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

God Allows Suffering Because Suffering Is Existence [Questions That Haunt] November 9, 2012

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.

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