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The problem of reconciling an all-powerful, all-loving God with the immense suffering of this world has perplexed human beings from time immemorial. For biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, this problem was so vexing that failure to resolve it turned him from a committed evangelical Christian to an agnostic leaning toward atheism. Ehrman recounts his struggle with the question of suffering and explores the (for him) inadequate biblical answers in a fascinating book entitled God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.
Naturally, as I read Ehrman's book, I was thinking about how A Course in Miracles would respond to the various arguments he presents. It was a valuable experience for me, for it gave me the opportunity to reflect anew on how the Course deals with the problem of suffering. This article is the result of that reflection: an account of how I think the Course would respond to Ehrman's book, and how the Course responds to the question that haunts so many of us: If God is Love, why do we suffer?
The problem of suffering
The problem of suffering is a version of what philosophers and theologians call the problem of evil. (Attempts to grapple with this problem are called "theodicy," a term coined by the seventeenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.) The problem stems from the apparent logical contradiction of three basic propositions: 1) God is all-powerful, 2) God is all-loving, 3) There is suffering (or evil). If God is all-powerful and all loving, then why is there suffering at all? How can evil of any kind exist? One would think that an all-powerful, all loving God could and would prevent such things from happening. In the words of David Hume's famous paraphrase of Epicurus:
Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil?
A number of answers have been proposed, answers that often take the form of denying one of the three statements that generate the problem. There are those who deny that God is all-powerful; this is an answer proposed by process theologians and, according to Ehrman, Rabbi Harold Kushner in his bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There are those who deny that God is all-loving, at least not in conventional human terms; Ehrman cites Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who in his famous memoir Night declares God guilty for the suffering experienced in the concentration camps. Finally there are those who deny the reality of suffering; in a single curiously condescending paragraph, Ehrman dismisses them as ostriches who have their heads in the sand. (Since the Course denies the ultimate reality of suffering, I wonder what he would think of it.)
Answers to the problem of suffering
The bulk of God's Problem is devoted to exploring various biblical answers to the problem of suffering. Of course, there are many nonbiblical answers offered by theologians, philosophers, and other religions. Some of them are incredibly sophisticated and complex. But while Ehrman does address some nonbiblical answers, his particular focus is on the Jewish and Christian responses to suffering expressed in the Bible.
These biblical answers are not mutually exclusive; one answer may apply to a particular instance of suffering, and another to a different instance. But Ehrman stresses the fact that since the Bible was written by many authors over many years, it has different and sometimes contradictory answers, sometimes even within the same biblical book. The Bible does not present a unified front; rather it is a compendium of many different views.
The following is my brief summary of the answers Ehrman discusses. It is painfully brief; I recommend reading the entire book to get a fuller account. That being said, here are those answers, with some of the pros and cons of each.
Suffering is God's punishment for sin
This is the primary view of the prophets, the historical books of the Old Testament, and the conventional wisdom of Proverbs. The idea is simple, whether it is applied to individuals or the nation of Israel as a whole. If you suffer, it is because you sinned; if you prosper, it is because you are righteous. The prophets announce God's punishment for the sins of the nation, and promise He will bless his people again if they repent. The historical books repeat again and again the standard refrain: King X did wrong in the eyes of the Lord and suffered the consequences; King Y did right in the eyes of the Lord and his kingdom flourished. Proverb after proverb speaks of sinners coming to ruin and righteous people being blessed with good fortune.
On the pro side, Ehrman says, this view takes God and His laws seriously. The crimes of the nation indicted by the prophets often were real injustices, such as the oppression of the poor. We need laws to ensure justice, and for those laws to have any teeth, there must be consequences when they are violated.
However, on the con side: Do the extreme punishments described in the Bible really fit the crimes? Is it right and just for everyone in the entire nation—even the oppressed poor—to be decimated by pestilence, drought, or conquering foreign powers? And let's face it, sinners often make out like bandits and the righteous often suffer. What about the suffering of innocents, like animals and children? And what about all the times the nation did turn back to God, but the promised relief didn't come? Israel never really had it too good. Finally, there can be both a false security and a false guilt in this view: If I'm doing well, then I'm in God's favor; if I'm suffering, I must have offended Him in some way. Is this really true?
Suffering is redemptive; it produces a greater good
The idea here is that suffering, even when on the surface it appears random and unjust, can be something that God uses to bring about some great benefit, especially the benefit of saving others. In the Old Testament, the classic example is the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, but years later in Egypt became his family's savior (and therefore ultimately the savior of the entire nation of Israel) by providing them with needed food during a famine. In Joseph's famous words: "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today" (Genesis 50:20). In the New Testament, of course, the central example is Jesus, who suffered to bring about salvation.
Ehrman acknowledges that sometimes suffering can bring about a greater good. He tells a great story about how an illness the summer before his senior year in high school forced him to stay indoors rather than play baseball. He used his time indoors to devote himself to research for the high school debate team, which (to make a long story short) culminated in his academic career as a researcher and scholar. His illness, then, led to his career.
But does suffering always lead to some greater good? Ehrman doesn't think so; in fact, most of the time it is senseless. Especially offensive to him is the idea that the suffering of others benefits little old me by making me count my blessings. Their starvation makes me appreciate my food more; their terrible disease makes me appreciate my health more. How sick is that?
Suffering is a test of faith
In this view, suffering is a test to see if those who claim to love and trust God will continue to do so no matter what He asks of them or what happens to them. A famous example of this, of course, is the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham passes the test by preparing Isaac for sacrifice, and God stays his hand at the last minute. Then there is the story of Job, in which Satan (in this story a member of God's court rather than God's enemy) bets God that the righteous Job will renounce God if he takes away Job's many blessings: his land, his money, his children, etc. God takes away everything but Job too passes the test, and God rewards him by restoring everything and then some, even giving him new children.
Some good could certainly come from regarding difficulties as tests of faith. It can provide inner strength and a trust that no matter what happens, God is in charge and all will ultimately be well. But there are huge problems with this if you think about it. What kind of cruel God conducts tests like this? Even though he kept Abraham from doing the bloody deed, does that make up for the pain he brought Abraham and Isaac? How could a loving God kill Job's children to test his faith, and how could replacing them at the end possibly make it okay? It certainly isn't okay for Job's first set of children. And if any of us passes a test like this and sticks with God to the bitter end, how can we really love him? He certainly hasn't done us any good. Why should we be faithful to him when he hasn't been faithful to us?
Suffering is character-building
I have heard this called a "soul making" view, based a line of Keats in which he says that rather than a "vale of tears," we should call this world a "vale of Soul-making." In this view, God is like a good parent who disciplines us to build character and teach life lessons. Ehrman says this is not a prominent view in the Bible, but it does appear in places—for instance, these lines from Proverbs:
My child, do not despise the Lord's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11-12)
The world, in this view, is designed at least in part for this purpose. The suffering we experience here is a way to build strength and character. It "makes" our soul, to use that Keats image. We become better people through struggle.
Certainly it's true that suffering can have this effect. It can build strength and character. But does it always do so? And can the sheer, bone-crushing enormity of suffering here really be redeemed as a character-building exercise? As Ehrman points out, Nietzsche's famous maxim that whatever does not destroy me makes me stronger simply isn't true. Sometimes, it just tears us apart. And of course, in the end the suffering we call death does destroy us.
Suffering is a mystery; we shouldn't question the ways of God
This is the view expressed at the conclusion of the poetic dialogues in Job, where God finally answers Job. (Most scholars believe that the story of Job referred to above, where suffering is regarded as a test of faith, was written by a different author.) When God speaks to Job, he says in essence: Who are you to question me? My ways are not yours. How can a mere mortal like you be so arrogant as to even think you can understand me? Overwhelmed by God's presence and power, Job gives up his questioning and says, "I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6).
The basic idea is that suffering is a mystery, and we should not arrogantly question the ways of God. A variation of this is the idea that God has a plan that makes sense of all the suffering, a plan that perhaps we will understand eventually, maybe in the afterlife. Certainly there is a positive side to this point of view. It makes a lot of sense to admit that our limited human minds are incapable of understanding everything that an unlimited mind does. Maybe there is a plan that can justify it all.
That being said, there are problems with this view as well. Even if we can't fully understand God, does that mean we have no right to question him at all? It may be that in some sense his ways are not our own, but if we were created in his image, aren't our highest standards a reflection of his? And if they are, is it not appropriate to judge his behavior by those standards, which would require him to give a good reason for causing such immense suffering? And even if he did provide a reason or show it was all part of a divine plan that ends well, could any reason be good enough to justify the sheer immensity of earthly suffering? Is any happy ending worth such a price? Perhaps, but it is difficult to imagine. In Ehrman's view, simply saying that suffering is an unfathomable mystery we shouldn't question feels like a cop out.
Suffering is random, meaningless, inscrutable, and inevitable; we should eat, drink, and be merry while we can
This is Ehrman's take on the book of Ecclesiastes (though I wonder what he would think of the last verses about the importance of fearing God and keeping the commandments; he doesn't say). Everything under the sun is vanity (futility), a chasing after wind. Suffering and death are everyone's lot, and no one knows how, why, or when they will befall us. So let us enjoy the pleasures of life while we can. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Interestingly, while I find this view of life immensely depressing (and isn't it just as much of a cop out?), Ehrman lists no "cons" for it. It is the view he resonates with the most, for he believes it represents an accurate and healthy view of life. Suffering just happens to all of us, for no particular reason. Given this, we should live life as well as we can, enjoy the simple pleasures, and alleviate suffering as well as we are able.
Suffering is the temporary product of evil forces persecuting the faithful; all will be well when the apocalypse comes
This is the view presented in apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation, a view that also runs through much of the New Testament (though unlike Ehrman, I do not believe Jesus was apocalyptic). The basic idea is that the world is the stage for a cosmic conflict between good and evil. Right now, the forces of evil have the upper hand, and they inflict pain and suffering upon those who are faithful to the forces of good (and inflict pain and suffering in general because, well, they're evil). But fortunately, this is only a temporary situation. In the end, when Jesus comes again (in the Christian version) and the Last Judgment is at hand, justice will be done. The evil will receive the condemnation they deserve, and the good will receive blessings so priceless that all of their suffering will have been worth it. In the end, at least for those on the winning side, all will be well.
One positive aspect of this view, in Ehrman's eyes, is that it takes evil seriously; it is not just a matter of humans behaving badly, but of dark cosmic forces at work. It is difficult to explain something as horrific as the Holocaust without going in this direction. Another advantage of this view is that it can explain natural evil such as natural disasters and sickness; these are the product of supernatural evil forces (though it seems to me that in the apocalyptic books, a lot of natural disasters come from God as well). And this view gives people hope as they battle the forces of evil. However awful things seem now, a loving God has the last word.
But Ehrman sees several problems with this view. It is a mythological view based on a three-tier universe (the heavens, the earth, the underworld) that moderns equipped with scientific knowledge can no longer accept. This view of things can also make us complacent in the face of the evils and sufferings that confront us daily. Why do anything about them if God is going to end the world soon anyway (a view we see in conservative Christians who dismiss environmentalism)? But perhaps the biggest strike against this view is simply this: the apocalypse never comes. People have been predicting it for a long time (2012 is the latest version), but those anticipated dates just keep coming and going, and the world's suffering just keeps going on as usual with no end in sight.
Suffering is just something that happens; God doesn't have the power to prevent it, but he can give us the strength to endure it
Now we turn to a few nonbiblical views that Ehrman touches upon. The view here is one popularized by Rabbi Harold Kushner. (Kushner bases this view on the book of Job, but Ehrman thinks Kushner completely misinterprets Job.) This view says that God does not cause our tragedies or even "permit" them. The truth is that there are certain things he simply cannot do. He cannot cause suffering, nor can he rescue us from it. But what He can do is give us the peace and strength we need to deal with our suffering.
This view has given comfort to many people over the years. It can be reassuring to believe that God does not inflict suffering but can give us the fortitude to endure it. Ehrman says he would adopt a viewpoint like this if he believed in God. But the big problem with this view is that, well, this God is simply not the all-powerful God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Ehrman puts it, this view "makes God a lot like my mother or my kindly next-door neighbor, but it doesn't make him a lot like GOD" (p. 272). In short, he's a very puny God. And speaking for myself, the idea that this puny God can't really do anything to help except giving me the strength to gut out my suffering is cold comfort indeed.
Suffering is the imitation of Jesus' self-giving love; God, through His Son, suffers with us
This is a view articulated in a book by Arthur McGill entitled Suffering: A Test of a Theological Method. In McGill's view, suffering is essentially an imitation of God's love as embodied in Jesus. Jesus gave his love selflessly, and while he was living in human form, it cost him everything. He suffered greatly, and paid the ultimate price on the cross. As his followers, we Christians (McGill is writing to a Christian audience) should follow his example. We should give everything we have and be willing to suffer and die for the sake of others, like Jesus did. When Jesus did it, he showed the true character of God. God suffered for us because he loves us. Should we not do the same for our brothers and sisters?
There is value in self-giving love, to be sure. Those who have undergone suffering for the sake of others are certainly worthy of admiration. But Ehrman sees a number of problems with this view. First, Ehrman says, the idea that Jesus is God and therefore God suffered for us is not a biblical view shared by most of the writers of the New Testament; it is not the view of the historical Jesus or of the synoptic gospels. You really have to buy into the later Christian theological idea that Jesus is God for this perspective to work.
And there are other problems. If we're going to say that Jesus (and therefore God) suffered for us, why not say that this means we don't have to suffer any more (just as Jesus' crucifixion means that we don't have to pay the penalty for sin any more), rather than saying we have to suffer as he did? And if God suffers along with his creation, who or what is inflicting the suffering? It seems that something other than God must be doing it, and therefore God is no longer sovereign over his creation. Much like the previous explanation that denies that God is all-powerful, the God of this explanation doesn't really seem to be GOD any more. Finally, this view still doesn't really give us an answer to the problem of suffering: Whoever suffers, whether it is us alone or God with us, why is there suffering in the first place?
Suffering is the result of the misuse of our God-given free will
In various forms, this is a favorite view of many philosophers and theologians. (And while it isn't explicitly discussed in the Bible, it is often assumed there.) Ehrman says it is also the most popular view among his correspondents who try to explain to him why suffering exists: God gave us free will so we could freely love him; otherwise, we would be robots. And if we are free to love him, we are also free to reject him, to sin, to do evil.
Our suffering is therefore caused by our own and others' misuse of free will to inflict suffering. (The idea that suffering is a consequence of the sins of others is a prominent view in the Bible; Ehrman devotes a chapter to it.) In fact, here is where two views of the origin of suffering often dovetail: Suffering can be caused by others' sins against us, and can also be caused by God punishing those who commit such sins.
This is certainly a powerful explanation for human evil. It makes sense that genuine love requires freedom and freedom means we can choose to rebel against God and inflict suffering on others. But there are problems with the free-will defense, just as there are with the other explanations we have examined. For instance: How can human free will (leaving out the supernatural evil forces of the apocalyptic view) explain natural evil, like disease and natural disasters? Why didn't God give us sufficient intelligence to always use our free will wisely? If we believe in a God that sometimes intervenes in human affairs (as the biblical God certainly does), then why does God sometimes intervene to counteract the free-will decisions of human beings, if free will is so necessary? Finally, does our free will no longer work once we get to Heaven? Christianity says we'll love God forever once we're there. If this is because our free will is removed, so much for the importance of loving him freely. And if it isn't removed, what's to stop us from turning away from him all over again?
If God is Love, why do we suffer? For Ehrman, the Bible provides no good answer to the problem of how an all-powerful, all-loving God can be reconciled with suffering. The biblical book he connects with the most, Ecclesiastes, doesn't provide an answer at all. And none of the other answers offered by philosophers and theologians are convincing to him either. So, to express his view in terms of the three propositions that generate the theological problem of suffering or evil: There is horrific suffering that cannot be denied or minimized or adequately explained; therefore, most likely there is no all-powerful, all-loving God. As I mentioned above, he is now an agnostic leaning toward atheism.
How, then, should we live? How should we deal with the realization that there is great suffering in this world and no divine answer that really makes sense of it? This sounds like an incredibly depressing conclusion, but Ehrman says we needn't find it depressing. He says, in words that are reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, that we should spend the time we have on this earth enjoying what life has to offer and reducing suffering wherever we can:
In my opinion, this life is all there is….[But] the idea that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency, but just the contrary. It should be a source of joy and dreams—joy of living for the moment and dreams of trying to make the world a better place, both for ourselves and for others in it. (p. 276)
The Course's response to the answers Ehrman discusses
How would the Course respond to the answers Ehrman discusses in God's Problem? I will now briefly describe how I think the Course would respond, converting the headings in the previous section to what I believe is a Course-based view.
But first, a caveat: Ehrman expresses a concern that many philosophical attempts at theodicy treat evil and suffering so abstractly that they are disconnected from the grim experience of suffering in daily life. Therefore, there is a danger that they may distract from the crucial work of actually alleviating suffering. I think this is a valid concern, and I imagine that because of this, Ehrman would have some misgivings about what I say below, since the Course regards suffering and evil as, in the final analysis, self-inflicted illusions.
So, I want to make clear that while the Course does regard suffering as illusion in an ontological sense—it has no ultimate reality—the Course does not deny the experience of suffering in this world, and in fact urgently calls us to alleviate suffering while we are here: "Look about the world, and see the suffering there. Is not your heart willing to bring your weary brothers rest?" (W-pI.191.10:7-8). Being truly loving and helpful to our suffering brothers is, in fact, how we awaken to God. I'm not focusing on this aspect of the Course's teaching here (though I'll touch on it toward the end), but it is an aspect that must always be kept in mind, so we can avoid the complacency Ehrman warns against.
Now, let's look at the Course's responses (for the rest of this article, I will use the Course's conventions for capitalizing pronouns and other words related to God):
Suffering is self-inflicted punishment for imagined sin
The Course actually agrees with the biblical view that sinners deserve punishment through suffering: "If sin is real, then punishment is just and cannot be escaped. Salvation thus cannot be purchased but through suffering" (W-pI.101.2:1-2). Yet at the same time, it categorically rejects the idea we are sinners who deserve punishment: "No one is punished for sins, and the Sons of God [i.e., all of us] are not sinners" (T-6.I.16:4). Given all the apparent sin in the world and given that punishment for sin is just, how can it be that we're not sinners and God isn't punishing us? And if suffering is punishment for sin yet we're not sinners, what is causing our suffering?
This leads to two critical alterations to the concept that suffering is punishment for sin. First, because we cannot actually separate from God or each other, sin is not real. It is something we imagine we did and continue to do, but is no more real than the things we do in dreams. Second, although sin is not real and therefore God sees no sin, we believe it is real. We think we really did separate and continue to violate God's Will. Therefore, according to the Course, in a very deep, currently unconscious part of our minds, we have fallen asleep and are having a nightmare rooted in our guilt over what we believe we have done. In this nightmare, this world we made as an attack on God is also an attack on us: It serves as a punishment device for our "sins," punishment inflicted through all the suffering the world doles out.
Thus, suffering is not God's punishment for our sins, but is instead our self-inflicted punishment for imagined sins. In the Course's words, our suffering is "a dream of fierce retaliation for a crime that could not be committed" (W-pI.190.2:4).
Suffering is not redemptive; God does not inflict suffering to produce a greater good
In the Course's view, suffering is never redemptive; it is not something God brings about in order to produce some greater good or to save others. Yes, people do suffer in the process of producing a greater good for others; I think of great people who died for their cause, like Martin Luther King, Jr. But in these cases, it is not the suffering itself that is redemptive; rather, the love that inspires the person to do good is redemptive. The suffering is simply an unfortunate byproduct of loving action.
The Course addresses this issue most directly in its discussions of the ultimate redemptive suffering in Christianity: Jesus' death on the cross. The Course's author, who claims to be Jesus, insists that the whole idea of his suffering as vicarious Atonement for our sins—suffering to bring about a greater good—is nonsense. He says bluntly: "I was not 'punished' because you were bad" (T-3.I.2:10)—in fact, he was not punished at all. It is absurd to think that "God Himself persecuted His Own Son on behalf of salvation" (T-3.I.2:4). The whole idea of love inflicting pain for the sake of a greater good is completely foreign to God's nature. In short: "Love does not kill to save" (T-13.In.3:3, italic in original).
Suffering is never a test of faith; God never performs such cruel tests—He only wants us to be happy
This idea can be dismissed very quickly. The God of the Course simply never does such a thing. He is a God of Love Who has no need to test how willing we are to stick with Him even when He sticks it to us. He never sticks it to us; He only wants our good, and nothing else. As the Course puts it: "God's Will for me is perfect happiness" (W-pI.101.Heading).
Suffering is not something God gives us to build character; we can learn from our self-inflicted suffering, but suffering is not necessary for learning
In the Course's view, God never "disciplines" us in this way. He never inflicts pain on anyone for any reason. The Course even dismisses as ludicrous the well-known refrain of the parent who physically disciplines a child: "This hurts me more than it hurts you" (T-3.I.2:7). The author of the Course asks us bluntly: "Can you believe our Father really thinks this way?" (T-3.I.2:8).
That being said, it is true that the Holy Spirit can use our self-inflicted suffering to "build character" in a sense, if we will let Him. He can show us just how much we are suffering, and this recognition can be a catalyst for motivating us to stop hurting ourselves and start walking the path that leads us out of suffering. That is the import of this passage from the Text:
Tolerance for pain may be high, but it is not without limit. Eventually everyone begins to recognize, however dimly, that there must be a better way. As this recognition becomes more firmly established, it becomes a turning point. (T-2.III.3:5-7)
So yes, we can learn through pain, and this can lead to self-improvement. But the Course doesn't share the common idea that sometimes we have to suffer in order to learn some life lesson. Even though we can learn the error of our ways through the school of hard knocks, the Course is clear that pain is not necessary for learning. In fact, the joyful lessons the Holy Spirit wants to teach are much more effective:
There is no need to learn through pain. And gentle lessons are acquired joyously, and are remembered gladly. What gives you happiness you want to learn and not forget. (T-21.I.3:1-3)
Suffering is not fully explainable, but not because God is withholding a "mystery" from us; He has no secrets
I think the Course partly agrees and partly disagrees with the idea that suffering is a mystery. On the one hand, it does suggest that some deep metaphysical questions are not fully answerable in our current state of existence. In a well-known passage, the Course says that it cannot answer questions like "How did the impossible occur?"—a question which encompasses the origin of suffering, since from the Course's standpoint, suffering is in the ultimate sense impossible. Instead, it says, "There is no answer; only an experience. Seek only this, and do not let theology delay you" (C-In.4:4-5). The "experience" here is the experience of awakening to God. This experience ends the problem of suffering forever, thus rendering the question of how it arose meaningless.
I think this is a profound answer, and one that many people have caught glimpses of in their own experience. For instance, those who have had near-death experiences, which often involve an encounter with a "being of light" radiating boundless unconditional love, often report that while in that experience, they realized that even the worst sufferings and evil were ultimately nothing compared to this immense love. (Paradoxically, however, this did not lead to complacency upon return to this world; on the contrary, NDE experiencers usually return with a strong sense that they must devote themselves to loving others and relieving suffering.)
It seems to me that such powerful experiences of a loving God turn the problem of evil on its head. The problem stems from our experiencing the painful world and saying, "How could there be a loving God?" But when you have had a genuine experience of a loving God you say, "How could there be real evil?"
On the other hand, the Course definitely doesn't agree with the idea that suffering is a "mystery" in the sense that term is often used: God somehow has a good reason for suffering that He's withholding from us now but will reveal someday. The Course dismisses the entire attitude toward suffering in which "you seek to be content with sighing, and with 'reasoning' you do not understand it now, but will some day. And then its meaning will be clear" (T-26.VIII.7:6-7). God has no good reason for suffering, He never inflicts it, and He is withholding nothing from us: "God has no secrets. He does not lead you through a world of misery, waiting to tell you, at the journey's end, why He did this to you" (T-22.I.3:10-11).
So, while there is no fully intellectually satisfying answer to the problem of suffering, this is not because God is keeping the answer from us. It's simply that our small minds can't fully grasp the whole situation in our current state. The ultimate answer to the problem of suffering is the experience of God in Heaven.
Suffering is caused by our own decisions, which we can undo; to eat, drink, and be merry while we can is simply another form of suffering used to punish ourselves for our imagined sins
Suffering is certainly meaningless and to some extent inscrutable, but it is not random or inevitable. As I said earlier, from the Course's standpoint suffering is our self-inflicted punishment for imagined sins. Therefore, it is our decision, a decision we can reverse at any time (though actually reversing in a deep way is a long-term goal that requires a lot of determined spiritual practice).
Moreover, the Course claims that the whole "eat, drink, and be merry" idea is not the way to mitigate the suffering in the world, but is actually just another form of the same suffering. Yes, we tell ourselves we can enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Something in us says, "God made you a body. Very well. Let us accept this and be glad. As a body, do not let yourself be deprived of what the body offers. Take the little you can get" (W-pI.72.6:2-6). We think this is the best we can do. But this is a deception, for God actually created us as beings of infinite spirit, free of pain or limitation of any kind, living in a realm of pure joy and love. For such a being, living encased in a body is so painful that even the "pleasures" of the body are really pain. "To think you can be satisfied and happy with so little is to hurt yourself" (T-19.IV.A.17:12).
Thus, "It is impossible to seek for pleasure through the body and not find pain" (T-19.IV.B.12:1). Being in a body, ironically, is actually a primary way in which we punish ourselves for imagined sins, for it is our sense of sin that tells us, "You are here, within this body, and you can be hurt. You can have pleasure, too, but only at the cost of pain" (T-27.VI.2:2-3). Eating, drinking, and being merry is simply another way we keep our sense of sinfulness alive and keep the Love of God that would save us out of our minds.
Suffering is the temporary product of illusory evil forces in our own minds; all is actually well now, and everyone will fully realize all is well when the Course's version of the "apocalypse" comes
This is the Course's version of the apocalyptic view of suffering. In the Course's view, our suffering is not caused by evil forces out there in the world wreaking havoc on us. The devil didn't make us do it. Yet there is a "devil" of sorts in our midst—an evil belief in our own minds: "The mind can make the belief in separation very real and very fearful, and this belief is the 'devil'" (T-3.VII.5:1). The devil is what the Course calls the ego, and it is an illusion. Yet it does indeed cause great suffering on a worldly level, because this illusion has a deep grip on our minds: "It is powerful, active, destructive and clearly in opposition to God, because it literally denies His Fatherhood" (T-3.VII.5:2). It is not something to be trifled with; it is something within us that we must face squarely and undo with the Course's help.
The good news, however, is that the "devil" will be undone and all will be well in the end. This undoing is a gradual process, but the ego will be undone once and for all in the Course's own version of the apocalypse, which is quite different from traditional versions. In the Course, the Second Coming is not the return of Jesus at the end of time, but the collective return of awareness of our Identity as Christ, which brings about the end of time. The Last Judgment is not God or Jesus judging people, condemning the evil ones and saving the good ones; rather, it is our own final judgment of our thoughts with God's help, undoing the "evil" ones and saving only the good ones that God put in our minds in the beginning. This paves the way for God's last step, which lifts everyone back to Heaven.
This differs from traditional versions of the apocalypse in at least three ways. First, it is a series of mental events rather than physical ones, though these events will certainly affect the physical world: in the end, "[the world] will not be destroyed nor attacked nor even touched. It will merely cease to seem to be" (M-14.3:11-12). Second, it is not brought about by God, but by us with God's help. It is, in fact, a gradual process that has already begun, and we can hasten it by choosing to do our part in God's plan for salvation. We're not waiting on God; God is waiting on us. Third, no one is destined for the lake of fire and brimstone in the Course's version: "The final judgment on the world contains no condemnation. For it sees the world as totally forgiven" (W-pII.10.2:1).
The bottom line is that all is actually well now—suffering is an illusion, after all, with no effect on our reality—and we will fully realize all is well when we collectively bring about and experience the Course's version of the apocalypse. We don't know how long this will take, but the Course promises, "A happy outcome to all things is sure." (W-pII.292.Heading).
Suffering happens because of our decisions; God didn't create it, His absolute power has already prevented it from being real, and He has given us the power to overcome it completely
This is a Course-based rebuttal to Harold Kushner's view. As we've already seen, suffering doesn't just happen; it is the result of our own decisions. The Course would agree with Kushner that God doesn't make suffering happen, but it would absolutely disagree with the idea that suffering persists because God isn't powerful enough to do anything about it.
On the contrary, God is truly all-powerful; so powerful, in fact, that there is nothing whatsoever that truly opposes His Will. Thus, God has complete power over suffering. He did not create it, and therefore it does not really exist. It persists in our experience because He doesn't impose His power on us; He doesn't overturn our own decisions by force because He respects our free will, as we'll see below.
But what He does do is offer us help in myriad forms. He created the Holy Spirit as a Communication Link between Him and us in our separated state. He gave us a plan for salvation, and gave everyone a particular part in that plan; each of us has been given our own unique way of becoming a teacher/healer/miracle worker. He guides us, comforts us, and provides us with a way out of the hell we made. He tries to persuade us through all these means (including A Course in Miracles itself) of the truth according to the Course: We share His infinite power because He shares His Will with us, so we can access that power to undo our self-inflicted suffering at any time.
Suffering is not the way to imitate Jesus' self-giving love; we imitate his love by demonstrating that God's Son cannot really suffer
This is a Course-based rebuttal to Arthur McGill's view. To briefly recap that view: McGill says that suffering is an imitation of Jesus' self-giving love. God (in the form of Jesus) suffered for us because He loves us, and we should be willing to do the same for our brothers and sisters. This is rooted in a Christian view of the crucifixion, in which God sacrificed Himself (through His Son) to save us.
But the Course's view is quite different. God does not suffer, Jesus is not God (he is a Son of God no different than us), and the crucifixion was not God sacrificing to save us. Rather, in the Course, the crucifixion is described as Jesus' way of teaching us that no matter what people do to us, we don't have to suffer. True, the body can be hurt, but it is an illusion and therefore its destruction "does not justify anger" (T-6.I.4:4). Love is the only justified response to our brothers, period. This is the import of the Course's succinct summary of the message of the crucifixion: "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2). No matter what people do to your body, you can teach them love by loving them, demonstrating to them that who you really are is indestructible, and the same thing is true of them.
Jesus provided this demonstration of indestructibility in his resurrection, and in the Course this is what he wants us to imitate. He calls upon us to "join in the resurrection" (T-11.VI.2:1) rather than the crucifixion. We do this by forgiving our brothers and showing them our freedom from suffering. Ultimately, this means allowing our bodies to be healed and thus "resurrected" as Jesus' body was. When complete healing happens (a long-term goal to be sure), "Your body can be means to teach that it has never suffered pain because of him. And in its healing can it offer him mute testimony of his innocence" (T-27.II.5:6-7). If our brothers did us no true harm, they must be innocent of any real sin. Therefore, there is no reason for them to continue inflicting punishment upon themselves for their "sins."
This is how we imitate Jesus' self-giving love: by demonstrating to our brothers that we as God's Sons cannot really suffer. If we recognize this, we will recognize that our sins are imaginary. Through this recognition, we can all overcome the imagined suffering that stems from our imagined sins.
Suffering is the result of the misuse of our God-given free will, but God has placed a limit on that free will: we can only imagine suffering and evil—we can't make it real
This, I think, is the Course's main answer to the problem of evil and suffering. (Though as we've seen, there are aspects of other answers that also apply, such as the idea that suffering is not fully explainable, and the idea that the Course's version of the apocalypse will make all things right.)
In many respects, the Course's free-will defense is much like the standard one. God endowed us with free will when He created us. We must have free will because love must be freely given and received-forced "love" is really a form of rape, is it not? Our freely given affirmation of God's Love is so essential that the Course tells us, "No spark of life but was created with your glad consent, as you would have it be. And not one Thought that God has ever had but waited for your blessing to be born" (T-30.II.1:9-10). Though the Course never spells this out explicitly, I think it's reasonable to conclude that such respect for the importance of our freely giving "glad consent" requires a will that can potentially choose not to give consent. Otherwise, it wouldn't really be consent, would it?
So, God cannot force His Love upon us, for "Love cannot enter where it is not welcome" (T-13.III.5:4). We decided that His Love was unwelcome and separated from Him; this is the root of all evil and suffering. But God did not force us to return. Our own decisions remain in place because "God's Will cannot be forced upon you, being an experience of total willingness" (T-8.III.2:3). Though He dearly wants us back and has given us all the help we need to return to Him (as we've already seen), we must freely make the decision to accept that help and come home to Him.
However, I see at least four significant differences between the Course's free will and the usual version. First, strictly speaking, our suffering is caused not by free will but by free choice. In Course terminology, our free will is the will we share with God. It is a bedrock Course teaching that God's Will and our true will are one and the same: "There is no will but God's" (W-pI.74.Heading). Our true will is still on God's side and always will be. Our free choice is a kind of weaker, distorted version of our free will. What the Course is asking us to do is use our choice to choose again the will we share with God.
Second, the Course's free-will defense applies to all Sons of God who made this world, not just human beings. In the Course's view, the Sonship that made this world does not just include those of us who have taken the form of human beings. It takes the form of animals, plants, grains of sand, and even physical processes like wind and waves. This is an important point, because it directly addresses Ehrman's objection that free will does not account for natural evil. Since the world was made by Sons of God in Heaven with infinitely powerful minds, and those minds have taken the form of everything we see in this world, this version of free will can account for natural evils such as earthquakes, tornados, and disease just as well as it can account for human depravity.
Third, the Course rejects the idea that our suffering can really be caused by others' misuse of free will to inflict suffering upon us. True, all of us are free moral agents, and on the level of earthly experience, we are inflicting suffering upon each other all the time. On this level, we need to address this fact, and work to prevent as much human-caused suffering as possible through the various earthly means at our disposal.
But according to the Course, in the ultimate sense no one is actually the victim of another's attack: "I am not the victim of the world I see" (W-pI.31.Heading). In its view, our suffering is caused by our faulty perception of others' attacks: seeing those attacks as real sins rather than simply calls for love and forgiveness that have done no real harm to us. And even the attacks themselves do not occur against our will: They are events we draw into our lives to punish ourselves for our imagined sins. (Given that the attacker has the free choice to attack us or not, presumably our drawing attack into our lives takes the form of a deep, unconscious agreement with the attacker.)
Fourth, and most important, God has placed a crucial limit on our freedom, which we've seen again and again in this account: We have the ability to imagine evil and suffering, but not to actually create real evil and suffering. As we read in the Urtext, an earlier typescript of the Course:
[Unlike the Father and the Holy Spirit], the Sonship has the unique faculty of believing in error, or incompleteness, if [it] so selects. However, it is quite apparent that so to elect is to believe in the existence of nothingness.
So, while we can imagine evil and suffering (which are forms of error and incompletion), we cannot really make them real. We are simply believing in the existence of nothingness. We have fallen asleep and are having a nightmare. We may believe deep down that we have used our free will to violate the laws of God, but "you cannot do more than believe it. You cannot make it true. And, as I said before, when you finally perceive correctly you can only be glad that you cannot" (T-3.VII.4:6-8). Thank God!
Finally, to address a thought-provoking question of Ehrman's: Does our free will (or, in Course terms, free choice) still work in Heaven? Could we decide to separate from God and start the whole mess over again? The Course doesn't directly say whether we can or can't, but even if we can I suspect that we won't, for two reasons. One, we will have learned from our bitter experience the first time we separated. Who wants to go through that again? Two, the Course suggests that after we return, the Holy Spirit will help to prevent us from making the same mistake again: "The Holy Spirit will remain with the Sons of God, to bless their creations and keep them in the light of joy" (T-5.I.5:7).
The Course's conclusion
If God is Love, why is there suffering? What is the Course's conclusion regarding the theological problem of suffering and evil? In essence, the Course turns Ehrman's conclusion on its ear. If you'll recall, Ehrman concludes that there is horrific suffering that cannot be denied or minimized or adequately explained; therefore, most likely there is no all-powerful, all-loving God. The Course reverses this entirely. In its view, there is an all-powerful, all-loving God; therefore, there is no suffering in the ultimate sense.
We certainly do experience suffering in this world, and the Course does not minimize that. But "All the world of pain is not His Will" (W-pI.99.7:4); or, to put it in slightly different words: "God is still Love, and this is not His Will" (W-pI.99.6:8). As the Course says in a line I quoted earlier, "God's Will for me is perfect happiness" (W-pI.101.Heading). Therefore, suffering cannot have reality in an ontological sense; it is ultimately an illusion with no effect on the eternal happiness God willed for us.
Where does suffering come from, then? As we've seen, it comes from us, Sons of God in Heaven asleep and having a nightmare, imagining a world of suffering and evil as punishment for our imagined sin of separating from God and from each other. The whole world of suffering represents our "idle wishes," which seem terrifying in our current state but have no real effect on our actual state:
[These] wishes are not idle in the sense that they can make a world of illusions in which your belief can be very strong. But they are idle indeed in terms of creation. They make nothing that is real. (W-pI.73.1:5-7)
I want to linger on this last passage a bit, because it highlights a paradox that is central to the Course's view of suffering. One side of that paradox is the idea that our idle wishes "can make a world of illusions in which your belief can be very strong." While the Course teaches that the world of suffering is ultimately unreal, it fully acknowledges our experience of suffering here, as we've seen. It is definitely not teaching us to put our heads in the sand.
The Course not only acknowledges just how painful life is here, but says it is actually a lot worse than we think it is. We saw above how even worldly pleasure is actually pain. We are told that the "fury" of this world "far exceeds your awareness of it" (T-15.VII.9:6). Elsewhere we are told, "This is an insane world, and do not underestimate the extent of its insanity" (T-14.I.2:6). And in imagery that combines a bloody pagan sacrifice with the Christian ritual of communion, the Course gruesomely depicts the sheer horror of the world wrought by our decision to separate (we are both the Son of God and the "followers" in this passage):
In suffering, the price for faith in it is so immense that crucifixion of the Son of God is offered daily at its darkened shrine, and blood must flow before the altar where its sickly followers prepare to die. (W-pII.12.4:2)
So, we need to face the suffering here squarely and not deny its pervasiveness in our daily lives.
But the other side of the paradox is that our idle wishes "make nothing that is real." The Course stresses throughout just how insubstantial the world of suffering truly is. In the Course's metaphysics, not only is the world an illusion, but this illusion lasted only an instant, the instant was actually over long ago, and we are now only reliving the memory of that ancient instant, which the Course calls the "time of terror." When we suffer, we "but relive the single instant when the time of terror took the place of love" (T-26.V.13:1). This entire painful world happened "so very long ago, for such a tiny interval of time, that not one note in Heaven's song was missed" (T-26.V.5:4). For me, the ultimate insubstantiality of suffering makes it a lot easier to believe in a loving God. In the big picture, the suffering is just a tiny blip on the radar screen of His Love. Why throw Him away because of the blip?
How, then, would the Course have us live in this world? In a nutshell, it wants us to live in a way that takes seriously both sides of that paradox. First, the "world is unreal" part: The Course aims to help us realize on the deepest level that the world of suffering is unreal, that "God is still Love, and this is not His Will." This is not a realization that happens overnight. Full realization of it really doesn't come until the very end of the spiritual journey. But what the Course wants us to do is to gradually, day by day, make that realization more and more a part of us by diligently studying the Course's teachings and doing its myriad spiritual practices in a regular, disciplined way. That realization, to whatever extent we have let it sink in, is meant to be the foundation for our life in the world.
Second, the "we experience suffering here" part: From the perspective of our realization of the world's unreality, the Course wants us to go out into the world to alleviate suffering. The Course is training us to be miracle workers, healers, compassionate helpers who relieve the suffering of others as the Holy Spirit directs. We do so not by announcing to them that their suffering is unreal (which in most cases would be cruel), but by offering good old-fashioned human kindness, which communicates to them that they are loved and blessed by us and by God. As I said above, being truly loving and helpful to our suffering brothers is, in fact, how we awaken to God. Rooted in the realization that suffering is unreal, we alleviate suffering in this world and thereby demonstrate that it is unreal, that "God is still Love, and this is not His Will."
In the Course's view, this is the way home for all of us. And even before it brings us all the way home to Heaven, it will transform this world into something joyous to behold:
From forgiving thoughts a gentle world comes forth, with mercy for the holy Son of God, to offer him a kindly home where he can rest a while before he journeys on, and help his brothers walk ahead with him, and find the way to Heaven and to God. (W-pII.325.1:6)
Does this paradoxical path really work? Is it a practical way to live? As a Course teacher, I've seen it work in many lives. It has certainly been an eminently practical way of life for me. For example, part of my own vocation is working with the elderly in nursing homes and home health care settings. I have also done hospice work. In this work, I have seen immense suffering on a daily basis, and done my best to relieve it with compassionate care. And what I find is that my deepening belief in the ultimate unreality of suffering is a huge help in this work. For me, it means that God truly is Love and nothing but Love, and this understanding enables me to draw upon His Love as I work with those who suffer.
Ironically, then, my belief that suffering is unreal enables me to work with suffering people far more effectively. I'm not sure I would even be able to do this work without the teachings of the Course to give me strength, hope, and faith in God's Love. The Course's path is an absolute lifeline for me in my quest to become a truly helpful and loving human being.
Does the Course solve "God's problem"?
Does the Course solve the problem of how to reconcile a loving God with suffering? Does the Course succeed where the Bible has failed? Of course, I don't know for sure whether anything Course says is really true. And as I mentioned earlier, I don't think the Course actually solves the theological problem of evil and suffering in an absolutely airtight way, though some believe it does. (For instance, there is a book by Robert Hellmann which presents a Course in Miracles theodicy. Though I'm not convinced by his solution to the problem of evil, the book is a first-rate exploration of the topic.)
I think the biggest unsolved problem for the Course is this: If our original state was the pure, unadulterated experience of God's Love, why and how did we even imagine separating from Him and making a world of such horrible suffering? How could such an alternative even occur to us, and what incentive would we have to try it out? I truly don't know. The Course offers some intriguing lines of thought on this issue, which I have explored in another article. But I think a completely satisfying answer to these questions will always elude us. There are some metaphysical knots we'll never untie on this side of the veil.
That being said, I do find the Course's way of reconciling an all-powerful, all-loving God with our experience of suffering very compelling. For me, it is far more compelling than any of the answers Ehrman describes. I believe the Course preserves God's absolute power and all-encompassing Love in the face of our suffering more effectively than any theodicy I have ever seen. We can see this in every step of the beginning-to-end scenario the Course lays out:
- In the beginning, God's Love created us as perfect beings abiding in a Heaven with no suffering whatsoever, an abode of pure love, joy, and peace. God's absolute power ensured that nothing could ever truly compromise this state.
- God's Love gave us the gift of free will, which includes the ability to choose to turn away from Him, because it is part of the nature of love that it must be freely given and received. God wouldn't be truly loving if He simply forced us to "love" Him.
- We did choose to turn away from Him, and we have suffered as a result. But God's Love and His power ensured that there was a benevolent limit to our free choice: We couldn't really turn away from Him in any true way; we could only imagine that we did. Our turning away caused no real suffering.
- Moreover, as real and interminable as our suffering appears to be, God's Love and His power ensured that it is utterly insubstantial and incredibly brief: an illusion that lasted only an instant, is already over, and now exists only as a fleeting memory.
- Yet, though our suffering is so insubstantial and fleeting from the perspective of ultimate reality, God's Love also recognized how horrible our suffering feels from an earthly perspective. So, God responded to our suffering by giving us help to relieve that suffering and return home to Him, help that we can freely accept or refuse. And He guides each of us to be agents of His help, His representatives on earth, active participants in His plan for salvation from suffering.
- The path God's Love has given us to relieve our suffering and return to Him is purely loving and joyful; no suffering is required on the journey. Whatever suffering we experience on this journey is solely due to our own resistance—suffering on the path never comes from God.
- In the end, God's Love and absolute power guarantee that every single one of us will return to the Heaven we never truly left—not because He is forcing us, but because our true nature and the will we share with Him are so compellingly attractive to us that we cannot resist them forever.
- Once we have returned to Heaven, God's Love ensures that we will not make the mistake of turning away from Him again, both because we have learned from that mistake, and because the Holy Spirit remains with us to keep us in the light of joy.
What a beautiful vision! To me, the Course brilliantly accounts for both the loving God Whose Presence I have experienced in my peak moments, and the suffering that we have all experienced in this world. I'm sure the Course's way won't appeal to everyone, but my heart sings when I hear the joyous news that "God is still Love, and this is not His Will." He doesn't make us suffer, the suffering we've inflicted upon ourselves is unreal, and best of all, we can escape from suffering with His help. The Course's way is the way out of hell for me. For this is a God I can believe in and love with all my heart.