Suffering (Theology)

Most of the monotheistic religions regard some degree of suffering as the route to perfection or, at least, to self-improvement. Suffering is often connected to the spiritual advancement through hardship, the mortification of the flesh, penance, compassion, the notion of destiny (salvation and damnation) and ultimately, the reign of good over evil.

In Christianity, the concept of suffering is related to the life, and death, of Jesus. As Jesus suffered on the cross to save humanity, so his followers have to suffer through their lives to attain life after death. Christians are often troubled by the dilemmas of good people suffering, for instance when innocent children fall ill and die. The notion of theodicy, coined by philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716), seeks to explain this. Free will theodicy states that albeit being good, God is also a creator of free creatures and therefore cannot determine everything that they do. If a creature is able to exercise free will to do good, then it must also have the option to choose evil, too. Suffering exists because some of God's creatures have chosen evil over good and are justly punished for their actions.

Free will theodicy may justify moral evil but it does not explain the existence of natural evil, such as earthquakes or floods. One theory attributes these misfortunes to demonic beings, such as Satan or fallen angels, while others claim that they are a punishment for original sin. A possible explanation is also given by the educative theodicy, which states that any evil serves as a stimulus for enhancing moral character, gaining experience and developing human strength.

Similarly, Judaism also deals with the contradiction between a benevolent and omnipotent God and the existence of suffering. If God is merciful and loving, then it is apparently contradictory that he does not spare his children the pain. Theodicy is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Bible (in Genesis) sees the good world, created by God, as corrupted by human sins. It blames suffering entirely on human inability to exercise their free will to create good and resist temptation and sin. Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical school of thought, justifies suffering as a means of discriminating between God and the people and constitutes the pain of separation from God.

Turning to Buddhism, The Four Noble Truths, which contains the most important principles of the religion, explain that dukkha (suffering) can be defined as: "birth is dukkha, old age is dukkha, disease is dukkha, dying is dukkha, association with what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting that which is wished for is dukkha…" A central question in Buddhism is why does pain and suffering exist?

Hinduism links suffering to the notion of karma (deed, or act). According to karma theory, every action has its consequences, either in this life or in a next reincarnation. In contrast to the believers in destiny, Hinduism gives its followers the free will to decide on their actions but inevitably accept the effects from them. Through karma, good actions bring positive results and bad actions cause suffering. The effects may not appear instantaneously, though. Accumulation of good karma over several lifetimes may lead to a next life full of well-being, joy and serenity. Karma may influence the life form in which the soul reincarnates - accumulation of bad karma may mean that a soul will live in the body of a lower form of being.

Suffering in Islam is also a way to cleanse the soul and to rid the self of sins. It is viewed in ways very similar to Christianity and Judaism. The difference there is that Islam does not question or doubt God's decision to send suffering to his believers. It is either sent by him as a test or as a punishment for a sin. Followers are taught never to resist suffering but to live through it with faith and hope, believing that god never gives you more than you can endure. Islam clearly states that suffering must not be self inflicted or inflicted upon others; it is only God who can decide when someone should suffer.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Creative Suffering of God
Paul S. Fiddes.
Clarendon Press, 1992
The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany
Ronald K. Rittgers.
Oxford University Press, 2012
The Cruel God: Job's Search for the Meaning of Suffering
Margaret Brackenbury Crook.
Beacon Press, 1959
The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the Eighteenth Century
Jonathan Hoeber Lamb.
Oxford University, 1995
Impassible Suffering? Divine Passion and Fifth-Century Christology
O'Keefe, John J.
Theological Studies, Vol. 58, No. 1, March 1997
Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering
Joseph A. Amato; David Monge.
Praeger Publishers, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Christianity, Suffering's Worth"
The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England
Ellen M. Ross.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Styles of Piety: Practicing Philosophy after the Death of God
S. Clark Buckner; Matthew Statler.
Fordham University Press, 2006
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Suffering Faith in Philosophy"
The Christology of the New Testament
Oscar Cullmann; Shirley C. Guthrie; Charles A. M. Hall.
Westminster Press, 1959
Warranted Christian Belief
Alvin Plantinga.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Christianity in Jewish Terms
Tikva Frymer-Kensky; David Novak; Peter Ochs; David Fox Sandmel; Michael A. Signer.
Westview Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Suffering"
Feminist Ethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition
Charles E. Curran; Margaret A. Farley; Richard A. S. J. McCormick.
Paulist Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Wading through Many Sorrows: Toward a Theology of Suffering in Womanist Perspective"
When Bad Things Happen to Other People
John Portmann.
Routledge, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Three "The Meaning of Suffering" and Chap. Five "Celebrating Suffering"
Search for more books and articles on suffering