Suffering (Part 1): The Emotional Problem of Suffering

ATHEIST PHILOSOPHER DAVID HUME

“Were a stranger to drop suddenly into this world, I would show him, as a specimen of its ills, a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field strewn with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine and pestilence. To a ball, to an opera, to court, he might justly think that I was only showing him a diversity of distress and sorrow.”
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, part 10, edited by Henry D. Aiken (New York: Hafner, 1963), 64.

“CAN ANYONE POSSIBLY KNOW THE DEPTH OF SORROW THAT I FEEL?”

A little boy weeps bitterly in heaving sobs at the bedside of his mother who has just passed away. How do we console him? A talented young person is stricken by a terrible accident, suffers and finally dies. What comfort can we possibly provide to parents who’ve lost a child? How is human trafficking possible? How is it possible that madmen are allowed to turn entire countries into concentration camps?How do we explain the evil that is so glaringly obvious in the torture and slaughter of innocent souls? How can anyone attempt to make sense of this kind of pain?

There is no debating the fact that this existence is fraught with sometimes crushing and excruciating pain. We each experience it in different ways and to varying degrees. At one time or another, suffering will eventually knock on everyone’s door. It invades the lives of atheists and Christians alike. No one is exempt.

Two questions:
• Is it possible to understand or explain why suffering occurs?
• If we can understand why, how does that change our perspective and response to the pain we experience?

This will be explored in greater depth through these blogs.

REJECTION OR ANGER TOWARD GOD

Not all atheists are “angry at God.” This phrase actually refers to anger at what they perceive to be the malign influence that belief in a “nonexistent God” has had on the culture around them.

However, there are atheists who say, “I don’t care if God exists. Even if he does exist, I don’t want to have anything to do with him!” This is what we refer to as the “emotional problem of suffering.” It’s an emotional rejection of God that renders some atheists unable to even listen to an argument for God’s existence.

This person will not even engage in a discussion, and his rejection of God is an entirely different problem from trying to refute any arguments that Christians might offer.

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

There are no words, no panacea that we could possibly offer on a website that might provide an adequate salve for the wounds every reader has experienced. There is no “one size fits all” explanation.

If the “emotional problem of suffering” is a barrier that prevents you from reading further, the best solution would be to seek the help of a minister, therapist or counselor before proceeding.

As Christians, we believe there is a God who is very real, that he explains why pain is such an integral part of this existence, and that he offers hope to heal every broken heart and give us a purpose to live for. Pain will always be a part of this life, but God will also be there to give us the strength to meet each challenge. He will not force himself on us. He allows each person to freely choose him.

BURDEN OF PROOF

Under “Arguments for God’s Existence,” the burden of proof rested on Christianity, and we presented three basic arguments for God. For those who enjoy complex philosophical explanations, we also have two additional arguments for God’s existence, making a total of five independent arguments for the existence of God.

Now, let’s examine a claim that is made by atheism as a countervailing view. We’re leaving the emotional problem of suffering and going to the intellectual problem of suffering. Among atheists, there are two possible positions that they take on the problem of pain, either:

1. The IMPOSSIBILITY Argument: “It’s impossible for God and suffering to coexist,” or
2. The IMPROBABILITY Argument: “It’s highly improbable that God and suffering can coexist.”

Regardless of which one they choose, atheists are now making the assertion and the burden rests squarely on their shoulders to prove their point. In any debate, those asserting a particular truth claim have the responsibility to demonstrate that their claim is correct.

SAY SOMETHING MORE THAN “THERE IS NO EVIDENCE”

Christians maintain that it’s entirely possible for an all-powerful, all-loving God to coexist with pain and suffering, and on this website we can present as many as five arguments that demonstrate that point. Atheists say that God and suffering are incompatible or mutually exclusive.

Even though it is atheism’s turn to make their case, many atheists will not accept that burden. Many take an approach that they have no responsibility to prove their case. Some keep repeating the mantra, “There is no evidence that God exists” and some never even attempt to show why God and pain could not coexist. If atheists will not even challenge premises in Christian arguments, this is simply a form of intellectual laziness.

Let’s assume that you have two high school debate teams. Team A keeps presenting five different evidences to support their proposition and Team B just ignores it and keeps repeating “there is no evidence.” Which team would the judges say had won that debate?

In making the claim that pain militates against there being a God, this is atheism’s opportunity to advance the discussion and get beyond a repetitive “no evidence” mantra.

ATHEISM IS A BELIEF THAT THERE IS NO GOD, NOT SIMPLY A “LACK OF BELIEF”

For centuries, we’ve understood that agnosticism remains neutral on the subject of God’s existence, while atheism clearly asserts that there is no God.

Just in the last decade, we’ve seen people like philosopher Peter Boghossian attempt to provide another escape hatch for atheists. A few atheists have arisen who now want to re-define “atheism” as simply “a lack of faith in God” claiming that atheists “make no assertion” and therefore “have nothing to prove.” This is conveniently intended to get atheists off the hook and escape having to confront conflicting views.

In saying that atheism is simply a “lack of belief” this small group of atheists has changed atheism from being a viewpoint to something more like a psychological state. However, even many atheist philosophers disagree with this. If atheism is simply a “lack of belief,” then even babies, flowers, dolphins, dogs and doors would be atheists! This provides a convenient way to escape the hard work of having to engage Christian arguments for the existence of God. Changing the definition will not work for most atheist philosophers, and it certainly won’t work for Christians! Atheism is a belief that there is no God, not simply a “lack of belief.”

“IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO PROVE A NEGATIVE”

This is another myth that a few atheists also use as an excuse to avoid Christian arguments for the existence of God. So the atheist who uses this tack is saying that it’s impossible to prove that God does NOT exist, the suggestion being that he would have to search every corner of the universe and give us the assurance that he didn’t see anything in order to make his case.

First, we disagree with this view. It is possible to prove a negative. There is no such thing as a square circle. Married bachelors do not exist. These are two negatives that can be proven.

Second, there is a saying that is popular among criminologists, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In other words, a suspect could still be the murderer even if there is no evidence that points to his guilt. God could still be there even if there is no evidence that points to his existence. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of God’s absence.”

The saying that “it’s impossible to prove a negative” is actually an admission that it’s impossible to prove atheism! Atheism is a universal negative, and we’re told you can’t prove a universal negative. So it appears that you can’t prove atheism.

FOUR WORLDVIEWS ABOUT SUFFERING

Over centuries, there have been a number of different attempts to grapple with the problem of suffering:

Pantheistic religions like Buddhism and Hinduism suggest that we view suffering as just an illusion, and they deny its existence. God is good. God is all. Therefore, there is no evil. Christian Scientists have this same view.

• In Islam, “rida” (REED-ah) is “total acceptance of the divine decree and not desiring to see it removed.” It is peace and total contentment, sublime delight in suffering. Everyone will die. The calling of every believer in Islam is to die as a martyr for Allah.

Christianity recognizes that suffering is very real and maintains that it’s entirely possible for an all-loving and all-powerful God to coexist with suffering.

Atheism generally adopts an existentialist view that our lives are merely an accident of nature with no real purpose or meaning. It is their belief that pain is expected and actually confirms the atheistic view that life is entirely due to blind chance. This normally includes the idea that it is either impossible or improbable that God could coexist with such evil that we see in the world. Atheism would submit that we just need to resign ourselves to this reality.

INVITATION

For the next two blogs, we will focus on this very narrow issue: atheism maintains that God and suffering can’t coexist, while Christianity says they can.

As we said at the top of this blog, not all atheists are “angry at God.” Many are quite willing to engage in a civil discussion if there are compelling arguments.

If this “emotional problem of suffering” does not apply to you, we would invite you to continue to the next blog.

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