “How can suffering be allowed?” We cannot ask the universe of deism or naturalism “Why” and claim we are justified in expecting a response other than “Because.”
This answer leaves us wanting. Others may refer to theism as a crutch. They may see a reliance on God as a way to strengthen a weakness in oneself. It’s not. Rather, it’s the answer. God can answer the “Why” questions that are so synonymous with our nature. And a God who suffers provides an even more personal answer. It may not be the answer we’re looking for. It may not be an explanation. Rather, the answer can come as an understanding. God understanding suffering and even suffering Himself.
The book of Job in the Bible examines this question in some detail. Job suffered. He suffered at the permission of God (Job 1:12). But Job’s faith remained strong, despite the verbal throttling he received from those around him. He says “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). And Job suffered greatly. But why? What answer would God give to Job? God does answer, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job40:2) and “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall naswer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:7-8). He continues, saying, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.” (41:11)
Job is left without answers to these questions from God. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know… Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3, 6). It would seem here that God’s answer to the question “Why is there suffering?” may be a “You don’t understand” or even, “You can’t understand.” Job is content with this, but God isn’t. In the person of Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), God suffered Himself. Not only that, but instead of answering “Why,” God delivered the ultimate answer: Jesus. This earth may be a time of suffering, but in the end there is eternal joy.
It is here, however, that the Christian now may be accused of not providing a satisfactory answer to the question. “Forget about all this theological garbage [1 Corinthians 1:18-31] and answer the question!” This is where the Christian can thank God for the gifts of logic and reason, for the answer to the question can be determined from them. I’m not going to rewrite everything, as I’ve already gone through the question here.
It therefore stands, in my mind, that the justification for such “Why” questions can only be had on theism. Naturalism, without objective right and wrong, has no stance from which to ask the question, and no answer that it can give achieves the transcendental meaning it demands.
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