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Pain and Suffering: A Biblical Perspective

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Dr. Dvorak

Philosophy of Religion

November 5, 2004

Pain and Suffering: A Biblical Perspective

There are fundamental flaws with regards to pain and suffering and how religion attempts to defines its inception. The Quran states that "True, there is Pain and suffering at the terminal end of an illness, but we believe there is reward from God for those who patiently persevere in suffering" (39:10 and 31:17, par. 2). On two occasions, according to the Gospels, Jesus had the opportunity to explain why tragedy strikes (John 9:1-3; Luke 13:1-5 REB). Why do some people suffer, while others go free? Both times He turned the discussion in another direction. The important thing, He tells us, is not the reason for suffering, but our response to suffering. It's not why we suffer but what we do when suffering comes.

The experience of suffering presents us with a number of perplexing problems. For most of humankind's history, disease and death was a part of everyday experience. People faced the pain life brought, did their best to cope with it and moved on. Ironically the more effective our attempts have become to resist disease and death, the more complex they seem to become. Now people suffer much less in life than they have in the past, yet we are more upset by it now than people were before. The less we suffer the more it bothers us. It's as though suffering takes us by surprise.

This brings us to a paradox that exposes the different effects that suffering has on religion. On one hand, suffering poses a tremendous challenge to faith. J.L. Mackie explained the problem quite succinctly when he wrote" In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists" (Kessler 226). Philosophers and theologians regard it as the greatest challenge to religious belief that if two of these statements were true then the third could certainly not be true. William Rowe says there's, "A rational support for atheism", since theists cannot reconcile or rationalize the immense pain and suffering in the world that was of a Perfect Being's making (Kessler 246). Meanwhile Bruce Reichenbach searches for the karmic answer to universal justice, pain and suffering, as well as health and happiness. Like so many mysteries of life there seems to be neither consensus nor uniformity.

The greatest contradictory aspect that suffering presents is the apparent discrepancy between the power of God and the realities of life. If God is all-powerful, why does anyone suffer? An omnipotent being has power to create any kind of world and change anything in the world instantaneously. Wouldn't such a being eliminate suffering, or prevent it, or at least limit it?

Historically, people have responded to this problem in two principal ways. One is to move suffering outside God's will, to maintain that God is not responsible for suffering. The most popular version of this approach appeals to free will. Kwame Gyekye wrote that, "the other source of evil, according to Akan thought, is human will" (Kessler 236). God endowed creatures with the capacity to obey or to disobey. We must have disobeyed, and the world now suffers the consequences. It was human rebellion that ultimately accounts for the sorrows of the world. God did not cause it or will it. It was never God's plan that we suffer.

The contrasting response to the problem of evil is to place suffering inside God's will. The world may appear to be out of control but God is nevertheless completely in charge of creation. Everything that has happened and will happen has had a place in the master plan. While we may not understand why God has done these things we can be sure that it is all for the best. Everything we go through, even the darkest chapters of our lives is just what we need. God uses this painful process to develop our characters and bring us to moral perfection. In time, we will see that God's will is perfect.

Each of these responses generates a long list of questions. Some people can't understand how creatures that were perfect at the moment of creation could ever rebel against their Maker. Others wonder why an All-Powerful Creator couldn't create beings that are free, but always use their freedom to do the right thing. This train of thought is pure fallacy. I can't see how humans can be free to choose while their choices are between good and more good.

As for the other response, the idea that everything happens for the best seems to be contradicted by our experience. The soul-making or character development God is bringing about doesn't appear equitable. Is it really necessary for us to suffer this much, some much more than others, in order to learn the lessons we need to learn? History's horrendous evils such as those described by Elie Wiesel and his time at Auschwitz hardly seem to justify whatever lessons we learn from them if we learn any (Kessler 213).

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