Susan Jacoby recently published an article entitled “The Blessings of Atheism,” in the opinion pages of the New York Times Sunday Review (dated January 5, 2013, link provided here). In her article, Ms. Jacoby lamented the reluctance of atheists like herself to offer consolation to those afflicted with personal tragedy, such as to grieving parents devasted by the death of their children. She described her own conversion to atheism when faced with the suffering and death of her 9-year-old friend, who had contracted polio and had for eight years been confined to an iron lung before dying, his suffering beginning not long after Jonas Salk’s vaccine began to eradicate polio. She took it as a “positive blessing” that she did not have to ask “why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.” After concluding that “free will” was “Western monotheism’s answer” to why God didn’t prevent such “slaughter of innocents,” she said that “many people” could not “let God off the hook in that fashion,” that as an atheist she was “free to concentrate on the fate of this world…without trying to square things with an unseen lord in the next,” and declared that a “deeply held conviction” in the “absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on this earth.”
Ms. Jacoby then praised Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899, who was known as “the Great Agnostic” and who frequently delivered “secular eulogies” at funerals. For example, he once comforted a grieving friend who had lost a child with words that included “death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest…The dead do not suffer.” She then issued a call for atheists to “speak up” and “take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for,” such as showing up at gravesides. Because I believe Ms. Jacoby is incorrect in concluding that atheism has more to offer grieving people than faith does and also incorrect in concluding that faith has no adequate explanation for suffering, I will now proceed to show why the very opposite conclusions are better supported by both reason and experience.
There is a saying, none of us make it out of life alive, though this saying is really more for atheists, not for people of faith. This seems small comfort in the face of extreme grief and suffering. At a child’s funeral, to tell the grieving parent, “all of us are going to die some day,” is really all an atheist has to offer. Adding that the child is now at “perfect rest” and beyond “suffering” does not add much. Of itself, this gives little meaning to the child’s death, and if consolation is the main objective, the atheist may as well stay home. The mere existence of death is not in serious dispute, including by those of faith. Where faith and atheism diverge is in respect to death’s finality. Those of faith believe that death is not final, and can share this hope with the grieving, that is, those of faith can hold out the hope of eventual reunion with one’s child or other loved one, at least at some future time on another level of existence. But atheists have no such hope to share, only a relatively comfortless belief “well, it happens to everyone.”
The author takes faith to task for failing to adequately explain why suffering exists. That is, how can suffering be explained if God is really good and has complete power to prevent it? Contrary to what the author baldly assumes without any real attempt to understand differently, suffering can be explained in a manner consistent with faith in a good and almighty God. Indeed, it is atheism that cannot “explain” the “meaning” of suffering because as atheism understands this world, there is no “higher” meaning to anything, but rather people are mere “accidents of nature” who are, in relation to meaning, making it all up as they go along. Indeed, from the atheist perspective, even “nature” is an accident, and all life on our planet is just the result of some freakish congruence of physical events which, as time passes, are doomed to to gradually fade away into oblivion in the face of increasing disorder and malfunction, while the enormous material bodies of our vast universe silently hurl in utterly meaningless manner through largely empty space. As a corrective to this bleak and depressing worldview, I would recommend the book “Three Philosophies of Life,” by Peter Kreeft.
So how can a good God allow suffering to exist? If we are speaking about suffering caused by other people (versus by tornados or eating bad foods or biting dogs or other non-human causes) one explanation, fully in accord with faith and experience, is that God places a high priority on allowing people to have free will and to experience the real consequences of their choices, even if this means that others may suffer as a result. To be sure, God could have decided otherwise, and whenever someone was about to suffer, could have pulled out a magic eraser and reversed the hurt. So why doesn’t God do this? (Or at least normally do this, for periodically, according to objective record, God does intervene, as in the spontaneous remission of a disease that has gone way beyond a state invariably considered fatal.)
While there are no definite answers, perhaps there is a clue in the fact that unless we ourselves can feel suffering, we can hardly have empathy for the suffering of others. It would be like someone trying to explain color to a person born blind or what it is like to have an itching arm to someone born without limbs. Unless we ourselves have felt physical pain or grief or abandonment or betrayal or frustration or hopelessness or fear, we can hardly feel empathy for those who do have those feelings. Without our own ability to suffer, our world would be a more even-keeled but blander place, with none of those messy afflictions and sorrows and hurts that define us as human. Indeed, it is our susceptibility to suffering, our deep sensitivity to many different forms of suffering, that in a way makes us noble, if occasionally tragic, creatures, with our feet firmly planted on the earth, but capable of such feats of vice or virtue or endurance as to attract the attention and concern of the most holy assembly of heaven. Would it really be possible to understand the difference between good and bad, to know the full spectrum of our most human emotions, where suffering has been suppressed?
For that matter, from some grander and more divine perspective, perhaps God has protected us from the utter horrors of even worse evils. How would we ever know? Perhaps, in the larger scheme of things, we are like children complaining about being sent to the corner for a time out who cannot even begin to fathom what it would be like to face the assault of being taken a prisoner of war, perhaps while in a spiritually heightened state of increased sensibility and sensitivity to suffering. We should not just assume, for example, that the suffering that occurs in hell is confined to physical pain, nor even reaches a limit in emotional or mental anguish, but perhaps being ourselves transformed to eternal life, there are dimensions of pain we cannot even imagine.
Linked to the idea of this world being only an intermediate state, akin to a spiritual childhood, some have suggested that at least in certain cases, suffering is a form of divine discipline, intended by our heavenly Father for our good: to produce a change of heart in us. So Scripture says, “For thou, O God, hast tested us; thou hast tried us as silver is tried” for “thou didst lay affliction on our loins,” the point here being to heighten our awareness that we are “in trouble” (without God) and to return to God’s house with prayer and gratitude. At the same time, we are not God, and it is all too easy for us to take the concept of loving discipline too far, so we should ever bear in mind that the proper aim is path correction and reconciliation as consistent with natural consequences and free will, for so the story of the prodigal son teaches us (who at last, of his own free volition, came to recognize his self-inflicted state of degradation and formerly errant behavior) and as Jesus suggested when he said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
I speak above of natural consequences, for to say that God may “allow” suffering is not at all the same as saying God is ever an active participant in causing suffering, for the very presence of God tends toward increase of blessing and restoration of truth and healing, so the mechanism of suffering is more aptly regarded as involving God “hiding his face,” at least for a time, for it is the absence of God, not God’s active involvement, that puts our lives and joy and all our good blessings at peril. Absent God, in our hearts, in our homes, and in our communities, we soon enough naturally discover that all hell can break loose.
Even in cases where there is no obvious “lesson” to be learned from suffering, it is true enough that “unwarranted” suffering may increase our reserves of patience, of steadfast endurance, and of sympathy for the suffering of others. In somewhat the same manner that a vaccine fosters a stronger immune system, exposure to suffering may, at least in very diluted doses, make us better equipped to tolerate and overcame subsequent evils, which indeed seems more practical than unrealistically trying to avoid every form of suffering and pain. At the same time, there seems little merit in needlessly adding to the world’s sum total of suffering, as do those who inflict pain on themselves in an attempt to train their bodies to be obedient to their will, for they deem the body overly subject to carnal influence and needful of firmer authority. Certainly, there is already plenty of hurt and hardship to go around in this world, and those who wish to train their body can doubtless get all the training they need, and perform better and more loving service in God’s name, by helping to carry the burdens that others are forced to shoulder.
At some point, the idea of “discipline” (or moral instruction or character building) hardens into the idea of “punishment.” According to this concept, God may give up on changing our heart and decide, right now in this world, to render immediate judgment. One finds this idea expressed more frequently in earlier books of Scripture. Perhaps this is so because, in these earlier times, God’s blessings were bestowed openly to the accompaniment of astounding wonders and evident miracles, so that a higher degree of obedience could justly be expected. This accords with the later-stated principle that “to whom much is given, of him will much be required.” In any event, life was hard and life expectancy was not long. Where death is always nearby, where sin can have disastrous consequences with life so close to the edge already, and where horrific traditions had taken deep root, such as human sacrifice, it would seem greater need would exist for stiffer divine penalties in order to contain multiplying wickedness and preserve human life. May God’s grace keep us far removed from such dark times.
Later Scripture tends to be more “neutral” and to discount such a direct link between human behavior and divine punishment, observing that “even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish” or “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.” In the Gospels of still later date, Jesus tells the crowd to love their enemies for then “you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Here the connection between bad behavior and “divine punishment,” at least immediately in this world, seems attenuated indeed.
Elsewhere, in referring to eighteen people killed when a tower in Siloam fell on them, Jesus says, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” An important question here is how to interpret that word “likewise.” Perhaps what this means is that when God does intervene to stop evil, the intervention is sudden, like a building falling on someone (or a divided sea coming back together or the earth suddenly opening and swallowing the evildoers). More typically, with Jesus miraculous interventions are invariably treated as opportunities for showing the reality of divine mercy and grace, not divine anger and punishment. So, when Jesus delays visiting his friend Lazarus and Lazarus dies, Jesus says “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Upon arriving, after first being “deeply moved in spirit” by the weeping of those around Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus proceeds to raise Lazarus from the dead, all to the greater glory of a most merciful God.
Regarding, then, the whole body of Scripture, we find a general shift in which immediate divine “punishment” is deferred in favor of a common day of judgment for all on the last day, for we are told it is not God’s will that “any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” To like effect, is Jesus’ parable about letting the weeds and wheat grow together “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” Certainly, there are many instances of wondrous mercy and grace in Scripture where “sinners” who had earlier done wicked acts were later reconciled and called to be great servants of God, among them Moses and St. Paul. Given all this, in accord with Holy Scripture, we are hardly warranted, at least at present, in assuming there’s a link between suffering and divine punishment.
Another reason why God might allow suffering in this world is to allow us to “prove” ourselves, that is, this world is, as it were, a kind of proving grounds, where we are given the opportunity to either prove our virtue and “mettle” or confirm our vice and “weakness” (or possibly both, depending on the attributes in question). Given that God knows everything about us, even to the point of forseeing how we are going to act, we may conclude that this “proving” is mainly for our own benefit. If we do not, in this age, rely solely on God’s Word to convince us of God’s existence, we can hardly be expected, in the coming age, to trust God’s Word as to how we “would have” acted in the face of trial and tribulation had we been given the chance. It is doubtful the truly bad will agree they would have been so wicked as to deserve hell, nor would the truly good likely agree they would have been so virtuous as to deserve heaven. Putting it to the test eliminates any dispute.
Another reason for God to allow suffering is so that those who have suffered can, in turn, serve as a guiding light for those facing similar afflictions. Those who have suffered in a similar way share a very deep bond, and this bond is a reflection of the deep bond and relationship most of humanity naturally has with the suffering Christ. For it is hardly possible to reach maturity in this world without having suffered in some “unjust” and “undeserved” way that was completely “without cause.” Those who have walked the road of suffering can, by their very survival, offer hope to those still deep in the throes of suffering and despair, as by pointing out what to expect, or what things made the suffering worse and so are to be avoided, or what things helped to lighten suffering’s heavy load. In this way, those who have suffered have good blessings they can offer to others, and so may walk closer to God as God’s servants or children or representatives on earth.
Another reason why God may allow suffering is to more clearly cast a light on wickedness, to stir our hearts and encourage self-reflection, and to drive accelerated and positive change. When people say why doesn’t God intervene to stop evil, what they really mean is why doesn’t God intervene sooner. So, for example, in article, the author asks why her friend had to suffer from polio and why the cure didn’t come soon enough to help her friend. This ignores that one significant factor that likely drove the fund-raising that paid for the research that ultimately found the cure for polio was, as with other diseases, the obvious and horrible suffering it caused. In Holy Scripture, there is a suggestion that God might wait for relatively long periods, at least relative to human life spans, before stopping evil. One could conclude that God allows the consequences of great wickedness to have its full effect before intervening so that people will realize the full extent of evil that accompanies particular forms of wickedness. Some forms of wickedness, at least at the outset, may seem relatively harmless. Indeed, even when great wickedness is allowed to proceed to its full effect, to stand forever as a horrible example, as it were, there will likely still be people who will deny this great wickedness was really all that bad. We see this, for example, with those who deny the horrors or the principal causes of the Holocaust.
Still another reason why God might allow suffering is to prevent a still greater evil. For example, the drowning of a young child in a river sounds like a horrible and senseless tragedy. But what if that young child would later grow up to become Adolf Hitler? How much evil and how many innocent lives would have been saved had Hitler died as a youth in a “tragic” drowning accident? What if, on the other hand, Hitler had been less evil and megalomaniacal than he was. What if he hadn’t simultaneously turned on Russia while attacking the original Allies, or what if he had acted with more restraint by stopping with the invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia, at least until such time he had further developed his rocket and nuclear war capabilitites? The truth is, being only human, we can only see the great evil that occured, but without the fuller divine perspective, we have no way to discern whether or not by means of some “evil” a still greater evil was avoided.
Yet another reason why God might allow suffering is to prepare us for the coming age. There is some hint of this in the parable Jesus told where he compared the kingdom of heaven to a marriage feast held by the king for his son, and how this king came upon one man with no wedding garment. When the king asked “how did you get in here without a wedding garment,” the man was speechless, whereupon the king ordered his servants to bind the man “hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
One way to understand the significance of this parable is to assume that originally the man did have a wedding garment, for elsewhere Jesus says that those resurrected “cannot die anymore” and “are like angels in heaven,” by which we may understand that everyone resurrected to heaven assumes a new body of some transformed or elevated sort. Yet once having assumed this “wedding garment,” as the parable would seem to describe it, it appears possible to change back into something inferior, possibly by committing a grievous sin anew in heaven. If it is also true, as Jesus further said, that “to whom much is given, of him will much be required,” what will be required of someone who has been given the gift of heaven? What possible blessing could be greater? In accord with the great sanctity and holiness of God’s loving presence, would not the appropriate response be one of great gratitude and sterling conduct? What should be the punishment for rejection and willful abuse of this great blessing but the most severe punishment, and as resurrection came with eternal life, so too perhaps the punishment may likewise be eternal. For no place higher than heaven has been revealed nor should we just assume, particularly given this parable, that heaven is a place where second chances are given. If we are unprepared, immediate entry into heaven may not necessarily be the best thing for us. Perhaps, after all, the places of “severe beating” and “light beating” referred to in the Gospel are really indicative of God’s great mercy and kindness to us, for even a severe beating is not final, and we should hope that our hearts are adequately prepared before we get to heaven or hell.
In short, there are a number of reasons, some of which I have no doubt missed, why a good God may allow seemingly “senseless” suffering to occur, even though God fully has the power to prevent such suffering were this God’s will. The existence of suffering in this world should not, then, be viewed as some insurmountable obstacle to drawing closer to God. If anything, it is faith that lays better claim to explaining suffering, for atheism has no meaningful explanation for it at all. Rather, like everything else it considers, atheism simply concludes about suffering that “its just the way things are.”
In comparison with this bleak and fatalistic sense that everything is already predetermined, and there’s nothing anyone can really do about it (for even free will is held, by materialistic atheists, to be merely an illusion, and just the result of fully deterministic sequences of chemical firings in the brain), faith offers us both the promise and hope that what we do in this world really matters, both for us and for those we love, and that real goodness truly exists in this world and someday we will experience the source of this goodness in a way both wonderful and hardly now imaginable. What hope does atheism have to offer that compares to that?