Suffering is prevalent in everyone’s life, but the way people react to it differs across theological beliefs. I am going to address the differences in the way the western religion, Christianity, and the way eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, view evil and suffering while incorporating concepts from Peter de Vries’ novel, The Blood of the Lamb. Questions about suffering and evil in our world will never have concrete answers but indulging ourselves in possible answers help us better understand the world around us while we are here.
Peter de Vries’ book, The Blood of the Lamb, was a fantastic read. I was weary of the book at first, but after reading the back of the book, it seemed to fit my taste in literature. I enjoy some sob stories with drops of humor throughout, so I was anxious to start reading. While reading, I took notes on some parts that I found interesting or shocking, and I ended up filling up three notebook pages. The storyline of this novel really had me hooked, and I felt like I could not put the book down. The Blood of the Lamb follows the life of Don Wanderhope. Don is the son of Dutch Calvinist immigrants living in Chicago, Illinois. The reader follows Don through the most heartbreaking tragedies of his life. He is left to evaluate his faith in the face of suffering. Don’s older brother, Louie, dies of pneumonia, Don contracts tuberculosis, his girlfriend, Rena, dies of tuberculosis, and his wife, Greta, commits suicide. After his wife’s death, he is left with one shimmer of hope- his daughter Carol. Over time, Carol grows into an extraordinary child, and Don’s love continues to grow immensely. His faith is shaken as Carol is diagnosed with leukemia. Later, he is forced to face one of the worst evils in the world- losing the life of his child. In my life, I have had some close family friends lose their children, and it is the most heartbreaking tragedy to watch, let alone feel personally.
Early in the novel, Don faces a multitude of tragedies. Each of these instances help explain his reactions to evil and loss piece by piece. He feels a deep bitterness and has feelings of sorrow, but I do not think the reader gets to see into Wanderhope’s beliefs as much as they do when Carol passes. He exclaims, “How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit. Nor do I believe in progress” (Vries 242). Don finds the world unjust. Don feels like God’s power has left him in a cruel, unfair place; he struggles to see the light. There is an instance before Carol dies where Don questions his beliefs while talking to other parents of sick children. Another parent says to him, “It comes down to submitting to a wisdom greater than ours” (Vries 208). This statement encompasses what gives Christians hope.
This book was a change of style for Peter de Vries. Even though it had satire scattered throughout, it was still an autobiographical, poignant piece. It reflects how de Vries felt in real life after his own daughter, Emily passed away to leukemia (Hiskes). In Hiskes’article, he states, “[The novel] showed me how little my faith arose from independent thinking, and how much it relied on blind trust I others. Most of all, it forced me to admit my faith had never been tested by true suffering.’ Here, Hiskes is reflecting on how de Vries’ portrayal of his own religious thoughts in The Blood of the Lamb is making him think deeper into his religion. In the novel, de Vries makes it obvious that he is weary of religion and does not understand the meanings behind evil in the world. Hiskes analyze the fact that his religion comes from blind trust, and these thoughts reflect Christianity. To Christians, there will always be a greater plan at play, and the grief we experience is temporary. The novel did not end in a happy manner, the way most novels try to these days. This book is a sucker punch in the gut and a straight up reality check.
This leads me to introduce the basic beliefs of Christianity so we can eventually understand their beliefs on suffering. I will begin with my own background. I was baptized Catholic and grew up going to PSR classes weekly. I have a general understanding of some Biblical stories and Christians’ beliefs about God and suffering in the world. As I grew up, my interest in my faith sort of dropped off, so I do not know all of the ins and outs behind the beliefs of the Christian point of view today. I find religion to be quite complex, so I found a very informational source to help simplify Christianity called World Atlas. Christianity is a monotheistic religion and is the most practiced religion worldwide with about 2.3 billion followers; it was started more than 2,000 years ago and is based on God’s son, Jesus Christ (Illsley). Based on my religious background, I know that Christians view God as triune. This means that he is the father, the son, and the holy spirit, but he is still only one God. For me, this was always a difficult concept, so my grandma taught me a way that helps me understand. If we break it down into equations with the father, the son, and the holy spirit each equaling one, it would not be 1+1+1=3, but 1x1x1=3 instead. It would be 1x1x1=3 because God is the three different essences of deity, but he is still one God. Christians believe that God is all knowing and all powerful.
Now that a basic understanding of Christianity has been established, let us dive into suffering. Suffering in Christianity began when God created the world. After God created the world by saying, “let there be light,” he created the first two people, Adam and Eve. God made the Garden of Eden (a place with so suffering or sin) for them to live and explained that they could eat from any tree except the tree of good and evil. Eve was tempted by Satan disguised as a serpent and ate fruit from the tree of good and evil. Eve told Adam, and he then sinned too. They knew that what they had done was wrong and told God that they had disobeyed his command. He banished them from the Garden of Eden and gave them each a specific punishment thus creating suffering for all of humanity to come. Because God himself did not create the evil/suffering, Christians view these concepts as unnatural. If something feels unnatural, humans tend to want to get rid of it, which is shown in the Christian religion. Christians want there to be no evil in the world instead of accepting that there is evil and finding a way to move forward.
The problem of human suffering is with us now as much as it was with Adam and Eve. A question commonly asked by nonbelievers or questioning Christians is: how can an all loving and all-powerful God allow terrible tragedies to happen? When you think about it, it is a very valid question. If there is someone who knows everything and has all the power in the world, why make people suffer? In a podcast titled, “The Word on Fire,” Bishop Robert Barron is faced with the question of suffering in Christianity. He explains that evil and suffering is present to bring about a greater good. He states, “God is so good and so powerful that he might permit certain evils in his creation so as to bring about a greater good” (Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?). To me, even though my faith is not super strong, this statement is comforting. I recognize suffering around me all the time, and do not know the reasoning. But, do I really need to know? There is a bigger overall plan. Christians think that suffering does not make sense, but the problem is that they do not have the power that their God has. If humans really wanted to have the knowledge behind the evils in the world, they would need to have God’s power. No human has God’s power, therefore evil and suffering are things humans may just never understand. I think the most telling aspect of the Christian religion is how often people facing suffering pray. Time and time again, I see the ones around me faced with hardship and yet, instead of question it, they turn to God for comfort.
Next, let’s cover the basics of the eastern religions Buddhism and Hinduism. Before taking this course, I had only learned about these two religions in passing. I knew some general concepts, but now I can see how interesting both really are. I will start with Buddhism. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama who was also known as the Buddha or Enlightened One. The basics of Buddhism differ greatly than that of Christianity. In Buddhism, there is no belief in a single creator. Buddhism “strongly emphasizes the human capacity to save oneself” and explains that, “an individual is all-powerful and capable of shaping his or her destiny” (Nigosian 172). Therefore, a God would not be necessary in order to be saved. Buddhism does not believe that humans are evil, but it does, however, acknowledge that humans create suffering on their own; this concept is explained in the Four Noble Truths. According to the text (page 188), Buddhists focus of the flow of becoming, and this is summed up in the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth states that life is suffering. The Second Truth explains that “suffering and general dissatisfaction come top human beings because they are possessive, greedy, and above all, self-centered” (Ross 23). The Third Truth indicates that humans can overcome the cycle of suffering, and the Fourth Truth states that the Eightfold Path can help to escape suffering and eventually reach enlightenment (Nigosian 188). Then, by following the Eightfold Path, Nirvana can be reached. I find it very interesting the Buddhism views human suffering as being our own fault. We experience suffering because of our personal greed. I think abiding by a concept like this would make humans look deeper into their morals and beliefs and try to consciously better themselves more often. Even though there is a possibility that suffering can be overcome, does not mean there is an easy way out for Buddhists. Buddhists know that suffering is inevitable, so they may try to do everything in their power that they think will deflect it. It is an unrealistic idea to think that life can be stress-free. I think that the Buddha wanted humans to recognize that suffering will always be a part of life and learning to accept that fact will begin to alleviate stress.
Next, I will take a look at Hinduism. Unlike Christianity and Buddhism, Hinduism does not have a known founder. Based on what I learned in the Hinduism chapter, I know that they can be “monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, atheists, agnostics, dualists, monists, or pluralists” (Nigosian 136). The basic beliefs of Hinduism include samsara (reincarnation), karma (law of cause and effect), and moksha (end of cycle of existence); these all play key roles in the Hindu religion (Nigosian 136-138). In Hinduism, the term karma refers to past actions of people dictating how their future plays out. It acts as an explanation for both the good brought upon people, but also the bad. Karma prevents Hindus from exiting the cycle of rebirth and reaching moksha, therefore it is seen with more of a negative connotation. Hinduism is a very complex religion, so this is just a basic rundown.
In order to better understand how the Hindu religion views suffering, I read an article titled, “Evil and Theodicy in Hinduism” written by Sunder Willett. “Unlike Christianity, Hinduism does not dichotomize good against evil. Hindu mythology depicts evil as being created alongside the rest of the universe. Thus, there is not the perspective that evil is unnatural and must be vanquished or conquered as there is in Christian theology…” (Willett 5). I found this quote to be very intriguing because I had never looked at it like that before researching for this paper. Christianity really does want the world to be completely free of evil rather than coexist with it and adjust. In Hinduism, it is acknowledged that evil exists, but they still believe people should be good. This principle is very similar to that of Buddhism. As mentioned before, karma plays a major role in Hinduism and acts as an answer for why humans suffer. Karma explains that people receive the energy they initially put out into the universe. If you acted poorly in the past, something negative will occur in your future. This can be one explanation for suffering in Hinduism. Suffering cannot be resolved in Hinduism, but can it really ever be resolved?
Human suffering is something that will occur until the end of time. There is no way to stop suffering, but there are some things humans can do to lessen the pain. We look deeper into our faith, we can examine the world around us and readjust to it, we can try to search for answers the best that we can. Suffering is not something you can stop but rather something that is coped with over time. From writing this paper and diving into research, I have concluded that it is better to acknowledge the evil and suffering in the world rather than avoid the conversation. Go out there and question everything you see! Look for answers to questions others haven’t even thought about. It may be difficult but try to find comfort in the fact that no matter what your religion is, evil will find you, and you will persevere. Everyone faces evil in their lives and it is the way they react to it that makes them who they are.