Why Does God Allow Suffering?


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The existence of suffering is often touted as being an argument against a benevolent God. Many atheists say that if God is all-powerful and all-loving, then he should be able to stop suffering or create a world without it. Either He can’t, in which case He is not All-Powerful, or He won’t, in which case He is not All-Loving. Religion however dispels these false notions by explaining that suffering is itself an essential source of betterment in both the spiritual and worldly domains, the pains of which are amply rewarded in the next life. Read more below…


Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

PEACE BE UPON HIM

Mirza_Ghulam_Ahmad_(c._1897)

(1835-1908)

 

Suffering promotes steadfastness

One of the natural qualities of man is steadfastness during illness and under afflictions. He has recourse to patience after much complaining and sorrowing. It is natural that a person cries and groans under affliction and in the end, after giving vent to his grievance, he beats a retreat. Both these conditions are natural but are not in any sense part of a moral quality. In this context the relevant moral quality is that when one suffers a loss, one should consider it as rendering back to God that which He had bestowed, and should utter no complaint about it. One should affirm that it was a bounty of God which He has recalled and that one is reconciled to God’s pleasure. In this context the Holy Qur’an admonishes us:  

And We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives, and fruits; but give glad tidings to the patient,

Who, when a misfortune overtakes them, say, ‘Surely, to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.’

It is these on whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy, and it is these who are rightly guided.

(The Holy Qur’an, 2:156-158) 

That is, O believers we shall surely try you with somewhat of fear, and hunger, and loss of wealth, and lives, and of the fruits of your labour and sometimes your dear children will die; then give glad tidings to the steadfast, who, when a misfortune overtakes them, do not lose heart, but affirm: We belong to God and are His servants and to Him shall we return. It is these on whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy, and it is these who are rightly guided. This moral quality is called steadfastness or reconciliation to the Divine will. From one aspect it might be called equity or justice. Throughout a person’s life, God Almighty manifests thousands of matters in accord with the wishes of a person and bestows numberless bounties upon him, so that it would be inequitable on his part that on such occasions when God calls upon him to submit to His will, he should turn away, not pleased with the will of God, and should be critical, or lose faith or go astray.” Philosophy of Islam, pages 79-80

 

Suffering is rewarded in the next life

“The people who pass through hardships (which are not of their own making) or who are troubled for the sake of God, will be amply rewarded by Him in the next world. So far as this world is concerned it is a transitory place; people have not to live here for all time. If somebody has means available to him which are a source of pleasure for him, it is really nothing for him to feel exalted. Whatever is there in this world – means of comfort or hardships – will come to an end, and thereafter there is a life which is eternal. Those who look at some insignificant differences in the constitutions of human life and link it with the sins and shortcomings of another previous life are very much mistaken. They do not try to think over another birth which is linked with the next world where the people who have some defects here or who have put themselves to hardships for the sake of God will be amply rewarded. This world is the place of sowing the seed and to avail the opportunity of attaining to the pleasure of God.” – Malfoozat



Why is there inequality in natural capacities between men? 

“God has made some rich and some poor, some with fine qualities and others dull, some inclined to one occupation and others to another, so as to make it easy for some to serve others and to cooperate with them in order that responsibility might be shared and human affairs might be carried on with ease… Man is a social animal and none of his affairs can be carried to completion without cooperation. For instance, take bread which is the staff of life. How much social cooperation is needed for its production? From the stage of cultivation of the earth to the stage when a loaf of bread becomes available for eating, scores of workers have to cooperate with each other. This shows how much cooperation and mutual help is needed in different sectors of social affairs. To fill this need the All-Wise One created man equipped with different degrees of faculties and capacities so that everyone should occupy himself pleasurably according to his capacity and inclination…” Essence of Islam, Vol. 1, page 120-121

 

Why Do Animals Have to Suffer? 

Interviewer: … I desire to inquire why God has so constituted various animals that those on a lower plane have to sacrifice themselves for the sake of those standing higher and to serve as food or live a despised and precarious life? 

Promised Messiah (as): …It should be enough for us to know that the present universe is only a brief, transitory stage in the span of Existence, with a fuller life to follow where all shall be blessed with true, everlasting bliss, so that any hardships borne in this life would be fully compensated for and every deficiency made up.

As for distress and pain, all grades of life are equally subject to it, high as well as low; and on fuller consideration it would be found that it had to be so. Yet, although the life of different creatures is differently circumscribed, there is practically little disparity in the sum-total of the pain and pleasure experienced by them. If a hawk preys upon sparrows, man and his offspring, too, often become the food of tigers, leopards and wolves. Man has to reckon with snakes and scorpions too. In short, pain is the common lot of all living things; if some creatures appear to be worse off than others in one respect, they have their compensation in being better placed with regard to others things. But life in this world being tinged with pain, God has in store another stage of existence for recompense. That is why in the Holy Qur’an He is spoken of as “Lord and Master of the Day of Judgement” (1:4). Possibly, man is the happiest of all of the Creation; but it is also possible that lower mammals and birds of the air, in their own way may be happier still.

Life in this world may be likened to a problem of which the complete solution would dawn upon man only in the next world.

For the troubles and distress borne in this life there is the Divine promise of happiness in the life to come. To the question: why did God so? and why did He not order the universe on some other plan?, one answer is that He is the Lord and Master and He did as He please; no-one is entitled to question His authority and wisdom. 

… Again it is also to be remembered than man is far more sensitive than the other kinds of life; his senses and feelings are sharper. In the lower animals and in the vegetable forms of life these faculties are much less developed. This is one reason why the lower animals have not been gifted with as much intelligence as man. Reason and rationality follow after a certain stage has been reached in the development of the senses. Possessed of crude feelings and a low intelligence, animals pass through their lives sheathed in a kind of armour which sensations of pain can penetrate only on occasion, and only for some fleeting moments. Deep and abiding sensations are experienced by man alone. Thus, in the net result, lower animals have less hardship and pain to suffer than man, although man, to the casual observer may seem to be much better placed.

Interviewer: I believe I have grasped this point. But I wish to inquire, further, whether or not you hold the view that even the lower forms of life would get some recompense in the life to come for hardships borne by them!

Promised Messiah (pbuh): Yes, we believe that everything, according to its position in the scale of Life, would be given a recompense and a reward for the distress and pain it had to bear in this life.

Interviewer: This view would imply that the animals we kill are not annihilated but survive death in some form or other.

Promised Messiah (pbuh): Of course; they are not annihilated: their spirit or their soul, call it what you like, survives.

-Interview with Professor Wragge, Part 2; Review of Religions May 1939.



Is death and suffering the result of sin? 

“The Christians say that the death of man and all animals is the fruit of sin, but this is open to two objections. In the first place, it cannot be denied that there was a creation before Adam and that they were subject to death. There was no Adam at the time nor was there his sin. Then how did death come about? Secondly, there is no doubt that with the exception of one fruit Adam ate everything in the garden and so he must have eaten meat. This also shows that animals were killed before the sin of Adam. Even apart from this, Adam drank water, for eating and drinking go together, and research has established that every drop of water contains thousands of germs. Thus there can be no doubt that before the sin of Adam, millions of germs used to die. One is, therefore, compelled to affirm that death is not the fruit of sin” -Essence of Islam, Vol. 2: page 283-284


Mirza Tahir Ahmad 

MAY ALLAH BE PLEASED WITH HIM

HKM4 with RRKT

 

Does suffering exist independently? 

“We understand from the Holy Quran, that God did not create suffering as an independent entity in its own right, but only as an indispensable counterpart of pleasure and comfort. The absence of happiness is suffering, which is like its shadow, just as darkness is the shadow cast by the absence of light. If there is life, there has to be death; both are situated at the extreme poles of the same plane, with innumerable grades and shades in between. As we move away from death, we gradually move towards a state of life which is happiness; as we move away from life, we move away with a sense of loss and sorrow towards death. This is the key to understanding the struggle for existence, which in turn leads to a constant improvement in the quality of life and helps it to achieve the ultimate goal of evolution. The principle of the “survival of the fittest” plays an integral role in this grand scheme of evolution.

“Blessed is He in whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things;

It is He Who has created death and life that He might try you—which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving.” 

(Holy Qur’an, 67:2-3)

The profound philosophy of life and death, the innumerable shades in between, and the role they play in shaping life and improving its quality are all covered in the above verse. It is the very scheme of things that God discloses here. We know that life is only a positive value, and death merely means its absence, and no sharp border exists separating one from the other. It is a gradual process, the way life travels towards death and ebbs out, or from the other direction we view death travelling towards life gaining strength, energy and consciousness as it moves on. This is the grand plan of creation, but why has God designed it so? ‘That He might try you—which of you is best in deeds’, is the answer provided by the Holy Quran.

It is the perpetual struggle between life and death that subjects the living to a constant state of trial, so that all who conduct themselves best survive and gain a higher status of existence. Herein lies the philosophy and the machination of evolution as described in the verses above. It is this constant struggle between the forces of life and the forces of death which provide the thrust to the living to perpetually move away from death or towards it. It may result either in the improvement or deterioration in the quality of existence in the wide spectrum of evolutionary changes. This is the essence and spirit of evolution.” —Question of Suffering, Part 2, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth

Without pain, would we appreciate pleasure?

“Suffering could only be considered objectionable if it were created as an independent entity with no meaningful role to play in the scheme of things. But without the taste of suffering or an awareness of what it means, the feeling of relief and comfort would also vanish. Without an encounter with pain and misery, most certainly, joy and happiness would lose all meaning. Indeed the very existence of life would lose purpose, and the steps of evolution would stop dead in their tracks.” –Question of Suffering, Part 2, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth


Why Does God Allow Suffering? 


Suffering is a relative phenomenon

“Let us once again examine the scenario of the ‘innocent sufferers’, the newborn babies with congenital defects or those falling ill at a later age with typhoid or some other disabling disease, rendering them blind, deaf and dumb, or even partially or totally paralysed for life. Worse still may be the case of those, whose central nervous system is damaged by mishaps during birth, resulting in mental disorders. Is the question valid: Why this particular child, A or B? Why not another, say for instance C or D? Would not the same question repeat again and yet again: Why C or D? Why not E or F and so on? The only valid question therefore, would be: Why anyone at all? Hence the only option the Creator is left with is either to create all babies equally healthy or equally unhealthy. This leads us to the realization that the health of a baby itself is merely of relative value. Perhaps it is hard to find any two babies equally gifted with the health of mind and heart and all the physical organs alike. To resolve the question of suffering, there is another valid question to be raised against the Creator. If one child is born with pinhole eyes and a large ugly nose and other disproportionate features, will he not suffer all his life comparing his disadvantages with the advantages of other more fortunate fellow human beings?

Inequality of health and looks will continue to irritate most individuals and will even agonise some at finding themselves to be at a disadvantage in comparison to others. Does it not warrant in the name of absolute justice and fair play that God should create every human exactly alike in health and looks? Widen the area of comparison by bringing into play the faculties of head and heart and disposition and the contrast between those who have advantages and those who have disadvantages will become even more pronounced. In the absence of extreme cases even the mild cases will appear offensive to the sense of justice. One has to begin somewhere to create variety and diversity to break the monotony. Wherever there is variety and diversity, comparative suffering and happiness are bound to be generated. To object against the plan of things in the name of compassion for disabled children is one thing, but to replace the plan with a more just and compassionate viable plan is quite another. One may try one’s hand at altering the scheme for aeons of time but one will still not be able to replace the plan of God’s creations for a better one. In other words, we shall be again reverting to the question of why any disease and suffering at all; why should they be inevitable? One answer to this question, we have already given above.” –Question of Suffering, Part 2, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth

 

Can we eliminate suffering without eliminating evolution?

“We must go back all the way in the history of life; all the way to the very beginning and start to build the ladder of evolution anew, rung by rung. But try as we may, we are bound to get stuck at the very first step, the starting point of life. We would not be able to take a single step forward because an equal distribution of happiness and total absence of suffering would entirely eliminate the impetus for evolution. There would be no struggle for existence, no natural selection, no survival of the fittest. Not a single progressive step would be taken by the first, most rudimentary forms of life.

Picture the stage of life represented by the three earliest life units known to man, i.e. bacteria with nuclei, bacteria without nuclei and pyro-bacteria (born by the energy of fire). In this imaginary system there would be no competition for food or survival, because all are equally provided for; there would be no suffering either. As a consequence, in that hypothetical revised plan of creation, life would certainly remain stationary and stagnant, forever fixed at its earliest rudimentary form. The creation of man would remain a far cry from the point of its ancient beginning. Therefore the real question is whether to choose a system with suffering as its integral part, perpetually spiralling evolution in the greater interest of life, or to abandon the plan altogether for the fear of unavoidable suffering. In the final analysis therefore, the only question we are left with is, ‘To be or not to be’?

The rudimentary forms of life, if they had a brain to think, would much rather wish ‘not to be’ than ‘to be’ in such meaningless drudgery of existence.” –Question of Suffering, Part 2, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth



The difference between believers and non-believers

“If the atheist’s scepticism is correct, then death seems to be the only solution for the drawn out misery of the innocent sufferers. If the believer’s scenario of creation is right, then death again acquires the role of a redeemer, but in a completely different way. For them, death acts only as a gateway to the life after death, which will usher the innocent sufferers into an era of unlimited reward. If they could only dream of what rewards were waiting for them in the Hereafter as compensation for their transient misery on earth, they would smilingly jog along despite suffering as though it were mere pinpricks or an odd thorn on the way to an eternal life of comfort and happiness.

Some people may not accept this and may still insist that they are not satisfied because there is no God and no life of reward or punishment after death. For them there is no value in this answer. If so, then the question should not be discussed at all. The question, they should remember, can only be discussed in relation to the role of God as Creator. The question of morality, the right and wrong of something, arises only with the belief in the existence of God. If there is God, then the suggestion of a possible compensation presented above cannot be dismissed merely with a scornful chuckle. If there is no God, then we cannot blame Him or anyone else for any chance suffering that we may encounter. We must then take life and all that pertains to it merely as an accident without meaning, without direction, without goal. Suffering has to be accepted as a part of nature, as something that cannot be done away with and cannot be run away from. Either way, one must learn to live with suffering.” –Question of Suffering, Part 2, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth

Does evil exist in its own right? 

“Let us remind the reader that Islam defines evil only as a shadow created by the lack of light. It is not a positive existence in itself. We can imagine a source of light (a lamp or the sun), but we cannot imagine any object as a source of darkness. The only way in which an object becomes a source of darkness is through its ability to obstruct light. Likewise, it is only the absence of goodness that constitutes evil. The grades of evil are only determined by the opacity of the obstructing medium.” –Question of Suffering, Part 2, Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth


Further Resources

Ask Islam

  1. Why must hardship and privation exist? [2:12 mins] see answer
  2. Don’t natural disasters belie God’s power and mercy?[0:32 to 01:42 mins] see answer
  3. Why do humans suffer? [0:32 to 02:57 mins] see answer

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