Suffering and Belief in God

The dreadful loss of life from the Earthquake in south-Asia, coming so soon after the huge numbers killed in the Tsunami is a challenge to religious believers and anyone with a world view of a universe which has some meaning at its heart.

Some might tend towards an acceptance of the inexplicable actions of God. For them there is no rational answer to give to those who have suffered terribly to meet the needs of their emotional devastation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, when confronted with the loss of family, friends, wealth and health, job illustrates a bitter reality. Faith is not rationally justified, suffering is not explained, and God gives no reasons for his actions.

For others suffering is simply an inevitable fact of the cycle of existence, not an intended feature of the divinely formed universe. Human attachment to life and its materiality exaggerates human suffering by leaving humanity stuck in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

More difficult to stomach are the attempts to find a theological explanation – that the suffering is in some way punishment for sinful life, or will lead to the improvement of the soul as Hick tries to suggest. Even if an individual case of suffering did lead to a more deeply developed soul, the suggestion that some divine power intended to exchange the life of an innocent child, for the development of the soul of a parent survivor, contradicts common notions of justice, compassion and the idea of a personal God.

Cardinal Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Conner commented after the Tsunami that people seemed to continue to have faith despite these things. Faith endures without a rational justification, and does not necessarily make things better. This presents an interesting challenge for those taking a philosophical approach to the problem of suffering in the world. Religious people seem not to develop a rational explanation of suffering, or one that satisfies them. It remains inexplicable. Some choose no longer to believe, others keep their faith.  Philosophical arguments either way do not make much difference to how a person responds to suffering in the world.

Faced with this the arbitrariness of faith is difficult to come to terms with. That some seem to be left with faith to believe and others left with no faith, deepens the mystery of faith and belief in God. Many Christians suggest that faith is a gift from God, yet God seems not to give the same amount of faith to all, in the same way that terrible suffering is not universally felt by all. Of course Christians teach that human beings have the option to respond to God. They are not coerced. Yet the capacity to that response must surely be affected by the suffering they endure. All the more reason to be confounded by the mysteriousness of an individual’s choice to believe despite the contradictions they must then accept. Which is easier, to choose not to believe in the face of suffering or to choose to continue?

Some say that the response to God should be to reject him, rather than refuse to believe in him. In other words we condemn God for what he is, instead of denying he exists. Hard though it is to comprehend in these terms, this to is a response of faith, so the mystery deepens again.

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