Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Biblical Perspectives on Suffering and Evil

In my previous posting, I noted the challenge posed to belief in a sovereign, morally benevolent God by David Hume’s trilemma. In this posting, I want to briefly explore the biblical perspectives on suffering and evil. And since Jewish understandings of suffering and evil inform Christianity, I’ll begin with a few points about the Old Testament.

Foundational to the Jewish faith is the conviction that God acts in history. But according to one scholar, this conviction “creates the problem of suffering, because the more firmly it is believed that God has participated in historical events the more inevitably it is bound to be asked why he does not participate more often.”[1]

The Old Testament also firmly rejects placing responsibility for the existence of suffering and evil on a cosmic force or person operating independently of God and humanity. The idea of Satan or the devil, for example, does not arise until much later in Jewish thought.[2] In the absence of a malevolent will working independently of God and humanity, the responsibility for suffering and evil appears to lie squarely with either God or human beings. The Genesis account of Adam and Eve’s alienation from God puts the blame on humanity. Other passages, however, seem to suggest a role for God. Note this passage in which God says: “I create both light and darkness; I bring blessing and disaster. I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 TEV). In another instance, we read: “Does disaster strike a city unless the Lord sends it?” (Amos 3:6b TEV). And again, we read: “If we accept good from God, shall we not accept evil?” (Job 2:10 REB). Biblical passages like these are troubling, for they appear to rule out simplistic understandings of God as unambiguously good.

Regardless of where evil and suffering come from, Judaism bequeaths to Christianity the conviction that suffering is an unavoidable reality of life. The problem is that the manifestations of evil and suffering appear to defy any conceivable standard of justice. Echoing a recurring lament in the Psalms, one scholar puts it this way: “The problem is not the fact of suffering, but its distribution. Why do the wicked prosper, while those who try to keep faith with God suffer?”[3]

Several attempts to make sense of the problem of suffering and evil appear in the Bible. Below are several biblical perspectives.

(1) Suffering caused by sin.
In this perspective, suffering is understood in terms of a cause/effect relationship. God establishes certain boundaries and limits within the created order. If human beings transgress these orders of creation (cause), they will suffer adverse consequences (effect). "The righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight, but the wicked fall by their own wickedness" (Proverbs 11:5 NRSV). "When a righteous person stops doing good and starts doing evil and then dies, he dies because of the evil he has done" (Ezekiel 18:26 TEV).

This view is problematic because it fails to take into account the totality of evil. It fails, for instance, to adequately distinguish between moral evil and non-moral evil. Moral evil refers to voluntary or involuntary (or accidental) human actions that cause pain and suffering. Analyzing moral evil involves assigning moral blame or responsibility. Non-moral or natural evil refers to events beyond the control of human willing that also cause pain and suffering. If an avalanche buries a group of hikers, or hurricane floods drown a family, or a child is diagnosed with leukemia, then all things being equal, we do not assign blame to any human being. In light of the many instances of non-moral evil that wreak havoc in our world, it won't do to simply say that X happened because somebody sinned ("Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jn 9:2). Indeed, strict adherence to this perspective can justify blaming the victim(s).

(2) Instrumental views of suffering.
There are several approaches to suffering and evil that see them serving as a means to a greater good, or which say that suffering's power over the individual diminishes when compared to the ultimate good for human beings. God uses suffering to bring about good, thereby transforming suffering and evil into (or subordinating it to) something beneficial. In many cases, instrumental views of suffering encourage persons to imitate the sufferings of Christ, or to see analogies between Christ's sufferings and their own.

(a) Temporal suffering and the eternal good.
Suffering for the sake of a good diminishes the power of transient sufferings. “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17 NRSV). This gives suffering meaning and purpose, and even more so if the good for which one suffers is construed as ultimate for human beings. And just as Christ was made “perfect through sufferings,” so, too, shall we (Hebrews 2:10 NRSV; cf. also Philippians 3:7-11).

(b) Suffering as a sign of God's discipline.
God punishes and disciplines persons through pain and suffering in order to help them achieve greater goods (like achieving an upright moral character). Divine discipline is thus an expression of God's love and concern. In some cases, God's discipline or punishment may act as a catalyst for repentance and submission to God's will. C. S. Lewis puts this perspective in vivid language when he writes: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[4] See also Proverbs 3:11-12, Hebrews 12:7-11, and Romans 5:1-5.

(c) Suffering’s redemptive character.
This is sometimes referred to as the doctrine of vicarious suffering. It emerges out of an understanding of sacrifice as the offering of an innocent, non-human scapegoat in the place of a guilty sinner in atonement for his/her sins. The same view is applied to Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus Christ, the sinless Lamb of God, suffers death on behalf of sinful humanity, thereby offering (in the words of the Eucharistic Prayer Rite I) “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”[5] “Christ himself carried our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. It is by his wounds that you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24 TEV). See also John 12:23-26.

In more recent times, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated an instrumentally redemptive view of suffering in his Christian philosophy of non-violence. According to King, voluntarily accepted, undeserved suffering can be a redemptive force that prompts individual and social transformation.

(d) Suffering as a consequence of love.
Opening one’s self to other persons in love entails dropping one’s defenses and becoming vulnerable. And that opens possibilities for suffering. The other may reject me. The other may respond in kind, and then later do something that violates my trust or disappoints my expectations. Jesus suffered from the misunderstandings and rejections provoked by his reaching out in love. “He came to his own home, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11 NRSV).[6]

(3) Acceptance and detachment.
Suffering is an inevitable part of life. And what is inevitable must be accepted and dealt with by detachment. The first stanza of the “Serenity Prayer” written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr captures this perspective:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can
and wisdom to know the difference.

Jesus appears to adopt a similar perspective when he consents to his impending crucifixion in the garden of Gethsemane (cf. Lk 22:42).

It’s important to note that, instead of encouraging passive resignation, the process of acceptance and detachment entails realism about what is the case (“I am suffering,” “I have cancer,” etc.), and on that basis, it seeks to discern what, if anything, can be done to alleviate or diminish suffering (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:1-12). This perspective also accepts the fact that bad things happen to good people. And so, following the example of Jesus, this view rejects the idea that human beings are always to blame for all of the evil and suffering they experience (cf. Mt 5:45 & Jn 9:1-3).

(4) Suffering as mystery.
Finite human beings can no more wrap their minds around the reality of suffering and evil than they can fully comprehend the being of God. The apparently unjust distribution of suffering and evil transcends understanding. This perspective is sometimes linked to God’s sovereignty: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8 NRSV). This encourages agnosticism about the ultimate rhyme and reason for suffering and evil, but at the same time often exhorts persons to have faith in God’s sustaining power. See also Job 9:1-10.

(5) Lamentation.
Instead of justifying a rational explanation of suffering, this biblical perspective gives persons permission to throw their entire being into their pain and suffering. Sufferers wail, scream, tear their garments, and fast. They plead with God, reminding God of His promises and the covenant which now appears violated by unmerited suffering. Permission is also given for persons to rail in anger against God and even to question God’s motives (cf. Job 13:20-28). Such lamentation can be an act of faithfulness to God (cf. the many psalms of lament and the book of Lamentations). This permission to lament allows persons to experience emotional and spiritual catharsis of feelings that would otherwise be “stuffed” or bottled up inside.

(6) Evil Cosmic Force.
This perspective emerges in later Jewish thought and continues to animate a great deal of Christian piety to this day. It maintains that human suffering is caused by an evil cosmic force. Instead of holding God or human beings responsible, otherwise inexplicable suffering is attributed to the malevolence of demonic forces or to Satan. Such a belief may foster passive reliance on God to take care of our problems for us, for only the good and all-powerful God can defeat the power of Satan. When that happens, an ethical dualism that affirms “the strength and prevalence of evil in the world” at the price of a world-rejecting asceticism undermines all motivation to be an engaged moral agent in the world.[7] On the other hand, this perspective may encourage a kind of paranoia and fear of the other. It can set into motion a strategic warrior psychology which encourages persons to act on this maxim: “in the face of either real or imaginary problems, declare an enemy responsible and go to war.”[8] Either way, this perspective falls into heresy by rejecting the goodness of God’s creation and by (at least implicitly) endorsing the henotheistic idea that evil is a reality co-equal to God. So while this perspective may use biblical texts as justification, it actually misses the mark when it comes to biblically sound theology.

Concluding Thoughts
This brief survey suggests a diversity of views on the nature and meaning of human suffering and evil that find biblical warrants (or, as in the last instance, try to find such warrants). There is some overlap between some of them, but not all of them are compatible. What does this diversity mean?

I think the first thing to say is that the Bible does not offer simplistic, pat answers to life’s most difficult questions. I believe that this enhances rather than diminishes the Bible’s authority, for it suggests that scripture faces these matters with realism rather than wishy-washy, positive-thinking idealism.

We can also note that each of the perspectives above takes evil and human suffering seriously. Nowhere are we told that our sufferings are merely illusory, or that evil isn’t really all that bad.

And finally, the presence of different, and at times incompatible, views in the Bible gives us freedom. Within certain boundaries, the biblical witness gives us the freedom to discern and struggle with these matters, coming to our own understanding informed by scripture, tradition, and reason.


[1] John Bowker, Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 7. Emphasis in text.

[2] Jewish conceptions of Satan that correspond to the later Christian understanding arise only in the 2nd Century B.C.E. under the influence of Persian dualistic philosophies. See Harper’s Bible Dictionary, general editor Paul J. Achtemeier (Harper & Row, 1985), pp. 908-909. See also Hans Schwarz, Evil: A Historical and Theological Perspective (Fortress Press, 1995), pp. 59-67, and Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (Vintage Books, 1995), especially Chapter Two entitled “The Social History of Satan: From the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels,” pp. 35-62.

[3] Bowker, op. cit., p. 9. Emphasis in text.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1963), p. 93.

[5] The Book of Common Prayer (Seabury, 1979), p. 334. Similar language can be found in the Eucharistic Prayers of Rite II, especially Prayers A and C.

[6] In this regard, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard offers poignant reflections on what he calls Jesus’ “soul-suffering” in Training in Christianity [1850], translated by Walter Lowrie (Princeton University Press, 1941), pp. 136-139.

[7] Mary Midgley, Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (Routledge, 1984), p. 18.

[8] James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America (Hill & Wang, 1994), p. 263.

No comments: