15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;Psalm 88, a song of Heman the Ezrahite
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.
The Problem of Pain
If there is one, almost irreconcilable problem for Christianity, it is the problem of pain and suffering. This tragic mystery, of how an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God could allow suffering, pain, and extraordinary human cruelty, in a world where human beings seem either woefully helpless (say, against things like tsunamis, or bone cancer), or profoundly depraved (as in the rape of Nanking, or the life of Ted Bundy), presents itself as more than just an intellectual dilemma for Christian apologists. It is the thing which ultimately drives most people away from faith in God, and the promises found in Jesus Christ.
That said, I am not presenting here a specific argument, or theodicy, trying to reconcile the problem of pain and suffering with God’s nature. This is more of an appeal. It is an appeal to something we have reason to believe occurs, and, if it does occur, may be the kind of thing, perhaps the only kind of thing, that ultimately would rectify the human experience of horrible pain and extraordinary evil. And, if this rectifying kind of thing were indeed actualized, then we might know, perhaps even with certainty, that Christianity is indeed true.
Kinds of Pain
But, what could rectify the kinds and degrees of suffering human persons experience in this world? First, let’s define what kinds of suffering there might be. It seems to me there are roughly four kinds of evils in the world that can befall the human person:
- physical pain caused by natural evils
- emotional pain that result from the same natural evils that cause the physical pain
- emotional pain caused by either:
- a) things other human agents have done to other human agents or
- b) strong desires or longings left unfulfilled
- extraordinary evil which is a special kind of 3a in that it manifests itself in some act of unconscionable malice or malevolence at the individual level of human moral interaction (e.g. child sexual abuse), or at the macro-level of societal interaction (genocide).
Some examples of (1) would range from a toothache, to bone cancer. The emotional suffering that emerges due to the c-fibers that fire during the instances of physical pain those biological deficiencies cause, would be an example of (2). Examples of this kind of emotional pain (2) are the kind of self-reflective questions that accompany the enduring of physical pain (e.g. “Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why cancer, when I am so young, and have children to raise?”, etc.) Someone punching me without warning is also an instance of physical pain caused by a natural evil, in that it is the force and the mass of the fist striking my nose that causes the pain. In the case of the punch, however, what is distinctive from the toothache, or the cancer, is the emotional pain that arises on account of it being an intentional act by another moral agent (3a).
Hence, regarding type 3a, immoral human action, this would be the emotional pain that someone must endure when another moral agent either physically or emotionally damages them. Although, as I pointed out above, it is hard to see how physical damage, especially physical damage that is known to be intentionally carried out by one agent against another, would fail to cause subsequent emotional damage (barring exceptional circumstances, like the lack of capacity to feel emotions). So, someone getting mugged on the street, or a wife being raped by her husband would be examples of 3a. The latter example causing greater degrees of emotional trauma than the former, since other kinds of moral goods: promises, trust, and prior intimacy, have been broken in the case of the rapist husband, but not necessarily in the case of the mugger.
There is another kind of emotional suffering, however. 3b it is the kind of suffering that would come via a deep sense of unfulfilled longing. Not the kind that arises when we don’t get to have our favorite flavor of ice cream, because Baskin Robbins just ran out of Rocky Road, but the kind of ongoing pain that accompanies a person when they realize they will never find someone to marry who really loves them, or when someone learns that the years of hard work and sacrifice they put into preparing themselves to qualify for a special job or occupation simply was not enough, and they now must let go of their dream in order to move on with life. Unfortunately, the Disney ending where all dreams come true, itself doesn’t seem to come true.
My own example of something like this last kind of emotional pain was the two years I spent preparing myself physically and mentally for Army Special Forces; first getting selected, then spending an additional 17 months in the Q-course, but ultimately only to realize, perhaps too late, that I simply wasn’t going to make it all the way through. I had two berets at the end of my Army career, neither was green, and I had spent over three years killing myself to attain something I didn’t get.
While character development can certainly take place in all of these examples, and valuable life-lessons learned, the disappointment of ultimately not making it through to final consummation or end state, in spite of all the time and energy, is often a bitter pill to swallow.
Speaking of Green Berets, there is also the kind of suffering that men like this often wind up fighting against, namely type (4) pain and suffering. This suffering takes the form of what one genocide researcher, James Waller, calls “extraordinary evil.” Extraordinary evil is the kind of evil that breaks through the veil of normalcy in human history, causing us to collectively gasp and corporately weep. This is the stuff of genocide, be it Germany in the 1940’s, or Rwanda in a few short months in 1994. But, within those seemingly macro-level events, are the actual grotesque, micro-events that make us question both God, and our selves. These are the hacking of bodies, the dismembering, the raping, the violating in every way, shape, and form of that which the Bible tells us is “sacred” and “holy,” and made in God’s image. Image bearers torturing image bearers.
Then, even outside of the context of war, there is the gruesome reality of things like child rape, mutilation, torture, and other things that real human beings somehow find themselves capable of doing. Image bearers torturing image bearers.
Epiphanic Redemptive Experience
So, in detailing these kinds of pain, and with some concrete examples, I hope I have avoided whitewashing or marginalizing the serious challenge they present to the truth and goodness of the Christian message. With all that, and there is quite a lot of “that” there, what kind of thing could not just counterbalance such horror, but actually transform each instance of extraordinary evil into something we really experience as redeemed.
First, one must make two crucial distinctions if we are going to get a grip on how something like the sadistic torture of an innocent could become redeemed. One, the only kind of thing that can be understood to be redeemed from any person’s privileged, first-person perspective, is their own privileged, first-person experience. I cannot experience my neighbor’s toothache (as C.S. Lewis once pointed out), even if I can feel empathy for him. So a redeemed pain or injury suffered must be my own pain or injury, not someone elses.
Thus we must reject the idea that anyone, even Bill Clinton, can actually “feel” the pain of another person. First-person experiences are just that, first-person. As such the kinds of experiences that could make horrible, atrocious pains or sufferings redeemed experiences are first-person, experiences particular to the individual. They, the redeeming experiences, would be “custom-made” to the individual’s psychology and history. There are no collective pains, nor do individual experiences of pain add to some theoretical tally of overall suffering. Pains endured individually are redeemed individually, even if they may involve others.
Second, no other person can know what would be the exact experience that would make some other person’s first-person experience of pain and suffering be redeemed. So, if subject S has experienced extraordinary evil X, then only S can know what would redeem X. Even S’s best and closest friend of 70 years (perhaps S’s life-long spouse, G) cannot know what particular epiphanic redemptive experience, R, would be the one that would in fact redeem S’s experience of X. R is reserved for S, and S alone. Just as G will have some other R, R*, that will redeem G’s X*.
So, redeemed pains will be redemptive, experiential instances whereby 1) the first-person experience of an individual, S, is the only thing that is in view, and 2) only S can know what will actually do the redeeming of the pains he or she has suffered, since only he or she has experienced them. This safeguards against thinking that their are such things as collective pains, which there clearly are not, and also, that I could know what your experience of your own pain is, and, subsequently, what it would take to fix it, something Job’s friends thought they could do, but failed at miserably.
It is not without some irony that we now invoke the character of Job. For in Job we have what seems like the kind of irreconcilable suffering we’ve mentioned, i.e. the kind of suffering for which there simply is no good counterbalancing reason. In fact, the book tells us this, since it is clear about Job’s innocence. However, what I am ultimately suggesting as the only answer to that apparent irreconcilability problem- the direct manifestation of God to the human agent, and a countervailing experience of redemption, are also what the author of Job tells us is the only answer to that apparently irreconcilable problem.
The appeal I am making, then, is ultimately that only the following scenario would reconcile the problem of pain– a direct manifestation of God to a particular human agent, whereby in that divine manifestation two things are made explicit to the suffering agent: 1) a new and deep knowledge of God’s nature, and 2) a countervailing experience of a set of conditions or circumstances that would not merely “balance out” S’s experience of X, but that would make the experience of X, the extraordinary evil suffered, fully and completely justified. In short, S would know that X happened for this reason and that that reason was a good enough one to make X entirely acceptable to the sufferer S. More completely then, let us call (R) the Redemptive Epiphanic Experience, which is an experience of such power and beauty, both in the pleasure it gives, and the explanation it offers, that it truly is a fully justifying experience of evil X.
The Book of Job seems to demonstrate exactly this kind of countervailing experience, in that Job receives both a personal epiphany of God, Job sees God face-to-face, and Job, at the end of his life, receives a greater portion of that which he enjoyed at the beginning of his life. Both conditions of R are satisfied in Job’s case. However, serious criticisms have been offered by skeptics and theologians about whether or not goods like children and relatives, i.e. actual persons, could so simply be replaced in what, after all, seems to be a rather crude swap. If so, perhaps the second condition is not satisfied, since Job has lost unique children that obviously cannot be simply replaced by new ones.
Leaving aside whether or not the author of Job is recounting an actual historical event, or just making a theological point (on my view, likely both), we must remember that the idea we have in mind is that God can provide the individual, here Job, with that R which for the individual countervails the suffering he or she has endured. So, for Job, as an ancient patriarch, winding up with more children and grandchildren, a thriving family business, more livestock, and the opportunity to see his children and their inheritance prosper to the fourth generation, very well may be the specific Job-tailored answer that fulfills the second condition of R. He, Job, needed to see, regardless of our modern skepticism, these kinds of rewards in order for him to feel that his prior suffering had been redeemed. For Job, this likely satisfies the second condition of R, even if we moderns find it distasteful.
So each R for every S’s X will be specific to S. S will experience, as I pointed out, some aspect of God’s nature that S did not previously perceive, and also experience some reward, which, being tailored specifically to S’s prior suffering, makes that prior suffering fully understandable and fully justified. S, through the Epiphanic Redemptive Experience, R, is made not only a wholly renewed person, but a person whose experiences of God and the Good now outweigh his or her experience of evil and suffering. For Job, his loss of X (family, household, and thriving business) was redeemed through his experience first of God directly, and then of God’s R for Job’s X. (i.e. new family, new household, new, and perhaps even more vibrant and flourishing business life).
So, while I cannot, being consistent with my own claims, work out this kind of redemptive formula for any particular instance of X for some other subject, S (e.g. I cannot work out concretely what would be the exact R for a woman, for example, who was raped by her husband, I can argue for two conditions that would suffice to countervail and redeem my own X and the X* of any other human agent: an epiphany or direct revelation of God in all His glory, power, beauty and love; and, second, a first-person experience of an instance of redemption that only God knows perfectly and that is specifically tailored to the particular set of emotions that the individual human agent has experienced amidst their suffering.
In his short story, Araby, the turn-of-the-century Irish author James Joyce has his lead character, an adolescent Dublin boy infatuated with an older Irish lass, experience the pain and conflict not only of a desire unfulfilled, but of the irony of realizing that the desires he possesses are themselves deeply flawed, and illusory. At the end of the story, after attempting to buy a small love token from the exotic oriental bazaar “Araby” for the object of his affection, the narrator realizes the folly of his desires, and has a sort of anti-epiphany:
“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
For the narrator of the story, this experience of unfilled desires (3b), which, in one sense, is more fundamental to all the other forms of pain mentioned here, there is no experience of God in the moment of despair. Nor are we told, nor is there any hint of some later experience that might countervail the young boy’s feelings of foolishness and shame. But, as a good friend recently pointed out in his Sunday sermon, this Joycean response to unfulfilled desire is the anti-thesis of the Gospel message. Not that the biblical story doesn’t validate the reality of real, embodied suffering, as Psalm 88 attests, but rather that the biblical writers, unlike Joyce, don’t leave us “gazing into the darkness,” eyes burning “with anguish and anger.”
For, in the moments of greatest despair, in the times when our hearts feel empty, and our desires are left unmet; or worse, appear pointless and futile, that is indeed the time to look, but to look up and see the hope and light of Christ, not to peer into the darkness of the world. This is when the Revelation of God, the true Epiphany of the Redeeming God can meet us in the moment of despair. For, when God appears to us, and explains to us, it is not our eyes that wind up aflame, but our hearts:
30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.Luke 24: 30-35
Where Joyce leaves our embodied suffer looking into the darkness, a hopeless victim of unwanted and unfulfillable passions, St. Luke tells us of an encounter, a concrete presence of the Redeemer, who takes away our guilt and shame, overpowers death, and promises a life of desires fulfilled, and pains redeemed. When we see Him, then our eyes will be opened and filled with light, and the darkness flees.