We've been talking in the comments lately about the problem of suffering. But it occurred to me, a great number of religions and philosophies don't find suffering a "problem." It makes perfect sense.
Don't know what I mean? Let's go through the possibilities:
*If there is no God, suffering is not a problem. Death and pain are necessary agents of evolution.
*If there is a God, but he doesn't care about or involve himself with humans, suffering is not a problem. Just the side effect of happening to exist.
*If there are many gods, none of them all-powerful, and they fight with each other constantly, suffering would be a result of your god not having the power to win out over the other gods.
*In the gnostic view, suffering is caused by matter, and matter is created by the devil or a lesser being. God cares about people, but he can't reach us as long as we are tangled up in matter.
*Suffering is punishment for sin, or to encourage us to stop sinning. The Old Testament holds this view a lot, and so does ancient Roman history. Your army lost? You must have lost divine favor because someone among you is breaking a divine command. The Romans killed the Christians for the same reason the Israelites killed the Amalekites -- because they thought having impious people in their midst was triggering divine wrath.
*Christianity .... has no answer. It insists on a God who loves every individual person infinitely, and is also all-powerful. Why would an all-powerful person not prevent the people he loved from suffering?
Well, there are theories. You could point out that some suffering is the result of human choices, which some certainly is, and talk about how God respects our free will enough to let us hurt each other. Now I'm a parent and I don't let my kids hurt each other, even though I respect their free will, but perhaps God is different. But still, that leaves suffering that isn't a result of human choices.
Or you could say that before the Fall there was no suffering at all. This is what I understood growing up, that there were no earthquakes, floods, diseases, or whatever before the Fall. Science can show us that's not the case, that these things have been around longer than people, but I revised the theory awhile back .... suggesting that, before the Fall, humans had the capacity to solve or avoid all that stuff. We could cure our own bodies of sickness (in fact, we can now, only not predictably -- that placebo effect is awfully powerful) and predict coming natural disasters, like animals can. So you can still blame all that on the Fall. (I tell people this and they call it theological speculation, like that was a bad thing!)
You could say, as Belfry Bat said the other day, that suffering is good for our souls -- that we are made perfect and ready for heaven by it. Certainly in some cases that is so -- I think of my grandfather's deathbed conversion, which perhaps from his perspective made the immense suffering of his final illness worthwhile. In others, I'm not so sure; suffering seems to pull people farther from God and goodness.
Another theological speculation of mine is that God bound himself in a promise to hand over all authority over creation to men -- that he isn't actually all-powerful in the created world, because of his statement to Adam and Eve that they were to have dominion. He meant, literally, they were in charge, and God isn't able to take back his promises. The Fall damaged our ability to exercise that power, but if we were perfect, we ourselves could do miracles. And sure enough, all miracles that I can think of have happened through the agency of a human being. That also says something very intriguing about why God would have had to come as a man. But in any event, since God has promised not to rule the world, and we are not able to do it competently, the world is in a state of chaos and disorder which God never intended. (This theory, which I otherwise like, runs into a lot of problems with Scripture, and also raises the question why God set things up like that, foreknowing of course that we would fall.)
There's the time-traveler theory, as I like to call it. You know how some people say we can't go back in time to kill Hitler because (theoretically) if we did, something worse would happen? God, knowing all possible scenarios, has picked this one because it is the best possible -- accounting of course for all the free will choices he knows we'll make. So he could snap his fingers and give me the gift of faith, but that would stop me from writing these inspiring blog posts (for instance) and that would prevent him from saving some other soul who's getting a lot out of them. Or whatever. This might not look like the best of all possible worlds, but from God's perspective, it is -- because it results in the maximum number of souls saved. From this, we draw the possibility that he might allow some to be damned in order to save a greater number, which I don't much like. But other than that, it's possible -- non-disprovable, in fact, because we don't know how many people God has saved, or how many he could have saved if he did things slightly differently.
There's the author theory, which resonated with me before I actually wrote any books (just like the good-parent theory worked well before I had kids). In this one, we consider that an author who included no misfortune in his book would be writing a terrible book. There has to be suffering to make it a good story. The problem with this is, I don't love the characters in my books. I like them a lot, but I know they're not real and so I suffer no pricks of conscience when I kill off their loved ones or afflict them with diseases. If God sees us that way, it's reasonable, but it destroys one of our premises, that God loves us.
Beyond the solid theories, there are comforting additions. These don't explain anything, but they might help a person feel better.
The first, of course, is that Jesus subjected himself to suffering, and therefore he certainly isn't an impersonal being in the sky who squashes us for fun. ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport," as King Lear says.) Jesus was willing to take part in the sufferings we are prey to, which is a convincing show of solidarity. It definitely does make us feel that God is not entirely ignorant or uncaring of what we go through.
The second is the thought that God will make it up to us in heaven -- that any suffering we undergo now is just a teeny tiny fraction of the joy we will experience in heaven, and from that perspective it will be all no big deal. That is comforting, though hard to grasp from our current perspective. Those who suffer terribly for years do not see their sufferings as "no big deal," and they struggle to imagine the sort of bliss that would make it up to them. But I can see wanting to believe this -- especially if you believe, as I do, that a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell who could in any possible scenario, with all the terrible influences on them undone, accept him.
Did I get all the theories?
The point I'm driving at here is that it isn't an actual mystery, in the theological sense. It isn't a clear formulation that just happens to be impossible to understand. All of these are possible to understand, even if we're not able to follow all the intricacies of God's knowledge and choices. And we can work to match these theories to the data -- ruling out any that contradict things God has said in Scripture, for instance (if this is, in fact, possible, seeing how very opposite to one another some of God's statements are), as well as any that don't match the world we know. "Good people are rewarded on earth and bad people punished" can easily be dismissed, for instance, because we observe differently. I also rule out "God gives suffering to those who can handle it," because that also contradicts what I observe. Anyone can handle suffering if they have no choice --- unless, of course, they kill themselves, which some suffering people do.
But I think that it's important to try to work this one out and come up with some clear answers, even if these answers only come down to plausible theories, because believers have to be able to show that their belief system is, at the very least, possible. Saying "it's a mystery" is not an answer; though of course it might accompany an answer -- "I don't know for sure, because it's a mystery, but here's one possibility." But it has to be attempted, because it's the second-strongest argument against Christianity. (The strongest, in my opinion, being the apparently bad things God does in the Old Testament, which all my attempts to resolve keep being labeled "heresy.")
What's your theory?