Destructive Suffering

  • Michael Stoeber
Part of the Library of Philosophy and Religion book series


Not all suffering is transformative. Much suffering remains utterly destructive, insofar as we can discern its effects. Even if some people grow morally and spiritually in their responses to their own and other people’s suffering, and some go on to become special exemplars of the transformative ideal, many people are simply overwhelmed by ‘destructive suffering’. Many of them, especially children, are not able to grow through their suffering. There is much suffering that involves no possibility of spiritual transformation or self-fulfilment for the victim.


Spiritual Experience Spiritual Development Christian Theology Symbolic Structure Natural Evil 
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  1. 1.
    Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 26–7. In my view some destructive suffering is so devastating that it might constitute for the victim reason to question the overall goodness of his or her life. However, some destructive suffering is relatively minor and not that serious, though its effects remain negative for the victim. In this view, destructive suffering never itself contributes to a positive context or outcome for the victim.Google Scholar
  2. Adams supposes that horrendous suffering will in an afterlife context ‘not only be balanced off but endowed with positive meanings, meanings at least some of which will be appropriated by the participant him/herself’. She speculates how such suffering might act to stimulate in the victim an openness to a mystical intimacy with God and that it is somehow possibly even itself ‘a vision into the inner life of God’ (pp. 205, 162, 161). Her view is influenced somewhat by a creative interpretation of the writings of Simone Weil by Diogenes Allen, in ‘Natural Evil and the Love of God’, Religious Studies, Vol. 16 (1980), 439–56. This essay is also in The Problem of Evil, Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 189–208. See also endnotes 2 and 26 in this chapter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    See especially Simone Weil, ‘On the Love of God and Affliction’, in Simone Weil, trans. Eric O. Springsted (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), pp. 41–70. Affliction, for Weil, is very extreme physical, emotional and social suffering that is unjustified. Weil describes the absurdity of affliction, how such extreme, innocent suffering penetrates to the depths of one’s being and how in such isolating distress one is unable to be open to God or even unable to love at all. Drawing on Platonic and Stoic sources, she grounds this affliction in the ‘necessity’ of regular mechanistic forces of matter, which, though they are within divine providence, are separated from divine goodness and love. ‘A blind mechanism, heedless of degrees of spiritual perfection, continually buffets men hither and thither and flings some of them at the very foot of the Cross’ (p. 47). Weil urges one to hope and struggle to love from within this condition of affliction, and writes of the ability to consent or surrender ‘to a right orientation’ towards God (p. 55), even in such desolation: ‘Whenever we have some pain to endure, we can [then] say to ourselves that it is the universe, the order and beauty of the world, and the obedience of creation to God which are entering our body’ (p. 52). By maintaining this positive stance while in affliction, one might help to centre oneself in God, from which affliction loses its devastating effects and is reduced. Weil writes of God’s power to heal the victims of affliction, even if they will always be scarred by its effects (pp. 46, 52). She stresses especially the spiritual power of Christ in that regard, for he has experienced affliction in its fullness (pp. 66–7), and she speaks in other writings of her own experience of Christ’s love in her suffering. She suggests that through this horrible struggle with affliction, one may eventually come to recognize ‘things and events, everywhere and always’, including this brutal necessity, ‘as vibrations of the same divine and infinitely sweet word’ (p. 52). Nevertheless, she insists adamantly, ‘affliction is not [transformative] suffering. Affliction is something quite different from a divine educational method’ (p. 53). In a creative and insightful reading of Simone Weil’s development of affliction, Diogenes Allen notes the stress in Weil on humbly surrendering to God in such affliction, using ‘nature’ as the provocative exemplar, in the way the processes of the natural world mechanically and unquestioningly follow the will of God. He interprets her account as suggesting that this radical suffering is a disguised form of God’s love to which one needs to surrender. It is ‘an indirect contact with a loving Father’, where one ‘is to find the distress itself as the touch of his love’. ‘Natural Evil and the Love of God’, pp. 452, 450. Such an interpretation is quite different from suggesting only that a person might be healed by God despite her or his affliction, if she or he remains open to God’s love, as I suggested above. The danger of Allen’s interpretation of affliction is that it tends towards reducing the true horror of affliction by regarding it as instrumentally good (hence transformative suffering), in suggesting that it contributes to this positive experience of God or even that it actually is a positive experience of God. I suspect Weil would resist treating affliction as an instrumental good in this way, as I noted above, though perhaps there are passages of her writing that might be so interpreted. I should note also that Weil’s idea of within the d f divine creative action seems to correspond in interesting ways to Jacob Boehme’s idea of the first principle of the Divine Essence, which in itself is a blind and amoral creative principle that provides the source for the vital dynamism of life.Google Scholar
  4. For a discussion of the significance of the first principle of the Divine Essence for theodicy, see Michael Stoeber, Evil and the Mystics’ God: Towards a Mystical Theodicy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), especially pp. 143–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 4.
    Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, trans. Everett R. Kalin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 91.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991), p. 235.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999), p. 259.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 23. See also p. 11.Google Scholar
  9. 16.
    For two recent summaries and overviews of a variety of theologians who criticize theodicy, see Sarah K. Pinnock, Beyond Theodicy: Jewish and Christian Continental Thinkers Respond to the Holocaust (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002)Google Scholar
  10. and John E. Thiel, God, Evil and Innocent Suffering: A Theological Reflection (New York: Crossroad, 2002).Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    On the question of providing sufficient intellectual warrant for religious worldviews in the face of evil, over and against other worldviews, see Michael Scott, ‘The Morality of Theodicies’, Religious Studies, Vol. 32 (1996), 1–13;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. James Wetzel, ‘Can Theodicy be Avoided? The Claim of Unredeemed Evil’, Religious Studies, Vol. 25 (1989), 1–13,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. and David O’Connor, ‘In Defense of Theoretical Theodicy’, Modern Theology, Vol. 5 (1988), 61–74. James Wetzel makes the point here most succinctly: ‘Practical theodicy could not enjoin theology’s perpetual silence in the face of evil without beginning to assume the nonbeliever’s distance from the resources of faith’ (p. 12).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 20.
    Louis Dupré, ‘Evil — A Religious Mystery: A Plea For A More Inclusive Model of Theodicy’, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 7 (1990), 278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 22.
    The following thoughts with respect to destructive suffering are stimulated and influenced by John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, rev. edn (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), especially pp. 262–91, 365–86; Ninian Smart, ‘Omnipotence, Evil and Superman’, Philosophy, Vol. 36 (1961); and some of their critics: J. L. Mackie, ‘Evil and Omnipotence’, Mind, Vol. 64 (1955);Google Scholar
  16. Antony Flew, ‘Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom’ in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alistair MacIntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955);Google Scholar
  17. Edward H. Madden and Peter H. Hare, Evil and the Concept of God (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1968); and G. Stanley Kane, ‘The Failure of Soul-Making Theodicy’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 6 (1975).Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Human Development (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), p. 168.Google Scholar
  19. 28.
    St Thomas writes: ‘Augustine says, “There are two evils of the rational creature: one by which it is voluntarily alienated from the supreme good, the other by which it is punished against its will.” Punishment and fault are expressly stated by these two. Therefore evil is divided into punishment and fault.’ St Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Jean Oesterle (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), pt. I, Q. i, art. 4; p. 28.Google Scholar
  20. Although Thomas is here quoting a spurious attribution to St Augustine, Augustine does maintain this position. See De Natura Boni of Saint Augustine: A Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, trans. and ed. A. Anthony Moon (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955), especially pp. 9, 34–41, 70–1. As Michael Latzer points out, for Augustine and Thomas ‘the only authentic instances of evil are sin and the punishment of sin, that is, the evils which derive from the wrongdoing of rational creatures’ (p. 62). ‘The Nature of Evil: Leibniz and his Medieval Background’, The Modern Schoolman, Vol. 71 (1993), 59–69.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Morton T. Kelsey, Healing and Christianity: In Ancient Thought and Modern Times (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 20, 21. For details of the Service for the Sick, see especially pp. 15–22. Kelsey speculates on the possible historical developments in the church that lead to the view that all sickness is to be attributed to sin or the punishment for sin (pp. 200–38). This trend is highlighted in the twelfth century in the formal transformation of the order for visiting and anointing of the sick into the sacrament of Unctio Extrema — administered primarily or only at the time of death — and solely, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas, as ‘a spiritual remedy, since it avails for the remission of sins…’ (p. 209). It is very curious how in Christian scholastic theology all suffering comes to be connected with sin, especially given the explicit admonitions of Jesus in the New Testament that not all suffering is a result of sin (for example, in Luke 13:2–5 and John 9:1–3). Related to this, a rich patristic theology of healing, grounded in the New Testament emphasis on the practice, is almost wholly ignored in later medieval theology. In the Roman Catholic Church, in the 1960s, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council provided significant stimulus in the renewal of a theology of the sick. The document insists that the sacrament is not only for those who are near-death, it explicitly names the sacrament as ‘more fittingly’ the ‘anointing of the sick’, and it explicitly distinguishes it from last communion (Viaticum) (pp. 241–2).Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    See, for example, John R. Sachs, ‘Resurrection or Reincarnation? The Christian Doctrine of Purgatory’, Reincarnation or Resurrection?, Concilium, Vol. 5 (1993), 81–7, for a brief overview of the doctrine, including traditional official definitions and some contemporary interpretations.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    Baron F. von Hügel, ‘What Do We Mean By Heaven? And What Do We Mean By Hell?’ in Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. I (London: J. M. Dent, 1921), p. 203.Google Scholar

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© Michael Stoeber 2005

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  • Michael Stoeber

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