Human suffering is very great. Much of it seems senseless. Much of it is so evil that I cannot comprehend it. Vile violence against women and girls, perhaps more than anything else, pierces my heart like a knife.
What anchors my faith in Christ in the face of senseless suffering and brutal inhumanity? In The Beauty of God chapter 8, I have explored some of the reasons for God permitting pain and evil to afflict His good creation. Scattered throughout other chapters I have provided some analysis of various alternatives to the biblical worldview. In this post I want to bring the major alternatives to biblical revelation together. When my heart is burdened by suffering in the world, I run through them in my mind, and I see afresh how impossible they are.
There are really only four major worldviews (aside from Christianity) that are viable candidates for adoption by all people. My purpose is to show that they are all fundamentally flawed in their approach to human suffering. I am well aware that people are often either better or worse than their theoretical convictions. I am not criticizing the adherents of these views. I am critiquing their understanding of the ultimate foundation of life.
In subsequent postings, I hope to give an analysis of the Bible’s teaching on suffering and why it succeeds where the others fail. Whenever I think through the options available, I realize afresh that there really is no other place to turn except the Triune God of the Bible.
There is no hope in Hinduism. The doctrine of Karma insists that your lot in this life is your well-merited fate because of sins committed in a prior existence. Hindus (by the grace of the true God) are often better than their religion. Tens of thousands protested the gang rape of a young woman on a private bus in New Delhi in 2012, but their doctrine should have taught them to say, “No doubt, she deserved it.”
Furthermore, the suffering of the body does not really touch the soul. In the Indian holy book, the Bhagavad-Gita, the god Krishna encourages Arjuna not to feel guilty about killing his wicked cousins in battle because death is only an illusion: “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.... It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable and unchangeable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body” (2.22-25). Therefore, logically, the rape of this young woman did her no harm. If we believe Krishna, we should say that we are outraged at her rape because we cannot see past the outer shell of the body.
The more refined forms of philosophical Hinduism may say that the Atman (the self) is Brahman (ultimate reality) “within” and Brahman is the Atman “without.” The individuality of the self is an illusion. The self and Brahman are one. The goal of life is to escape reincarnation by acquiring good Karma. Then the tiny drop of individual consciousness will be dissolved in the great ocean of impersonal, universal Brahman. This sounds very noble until one realizes that pain and pleasure or God and the devil are therefore only names for our misperceptions of the all-encompassing, impersonal Being. The horror of rape and the pleasure of a good dinner with friends are equally illusory.
There is no blessedness in Buddhism. The Buddha traced suffering to desire. If one can quench self-centered desire, he will no longer suffer. This is the enlightenment that Buddha achieved. Setting aside later developments that virtually deified Buddha and other enlightened beings, we are left with a set of psychological techniques for achieving a state in which one is not bothered by the vicissitudes of life. After enlightenment, the flame of an individual life will no longer have to pass through the weary round of suffering, death, rebirth, and suffering. Instead, it will enter Nirvana. Nirvana is not a place. It is the impersonal, ultimate reality. Buddha would not describe Nirvana, except to say that it is bliss. The problem, however, is that bliss is a personal trait which is inconsistent with the impersonality of Nirvana. Bliss and the extinction of desire (the blowing out of the flame of life) are fundamentally incompatible.
Of course, some eastern philosophers claim not to be bothered by logical contradictions. In their view A and Non-A may be equally ultimate, but this is only a mind game. They do not and cannot live as if the real world is ultimately contradictory. No Buddhist or Hindu philosopher will act as if being run over by a car is the same as escaping such a fate.
In the end, Buddhism, which began with Buddha’s distress over suffering, offers only an anesthetic.
There is no inspiration in Islam. Islam claims to be based on revelations given to Muhammad (d. AD 632) by the archangel Jibril. Its references to biblical characters and events are clearly only a mishmash of stories picked up by Muhammad from contact with Jews and Christians and various cults in his travels as a trader. The Qur’an says that Muhammad never read or wrote a book. His followers wrote down his sayings on any material that was handy. After his death, his sayings were collected to form the Quran. The Qur’an encourages Christians to read the Injil (the gospel) because then they will see that Muhammad is a true prophet. However, the Injil, as it exists in manuscripts from the second century onward, clearly contradicts the fundamental teachings of Islam. For example, the Qur’an specifically denies that Jesus is the Son of God and that He was crucified on the cross. Islam is simply the most successful Christian cult, and like all the major cults, it denies the deity of Christ.
The doctrines of Islam offer no comfort for those who suffer. Everything that happens is according to the will of Allah, and submission to His inscrutable will is the essence of Islam. Allah is utterly transcendent. He has never revealed himself. All we can know is his will. We cannot know him or have a personal and intimate relationship with him (though some later developments may have softened this conception). The Muslim answer to suffering is simply, “Allah has willed it.” We can neither question his decree, nor understand its purpose. Has a woman been gang raped? We must punish the evil-doers, of course, but she must submit to the inscrutable will of God without any comfort from the presence of God.
There is no meaning in materialism. As Friedrich Nietzsche clearly realized, the death of God entails the death of ultimate meaning and morality. Man without God must move on beyond good and evil. For the consistent materialist, suffering is simply a fact, a meaningless datum. Of course, materialists (by the grace of the God they deny) do become outraged at injustice. In their hearts, they know that the gang rape of a woman is different from a pack of dogs climbing one after the other on top of a bitch in heat. In their proper moral outrage, materialists improperly rage against God, who alone can give meaning to their sense of morality.
Ø Hinduism. Learn to regard suffering as an illusion.
Ø Buddhism. Train yourself to ignore your suffering. Extinguish your individual, self-centered desire.
Ø Islam. Submit to suffering. It is the inscrutable will of a remote Allah.
Ø Materialism. Suffering is a fact of evolution. No suffering is truly evil because good and evil are value judgments made by individuals or by their particular communities.
These are all of the viable alternatives to Christianity that there are in the world. My heart can rest in none of them because I know that good and evil are neither illusions of the mortal mind nor inventions of self-replicating mud. I know that generosity and kindness reflect ultimate Goodness and that cruelty is an aberration. I know that a rose is more beautiful than a pile of horse manure. I know that we were designed for love and for beauty and for the fulfillment of every holy desire. The extinction of desire (Buddhism), the dissolution of individuality in the great ocean of being (Hinduism), and the unreachable transcendence of Allah—all of these deny the fundamental fact of our humanity: we were made for relationship.