How does the view on suffering in Christianity differ from other religions? Does Christianity have a better answer?
A great question. Before I describe the different worldviews and their view of suffering, let me note that individuals may not act according to the worldview that they appear to believe in. Although atheists, logically, have no reason to relieve suffering in general, many of them live quite ethical lives and do much to help those who suffer. Nevertheless, let us consider the different world views. What can we reasonably infer would be the response to suffering for one who holds to these worldviews.
First, consider the worldview of pantheism, perhaps best represented by the Hindu faith. According to this view, physical things are an illusion, the physical is a lower level of existence and suffering is, in essence, not real. As I implied above, many Hindus are caring people, but given their view of karma and of the unreality of suffering, it is probably not a big surprise that Christian groups do a majority of the organized benevolent work in India. If people suffer because of their karma and if suffering is not real, why should one act to alleviate such suffering?
The case with the Buddhist worldview is similar. Although Buddha was officially agnostic on the God issue, if one looks at this religion and what Buddha taught, his philosophy was in line with pantheistic thinking. Buddha taught that the way to enlightenment was to remove oneself, emotionally, from the world. He taught dispassion, not compassion. It is easy to see how this would affect the response to suffering of those who truly grasp this concept. Again, it is not surprising to notice that Christians do the majority of the organized benevolent works in Buddhist countries such as Cambodia and Thailand.
Then there is Islam. Muhammad did teach mercy should be shown to those who are in need. In fact, the giving of alms to help the poor and needy is one of the five pillars of Islamic religion. This is to be commended. However, it is official teaching and practice that these alms can ONLY go to Muslims and to Muslim groups. The situation in terms of benevolent works in Muslim countries is better than in Hindu or Buddhist countries, but we cannot expect the Muslim to show the same love and compassion to anyone not in their religion. In general, theory matches practice and we do not see Muslims coming to the rescue in disease outbreaks or to help the poor in non-Muslim areas.
Of course, there is the atheist world view. Logically, in this world view, there is no meaning of purpose to what happens. It is all random. If we have a compassionate response, it is because the neurons in our brain fire in a particular way, causing us to have neurotransmitters released which produces the neurological response we call compassion. Logically, if one accepts atheism, then there is no strong reason to help those outside one’s immediate circle, as no benefit falls to the individual. Like I already said, many atheist do not act consistent with this view, yet, even in the Western world, naturally, Christian groups do the lion’s share of benevolent works. Most organizations to help the homeless, to help those with addictions and so forth are faith-based (the Christian faith, that is!).
There is no doubt in my mind that the Christian response to suffering is by far the best, based on world-view. Christians to not view suffering as evil, per se, but their response to suffering, as modeled by their leader, is compassion. Arguably, Jesus of Nazareth had the greatest compassion ministry to the poor, the sick, the outcast and the unloved in all of history. The reason for this response is love. Let me share just a few verses which clearly teach this wonderful and admirable lesson about the Christian response to suffering.
Jeremiah 22:15-16 Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me? Declares the Lord.
Note: not just helping them, but defending their cause
James 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Prov 14:31 He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Not just helping, but being kind. Treating them as people, not just as a problem to be addressed.
Isaiah 58:6-7 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
A great illustration of the Christian response to suffering as it is acted out in the real world is found in the quote from the pagan emperor Julian “the apostate.” (332-363)
“Atheism (i.e. Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew (by this he means Christian) who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”
Historically, Christianity gave us hospitals, the abolition of slavery, the idea of individual human dignity and much more which has helped to alleviate (but not end) suffering in the world. To me, there is no doubt that it is the superior religion in addressing the problem of human suffering.