God Allows Suffering Because Suffering Is Existence [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

After a week off for the election, it’s time to address Shelly’s Questions That Haunt Christianity, which I posted last Tuesday.

Shelly asked,

Why would God create humans (and animals) knowing what a vast number of them would suffer in this life? Does eternity really make up for a life of war, fear, hunger, or _______ (insert issue here). The typical response to this question is, “People could have lived in perfection as God created it, but they chose sin.” But that doesn’t answer the question. God would have known that people would sin. So why start the whole mess at all, even with the promise of a messiah?

There are over 100 responses to the question from readers. Now here’s my shot:

The first thing to consider is the premise of Shelly’s question. Do a vast number of sentient creatures (humans and animals) suffer in this life? In my estimation, Shelly, you overstate the case here. Unlike many of my peers in the progressive Christian community, I separate the ontological fate of humans and other animals.

I’ve been quite honest here about my fondness for hunting, and activity that many readers find unsavory, disgusting, and even sinful. And yet, I persist.

Over the last two months, I have killed ten ducks and eleven pheasants. Several of these birds I merely wounded with a shotgun; my trusty Lab, Albert, then retrieved these still-living animals and dropped them at my feet. When that happens, I proceed to wring the bird’s neck—the creature expires in my hands.

I then field dress the bird, which is a smelly, bloody business, and ultimately serve the meat I’ve harvested to my family.

That’s the brutal reality of hunting.

If you eat meat of any sort, with the possible exception of roadkill, you are benefitting from someone else killing an animal prior to its natural death and preparing the meat for your consumption. (If you’d like to read my account from the inside of a chicken “kill plant” of Tyson Foods, see The New Christians.)

I would not undertake the activity of hunting, or of eating meat of any sort, if I thought that animals “suffer.” I do not think that they suffer. I don’t think a duck has a memory—it has only instinct—and memory is necessary for suffering. If you eat meat, you either agree with me, or you’re benefitting from an act that you believe to be evil.

Here’s another example: while pheasant hunting in South Dakota last month, Albert’s leg was cut down the muscle by barbed wire. He yelped when it happened, and then he proceeded to hunt without pause. While the cut surely “hurt” him (caused his nervous system some sense of pain), he did not “suffer” in the way that I did when I injured my back last week.

I am claiming that animals are not cognizant of their pain over time—they are not able to reflect on it, to suffer over it. Therefore, Shelly’s question of theodicy is applicable only to human beings, not to animals of other sorts.

I do agree with you, Shelly, that the common response that we suffer because we chose sin is unacceptable, because your question is about the nature of God, not about the nature of human beings. It is inconsistent with the biblical view of God to claim that God was surprised by the first sin of Adam and Eve, and of our subsequent sins. (I attempt to debunk the doctrine of Original Sin in my book, A Better Atonement.)

So, back to Shelly’s premise: A vast majority of human beings experience suffering. I think that’s true, although I would put a finer point on it: Despair is common to the human experience.

In light of this reality, why would God bother to “start this whole mess at all?” to use Shelly’s turn of phrase.

In my youth, I was taught that God created the cosmos and those of us who inhabit it because God was lonely. That answer is crap because it thoroughly anthropomorphizes God. Any traditional conception of God is as a wholly complete Being, wanting of nothing. If that’s the case—and it’s got to be, unless you want to demote God to a demiurge—then God didn’t need a creation to provide himself company.

Another response you’ll hear from my process theology friends is that the question assumes that God pre-existed the rest of creation, when in fact God did not. So it can be argued that there has always been creation, and that creation is part of God. There was no time at which God existed but nothing else did. If you take this position, you probably have to assume that the nature of the universe is cyclical, and that God is the eternal process of these cycles.

Another, related position is that God, in God’s very nature, is relational. Therefore, God’s nature demanded some creation with which God could be in relationship. And that creation needed to have at least enough freedom to be able to be in relationship back with God. If you take this position, you could say that God pre-existed creation, but that God was not fully realized as God until there were other free beings to whom God could relate.

But the bottom line for me is none of these. To be honest, I am not bothered by this question of why God would create us, knowing that we would sin and experience despair. That’s because despair seems like part of the very nature of existence, even for God.

The Bible contains several poignant passages in which Yahweh is said to grieve, to be angry, and to be disappointed. He despairs of his creation to the point that he wipes it almost all out with a Flood. At other times, he metes out similar, though less deadly, fates to those human beings of whom he despairs.

Similarly, Jesus experiences suffering — at the death of a friend, at the betrayal of a follower, and, ultimately, at the complete absence of God as he hangs on the cross. Even God experiences the despair that comes with the absence of God.

If God despairs, if God suffers, then despair and suffering seem to be at the core of what it means to exist. And if that’s the case, then I don’t think it’s a mistake of creation that we experience it.

  • Craig

    “I do not think that they suffer. I don’t think a duck has a memory—it has only instinct—and memory is necessary for suffering.”

    This is why I don’t take it to heart when babies cry. Kids don’t actually suffer until they’re about four years old. This is why you should pierce and tattoo them when they’re young.

    • Curtis

      Babies have a memory. As a Psychologist. It is often sub-conscious, but it is clearly there.

      • Craig

        Does a sub-conscious memory even count? Perhaps we’re just wasting anesthetic when we operate on young children.

        • Yours with Love, Jesusina

          If memory is necessary to true suffering, then what about those people who have different types of amnesia, no short-term memory, alzheimer’s etc? I guess we can operate on them without anesthetic too. We can also, I believe, extend this to other sorts of care: does some old lady with alzheimer’s really need food? It’s not like she’ll remember being hungry. Good to know, we’ll save some serious money now that the problem of suffering has been solved.

          • Craig

            Right! We’ve been wasting a lot of anesthetic. In fact, a temporary memory suppressant would be a damn good alternative: memory impaired patients would writhe in (apparent) agony while you operated on them, but surgeons could just tie them down and wear noise-canceling headphones while they cut away. No suffering at all!

          • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

            I’m glad someone made this point.

  • Pither

    “If God despairs, if God suffers, then despair and suffering seem to be at the core of what it means to exist. And if that’s the case, then I don’t think it’s a mistake of creation that we experience it.”

    Then we’re all agreed that we’re gonna stop saying that in Heaven all suffering will end, right?

    • Curtis

      Good point. Even as I child, I often wondered what the point of Heaven was. If everything was perfect, how would we know it was perfect? And if we didn’t know how good we had it, what would be the point? In a way, wouldn’t the people in Hell be just as happy as Heaven? Sure, it would be crappy at first, but before too long it would be the only thing they knew, so before too long people in Heaven and Hell would be equally happy, both groups equally numb in their ignorance of anything else.

      Heaven and Hell thought of this way just don’t make any sense. I guess that is why Jesus never brought it up.

  • Curtis

    This post doesn’t have a title. How is that possible? Tony, you just broke WordPress!

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Yeah, sorry about that. Too concerned about getting my kid with mono and forgot to title it.

  • Pax

    Isn’t language about God’s grief, anger, disappointment, and despair just anthropomorphizing God as well?

    • Larry Barber

      Saying that some is anthropomorphical is not the same thing as saying it’s meaningless. Yes they’re approximations at best, but also the best we can do at describing God in terms that we understand.

  • http://www.gatewayalliancechurch.com Martin

    Honestly, Tony, I simply cannot agree with you.

    Animals suffer. The Bible is full of accounts – like the donkey speaking to Baalam (however you take that story), or the laws about being kind to animals, or God telling Jonah that he cares for Nineveh because of “all the humans and the animals as well” or Noah and the ark, or Jesus saying that it is kosher to help a distressed animal on the sabbath.

    But if that doesn’t work for you Google “animals suffering” and look at the images.

  • Jason Stewart

    My only comment to add is that I think your off the mark about your perception of animal intelligence. They cannot reflect as deeply as we can about the past but to say they can’t reflect on it at all is presumptuous. I used to think like that too but I think several examples can be shown to challenge this notion, chimps for instance exhibit a great amount of cognition and self awareness.

  • Craig

    “If you eat meat, you either agree with me, or you’re benefitting from an act that you believe to be evil.”

    This is a bit simplistic. I reject your claims about suffering, but there’s another way to think about hunting and fishing. Death from a rifle’s bullet, a blast of pellets, or a wrung or severed neck is typically no more miserable than death in the wild (getting torn about by beast, or slowly killed by parasites, hunger, injury, etc.). So when I kill a deer with a well-placed shot, I am likely also sparing that animal from worse suffering of some form or another. I wouldn’t, however, attempt to justify or excuse current forms of factory farming.

    • Worthless Beast

      That’s how I think. I don’t hunt, but I do fish and kill/clean my own catch, was raised around uncles who hunted, my father was a butcher and I was raised rural where some of my earliest memories is of “helping” him turn chickens into dinner…

      Yet, I’ve worked on farms taking care of horses and have had many cats, dogs and other pets in my life. You cannot tell me that a horse “has no memory” when my expeirences with horses that have been abused would tell me otherwise. I was watching something on PBS the other day about animal behavior that was amazing – among other things, scientists have observed evidence of rats – yes, rats – having a rudimentary morality. That’s not to say that I think my cat thinks as deeply as I do – I doubt she realizes that one day, she and everyone she loves is going to die and thinks about it, for instance, but I pretty much accept that the meat I eat felt pain in its life and death – and accept it as nature. If existance is pain, why would any part of existance (not God, not beasts) be excluded?

    • Evelyn

      I eat meat and I’m benefiting from an act that I believe to be evil. The problem is, for humans to stay alive we have to eat highly evolved living organisms whether they be animals or plants. We don’t know enough about our nutritional needs to synthesize the appropriate building blocks that we need. Whether we eat plants or animals, we are being destructive of life. It is best to ask for forgiveness and contemplate the life of the thing we are eating when we eat.

  • Craig

    “I am claiming that animals are not cognizant of their pain over time—they are not able to reflect on it, to suffer over it.”

    When I am suffering intense physical pain, it’s the sensations of the present moment that primarily make it really bad–not, or at least not obviously, my current or future reflections on that pain. Indeed, it is sometimes by distancing myself from the painful sensory experience through reflection that I am able to experience some relief from that pain. Distancing myself form the present pain through reflective understanding–as when I remind myself that the pain is only temporary, or that it is for the good–can also be helpful. The animal sometimes suffers more because it cannot understand what it happening (consider your dog at the vet). The child suffers more because she hasn’t learned to distance herself from her current pain and tribulations through reflection. A mark of intense physical pain and suffering is that it keeps you in that very moment, preventing higher reflection. The intense suffering is animalistic. Try formulating a nuanced and abstract argument when your tooth is getting drilled without anesthetic.

    Now the badness of death is another matter. Perhaps here’s where cognizance of the self is a key factor.

  • http://http://winter60.blogspot.com/ Lausten North

    Animals may or may not agonize. That point doesn’t need to be proven, or even discussed to get to the discussion about suffering. That they experience pain and have a desire to live is enough for me. Ducks, like many animals even have a desire for their babies to live. You pretty much lost me after that line of reasoning and the rest of your answer just fell apart.

  • Kyle S.

    Animals don’t suffer, you say?

    Scientists disagree: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLSwRcvX72M

    • Evelyn

      Thanks for the video. It is an excellent discussion of animal suffering and also offers insight into scientific argumentation practices.

  • Evelyn

    Tony says: “In my youth, I was taught that God created the cosmos and those of us who inhabit it because God was lonely. That answer is crap because it thoroughly anthropomorphizes God.”
    And then he says: “The Bible contains several poignant passages in which Yahweh is said to grieve, to be angry, and to be disappointed. He despairs of his creation to the point that he wipes it almost all out with a Flood. At other times, he metes out similar, though less deadly, fates to those human beings of whom he despairs.”

    The apparent emotions that God feels in the Old Testament are anthropomorphized. They are descriptions of the response of a human-like God. If God feels emotions, they are “holy” emotions because he is incapable of sin, he being one with himself. Both anger and jealousy are sins if felt by humans but if God appears angry it is holy anger, not human anger, and if God appears jealous, it is holy jealousy, not human jealousy. God’s anger and jealousy do not result from misunderstanding like ours do. The way I see it, God’s anger and jealousy are (tough) loving responses to the self-defeating behaviors of humans.

    “the question assumes that God pre-existed the rest of creation, when in fact God did not. So it can be argued that there has always been creation, and that creation is part of God.”

    I think God pre-existed us even though he can’t be defined by us unless we are able to discuss him (within our own heads and with each other). God is within us and we are within God. Given that we are within God, he is outside of us and it is entirely probable that he pre-existed us.

    As far as creation being part of God, this statement is loaded with notions about where God manifests – namely that God is within animate objects as well as living ones. Until I see a stone move on its own according to some will that I can identify, I’ll assume that God is either part of or actually is the life force and does not have dominion over things that we don’t consider to be “alive”.

    “God, in God’s very nature, is relational. Therefore, God’s nature demanded some creation with which God could be in relationship.”

    Our concept of God is relational because that is how our minds work. God exists outside of the human mind and does not require a relationship. Saying that God’s nature is relational is kind of like saying the nature of a radio wave is relational because it needs an antenna to be able to detect it. The radio wave exists regardless of whether there is an antenna that detects it.

    If God despairs and suffers, his despair and suffering are holy and are different than ours. If God didn’t despair in some way, he wouldn’t draw us towards him or allow us to relate to him So that is how I would define God’s despair – an (anthropomorphized, of course) “yearning” for us but I don’t think his despair or suffering are particularly painful for him like despair and suffering are painful for us.

  • LoneWolf

    Seriously? Animals have memory, and they can remember pain. They wouldn’t be able to survive if they didn’t, because they wouldn’t think to avoid dangerous situations. They might not be reasoning creatures, but they aren’t vacuous.

    • Yours with Love, Jesusina

      Exactly. Pain has a (biological, evolutionary) function in life.

      WTF, Tony? That is pretty much all I can say.

  • Evelyn

    Pain and suffering are not the same thing. Look them up.

  • Evelyn

    “Darwin pointed out that if humans and other animals are similar in our anatomy and physiology, we also share similar mental experiences. Most modern ethologists agree. The list of psychological traits that other species share with humans is growing. Scientists have reported that elephants grieve their dead, monkeys perceive injustice, and cockatoos like to dance to the music of the Backstreet Boys. The ethical consequences of Darwin’s notion that the mental capacities of humans and animals differ by degree rather than kind are inescapable. If animals have perceptions, memories, emotions, and intentions, if the can feel pain and suffer, if they dance, how can we justify using chimpanzees or dogs or even mice in experiments? Is it simply a matter of might makes right?” – From “Some we Love, Some we Hat, Some we Eat: Why it’s so hard to think straight about animals” by Hal Herzog, 2010.

    Tony’s ideas about animals are obviously antiquated and are becoming socially irrelevant.

    • ME

      Do animals have an eternal component to them, soul/spirit, whatever you want to call it, that can experience despair? An animal may be closer in relation to a robot than a human.

      • Evelyn

        “Do animals have an eternal component to them, soul/spirit, whatever you want to call it, that can experience despair?”

        I don’t know. People may not even have an eternal soul or spirit that can experience despair. It’d be nice to think that we have an eternal consciousness that separates from our bodies after we die. More likely, we have a consciousness that is tied to our physical bodies that also dies when we die but at the same time we are inhabited by the Spirit which goes on after we die and is informed by the fact that we lived our lives the way we did and thought the things that we thought. Manifestations of “ghosts” where people think they are being contacted by their dead relatives and friends are likely to be the Spirit, who is uber-knowing, manifesting in the form of a dead loved one for whatever reason.

        Aside from scientific studies undertaken to prove or disprove animal suffering, there have been studies that investigate how animals perceive time and how they might form memories. For example, this Animal Planet article argues that dogs have some form of memory:
        http://animal.discovery.com/guides/dogs/dog-training/behavior/do-dogs-understand-the-concept-of-time.html
        But some scientists believe that animals only live in the moment and don’t have long-term memory:
        http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1325458/can_animals_grasp_the_concept_of_time/

        If animals only live in the moment, they can’t really suffer because, like Tony says, you have to be able to reflect on your pain in order to suffer. I think suffering closer to an ability to complain after a hurtful incident than something that is inherently evil.

  • Lee P.

    Pretty sure Elephants mourn their dead and come back to their graves for years. Also, the great apes seem sure to heave something akin to self awareness.

  • Evelyn

    According to a textbook read by 11 and 12 year-olds in India, meat eaters “easily cheat, tell lies, forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes.”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20354669

  • UnityChaplain

    Tony I have just discovered your blog and am comforted by your work. Though I am a vegetarian, I am drawn to your honest and stand up writing. I am at Duke Divinity, currently being subjected to a bashing by the minions of the HM and to have a idea outside of the theology there is to be attacked, degraded and threatened. I just handed in another “controversial” paper on Original Sin. I wish I had known about your book before last month. I’m buying it today. Because I need some spiritual food than hasn’t been poisoned. Even if you are a hunter (I am laughing) I have to tell you that even this quick discussion of suffering is so much better than the lame 2.5 hours my Hauerbot professor spent mocking people who are in pain, who question God in times of grief. I disgaree with you regarding animal suffering, I do think that animals suffer. I would say that they lack the double awareness of humans, which is that human suffer over their suffering. Humans typically contemplate suffering while other animals simply experience it. I came from a family of hunters and meat eaters and I noticed that very kind people who love animals AND hunting want to believe that animals don’t suffer and I love them all anyway! :) I am grateful today to find your work after a long semester of suffering at school. The HM lives up to the notion that no group of people is as mean as those being mean for their brand of Jesus. My stupidity is that I had no idea of the cruelty that I was going to subject myself to. I really believe in Love One Another, despite our differing theologies but that is considered less than by the majority of students at DDS. I am not sure what happened to our growth in Christ as being the impetus for studying Divinity, but it has been replaced with an idolatrous cult mentality. I’m glad you have the b@lls to write this blog and your books. Pax Christi.

  • KRS

    “I would not undertake the activity of hunting or of eating meat of any sort, if I thought that animals suffer.’”

    Life becomes complicated when we think other living creatures are capable of thinking, feeling, suffering. What the oher’s capabilities encompass will impact my full range of interactions them. If I change my thinking, my actions and life will be impacted. At what cost will I change my thinking?

  • Nick Gotts

    I do not think that they [non-human animals] suffer.

    That’s not just utter crap, as a number of people have already pointed out, it’s utterly despicable, self-deluding, self-justifying crap. Yuck.