When people suffer, they cry out ‘Why?’. It’s instinctive. Instinctive too, is the religious response that provides an answer, attempts an explanation. We are desperate to give meaning to suffering.
But we have seen how the Christian Scriptures label the suffering and evil of this world as ‘futile’ and ‘meaningless’. Can this be a faith position? If the is a good God of purpose and order, how can anything in the world he created be meaningless?
Augustine, one of the Fathers of the early church, wrestled with these problems, and the answers he came up with are still deeply helpful today. Augustine said that the goodness of the creation comes from God, who created the world. Part of that good is existence itself, the creation’s ability to be itself, real and distinct from God the creator. And part of the goodness of that existence is rationality: the world has an order or structure to it, a logic of its own given and guaranteed by God who sustains it. It can, for example, be investigated by scientists and found to have regular patterns (which we sometimes call ‘laws’). There is cause and effect, so that events occurring can be explained by reference to previous events. If Augustine was into diagrams, he might have represented it thus:
The inverse thought to this is that the existence and rationality of the cosmos depends on its relation to God, on his sustaining hand. Only that which is upheld in created existence enjoys these God-given qualities.
Augustine denied this status to evil, however. For God made the world and it was very good. So anything evil – and this includes suffering – cannot have been part of this original creation. Evil, said Augustine, has a different source (we’ll return to that). Evil is not a created thing at all, and so is not gifted and upheld in the way the creation is. It lacks those qualities which the creation has received from its source, God. Evil does not have its own proper existence, nor does it have rationality. For those qualities are given by God to his creation. But evil is not his creation: its nature is quite different.
If evil (including suffering) does not come from God, where does it come from? If it is not a created thing that enjoys proper existence, what sort of thing is it? Augustine had a pretty good answer for this too. He said that evil is a destruction of the good. When a created good is distorted or destroyed, ruined so that it can no longer serve its created purpose: then there is evil.
Evil, then is a purely negative phenomenon. Like the shadow is not something, but rather the absence of light, so evil does not really exist, in the way the creation does. It is parasitic on the creation, it is the undoing of what is good. Like the Nothing in The Neverending Story, it feeds on reality and destroys it, but can never be part of it. Suffering is a corruption or loss of the peace and blessedness of created life as God made it to be.
I don’t know about you, but the more I consider Augustine’s explanation for evil, the more satisfying I find it. Seems to be based, too, on sound deductions from the Scripture’s teaching. We still haven’t got the whole story of what the gospel says about suffering, but what we have got is pastorally spot on.
When sufferers cry out ‘Why?’ we can answer, “Good question. I don’t blame you for asking why? Life was supposed to make sense. But things have gone wrong. This power that’s got hold of you has no why – it’s evil. Evil cannot be understood, for at its heart it is madness and futility. And it has turned our world into a place of futility also. So there is no answer to your Why? – there is no reason for your suffering, no point to it. It is evil and meaningless. It is not ‘meant to be’. It just is.” (Maybe I wouldn’t give this answer all at once!)
Augustine’s view effectively blocks off the path of understanding suffering, of pursuing the ‘Why?’. It forbids us the heartless platitudes about ‘every cloud having a silver lining’, the cruel nonsense about character building and moral improvement, and ‘don’t you realise your cancer is a gift?’, which sufferers find so alienating. Augustine’s take on evil warns us against the temptation to make peace with suffering, to come to terms with it. It leaves as our only possible avenue of hope, a change of situation – that we might escape; that evil might be destroyed. It prepares us, in fact, for that most basic Christian prayer:
Deliver us from evil!
The way forward is not resignation, but salvation.