I’ve got some crazy ramblings making their way through my gray matter today. This post is going to be all over the place.
The following is not standard religious thinking.
Fact #1: God can punish sinful people, causing suffering.
Fact #2: Not all suffering is caused by personal sin.
Therefore: Some suffering is not personal punishment from God.
You’d think that conclusion would be obvious, and to most secular people, it is. Why is that last one so hard for religious people to grok?
“Suffering financially? You must not be trusting God.”
“Didn’t get that promotion? What haven’t you repented about, son?”
This thinking is so common that scamming American televangelists have learned to capitalize on this idea, seducing sheep into 21st century equivalents of indulgences: “Seed my ministry and God will break you free [of poverty/hardship/suffering] in the name of Jeeeeeeezuuuuus!”
(And by “seed”, they mean give them your money.)
Do people suffer because they have been unfaithful to God?
Two Forms of Suffering
There, McKee makes a striking observation: while the book of Lamentations exists because of God’s corporal punishment of sinful Israel, we have a counterexample in the book of Job that suggests not all suffering is a direct result of personal sin. Lamentations is a book of weeping about God punishing Israel for her sins, but the book of Job is the story of a man who suffered despite being righteous.
This suggests that God does punish evil (fact #1) but not all suffering is warranted (fact #2).
The biblical figure Job did not warrant his suffering; he did not commit a sin so great that he would suffer great illness, or that his entire family would die.
And what great sin did the Jewish people commit to inflict on themselves the Holocaust?
What terrible evil did that 5 year old commit to bring the slow, agonizing end that is death by cancer?
It should be obvious to religious people that, more often than not, suffering isn’t caused by personal sin. Suffering usually isn’t warranted. Suffering is just suffering, it happens because that’s the way the world is.
We have to hold these 2 seemingly opposing views in our heads: God does punish evil, but not all suffering is divine punishment.
Really, they’re not opposing ideas. They exist in reality: God’s punished people throughout history, but most suffering exists because that’s just the way the cold, brutal world works.
Bad things happen in this world, and sometimes God is silent; God lets it happen. That’s how the world works. Bad things occur, and God doesn’t intervene and make things better.
Isn’t sin responsible for everything?
“But Judah, sin is the cause of all suffering!”
Not so fast, please.
Sin – knowing right and wrong yet choosing wrong – is the ultimate cause of suffering, yes. Going back to our favorite examples of suffering, cancer and the Holocaust, imagine:
- Without sin, kids wouldn’t die of cancer because there would be no disease. (That’s theological speculation, by the way. If you use the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as your moral guide, there’s a strong case that if sin didn’t exist, there would be no disease, no degeneration.)
- Without sin, the Holocaust would not have occurred because the German National Socialists would not have killed people because of their race, as it’s a sin to do so.
Even though sin is the ultimate cause of suffering, religious people fail to make an important distinction: personal sin. Did my sin cause me to suffer?
Seems to me, in my almost 30 years on earth, that God is pretty hands-off when it comes to the affairs of the world.
The world tends to dole out justice just fine by itself: murder someone, you’ll be an outcast in your community, maybe imprisoned, maybe capitally punished. Commit adultery, you’ll probably lose your spouse, half of your possessions, and your family will split. And even if society doesn’t punish you, someone or something else will: murderers will be targets of vengeance, adulterers will contract sexual diseases, dictators will face the wrath of their people, and so on.
Sin has a way of catching up with people.
This leads religious people to think, if you’re suffering, it’s because you’ve sinned.
But that theology is harmful. It leads to a constantly guilty self: I am going through hardship/illness/poverty, therefore, God is punishing me.
Sometimes, suffering isn't a punishment for personal sin. Sometimes, suffering happens because that's the way the world works. And God hasn’t intervened to stop the suffering.
This sad reality has caused many people to lose faith in God altogether – Jews after the Holocaust denied a God that failed to save his people from the greatest atrocities the world has known. Evangelical Christians, like Bart Ehrman, lost faith in Messiah because they can’t work out in their minds how a good and gracious God could not only allow suffering, but cause it.
All the more reason this question of suffering must be solid, 100% solid theology, in our minds. Suffering exists ultimately because of sin, but it is often not personal sin causing the suffering.