The Presumption behind the Question which the Mystery of Suffering poses

Often, when the mystery of suffering is asked, we want to immediately fast forward and skip to the response of the person being questioned. However, this urge is misplaced. In philosophy, theology and science, often the most important things are questions as all inquiry starts with questions. For example, in science we may ask if a certain hypothesis is true, in philosophy we may ask if a theory of perception is true and in theology we may ask if a certain interpretation of a Scriptural passage is accurate. Without these original questions, these three fields and many others would not even exist in the first place and they would certainly not be around today. The great scientist Albert Einstein explained brilliantly why questions are highly important in the two quotations below:

(1) ‘It’s not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer’

(2) ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes

(Albert Einstein)

Socrates, the greatest philosopher of all, also explained this well in the following quotation:

‘Understanding a question is half an answer’


It was Socrates relentless and restless method of questioning everything, presuming nothing, taking nothing for granting and leaving no stone unturned which got him so far in developing philosophy.

Often it is also important to assess the motives, intentions and aims behind the questioner’s asking the question. As Tim Keller has pointed out, Jesus often shows this in his responses to some of the Pharisees questions. When they ask him questions for the deliberate purpose of tripping Him up and of catching up out to undermine his teachings, he fires their questions straight back at them or answers their question by asking another of His own. However, when a question is asked out of a genuine, authentic, devout heart and intention – a thirst to know and understand the God we believe in more, the question is taken more seriously.

The question we ask when we are deep in the midst of suffering is this: ‘Why am I am experiencing this suffering?’, ‘Why is this suffering happening to me?’, and most frequently, ‘Why is God allowing this suffering to happen to me?’ Now it seems to me that Steeped, mired, undergirded, upheld, immersed and rooted in Christian language and belief. When we ask, “Why suffering?”, the clear, obvious initial premise and presumption is that there is indeed (at least ultimately) a reason behind it. Otherwise, why would we even think of asking the question in the first place? Otherwise we would know full well that asking why would be a completely pointless and futile waste of time and breath. It stems from our intrinsic, instinctive, inherent sense that it currently seems unjust but that there must be future, ultimately just to rectify and correct this. This, I believe, stems from the moral (and just) law within, placed within us by God.

When they try to derive their case for the non-existence of God, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and others try to construct this rather bizarre cocktail of negative, hypothetical anti-theology. They say, if God exists (which they don’t believe), then why would He allow suffering? However, the entire initial premise at the very start here is one which the questioner does not even believe in. He/she asks a question to which he has already ruled there must necessarily be no answer. Why must there be no answer? Because, if there were an answer, there theology would be undermined and discredited. They immediately move on after asking this question, before the believer even has a chance to respond. Why? Because they very much do not want an answer as an answer or response would destroy their case. Effectively, they are demanding an answer to what they already see, right from the start, as a rhetorical question.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, writes in his excellent book Writing in the Dust, sometimes we as believers must just leave that “why?” question to hang in the air for some time. Why? To give us time to gather our thoughts and out of respect for the sheer enormity of the question. For those of us who have long been believers, sometimes this question can almost be akin to a sort of short-term is ask emotional, knee-jerk response to our present trials and sufferings. Sometimes we do ask questions out of frustration and angst. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact we must remember that Jesus says “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” in a similar fashion. This doesn’t mean they aren’t valid questions or that they don’t have a rational basis or even that we shouldn’t search for answers. We know that he hasn’t because of His unending support throughout our lives but, in that moment, in the raw depth and midst of suffering, that does seem to feel like the way it is. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the “Footprints in the Sand” poem here:

and the below song:

It just needs to be born in mind. We also need to pause in order to have time to think through a coherent response. With huge questions such as “Why suffering?”, comes immense difficulty to respond, never mind “answer”. In a sense, it would be odd if this were not the case as otherwise why would we be asking it in the first case, and not just asking it but asking it repeatedly again and again right throughout our lives. Such challenging questions are a great challenge to respond to too!

Our wailing for justice during and in the midst of the depths of suffering is a cry to God, asking for more of Him and His presence and power, not a wail away from Him requesting His absence. Why wail at all if you don’t believe in He who hears? I shall leave the following two excellent quotations to hang in the air with you:

‘[W]ithout the God of the Bible we can’t actually ask why. Think about the alternatives to Christianity. You’ve got Karma and you’ve got chaos. Karma says the universe dishes out perfect justice therefore there is no such thing as unjust suffering. You cannot ask why but if you come across to the chaos point of view that’s atheism, there’s no rhyme nor reason to anything, it’s all random but if everything is random, nothing is wrong not really. So with Karma and chaos, you cannot even ask the why question but we’re always asking why just read in the Bible: Job or the Psalms and then when the Son of God comes in the flesh he stood at the grave sites crying, getting angry at death and on the cross, He suffered supremely taking up our why question before God, praying “My God, my God, why?” God does not away from the why question, he embraces it, speaks it and takes it through the valley of the shadow of death and out into the resurrection joy. Jesus doesn’t so much answer our specific why questions but uniquely he allows you to ask them. He joins you in the suffering and uniquely he gives you a future beyond Karma, beyond chaos’

(Glen Scrivener speaking on “Premier on Demand”)

There is no argument here to refute; the entire case is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism—abstracted from any living system of belief—that reduces God to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes are measurable upon the same scale as ours, and whose ultimate ends for his creatures do not transcend the cosmos as we perceive it’


For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture


For, if we are honest in asking what God this is that all our skeptics so despise, we must ultimately conclude that, while he is not the God announced by the Christian gospel, he is nevertheless a kind of faint and distorted echo of that announcement. It is Christianity that not only proclaimed a God of infinite goodness but equated that goodness with infinite love. The atheist who argues from worldly suffering, even crudely, against belief in a God both benevolent and omnipotent is still someone whose moral expectations of God—and moral disappointments—have been shaped at the deepest level by the language of Christian faith


‘I still find myself less perturbed by the sanctimonious condescension of many of those who do not believe than by either the gelid dispassion or the shapeless sentimentality of certain of those who do

(Pages 13, 15, 24-25, and 92 of “The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?” by David Bentley-Hart)

Bentley-Hart rightly points out here that the atheist who argues against God’s existence in the immediate aftermath of tragedy is exploiting, using and preying upon the suffering of the innocent.

By Ben Somervell

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