For centuries theologians have debated what happens when we die. In Christianity, the idea of salvation is prominent; by giving our lives in faith to Christ we are somehow saved and given the promise of eternal life. But it is difficult to say, beyond mere speculation, what the doctrine of salvation really means. After all, when a Christian is ‘saved’, he or she will continue to do wrong, and continue to suffer. In what way then, has that person been saved? Is it purely that upon the arrival of death he or she will go to heaven?
The evidence to me suggests that there is little hope for salvation in this life. It seems to be part of the character of God to present us with challenges throughout our lives, and I can’t help but suggest that suffering and life are intertwined for everyone. Has anyone ever lived a life completely free from suffering?
It is possible, of course, that some people suffer more than others. It could be the case that one person may live a generally happy and abundant life, and die peacefully in their sleep one night, while another may have a life plagued with tortures, torments and diseases, and have a fearful and painful death. It would seem to me unfair that some people should suffer greatly, and others little, and so I am forced to ask the question ‘Is God fair’? Put another way, we might also ask whether an infinitely wise, infinitely powerful being, is likely to be ‘fair’?
My gut feeling is that God is likely to be fair. So I would expect that, though human beings live vastly different lives, the amount of suffering individuals experience over the course of their lives and deaths is likely to even out, and so be similar with each person. In order for this to work, we might have to take into account life before birth and after death. Perhaps some people live easy lives on earth, but suffer greatly in the afterlife, and vice versa.
But does God ever let suffering become ‘too much’ for people? I can envisage that an infinite God would have the power and potential to inflict infinite suffering on His creatures. So one could envisage, in a rather hellish scenario, a creature living for 1000 years and suffering in every moment. Is this possible? With an infinite God, I have no reason to believe it is impossible. But it would seem that our infinite God chooses to be much more merciful. Most people experience the interplay of good and bad times in their lives, and even if some are suffering greatly in this life, there is still the hope that death might be a transition into a more happy and liberated state.
I cannot deny that I perceive it to be possible than a ‘hell’ might exist after death. It seems to be possible that God could inflict eternal suffering on His created subjects. After all, if it is possible for me to experience agony in one moment, then presumably it is possible for me to experience agony in every moment.
But it would seem, thankfully, that God is much kinder to His creations than our hellish scenario projects. It seems irrational, after all, that God would make people suffer an incredible amount. If God has been in control of our destinies since our conception, then what could we have freely done to ‘deserve’ suffering as a kind of punishment? I do not think it is possible for a human being to freely do wrong, and by freely I mean to do something that is outside of the will of God. As I have argued elsewhere, God is everywhere, and freedom from God is impossible. Therefore what reason could God have to inflict enduring, hellish suffering on an individual? It seems a lot more reasonable that God might use suffering as a way for us and Him to experience different aspects of life, but that God, always supremely in control, would eventually liberate us from suffering altogether, or at least would never let our suffering become ‘too much’.
If God is eternal perfection, then anything that is ‘less’ than God will by it’s very nature be in a state of suffering. It will quite literally be suffering from imperfection. This is the state we human beings are in. We are not experiencing in ourselves the fullness of God, and one can imagine that if we were, we would be in a constant and pure state of perfection. But in my view, there are likely to be two aspects to God’s perfect state, that can be viewed as positive and negative. In terms of the positive, God is supremely powerful, without boundaries, infinitely creative, and infinitely loving. In terms of the negative, God is supremely alone. Is it not possible that God creates this vast and complex world in order to feel less alone? Perhaps the multiplicity of beings pleases God, because through them it appears as though such wonders as loving relationship and friendship can really exist. Of course, all the while God is aware that such relationship is in reality impossible, as all beings are expressions of the One – the eternal substance that is God. One might well imagine that God might long to meet someone or something that is not God – for an element of surprise and to have genuine loving relationship – but knowing that this is impossible (for God is everything and everywhere) God creates this world of separate beings, which is as close to genuine relationship as He can get.
Does God suffer when people suffer? It is perfectly reasonable to assume, if God is everywhere, that God experiences suffering when His creatures suffer. So God can experience millions of creatures suffering simultaneously, in their various different ways. I would also suggest that as the eternal perfection, there is a way that while experiencing the suffering of creatures, God remains free from and distinct from that suffering. God has, if you like, a broader perspective, and so suffering is seen by God in the light that it is only a small part of the total reality.
So perhaps, for God, there is this duality in suffering. God feels everything deeply and intimately, and yet is distanced from it by His eternal nature as being everything everywhere and perfect being. The part of God that feels suffering allows God to empathise with creatures, and the part of God that is free allows for a broader perspective on what that suffering means.
In conclusion, then, I have a hope – but it is only a hope – that everyone (and every being perhaps) experiences a tolerable amount of suffering that serves a broader purpose in God’s agenda. It seems irrational that beings should be made to suffer in agony for long periods of time, because they can have done nothing freely to deserve such treatment. While suffering allows for different aspects of the divine nature to be expressed and experienced, the infinite knowledge and wisdom of God mean that our pain is always under control, and limited.