The existence of suffering, or "problem" of suffering as it's known in philosophy, is a puzzling and unavoidable fact of reality. Nobody questions that we suffer, the question is, "Why do we suffer?" This question has weighed heavily on the minds of human beings since the dawn of our existence. The answer to this question is found in how we view reality, more specifically, in how we view human beings. This isn't to say that the answer is only relative to our personal beliefs, but that if suffering does have meaning, then its meaning must be bound up with the rest of reality. To help us understand suffering more clearly, let's use Jesus' parable about Lazarus and the rich man as a model, and consider how four different world views would understand the story. The question we need to keep in mind while examining these four different world views is: What is a human being?
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead’ (Lk 16:19-31).Buddhism
Let's begin with Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama (who is considered the original Buddha) founded an entire philosophy-religion (neither term describes Buddhism exactly) on the idea of suffering (dukkha), so surely he can provide us with some insights. Buddha believed that all suffering is the result of ignorance and attachment. This ignorance is of the fact that there is no human "self," and this attachment is a craving for the permanence of the self and the material world. Buddha then discerned a way by which one could eliminate all suffering – by eliminating all desire. In an effort to eliminate the effect, suffering, he had to eliminate the cause, desire. That's an awfully high price to pay, considering how deeply our desires are engrained into our human nature. Buddha believed that ignorance resulted from "grasping at what you can't have" and "avoiding what you cannot avoid," and yet the whole purpose of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism is an attempt to grasp at what one cannot have–a life free of all suffering–and to avoid what one cannot avoid–suffering–even if achieving this means viewing all of physical reality as an illusion. When trying to understand reality, we naturally seek to have a clear picture of everything, to come up with an explanation that takes into account all of the data. The problem with Buddhism then is that it does not account for all of the data. A good Buddhist would try to relieve Lazarus' suffering by helping him realize that his body is an illusion. This seems to be an extreme case of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Most people, especially those educated in Western countries, simply can't accept the idea that the world around them, which they experience constantly and directly through their senses, is an illusion. It is no coincidence that the physical sciences failed to take root for so long in Eastern countries; the total skepticism towards any knowledge derived from observation, which consists of sensory data, is directly opposed to the scientific method (for more on this topic, see my post, "How to Suck at Your Critique of Religion").
Next, let's consider how a Hindu would see Lazarus in the parable. Lazarus would be considered one of the Dalits, or "outcastes." In the traditional Hindu caste system, people are understood to suffer more or less based on which caste they're in, which is determined by the amount of "karma" they have accumulated in their past lives. In order to achieve moksha (liberation) from the Samsara (reincarnation) cycle, a person must "burn off" all of their karma through suffering, which might take literally thousands of lifetimes. With this understanding, any attempt to relieve the suffering of another person would be seen as an interference, since doing so would only prevent them from burning off their karma, and so ultimately prolong their suffering. The Dalits are so low in the Hindu view of human beings that they are not even part of a caste, hence the term,"out-castes." For centuries, approximately 25% of the Indian population were considered to be Dalits, until about 60 years ago when the Indian government abolished the caste system. Unfortunately, there is evidence that the caste mindset is still very much present in India today. From the standpoint of history, we know that every widespread violation of basic human dignity and rights has been made possible by the redefining of a group, class, or race of people as "subhuman" or even "non-human." The fact that this redefinition is even necessary testifies to the universal truth of morality that is written on the heart of every person. Knowing this, along with our human tendency to justify our behavior whenever possible, it's easy to see how the Hindu caste mentality can be a tempting ideology (if suffering is what liberates people, then I'm not obligated to help relieve their suffering). However, if the way we view human beings clashes with our natural inclinations to ensure justice and relieve suffering, then we should reevaluate our world view – not disregard our inclinations. The best Hindu advice on how to treat Lazarus would be, "Ignore him, he needs to burn off his karma." Somehow, this just sounds like a cop out, because instead of motivating us to help the suffering people who we encounter, it simply lets us off the hook and enables us to be selfish. The Hindu solution to the problem of suffering is a very human one.
Now, let's have a word for our non-believing friends, the atheists. First, let's answer our guiding question, "What is a human being?" from an atheist standpoint. Who better to speak for atheism than Bertrand Russell? Russell was a British mathematician, logician, philosopher, author, and one of the most influential atheists of the twentieth century. He wrote the following about what a human being is:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built (Free Man's Worship)."...no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand." Since the dawn of the twentieth century when Russell wrote this, the number of people who attend church services regularly in modern countries has indeed decreased, along with the number of people who identify with a particular religious tradition or denomination. However, Russell probably would have been shocked (and disappointed) if he were still alive today, because the number of people who claim to be atheists has barely increased in modern countries, and hasn't increased at all on a global scale. Theistic philosophies still dominate the world, and they don't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. However, the question still remains to be answered – was Russell right? Are we nothing more than collections of matter resulting from blind and random purely physical processes? Without getting into a lenthy philosophical discussion about materialism and naturalism, let's limit ourselves for the time being to the implications of holding such a world view.
An atheist cannot describe suffering as being objectively "worse" than happiness, because in his view,"suffering" and "happiness" are just labels that human beings created to describe reality. In the case of happiness, this set of neurons is firing in the brain, in the case of suffering, a different set of neurons is firing. Once you begin to describe one scenario as "better" than the other, you have stepped into the realm of value and meaning, which cannot be real and objective in a purely material universe. Atoms are not good or evil, true or false, so neither is a collection of them, however intricate and complicated their arrangement may be. If atheism is true, then Lazarus, while we might label him as a "human being" who has "dignity" and the "right to life," is really nothing more than a collection of matter, a group of chemical reactions that happen to be existing together in the same location. Therefore, for a consistent atheist, the most humane thing to do with Lazarus would be to either ignore him or to put him out of his misery, since he otherwise might become a burden to other "collections of matter." We do this with our pets all the time, and it's usually considered loving and merciful – why not with human beings? What makes killing them so wrong? Dostoyevsky famously summarized this in his epic novel, The Brothers Karamazov:
If God does not exist, all things are permissible.If reading this makes you recoil, that's good – it means that you haven't lost your sense of humanity. The reason that our conscience has the authority to command us to sympathize with, assist, and love our fellow human beings, even when doing so does not provide us with any perceivable advantage in terms of survival, is because our conscience is not simply a biological faculty. The realm of morality is so evident and immediately experienced by us that only very intelligent people are usually clever enough to fool themselves into believing it doesn't exist. By asserting that human beings are nothing more than matter, the atheist inadvertently denies the existence of human personhood. If suffering, along with all human efforts to explain and understand it, is nothing more than a material phenomenon, then the answer to the question of why we suffer is, "There is no answer, suffering is as meaningless as the rest of reality."
Now that we've examined the problem of suffering from the standpoint of three other world views, let's answer the question, "How would a Christian see Lazarus?" One of the luxuries of the Christian world view is that, when determining how a Christian should see something, one need only answer, "How would Christ see this?" Jesus Christ did not claim simply to know a way to happiness, or the truth, or what constitutes authentic human living. He claimed to be "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). If Jesus is the truth, what is his answer to the problem of suffering? His answer comes not in word, but in action:
Christ Jesus...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Php 2:5-7).When Jesus' friend Lazarus (not the same guy from the above parable) died, even though Jesus had the power to raise him from the dead, and even though he must have ultimately known the meaning and value of suffering, his reaction was described in just two words: "Jesus wept" (Jn 11:35). Those two words tell us a tremendous amount about what God thinks about human suffering. It is difficult. Being optimistic, knowing the temporary nature of the suffering, and even knowing its cause does not make enduring it easy. This is why even Christ prayed that he wouldn't have to suffer his passion and death: "Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Lk 22:42). One of the unfortunate effects of limiting your view of reality to only material or natural explanations is that it closes your mind off to one of the most powerful and uniquely human capacities – the ability to recognize symbols. A symbol is something that points beyond itself, that has its meaning outside of itself. You can see a simple yet profound and beautiful example of this right now as you read this sentence – language. Like the words of a love poem, a captivating novel, or the lyrics of a beautiful hymn, everything in the physical world, suffering included, points to something beyond itself. All of reality is like a story, and that suffering, an ever present and undeniable part of that reality, should have meaning simply fits the narrative better. Other world views try to downplay or even deny suffering, Christianity transforms it. Christ did not come to rescue us from the suffering of this life, as if suffering were something to be avoided at all costs, but to plunge us deeper into the mystery of it, since entering fully into that mystery is the key to unlocking the meaning of life. If God exists, and he is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, then the reason we suffer must be because we need to. However, God does not leave us to fend for ourselves, even in this life. By the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and by his death and resurrection, we can have the sure hope that our suffering has meaning, and that God is capable of bringing good out of even the worst sufferings in our lives. Saint Paul, who suffered terrible persecution and was eventually beheaded for his faith in Christ, had the following to say about suffering:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rm 8:18).
Some say that we shall never know, and that to the gods we are like flies that boys kill on a summer day, and others say that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.Both cannot be true. How do we live our lives? Do we trust that God is ultimately in control and that Saint Paul was correct in saying that "in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose?" (Rm 8:28). Let's ask God to give us the grace to trust him with everything, even with the suffering in our life, which too often confuses us and makes us doubt his infinite love for us.
† Under the Mercy,
Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.
Russell, Bertrand. Free Man's Worship. 1903.
Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. 1927.