“If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react – to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.” –Bart D. Ehrman
Why do we suffer? This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions that humanity faces, and it is also one of the most difficult. We are constantly bombarded with an onslaught of physical and emotional pain on a daily basis – everything from stubbing one’s toe in the morning, to dealing with the normal stresses of staying alive, to confronting the fear, sadness, and grief that flood our minds from any number of mildly difficult to excruciatingly painful experiences that are the norm here on Spaceship Earth. But WHY are we made to suffer? To the best of my knowledge, there are only 2 explanations: the natural…and the Supernatural. In this first of 3 posts on suffering, I will discuss the latter.
Suffering is Punishment for Being Bad?
Many people who believe that a God created the world also believe that God punishes or rewards the members of His creation based on how well they do what He wishes of them (of course, just what exactly He wishes us to do is a major point of contention between differing religions and denominations and has ironically been the cause of an overwhelming amount of suffering). This claim of divine punishment is substantiated in holy books like the Bible. Just read Leviticus 26, or Deuteronomy 28, where God lays out a long and horrible list of punishments for not obeying his commandments, including but not limited to: plagues, disease, blindness, starvation, unquenchable thirst, slaughter by one’s enemies, mental illness, cheating spouses, painful skin sores, slavery, crippling fear and sadness, terrible storms, wild animals eating one’s children, etc, etc, etc.
Now, it is important to understand that the Jewish people who wrote the Old Testament did not believe in Heaven – they believed that one was rewarded or punished during one’s lifetime according to one’s ability to keep all of God’s 613 commandments. This eventually became a problem when they realized that in reality, bad things happen to good people all the time, and often the worst people lead long lives of happiness and success – and this just didn’t add up. The Jews later adopted the Greek idea of Hades and transformed it into the New Testament concept of Hell – where bad people who God perplexedly allowed to live happy lives on Earth would finally get their just desserts after death. Similarly, the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven eventually evolved into the concept of good people going to Heaven immediately following death – which most Christians don’t realize is a very modern idea and not described in the Bible.
But the idea that God sometimes punishes His people for disobeying Him stuck around, and to this day Christian leaders can still be found blaming natural distasters on things like abortion and homosexuality. However, it is clear that God only sends tornadoes and hurricanes during typical seasons following typical weather patterns, and earthquakes, storms and volcanoes often occur in areas where there is little or no human population, making God’s wrath seem rather…random.
The Eastern concept of Karma is also often brought up as a supernatural explanation for why bad things happen. However, it is clear that this idea also falls short of explaining reality, because again, bad things happen to good people and visa versa. This is where the loaded concept of reincarnation comes into play, where one’s seemingly unfair bad luck is explained as a result of punishment for wrongdoing in a past life. If that is true, then a person’s suffering should be seen as a good and essential thing, a way to cleanse one’s soul, and this unfortunate idea contributed to the caste system in several cultures, where the poor are generally not allowed to rise above their position or be helped, seeing as how they are serving out a fair punishment for past life evils. Thankfully, modern civil rights reforms have begun to disintegrate this system, but the lowest rung of society, or the “untouchables,” still face abandonment and abuse to this day in certain cultures.
Suffering is a Necessary and Good Thing?
Another common explanation is that God created suffering for a good and essential purpose. You know – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that is unless it kills you. Or makes you weaker. Millions of people all over the world incur so much suffering that they succumb to mental illness and have to be institutionalized, or worse, they commit suicide or murder. How can that be a good or valuable thing? Or you may have heard that God created suffering because without it, we could not experience happiness. Seriously? The only way I can experience the love of another is if a woman is gang-raped in Afghanistan? The only way I can truly be thankful for my health is if people in the tropics are constantly dying of malaria and diarrhea? Or the only way I can appreciate eating good food is if millions of children die of starvation in Africa? Really? And the only way I can enjoy feeling safety and security is if somewhere, people are being murdered in a genocidal war? I’m sorry but that’s complete crap and a horrible way to view the world, much less design it.
This point of view also fails to take into account the massive amount of non-human suffering in the world. We now know that most animals, at least those with some form of a brain, experience suffering. Why would God create a world where billions upon billions of animals have existed for millions and millions of years, all experiencing suffering during every day of their existence, long before humans ever came on the scene? Why would He create a world in which nearly all creatures cruelly die of starvation, disease, or being eaten alive? Where is the good there? Where is the necessary lesson and perfection in that plan?
God is Not All Powerful?
Yet another explanation for all the suffering in the world is that God created the world….and then immediately started fucking things up. Again, this comes up in the Old Testament, where God regretted having made man on the Earth (Genesis 6:6), so much so that he sent a flood to murder, well, pretty much every living thing (overkill, much?). He goes on to choose many leaders who end up failing him, and in the New Testament His plan is revealed in Revelations to (once again) destroy everything He created in order to make it all better. How can a perfect God with a perfect Plan have regret, or make mistakes, or even be surprised and angry when things go wrong, when He Himself supposedly had this all planned out from the Beginning- and knew what was going to happen?
This brings us to the concept of Free Will. Many people say that God created the world and put humans on it with the freedom to do as they please. (I will write a future post about the incompatibility of a Divine Plan, Free Will, and Prayer.) But even if that were true, it doesn’t explain why God would create the conditions for so much suffering to occur in the first place. For instance, He apparently created things like mental illness, sexual lust, greed, and hate in the human mind, tempting us at every turn to do evil. Oh that’s not God, that’s Satan, you say? Then why did God create Satan, and why has he let Satan cause evil all over the world for thousands of years now? And again, that still fails to provide a supernatural explanation for animal suffering. Maybe God really is a failure. I mean, running a Universe has to be pretty hard I suppose. That is, unless, you had the power to create it exactly how you wanted it. And if God did indeed create such a suffering-filled world on purpose, that leads us to…
God is Not Good?
There is, of course, the possibility that God does indeed exist, and He is, in fact, evil. Again, the Bible backs this up in Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Not to mention that there are 2,821,364 documented murders by the hand or under the command of God in the Bible (and that’s not counting all of the deaths in the Flood). And one has to only browse through a few of the moral doctrines that the Bible puts forth to see what kind of monster Yahweh must be. This is all punishment for Original Sin, you say? Then why did God make the damn Tree in the first place, or an evil talking snake for that matter, and not even warn Adam and Eve about evil talking snakes? Or why didn’t he just kill Adam and Eve and start over, like he did with the Flood, instead of punishing billions of people for the mistake of 2 people thousands of years ago? And really, how could Adam and Eve be held responsible for committing evil…before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?
Of course, the standard explanation from most Christians is that God had to create and then have His own Son murdered…so that He could create us in Heaven and then send us to suffer on Earth…where we would be tempted to sin….so that He could forgive us…for the sins that He predisposed us to commit…so that we could eventually make it back to Heaven…to be with him. Or we could choose to not believe in the story of Jesus and be sent to burn in Hell. But if God made His Divine Plan from the Beginning of Time, and He knows who will accept Jesus and who won’t, then that means He knows exactly who will burn in Hell way ahead of time- and that’s billions of billions of people – knowing full well that they will burn in Hell…and yet He creates them anyway just to watch it all happen. Epic fail, God.
Or perhaps the proper explanation is that there simply is no God.
After critically examining the evidence, it is clear to me that supernatural explanations simply fail to account for the suffering we see in the world. In fact, modern science has met with ancient wisdom to actually describe the natural reasons why we suffer, and the good news is there is hope in eventually overcoming it.
More on that in my next 2 posts. In the meantime, remember that no one truly suffers alone. At least we have each other. Reach out to others, and just keep breathing.
***Author’s Note: This post was inspired by the works of many others, but in particular by an awesome series of videos by Youtuber Todd Gates. You can check out his excellent book, “Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer” here for an even more in depth look at many inconsistencies in the Bible and Christian thought.