This past week I had a long talk with one of my bright undergraduates, a first-year student who had been raised in a Christian context but had come to have serious doubts driven in large part by the difficulty she had understanding how there could be suffering in a world controlled by an all-knowing and all-powerful God. I naturally resonated with the question, since this is why I myself left the Christian faith.
I get asked about that transition a lot, and it’s been five or six years since I’ve discussed it at any length on the blog. So I thought I might return to it. The one and only time I”ve talked about it at length is in my book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (Oxford University Press, 2008). Here is how I discuss it there, slightly edited. (This will take several posts)
I think I know when suffering started to become a “problem” for me. It was while I was still a believing Christian – in fact, it was when I was pastoring the Princeton Baptist Church in New Jersey. It was not the suffering that I observed and tried to deal with in the congregation that prompted my questioning – failed marriages, economic hardship, the suicide of a teenage son. It was in fact something that took place outside of the church, in the academy. At the time I was writing my PhD dissertation and – in addition to working in the church – was teaching part time at Rutgers University.
One of the classes that I taught that year was a new one for me. Before this I had mainly been teaching courses on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the writings of Paul. But I had been asked to teach a course called “The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions.” I welcomed the opportunity because it seemed to me to be an interesting way to approach the Bible, by examining the different responses given by biblical authors to the question of why there is suffering in the world, in particular among the people of God.
It was my belief then, and continues to be my belief now, that different biblical authors had different solutions to the question of why God’s people suffer: some (such as the prophets) thought that suffering came from God as a punishment for sin; others thought that suffering came from God’s cosmic enemies, who inflicted suffering precisely because people tried to do what was right before God; others thought that suffering came as a test to see if people would remain faithful despite suffering; others thought that suffering was a mystery and that it was wrong even to question why God allowed it; others thought that this world was just an inexplicable mess and that we should “eat, drink, and be merry” while we can. And so on.
It seemed to me that one of the ways to see the rich diversity of the Scriptural heritage of Jews and Christians was to see how different authors responded to this fundamental question of suffering..
For the class I had students do a lot of reading throughout the Bible, as well as of popular books that discuss suffering in the modern world, for example Elie Wiesel’s classic Night,[i] which describes his horrifying experiences in Auschwitz as a teenager, Rabbi Harold Kushner’s very popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People,[ii] and the much less read but thoroughly moving story of Job as rewritten by Archibald Macleish, in his play J.B.[iii]
I began the semester by laying out for the students the classical “problem” of suffering and explaining what is meant the technical term “theodicy.” Theodicy is a word invented by one of the great intellectuals and polymaths of the seventeenth century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who wrote a lengthy treatise trying to explain how and why there can be suffering in the world if God is all powerful and wants the absolute best for people.[iv] The term is made up of two Greek words: theos, which means “God,” and dikē, which means “justice.” Theodicy, in other words, refers to the problem of how God can be “just” or “righteous” given the fact there is so much suffering in the world that he created and is allegedly sovereign over.
As philosophers and theologians have discussed theodicy over the years, they have devised a kind of logical problem that needs to be solved to explain the suffering in the world. This problem involves three assertions which all appear to be true, but if true appear to contradict one another. The assertions are these:
God is all-powerful.
God is all-loving.
There is suffering.
How can all three be true at once? If God is all powerful, then he is able to do whatever he wants (and can therefore remove suffering). If he is all loving, then he obviously wants the best for people (and therefore does not want them to suffer). And yet people suffer. How can that be explained?
Some thinkers have tried to deny one or the other of the assertions. Some, for example, have argued that God is not really all powerful – this is ultimately the answer given by Rabbi Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. For Kushner, God wishes he could intervene to bring your suffering to an end, but his hands are tied. And so he is the one who stands beside you to give you the strength you need to deal with the pain in your life, but he can’t do anything to stop the pain. For other thinkers this is to put a limit on the power of God and is, in effect, a way of saying that God is not really God.
Others have argued that God is not all loving, at least in any conventional sense. This is more or less the view of those who think God is at fault for the terrible suffering that people incur – a view that seems close to what Elie Wiesel asserts, when he expresses his anger at God and declares him guilty for how he has treated his people. Others, again, object and claim that if God is not love, again he is not God.
There are some people who want to deny the third assertion; they claim that there is not really any suffering in the world. But these people are in the extreme minority and have never been very convincing to most of us, who prefer looking at the world as it is to hiding our heads in the sand like ostriches.
I will continue next time from here. (You may want to hold off explaining to us all why there is suffering until I finish with the thread; at that point I’ll be asking you what you yourself think)
Most people who wrestle with the problem want to say that all three assertions are true, but that there is some kind of extenuating circumstance that can explain it all. For example, in the classical view of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, as we will see at length in the next couple of chapters, God is certainly all powerful and all loving; one of the reasons there is suffering is because his people have violated his law or gone against his will, and he is bringing suffering upon them in order to force them to return to him and lead righteous lives. This kind of explanation works well so long as it is the wicked who are the ones who suffer. But what about the wicked who prosper while the ones who try to do what is right before God are wracked with interminable pain and unbearable misery? How does one explain the suffering of the righteous? For that another explanation needs to be used (for example, that it will all be made right in the afterlife – a view not found in the prophets but in other biblical authors). And so it goes.
[i]. A new translation is now available by Wiesel’s wife, Marion Wiesel; Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006).
[ii]. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor, 1981).
[iii]. Archibald MacLeish, J.B.: A Play in Verse. (Boston: Houghlin Mifflin, 1957).
[iv]. G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God and the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (Chicago: Open Court, 1985).