On Suffering, Part 2 – Alternative Views

Leprosy in India – photo by Bruno Jehle

Last week, we looked at the tough topic of suffering, and how the Christian can view it. Just as for the Christian, other worldviews can also filter how we perceive suffering, and consequently our conclusions about it. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a few alternatives to Christianity and how they address suffering (as best as I can tell).

  • Hinduism – Hinduism is difficult to classify because it encompasses a wide variety of different and often contradictory beliefs, but they do generally seem to agree on the existence of reincarnation and karma.  While American dabblers in the Eastern religions and their derivative  of New Age spirituality tend to have an overly optimistic view of reincarnation and karma, they are actually pretty oppressive concepts focused on suffering – a lot. There is a veil of ignorance (“maya”) in this life that hides from us what the true reality is, and getting beyond that to be liberated from the cycle of suffering (called “Samsara”) is the goal. This liberation is called “moksha”, and is the end of reincarnation, when your soul (“Atman”), is reunited with “Brahman”, a kind of divine, unchanging cosmic consciousness. Since maya hides or distorts true unchanging reality from us, suffering, as well as everything material, is illusory in a way. Also, suffering may just be your lot in life, especially if you’re in a lower caste. No matter how good you are, you may have to suffer in thousands of future reincarnations to pay for mistakes in past lives. Helping those suffering is sometimes discouraged because you are potentially interfering with the karmic “justice” due them for their behavior in past lives. So “suck it up, buttercup” – you likely have many more lifetimes of suffering ahead.
  • Buddhism – When Siddhartha Gautama left Hinduism to seek enlightenment and become the Buddha, he recognized the reality of suffering (dukkha) and made it a core component of his system: “To live is to suffer”.  Suffering is not illusion, is universal, and is the result of our selfish desires (the 1st and 2nd of his “four noble truths”). But he also held onto the Hindu concepts of reincarnation and karma, and proposed that it’s up to you to escape the tragic cycle of reincarnation and karma by living ethically (i.e. following Buddha’s eightfold path).  As in Hinduism, reincarnation is not something to be looking forward to, but something to be escaped. The Buddhist escape, however, is to be “blown out”, or “quenched”, as you reach “nirvana” (which means to be blown out, like a lamp) by realizing your “non-self”. This idea that there is no persistent soul, yet there is a continuing cycle of rebirth and suffering, is a primary (and somewhat puzzling) distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism.
  • Islam – Allah is sovereign, and suffering is the result of sin on the part of humans. Consider this response on the Muslim site IslamQA: “It is a Muslim’s belief that suffering of pain, hunger, tragic accidents etc, are due to one’s sins, for Allaah wants this suffering to erase these sins which were made by this Muslim. Allaah says in Sura 42 verse 30 interpreted means:   ‘Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many (of them) He grants forgiveness’.”[1] Whatever suffering befalls you is punishment that you deserve under Islam.
  • Christian Science” – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this most inappropriately named cult famous for their views on suffering. Really neither Christian or scientific, the cult of the “Church of Christ, Scientist”  believes that all is spiritual and the material world is only an illusion. Hence, the sickness and death and suffering readily observable in the world are problems of the mind and insufficient faith. Unfortunately, ideas have consequences, and anyone else that remembers Metallica’s “Black Album” might also remember that James Hetfield’s mother’s adherence to these ideas, and her subsequent death from untreated cancer were the impetus for him writing the song “The God That Failed”.  Sadly, many have have conflated this cult with Christianity and rejected the truth because of the counterfeit.
  • Atheism – We are essentially on our own. It’s a dog-eat-dog world of survival of the fittest. Nature is “red in tooth and claw“, as Tennyson would say. The weak will naturally suffer as they’re eventually weeded out. If you have an inordinate amount of suffering in your life, this whole universe is just a freak accident of nature, and your miserable life is just the way your dice rolled. “Life sucks and then you die.” Atheists often question why a good God would allow so much suffering, yet never stop to ask why a merciless, brutal, godless universe would allow so much goodness, beauty, and joy. Ultimately, atheism has no compelling answers regarding purpose, either bad or good, in anything.

I’ve highlighted five alternative worldviews here. There are others out there, and each, if it is to be a complete worldview has to address suffering, ether directly or indirectly. None of the views presented here can a) explain the origin and purpose of suffering like Christianity, or b) redeem suffering like Christianity. Suffering is either pointless like in atheism, or the result of something wrong with you (or a past version of you). Suffering is something to be escaped from in each system, but it’s never really redeemed and turned to good like it is in Christianity. If  you missed last week’s post on a Christian view of suffering, you can read it here. If you’re an adherent to one of these views I’ve described, and you think I’ve misrepresented your views, let’s talk about it. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s beliefs, but I do think each of these belief systems have intrinsic deficiencies that make Christianity the better explanation.

[1] https://islamqa.info/en/2850, Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid answering why Allah does not prevent suffering, accessed 2017-08-29.

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