The problem of sin, suffering, and death
By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 11, 2022
Many years ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger hoped to retire from his service as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He planned to spend his twilight years studying the problem of evil. His plans were noteworthy for ordinary Catholics. Evil and the mystery of human suffering continued to perplex one of the Church’s greatest theologians. The Passion of Jesus and Holy Week provide the context to consider human freedom, evil, and its terrible consequences.
For purposes here, we can only sketch an outline of our Catholic faith that helps us ponder these great mysteries.
God did not create us to suffer and die. God created us to live forever in union with Him. “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.” (Wis. 1:13-15)
God created us in freedom, but we abuse our liberty. In the first book of the Bible, we read that God put Adam and Eve to the test. “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’” (Gen. 2:16-17) God did not create Adam and Eve as His slaves, but in His image with free will. Our first parents were free to choose God and His goodness or to reject Him in disobedience. When they disobeyed God, their sin was not human weakness. Their choice was a crass act of disobedient pride in response to the duplicitous temptation of the serpent: “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:4-5)
Suffering and death are the results of sin. After the fall of man, God revealed the terrible consequences of their sin: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:17-19)
The Father did not delight in the suffering of Jesus. Soren Kierkegaard invites us to consider the trauma of Abraham as he led his son Isaac up the mountain for sacrifice. “…if I were to speak about him I would first of all describe the terrors of his trial. To that end, like a leech I would suck all the suffering and distress out of the anguish of a father, in order to be able to describe what Abraham suffered while yet preserving his faith.” Abraham’s anguish as a father contemplating the sacrifice of his son reinforces the revelation of the Book of Wisdom. The Father does not delight in suffering, but in the loving obedience of His Son to rescue us from damnation. Sin has horrible consequences that culminate in the innocent suffering of the Son of God.
Suffering is not evil. Suffering is the experience of evil. Every sin inflicts suffering upon ourselves and others in one way or another.
Jesus on the cross mysteriously personifies sin and suffering. The Passion of Jesus brings all sins throughout history to Himself. He becomes sin on account of our sins! “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) The Passion of Jesus destroys sin and its consequences—suffering and death –for our redemption and salvation.
There is a kind of solidarity of sin. Many years ago during a retreat, a kindly old bishop said he gazed upon the terrible innocent suffering of a starving child. “Look what my sins have done!” Mysteriously, our sins are responsible for suffering beyond the observable rules of cause and effect. Just as virtue has a social dimension, so do sin and the innocent suffering of Jesus. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Is. 53:5)
Wherever we see suffering, we see the face of Jesus. “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) “When they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.” (Zech. 12:10)
We cannot forgive ourselves so we shouldn’t try. We need God’s forgiveness because every sin offends Him and distorts His handiwork. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.” (Ps. 51:3-4) All suffering is the result of sins that deform God’s good creation. Only God can restore the damage. Among our most absurd comments is, “I cannot forgive myself.” Judas couldn’t forgive himself so he took his own life. Seek God’s forgiveness.
In summary: God did not create us to suffer and die. He created us in freedom, but we abuse our liberty. Suffering and death are the results of sin. The Father did not delight in the suffering of Jesus. Rather, He accepted His obedience unto death. Suffering is not evil. Suffering is the experience of evil. Jesus on the cross mysteriously personifies sin and suffering, and His death brings them to destruction for our redemption. There is a kind of solidarity of sin. Wherever we see suffering, we see the face of Jesus. We cannot forgive ourselves so we shouldn’t try. Seek God’s forgiveness.
We will never exhaust the terrible mystery of human freedom, sin, suffering, and death. During Holy Week, it is sufficient for us to ponder our sins and realize that we desperately need a Savior.
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