15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;Psalm 88, a song of Heman the Ezrahite
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.
The Problem of Pain
If there is one almost irreconcilable problem for Christianity it is the problem of pain and suffering. This tragic mystery, of how an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God could allow suffering, pain, and extraordinary human cruelty, in a world where human beings seem either woefully helpless (against things like tsunamis, or bone cancer), or profoundly depraved (as in the rape of Nanking or the Armenian Genocide), presents itself as more than just an intellectual dilemma for Christian apologists. It is the thing which ultimately drives many away from faith in God and the promises found in Jesus Christ.
That said, I am not presenting a specific, theistic argument here, or a theodicy trying to reconcile particular instances of pain and suffering with God’s providential purposes, at least not directly. Rather I am making an appeal– an appeal to something we have reason to believe does occur, and, if it does, may be the kind of thing, perhaps the only kind of thing that would ultimately rectify the human experience of horrible suffering and extraordinary evil. And, if this rectifying kind of thing were actualized, then we might have very good reason to believe that Christianity is indeed true, and maybe believe that with certainty.
Kinds of Pain
But, what could rectify the kinds and degrees of suffering human persons experience in this world? First, let’s define what kinds of suffering there might be. It seems to me there are roughly four kinds of evils in the world that can befall the human person:
- Physical pain caused by natural evils
- Emotional pain that results from the same physical pain caused by natural evils
- Emotional pain caused by either:
- a) Things other human agents do to other human agents or
- b) Strong desires or longings left unfulfilled in one’s life
- Extraordinary evil, which is a special kind of 3a, in that it manifests itself in some act of unconscionable malice or malevolence at the individual level of human moral interaction (e.g. child sexual abuse), or at the macro-level of societal interaction (genocide).
Some examples of (1) would range from a toothache to bone cancer. The emotional suffering that emerges, and lingers, due to the c-fibers that fire during the instances of physical pain these biological deficiencies cause, would be an example of (2). Examples of this kind of emotional pain might be the kind of self-reflective questions that accompany the persistent enduring of physical pain: e.g. “Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why cancer, when I am so young and have children to raise?” Alternatively, someone punching me without warning is also an instance of physical pain caused by a natural evil, in that it is the force and the mass of the fist striking my nose that causes the pain. But, in the case of the punch, what distinguishes it from the toothache, or the cancer, is the additional emotional pain that arises on account of it being an intentional act by another moral agent (3a).
Hence, regarding type (3a), immoral human action, this would be the emotional pain that someone must endure when another moral agent either physically or emotionally damages them. Although, as I pointed out above, it is hard to see how physical damage, especially physical damage that is known to be intentionally carried out by one agent against another, would fail to cause subsequent emotional damage (barring exceptional circumstances, like the lack of capacity to have emotions). Therefore, someone getting mugged on the street, or a wife being raped by her husband would be examples of (3a). The latter however causing greater degrees of emotional trauma than the former, since other kinds of moral goods: promises, trust, and prior intimacy, have been broken in the case of the rapist husband, but not necessarily in the case of the anonymous mugger.
There is another kind of emotional suffering, however, (3b) is the kind of suffering that would come via a deep sense of unfulfilled longing. Not the kind that arises when we don’t get to have our favorite flavor of ice cream, because Baskin Robbins just ran out of Rocky Road, but the kind of ongoing pain that haunts someone when they realize they will never find someone to marry who really loves them, or when someone learns that the years of hard work and sacrifice they put in to prepare themselves to qualify for a special job or occupation was simply not enough, and they must now let go of that dream in order to move on with life.
I use one of my own examples for (3b), which would be the emotional pain of disappointment I experienced after spending over two years preparing myself physically and mentally for US Army Special Forces; first getting selected, then spending 17 months in the Q-course, but only to realize, perhaps too late, that I simply wasn’t going to make it all the way through. I had two berets at the end of my Army career, neither was green, and I had spent nearly three years killing myself to attain something I didn’t get, and still wonder whether I should have pursued at all (although I do credit the training I experienced in the “Q” with potentially saving my life a year later in Afghanistan).
While character development can certainly take place in many instances of unfulfilled dreams or lost opportunities, and valuable life-lessons are learned in failure, the disappointment of ultimately not making it through to some final consummation or clearly defined end state of a sought after goal is often a bitter pill to swallow. Soldiers who have left a theater of operations before seeing any real success on the ground know this feeling all too well. The sacrifices are deep and manifold, yet the gains seem meager and obscure.
Finally, there is also the kind of suffering that some, like military men, often wind up fighting against, namely type (4) pain and suffering. This suffering takes the form of what one genocide researcher, James Waller, calls “extraordinary evil.” Extraordinary evil is the kind of evil that breaks through the veil of normalcy in human history, causing us to collectively gasp and corporately weep. This is the stuff of genocide, be it Germany in the 1940’s or Rwanda in a few short months in 1994. But, within those seemingly macro-level events, are the actual grotesque, micro-events that make us question both God, and our own humanity. These are the hacking of bodies, the dismembering, the raping, the violating in every way, shape, and form of that which the Bible tells us is sacred and holy, and made in God’s image. It is image bearers torturing other image bearers.
Then, even outside of the context of war, there is the gruesome reality of things like child rape, mutilation, torture, and other things that real human beings somehow find themselves capable of doing: more image bearers desecrating other image bearers. This is the type of suffering that can make belief difficult. Surprisingly though, even this kind of evil does not stop many who have experienced it from believing in Christ, often in a far more profound way than those who have not had such experiences. Which leads us to ask how this might occur?
Is There an Answer?: The Hope of Epiphanic Redemptive Experience
In detailing these kinds of pain, and giving concrete examples, I hopefully have avoided whitewashing or marginalizing the serious challenge they present to the truth and goodness of the Christian message. With all that, and there is quite a lot of that there, what kind of thing could not just counterbalance such horror, but actually transform each instance of extraordinary evil into something one could justifiable call redeemed?
First, there are two distinctions to make if we are going to get a grip on how something like the sadistic torture of an innocent could become redeemed. One, the only kind of thing that can be understood to be redeemed from any person’s privileged, first-person perspective, is their own privileged, first-person experience. I cannot really experience my neighbor’s toothache, even if I can have compassion for her in the midst of it. Thus, a redeemed pain or injury suffered must be my own pain or injury, not of someone else’s, so too theirs cannot be of mine.
Thus we reject the notion that anyone, even Bill Clinton (or counselor Troi), can actually “feel” the pain of another person. First-person experiences are just that– first-person. As such the kinds of experiences that could make horrible, atrocious pains or sufferings redeemed experiences are themselves first-person experiences particular to the individual. They, the redeeming experiences, would be “custom-made” to the individual’s psychology, physiology, and personal history. There are no collective pains. Nor is it the case that individual experiences of pain add to some theoretical tally of overall suffering. Pains endured individually are redeemed individually, even if they may involve others in the process of redemption.
Second, no other person can know what would be the exact experience that would make some other person’s first-person experience of pain and suffering justifiably redeemed. So, if Bob has experienced extraordinary evil X, then only Bob can know what would redeem X. Even Bob’s best and closest friend of 70 years (perhaps his life-long spouse, Sally) cannot know what particular redemptive experience, E, would be the one that would in fact redeem Bob’s experience of X. E is reserved for Bob, and Bob alone. Just as Sally will have some other E, E*, that will redeem her X*.
So, redeemed pains will be redemptive, experiential instances whereby 1) the first-person experience of an individual, S, is the only thing that is in view, and 2) only S will know what can do the redeeming of the pains he or she has suffered, since only he or she has experienced those pains. Again, this safeguards against thinking that their are such things as collective pains, which there clearly are not, and also that I could know what your experience of your own pain is, and, subsequently, what it would take to fix it– something Job’s friends thought they could do, but failed at miserably.
It is not without irony that the character of Job is here invoked. For in Job we have what seems like the kind of irreconcilable suffering we’ve mentioned, i.e. the kind of suffering for which there seems no good counterbalancing reason, and where each of the four categories of suffering mentioned above are present. Since the book of Job maintains Job’s moral innocence throughout, the injustice of all four experiences of human suffering is thereby exacerbated. Job is not being punished, nor getting his just desserts. He suffers physical and emotional pain (boils and the loss of children to a natural disaster) and extraordinary evil (slaughter of faithful servants at the hands of the Sabeans and Chaldeans) without apparent purpose (from his perspective).
With the Book of Job in sight, what I am ultimately suggesting then as a sufficient answer to the apparent irreconcilability of human suffering with the Christian faith, must include one more countervailing experience: the direct manifestation of God to the human agent. This direct manifestation we can call “epiphanic,” for it would be a religious experience of the quality of Job’s direct encounter with God, or of the kinds of direct encounters so many Christian men and women have had throughout the centuries, regardless of time, culture, age or personal context. So, an epiphany of God and a countervailing experience of redemption are what the author of Job seems to tell us is the only answer to the irreconcilable problem. Let’s call this the “epiphanic redemptive experience.”
The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience (R) has two aspects then: 1) a new and deeper knowledge of God’s personal nature, and 2) a countervailing experience of a set of conditions or circumstances that doesn’t just “balance out” S’s experience of X, but that makes the experience of X, the extraordinary evil suffered, fully and completely justified. In short, S would know that X happened for this reason and that that reason was a good enough one to make X entirely acceptable to the sufferer. The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is an experience of such power and beauty, both in the pleasure it gives, and the explanation it offers, that it truly is a fully justifying experience of any evil, X.
The Book of Job demonstrates this kind of countervailing experience, in that Job receives both a personal epiphany of God, Job sees God face-to-face, and Job, at the end of his life, receives a greater portion of that which he enjoyed at the beginning of his life. Both conditions of R seem satisfied in Job’s case. However, serious criticisms have been offered by skeptics and theologians about whether or not goods like children, i.e. real persons, can so be replaced so easily in what looks to be a rather crude swap. If so, perhaps the second condition is not satisfied, since Job has lost unique children that obviously cannot be so simply replaced.
Leaving aside whether or not the author of Job is recounting an actual historical event, or just making a theological point (on my view, both), we must remember that the idea we have in mind is that God can provide the individual, here Job, with that R which for the individual countervails the suffering he or she has endured. So, for Job, as an ancient patriarch, winding up with more children and grandchildren, a thriving family business, more livestock, and the opportunity to see his children and their inheritance prosper to the fourth generation, very well may be the specific Job-tailored answer that fulfills the second condition of R. He, Job, needed to see, regardless of our modern skepticism, these kinds of rewards in order for him to feel that his prior suffering had indeed been redeemed. For Job, this likely satisfies the second condition of R, even if we moderns find it distasteful.
To reiterate: each R for every S’s X will be specific to S. The R itself has an objective component to it, i.e. the direct revelation of God’s personal nature, and a subjective component, i.e. the particular set of countervailing experiences that God tailors to the individual. Let’s go back to Bob. On this account Bob, subsequent to his suffering, will experience some aspect of God’s personal nature that he did not previously perceive or grasp, and Bob will also experience some reward, which, being tailored specifically to Bob’s prior suffering, makes that prior suffering fully understandable and fully justified. Bob, through the Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is made not only into a wholly renewed person, but is now a person whose experiences of God and the Good outweigh his experience of suffering and evil.
So, while I cannot, being consistent with my own claims, work out this kind of redemptive formula for any particular instance of X for some other subject, S (e.g. I cannot work out concretely what would be the exact R for a woman who was raped by her husband), I can argue for two conditions that would suffice to countervail and redeem my own X and the X* of the woman: a direct revelation of God in all His glory, power, beauty and love, and a first-person experience of those conditions that only God knows perfectly, and that are specifically tailored to the particular set of emotions of the sufferer, and that further grant peace and fulfillment to the individual who has experienced the suffering in question.
Epilogue: Unfulfilled Desires Filled by Christ
In his short story, Araby, the turn-of-the-century Irish author James Joyce has his main character, an adolescent Dublin boy infatuated with an older Irish lass, experience the pain and conflict not only of a desire unfulfilled, but of the irony of realizing that the desires he possesses are themselves deeply flawed and illusory. At the end of the story, after attempting to buy a small love token from the exotic oriental bazaar “Araby” for the object of his affection, the narrator realizes the folly of his desires, having a sort of anti-epiphany:
“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
For the narrator of the story, this experience of unfilled desires (3b), which, in one sense, is more fundamental and prior to the other forms of pain mentioned above, there is no experience of God in the moment of despair. Nor are we told, or is there any hint of, some later experience that might countervail the young boy’s feelings of foolishness, shame, and loss. But, as was recently pointed out to me in a Sunday sermon, this Joycean response to unfulfilled desire is the antithesis of the Gospel’s message. It is not that the Bible doesn’t validate the reality of real, embodied suffering, as Job and Psalm 88 attest, but rather that the biblical writers, unlike Joyce, don’t leave us “gazing into the darkness,” eyes burning “with anguish and anger.”
For, in the moments of greatest despair, in the times when our hearts feel empty, and our desires are left unmet; or worse, when all appears pointless and futile, it is in this time we are called to look up, not up into darkness, but rather to look up to see the hope and light of Christ. For it is in this moment when the Revelation of God, the true Epiphany of the God Who redeems, can meet us in the moment of despair.
For, when God appears to us, and explains to us, it is not our eyes that wind up aflame, but our hearts:
30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.Luke 24: 30-35
Where Joyce leaves our suffering mind gazing into darkness, a hopeless victim of unwanted and unfulfilled passions, St. Luke tells us of an encounter: a concrete presence of the Redeemer, who takes away our guilt and shame, overpowers death, and promises a life of desires fulfilled, and pains redeemed. When we see Him, then our eyes will be opened and filled with light, and the darkness flees.