The Insignificance of Suffering in Light of Everlasting Life
Hello everyone, and welcome to Original Apologetics, where we seek new ways to defend Christians and Christianity. As always, I hope that you are doing well.
Alright, so, for this work, we are going to be discussing the issue of pain and suffering as it relates to the existence of God. More specifically, we are going to be discussing one aspect of that issue, which is how, in my view, when it comes to considering the issue of pain and suffering as it relates to God’s existence, many unbelievers simply fail to fully appreciate the directly related issue of what an utterly incomprehensible value and good an everlasting life with God is. And because many unbelievers often fail to properly take into account the full value of this unimaginably good thing, then they also fail to appreciate the kind of suffering that God might allow to happen in this world so long so doing so meant that even just one additional person would receive everlasting life who would otherwise not receive it in the absence of the aforementioned suffering. Now, to illustrate what I mean by all this, let me provide you with an extreme example of this idea, but one which will illustrate my point well.
Imagine, for the sake of argument, a situation where God knows that a certain person will only come to freely accept the gift of everlasting life with God if and only if one hundred trillion other people experience pain and suffering in their earthly lives. So, just to be clear, that is one hundred times one thousand billion people who have to suffer in this case. Or, to put it a different way, that is approximately thirteen thousand times more than the amount of people who currently exist on earth today. So this is a massive amount of people who would have to suffer for just one person!
Nevertheless, as stated, picture that God knows that a certain person will only come to freely accept the gift of everlasting life with God if and only if those one hundred trillion other people experience some level of pain and suffering while on earth. Perhaps these people even need to experience intense bouts of pain and suffering for the person in question to come to God. In fact, perhaps they even need to experience seemingly pointless pain and suffering, at least pointless from their limited perspective. So, for our scenario, just imagine that if those one hundred trillion people did not experience those sorts of intense and seemingly pointless pains and sufferings in this life, then that one specific person in question would not freely embrace everlasting life with God. So, in such a situation, what should God do?
Well, so long as all other things are salvifically equal—meaning that none of the other one hundred trillion people will reject their own salvation because of the pain and suffering that they have to endure—then, when placed in such a situation, I contend that not only would God permit the hundred trillion people to suffer in this life, but that He should do so. And He should do so precisely because He is loving. It is God’s love that would rightly and justifiably lead Him to allow incredible amounts of people to suffer in such a scenario. But how could this be the case? How could God’s love be the very thing that leads to an outcome where massive amounts of people have to suffer?
Ultimately, it is because the salvation and never-ending bliss of even just one soul is actually an infinitely greater good than any amount of finite suffering experienced by any finite amount of people. Let me say that again. All other things being salvifically equal, the salvation of merely one soul, who, through that salvation, enters into a state of unending bliss with God, is of greater value and importance than is stopping a hundred trillion people from suffering for some set period of time. And this is obvious when one reflects on it: a life with God is of such intense bliss that it makes any form of suffering pale in comparison, and since such a life is everlasting, then it makes any finite duration of suffering—whether experienced by a single person or a group—to be little more than a tiny blip of time in comparison to everlasting life. After all, an everlasting life with God is the greatest good possible, by a factor of infinity. And so, in light of such a calculation, a loving God would not only have a justifiable reason to permit the suffering of these one hundred trillion people to save one extra soul, but He should actually be praised for doing so. And He should be praised for doing so by everyone involved in the process, including those people who suffered. Why? Because even we, as humans, understand that we would do the same thing if we reflected on the matter thoroughly.
Additionally, note that this whole idea is quite Christian. In fact, it is an idea which is nicely captured in a fundamental form in Jesus’s parable concerning the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep in order to save his one lost sheep. For while the other ninety-nine sheep may suffer during the shepherd’s absence, so long as none of the ninety-nine sheep themselves become lost because of the shepherd’s absence, then the shepherd is right to leave the ninety-nine behind to get his one lost sheep. And the same idea holds true for human beings as well, for it would be right for God to leave—so to speak—ninety-nine of us human sheep to suffer in His absence if doing so meant that He could save just one more lost sinner.
At the same time—and in anticipation of an objection—also note that eternal life with God is such an immeasurable good that it would thus be better for God to actually create the one person who could only be saved through the suffering of the one hundred trillion other people then it would be to have never created that person at all. Indeed, for eternal life with God is such a high good, that a loving God should create a person who would freely accept such an eternal life, even if that person’s acceptance of such a life could only be achieved through the suffering of others (although again, this is with the understanding that this would only be the case so long as none of those other people lost their own salvation on account of their experience of that suffering).
And, in fact, in our own human way, we actually already make a choice similar to the aforementioned one. For consider that most human parents have a second or third or fourth child even though they know that doing so will necessarily take some time, attention, care, and resources away from their earlier children, thereby causing their earlier children to suffer somewhat due to the existence of the newer children. But we as humans have more children anyway, because having life is such a great good—at least on a theistic view—that it is worth creating a new child even if doing so will necessarily bring some suffering to our other child. So, as mentioned, even human beings understand this idea of allowing suffering on the part of others to bring about a valuable good for someone else. Indeed, since the older children will not necessarily lose their own lives due to the creation of a new child—they only suffer somewhat due to it—then such an outcome is worth it since all the older children still have the good of life themselves, and a new being receives that good as well.
Furthermore, concerning all these points, note that it is worth reiterating that were we, as human beings, in the same circumstances as God, and if we were able to fully appreciate the infinite value of salvation in comparison to the finite and fleeting nature of suffering, then, I contend, we would also make the same decisions as God concerning allowing suffering for the salvation of even just one more person. After all, while it may seem harsh that other people may have to suffer for the salvation of someone else, the fact is that if we truly had a full and genuine understanding of the unbelievable good that salvation brings with it, then, on a personal level, we would readily and willingly volunteer to suffer, and suffer immensely, if doing so meant that one more soul would have eternal union with God. Indeed, I contend that most people would agree to do this. I know that I would. And there is no doubt that God also knows that we would agree to do so if we had the same grasp of the situation as He does.
In fact, given the possibility of pre-earthly conscious existence, it is even possible that we actually freely agreed to endure such suffering for the sake of others before it happens to us on this earth. Or, on a molinistic view—where God knows everything that we would do were we put in a certain situation, even if that situation never actually comes about in this life—it could also be the case that God actually knows that, if we had His knowledge, we would answer positively to the question of whether we would endure suffering for the sake of the salvation of others. But even if these options are not the case, it is also true that God, ultimately, owes us nothing, and if we need to suffer so that another person can come to possess eternal life, then a loving God is entirely in His rights to allow that to happen, and He is still loving even if He does so, so long as our salvation is not lost in the process.
Finally, note as well that not only would a loving God be justified to allow a hundred trillion people to suffer to achieve the free salvation of just one person—again, so long as all other things were salvifically equal—but God would also be justified in doing this even if the person who was saved would not exist for hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of years after the one hundred trillion people actually suffered. But how could this be the case? How could a person be saved based on the suffering of people who lived thousands of years before that person even existed? Well, perhaps a person reads about the past suffering of the hundred trillion people and that is the only thing significant enough to make the person’s hardened-heart call out to God for salvation from this world of pain. Indeed, perhaps only something as shocking as a past event of great suffering makes the person begin his journey of even thinking about God and His salvation. Perhaps a recognition of the suffering of so many previously living people is the only thing that opens the person’s eyes to the real existence of evil, and that discovery then leads the person to God. All these possibilities are, in fact, live possibilities, and so they cannot simply be dismissed.
And note that I speak from personal experience here, for it was in part the suffering of others that, in my late twenties, woke me out of a flaccid mental state about religious affairs and caused me to seriously think about the existence of a theistic God as well as about the truth of Christianity. Consequently, perhaps without such suffering to reflect on, I, personally, would not have given God or Christianity much thought, being rather content with a religiously-avoidant consumerist existence of fleeting bodily pleasures—in a way, an existence quite similar to a pig who is content to stuff its face and roll in muck while not thinking of too much else. And so indeed, perhaps it truly was only the issue of suffering that could have been sufficient to spurn me to serious religious reflection, thereby meaning that to shake me out of my God-ignoring religious laziness, I would have needed actual instances of true suffering to reflect upon in order to make me think about God and the truth of Christianity. Now I cannot say that this was absolutely the case, but I can say, as I have said, that this was indeed my personal experience, and it therefore does stand as a personal testimony to the fact that, reflecting on the suffering of others was an important aspect of my own awakening which led me to the study of God and Christianity, and without seeing that suffering, I may not have been moved to engage in such study.
Now, as an important side-note to this whole discussion about allowing people to suffer and endure pain for the sake of others, it is also vital to point out the fleeting nature of earthly pain, especially when compared to the enduring and never-ending total bliss that will exist in the life to come. After all, in a discussion like this, it must indeed be remembered that the pains of this life are ultimately just momentary experiences of relatively short duration, with some of these experiences even being able to be mitigated by our own mental attitude towards them (and what I mean by this is that certain potentially painful situations, such as losing a job, can be looked at negatively, which thereby does cause a person to experience psychological pain, or they can be seen positively, thereby not causing psychological pain, but rather excitement and opportunity; and so, our mental reaction to these sorts of situations, and thus whether we feel pain from them or not, is largely up to us).
Furthermore, it should also be remembered that in many cases, the pains that we experience in this life are not all negative; for example, during an extreme weight-lifting or boxing session, I will experience intense pain and suffering as I push myself to excel, but such pain and suffering is a good and even blissful sort of pain; it is neither evil nor negative in the relevant sense. And so we must remember that some pains that we endure in life can be highly positive and beneficial to us.
Additionally, it should be further noted that the memory of pain is also fleeting. Pains that we felt years ago no longer exist, and the memory of such pains is lessened, even to the point of utter disappearance, as time goes by. That is not to say that the memory of the situation that brought the pain has disappeared, but it is to say that the memory of the pain itself has gone, and also that the memory of the situation no longer brings any fresh pains with it either. And again, I speak from personal experience here—as I necessarily must, given the personal nature of pain—for there are serious pains that I endured many years ago, but those pains are now gone, and the memories of the situations that brought those pains no longer bring any pain with them either. Thus, such pains and their memories, though strong when experienced and when recently remembered, both greatly weakened with time. And when a saved person’s existence is understood to be never-ending, then it is realized that the memory of negative pain and suffering for that person will, in time, essentially disappear, to be replaced by everlasting bliss and contentment.
Now, if this whole side-discussion seems to be minimizing the importance of the issue of pain and suffering, that is, in fact, partially the point. Or, more precisely, the point is to bring the issue of earthly pain into rational focus when compared to everlasting life, and also to untie the issue of pain and suffering, to the greatest extent possible, from its emotional moorings. Indeed, it is to make it clear that the experience of pain and suffering, though important, is still an experience which is ultimately temporary, finite, and even forgettable over the course of time. By contrast, everlasting life with God is none of these things. And so the latter trumps the former to an infinite degree. And while I understand that such an idea is hard to accept at an emotional level, especially when we are actually experiencing pain, the fact is that it is true. And so this point needs to be genuinely appreciated when discussing the matter of permitting someone to suffer for the sake of another person’s salvation.
So, with all these points in mind, let me also offer a real-life analogy that might better illustrate the idea presented in this video. Consider a situation where there is just one reconnaissance soldier who is trapped behind enemy lines. This soldier is at risk of certain death. Now, the only way to save this one soldier is for a military commander to march the hundreds of soldiers in his infantry battalion through the worst possible terrain to save the one soldier, for only a force of that size will dissuade the enemy from attacking the whole contingent. And so, in order to save the singular soldier, the hundreds of other soldiers will suffer immensely. They will get cold at night and overly hot during the day. They will get wet, become hungry, get eaten by bugs, get strains, pains, and aches. They will turn sleep-deprived and even endure massive amounts of fatigue for hours upon end. However, if they complete this painful march, no soldiers will die. None. They will all be saved, including the one reconnaissance soldier who is lost behind enemy lines. Now, in light of this, should the military commander still decide to save the one soldier even though doing so will cause the hundreds of other soldiers under his command to suffer? Of course he should. And there is little doubt that every soldier in the battalion would actually make the same decision if put in the commander’s position, even though doing so meant their own suffering.
But why is this the case? Why would every soldier make the same sort of decision as the military commander to suffer pain and hardship for the life of one other soldier? They would do so because they understand that the actual life of one soldier is worth more than some finite pain and suffering on their part, even if that pain is extreme. And if that is the case for earthly life, then it is obvious that this is even more the case for an everlasting life in bliss with God. At the same time, these soldiers would make the decision to endure pain and suffering for someone else because they would expect the commander—as well as their fellow soldiers—to do the same for them if they were ever lost behind enemy lines. And so, what this all means is that a military commander would indeed be justified in making the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers under his command suffer intensely if doing so meant saving even just one other soldier from death.
And to extend this analogy slightly, imagine that the commander’s diversionary march with his battalion distracts the enemy to a sufficient degree to allow the one soldier to survive, but it still takes that one soldier ten more years of escape and evasion to finally make it back to friendly lines. In such a case, would it still be worth it for the commander to make his men suffer now to save the soldier, even though the soldier’s ultimate salvation back to friendly lines would not actually occur for a further decade. Of course it would still be worth it. But what this extended analogy shows is that even if the salvific result of some current suffering does not arise for years after the suffering itself, it is still worth enduring the suffering for that eventual result.
Now, with all this said, and with the understanding that the salvation of even one soul is indeed worth the finite suffering of many other people, it thus becomes quite clear that there is literally no way for an unbeliever to ever claim, beyond a reasonable doubt, that some instance of suffering is gratuitous or unjustified, for there is no way for them to have any ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ idea of the salvific effects that that suffering might have for someone, either now or in the future. And so, it seems, at least to me, that in light of such considerations, the very guts of the theistic problem of suffering are ripped right out, and there is not much force left to that argument at an intellectual or rational level.
Of course, it is still understood that, instinctively, this idea may be difficult to swallow, but that is in large part because we are looking at the matter from a finite human perspective, not a divine one. We are also the ones who might have to suffer for others, so we are naturally reluctant to fully appreciate a scenario where this might have to be the case, especially given the ego-centric perspective that we human beings often have.
And yet, even if the problem of suffering may not have much force at a purely rational level, it is, as mentioned, a problem which has great emotional strength. And while the following is not necessarily an answer to the emotional aspect of the problem of suffering, it is still worth pointing out that unlike many other religions, Christianity presents us with a God who suffered alongside us, and who even endured all the pain of all suffering that ever existed in His own person; thus, in many ways, Christianity is a religion that presents us with a God—a military commander if you will—who does not ask us to go out and suffer while He remains comfortable back at camp; rather, Christianity presents us with a divine commander who suffers right alongside us and who endures all the suffering, and more, that we endure. In essence, in Christianity, when it comes to suffering for the sake of others, God leads by example. He thus understands the sacrifice that He asks us to make for He makes it Himself. And while that fact may not, in and of itself, solve the problem of suffering from an emotional perspective, it does show that, in Christianity, God both understands and literally feels our pain. Thus, God is not asking us to do something that He has not done Himself: namely, suffer for the sake of others. And since, on Christianity, we are meant to be perfect like God, it should be no surprise that we are asked by God to suffer for others as well.
But even appreciating the emotional force of the issue of pain and suffering, the fact remains that, in the end, the radical good that is everlasting life, when reflected on fully, and when combined with the live possibility that some people may only be saved through the suffering of others, means that it becomes much easier to understand and accept how and why a loving God would potentially permit great amounts of suffering to occur in this life. In fact, fully appreciating the value of everlasting life actually leads to a situation where if you were in God’s shoes, and if you had to choose between someone being given everlasting life and other people suffering for that to happen, then you too would readily allow the suffering of others so that even one extra life could be freely saved to have never-ending bliss with God.
Alright everyone, that concludes this particular work, which I hope you enjoyed and found useful. So, thank you for your interest, and, until next time, good-bye and Godspeed.