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Why should the sins of the guilty cause suffering to the guiltless? If God could prevent such suffering of the innocent victims of sin but refrains from doing so, isn’t he also to blame? Isn’t he in some way an accessory to the sin? In other words, how can a good God permit bad things to happen to good people?…

“Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given.”

The problem of suffering, or the problem of pain, as C.S. Lewis called it in his book of that name, has been one of the most difficult of all the conundrums with which philosophers and theologians have grappled throughout the ages of man.

Why does suffering happen? Does it have any purpose or meaning, or is it pointless and senseless? If God exists, is he to blame for all the suffering in the world? And if he is to blame, what sort of sadistic God rules the cosmos? And, since such a God would militate against everything the philosophers and theologians have taught about the perfection of God, wouldn’t the existence of suffering prove the non-existence of God?

These are great questions, which shouldn’t be shunned or shrugged off by those who have faith in the existence of God, or, for that matter, by those who have no faith in His existence. In short, the problem of pain is a challenge to our understanding of the cosmos, whether we are believers or non-believers, whether we are Christians or atheists.

Many great insights into the meaning of suffering can be found in the arts, especially in the art of literature, which complement the struggles of the philosophers and theologians to get to grips with this most axiomatic of problems. From the earliest days, the poets have asked this question and have even suggested answers. Take, for instance, the words of Zeus quoted above. Homer puts these words into the mouth of the Father of gods and men in his epic, the Odyssey, to address the question of suffering but also to suggest an answer. It is not the gods who are to blame for suffering, says Zeus, but the recklessness, i.e. sinfulness, of men. Homer shows repeatedly that men are their own worst enemies, heaping suffering upon suffering upon themselves through their own selfish actions. Achilles’ anger is shown to be destructive to his friends as well as his enemies, and ultimately to himself. Paris’ elopement with Helen launches the thousand ships that destroy Troy. The reckless disobedience of Odysseus’ men leads to their destruction, as does the recklessness of the suitors besieging the beautiful Penelope in Ithaka.

Sin is self-destructive. In this sense, Zeus is absolutely right. We have no right to blame the gods, or God, for our suffering if it has been caused by our own recklessness. We only have ourselves to blame.

So far so good.

But what about the innocent victims of the sins of others? What about the innocent victims of Achilles’ anger and Paris’ lust? What about the ordinary people of Troy? What about “blameless” Hector and his equally blameless wife and child? Why should they suffer? How are they to blame? Or, to put the whole question in the modern idiom, why do bad things happen to good people?

Perhaps Zeus might answer these questions with the retort that the gods are not to blame for the sins of men. In other words, if Hector and his wife and child are blameless, so are the gods. Blame Achilles and Paris for the destruction of their innocent victims, Zeus would retort, but don’t blame me.

There is, however, a further question that arises from Zeus’ defense of himself. If he is so powerful, why does he permit the innocent to suffer? Why should the sins of the guilty cause suffering to the guiltless? If God could prevent such suffering of the innocent victims of sin but refrains from doing so, isn’t he also to blame? Isn’t he in some way an accessory to the sin? In other words, how can a good God permit bad things to happen to good people?

There is a hint that Zeus, or at least Homer, had asked these difficult questions insofar as Zeus states that the recklessness of mortals brings sorrow “beyond what is given.” In other words, even without human recklessness, some suffering “is given.” One thinks perhaps of earthquakes or other natural disasters. Why does God permit such things to happen? The answer is that they are “given” as a gift to bring us to our senses because the proud heart cannot love unless it is broken. “And I will give you a new heart,” says the Lord, “and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.”[*] “But God’s eternal laws are kind,” writes Oscar Wilde, “and break the hearts of stone.” And so broken hearts are necessary because, as Wilde asks, “how else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?”

Oscar Wilde’s poignant question solves the problem of suffering and reveals the secret of Love. The One True Lover allows Himself to suffer so that we can see the meaning of love, and therefore the meaning of suffering, in the vision and presence of His wounded Beauty.

Republished with gracious permission from the St. Augustine Review (2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[*] Ezekiel 36:26

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5 replies to this post
  1. That Oscar Wilde thought is spot on. I’ve said similar in that through suffering we are brought together in humanity in love for each other. Suffering is putting the need for love of neighbor right before us. Isn’t that the meaning of Christ’s passion? Also St. Paul in Philippians says that through suffering we become like Christ, and that is the objective of our earthly journey, to become Christ-like. Suffering is actually a good thing, though I can’t say I actually look for it. There is meaning in suffering both for the one suffering and the one encountering the suffering.

  2. Interesting article and thoughts.
    What is left out is something that the Greeks would not have considered at the time of Homer.
    That is the influence of the evil one in the affairs of mankind. It is especially seen in the Book of Job and there are mentions of it in the New Testament as well. God allows the evil one to test us, tempt us to see if we will continue to choose God, or in thinking God has abandoned us, choose the evil one.
    Remaining faithful through suffering may be the greatest test of our faith, and the most difficult one to endure.

  3. The last excuse a person can find for sin is ‘God’ is responsible. God answered that by sending Himself, died on the cross and, in a bottom line way, said, ” Here’s the deal. ” You want to be free, or not. If you try to be free without me, can’t be done. I paid the price for your freedom. Now follow me into true freedom.”

  4. I have heard this argument made by Dennis Prager a number of times. But there’s a flip side to it. What about all the enjoyment and happiness in the world? Who gets credit for that, God or Man, or some combination of both?

  5. Reply to Eric: Every good comes from God. It seems likely that God stamped the soul at ensoulment with the Godly attributes of truth, goodness and beauty. Our struggle is to not allow the world to encrust our soul with evil, so much so that we don’t recognize it, see it or hear it when God presents Himself and His attributes to us as gifts. Our challenge is to see the beauty, live in the goodness, hear and act according to the truth that we have been given, that we might share in the Divine nature according to the extent the will of the Father permits. The enjoyment and happiness experienced in the world is the poor man’s foretaste of the real things God has in store for those who hear those knee crumbling words, ” Come along my good and faithful child.”

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