BY JORDAN HEPBURN
Just recently, a man murdered fifty people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Men, women, and children simply minding their own business were ruthlessly murdered by a nihilistic, hateful human being. Instances like this show us that suffering can come upon us at any moment, either as a result of other people or natural phenomena.
It is often asked then, what role God plays in all the suffering that takes place in the universe. Is He the cause of it all? Is He powerless to stop it? Or, perhaps, does He simply not care? Others feel content to claim that God’s existence is incompatible with the presence of suffering in the world. These are only natural questions to ask when one sees the extent of suffering in the universe.
Before I became a Christian, when I lived as a sort of practical atheist, professing that God exists but acting like He did not, I never wrestled with these questions. But after examining the claims of Christianity and eventually converting, I learned what Christians really believe about the issue of suffering. If God is real and benevolent, how could life be such a painful experience?
My Will or God’s Will
Christianity espouses a view of suffering that escapes a sugarcoating of the human experience, but yet, dares to provide a prescription to afflicted individuals. The authors of the Bible do not try to avoid the issue of suffering by saying that it is only an illusion, nor do they speak exclusively of life as full of incessant pleasure. Rather, the authors of the Bible lament seriously over the painful aspects of human existence in a manner quite relatable to us.
For example, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the Bible’s more philosophical sections, frustratingly cries:
What benefit do people get from all the effort which they expend on earth? A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages. No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind! (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4, 11, 14, NET)
It does not take much reflection for us to understand why the biblical author felt this way. Sometimes, circumstances can get so frustrating or exhausting that we start to question our purpose in life. Why struggle as hard as we do at Duke, if we will be forgotten in a hundred years? What good is human existence, a grain of sand in the beach of time? Does our suffering matter, considering that it will all be forgotten in the span of history?
To answer these questions, the Bible points to God and asserts that He is the answer. It says that because of God’s existence, suffering matters. God will remember every tear that human beings have cried, correct every wrong, and reward those who remain faithful to Him despite the suffering they experience. It also says that because of God’s existence, there is a reason, and a way, to live. Without God—in a universe where there is only matter, and where the supernatural does not exist—this reason for living is absent, and the way to live becomes purely based off preferences.
It is not only the Bible that promotes the idea that God’s presence entails objective meaning. Many world philosophies support the idea that human existence lacks inherent, objective meaning. For example, existentialism, as proposed by Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, asserts that humans must create meaning for themselves because there is no external force to do it for them. All notions of meaning that humans possess are therefore subjective and self-imbued.
The existentialist philosophers encouraged people to create senses of meaning that were self-fulfilling. However, this action encouraged by existential philosophers is the definition of original sin in the Bible. God gave human beings free will and two choices: an existence in a loving relationship with Him, defined by what He, the creator, created them to be; or a self-defined existence, morally and existentially, which He assured them would lead to death and the broken world as we know it. Humans chose the latter option.
Life in Spite of Suffering
Christians therefore see the reason for suffering in the world as human beings seeking their own definition apart from God. The only way to live then, is to come to one’s senses and return to one’s roots. Christians believe we should go to God and admit that we tried to define our lives apart from Him. We should apologize and pledge to live our lives according to His wishes for us. Most importantly, we should try to sustain a relationship with Him, which can be achieved only by believing in His son Jesus Christ.
This remedy gives suffering meaning, brings joy to the craziness of life, and decreases the amount of suffering that we bring upon ourselves by our own misbehavior. As we learn to live more in tune with God’s plans and desires for us, He grants us supernatural peace and joy, in spite of the circumstances that make us suffer in this life.
Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 09, 2015. Accessed April 28, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/#ExiPreEss.
 Crowell, Existentialism