Creatures do not possess existence within themselves by nature as a matter of the structure of reality and God’s wisdom. . . . Love seeks union and so God became man. God loved man so much that He made Himself able to be butchered upon a cross. Suffering, our greatest fear, became the instrument of our salvation.
Suffering is real and true and can become horrors. It can drive us to despair and hatred as it did the fictitious Gorr “The God Butcher” in the original backstory of the Thor comicbook. [Loyal to Stan Lee, I’m following his spelling for “comicbook”.] The recent Thor movie’s backstory of Gorr and his sufferings lacks some of the comicbook’s original heart-rending and dramatic synopsis which is more akin to the sufferings of Job. While the movie makes narcissistic false “gods” rightly hated, the comicbook hits upon the deeper sufferings which make real atheism appealing. The comicbook version is reminiscent of Vatican II’s reminder that atheism can result “from a violent protest against the evil in this world” (Gaudium et Spes #19.2). Deep-down, just as there is a little Judas inside each of us—which Romano Guardini advised to never underestimate—there is also a “god butcher” and atheist ready to revolt when pain, suffering, and sadness overcomes us.
A dose of reality helps keep us in check about suffering and death and gives context to daily living: we are born within the suffering of our mothers and the collapsing of our own heads at childbirth. While thankfully we do not remember our own personal suffering at our birth —and our heads and frames quickly recover—lovingly and despite her sufferings, our mothers also soon forget their sufferings. They choose to focus on the joy of having a child instead of the pain of the past. Her suffering was worth it to her because life and goodness are more valuable than temporary sufferings. No pain, no gain. There is true goodness in this world and hope is more powerful than the past. Death is not so different than our births.
At the end of our lives, we die in the suffering of sickness and the labored breathing of death only to be born into a new and everlasting joy. The sufferings of this world will be forgotten. Every tear and fear will be turned to joy in God’s time (but not always according to human schedules). Human history has many witnesses who have seen heaven opened and places like Lourdes which have confirmed the reality of our future joy.
Nevertheless, those we leave behind remember the sufferings of loved ones. Not every death is peaceful. Too often, those left behind can hold on to the anger of loss and horror of death more than the hope for joy that comes after the suffering. Too often they believe the silence from the beyond is because there is nothing. Their holding onto despair—instead of the willingness to hope and persevere in love—has led many angry souls to become like “god butchers”.
Rejecting false gods is obviously excellent and highly recommended. However, perhaps too often we have created imaginary and false idols of the one true God within our own minds. We have not recognized our own part in fashioning the idol. Realizing the foolishness of the idols of our imagination, perhaps we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater? Thrown out what is true along with what was false? Rejecting God due to false idols of the imagination is easy and many people follow that easy path:
"To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion." —Gaudium et Spes, #19.3
Finding and holding on to the truth about eternity requires intelligence, memory, humility, and courage. It requires overcoming fear of the silence from the seeming abyss and choosing hope over fear. For beyond the silence of darkness is a light too bright for human eyes to receive of their own power.
Going Beyond the Senses: From Pigs and Truffles to Reason and Pearls
A pig finds a truffle because that is the nature of its existence and capacity: eating and getting fat, mating, and running in the pack. When it is not sniffing others, the boar’s nose is often in the ground and scouring for food, burrowing in the dirt. Frolicking in the mud is its nature. The pig lives by its sensory powers but knows nothing about the higher realities and the transcendence beyond time and space, beyond the senses. It knows nothing about the unchanging and eternal which makes change and the temporal possible. It knows nothing about that which makes truth and freedom a higher realm only for the “gods” and those who possess intelligence by nature.
Merely an animal, the pig is not to blame. It lacks the capacity for contemplation or questioning existence and purpose. It does not and cannot ponder how individual existence is possible or how existence can be shared or increased. It does not reject the ground or mud as base, nor beneath its dignity. It cannot intuit by intelligence that it exists for a higher telos. It cannot raise itself to walk upright upon two feet. It does not wonder at the world or question why it exists rather than does not exist. It does not know and is not concerned with the seeming silence that replies from the abyss of dark space.
In contrast, as the human learns to speak and adjusts to her intelligence, her head is fixed upon the stars instead of the ground. She wonders why light pierces through the abyss of space. She eventually moves from immature knowledge to more mature knowledge and reasoning. She prefers light to the darkness. She prefers knowledge to ignorance and wants power over time. She seeks to transcend time just by seeking even to know the future or forecasts. She experiences finitude in relation to existence itself and even questions existence: Why do I exist and ask about existence, meaning, want, and love? How can I preserve the good of life and hold onto it? What is the source of life, and can it be possessed? I don’t want death to be the end of my existence because life is good.
Before we were drowned in electronics, smartphones, and television, human intelligence asked deep questions and stayed focused in contemplation: How do I get more life and keep it endlessly (cf. John 10:10)? Union with the eternal was sought through union in prayer. Our inflated sensory wants did not always suppress and drown out our higher intelligent needs for the truth and life. Pearls of wisdom for living were more valuable than endless electronic distractions from reality, suppressing our subconscious angst.
The Metaphysics of Uniting Time with Eternity
How can the source of life, the Eternal One, share its own life when it is infinite but also utterly simple and one? Used herein, to be “simple” is the technical theological language which means to not be composed or have parts; to not be dependent on things outside of yourself for existence. The Eternal One cannot give an actual piece of itself since it is utterly simple and without parts. The Eternal One is not composed and so cannot break off parts or tiny sparks of eternal life as energy packets to put in souls. Such language as sparks and packets are a poetic language that uncorrected easily become idols of false or immature imagination. The Eternal One is a pure spirit whose existence and nature are identical: pure intelligence which is being and life itself [and which Jesus revealed to be a mystery of love and personal communion]. To exist is God’s very nature and shrouded in mystery and light incomprehensible.
God’s simplicity leads to having to think deeply about all other things God has brought into existence. They cannot possibly be brought into existence on the same level as God, but only as something less. “Existence” becomes an analogous term: in some ways used the same but in other ways never on the same level and/or according to a different mode. Only God’s nature is utterly simple because He is without beginning or cause. Having a cause for their existence, a creature’s new way of existence cannot be simple since it requires something external to its nature. Not simple, all created beings are thus composed and experience need and want because they have a beginning. Of necessity, they lack God’s simplicity in order even to exist. They do not possess true eternal life within themselves by nature or natural birth. Dependent for existence and having a nature that can be divided in some way from existence necessarily includes the possibility of suffering. This is a matter of reality and so we must get to the reality of existence in its many modes to understand suffering and its redemption. It is better to exist than not exist.
Something that begins to exist must have by necessity a beginning in “somewhere” other than what is eternity (God’s way of existing without a beginning or dependency). A created being’s mode of existence must be other than God’s own mode of existence. The created being’s mode of existence is closed off to seeing something infinitely higher. We are not closed off by God’s desire for separation but by the metaphysics of existence that God always planned to overcome inside of our spiritual souls. God is always drawing creatures to Himself. In the meanwhile, the creature perceives darkness, chasms, and silence when it tries to use its senses to see and hear God. It must learn to see by knowledge and love.
That which the Eternal One brings into existence is on a lower level of existence than itself because of the nature of reality. What we refer to as “time” (or the temporal) is only one of those realms of creatures (a “somewhere”) necessarily distinct from eternal life. Creatures do not possess existence within themselves by nature as a matter of the structure of reality and God’s wisdom. That which has a beginning is always only a created likeness of the Eternal One and on a “lower-level” of created participation in “the Life” (cf. 1 John 1:2).
The good news for humans is that God has always been calling humans into higher participation in “the Life.” Those who have a beginning in time have been called to experience an increase in God’s life and existence through a union of human free wills with God’s will. Such a union of wills causes a likening unto God by which we develop in existence and freedom (cf. Gal. 5:1). This qualitative increase in life and existence happens without ever becoming God by nature, and without ever exhausting God’s goodness and infinity. Such exaltation is called becoming a child of God. Want, suffering, and limitedness can be overcome by God’s grace and this likening unto God. This grace is a unique indwelling by God in the souls of humans after the creature has been brought into existence according to the logic of creation. Humans are brought into existence so they can receive this supernatural indwelling and grace of “sonship” (cf. Romans 8). Creatures can increase in likeness to God endlessly through knowledge and love of God (which simultaneously requires loving others in truth as God does). This is participation in eternal life and salvation from unending death. This is why Saint Athanasius taught, “The Son of God became man so that man might become God [by grace and participation in God],” and as recorded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #460.
God has a “Son” because from eternity God’s intelligent knowledge of himself, without having a beginning, was eternally generated as the perfect image of God within himself. This Son is the interior Knowledge or Word by which God knows and loves His own infinite Goodness. The Word is “God from God, light from light.” The Word is from the Father but not the Father, and yet the Word remains one in being with the Father inside the mystery of self-gift and mutual possession (the Holy Spirit). God has always been a mystery of oneness and trinity of real and distinct persons…a community of eternal happiness, life, and love which we call the Most Holy Trinity. God can elevate intelligent creatures to share in this joy of infinite goodness by the transcendent power that humans do not possess of their own powers, but which human powers can hold onto and possess as a gift by God’s indwelling and activity (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7 to 5:5).
Compassion: God Assumed Our Beginning and Alienation
To reveal this mystery of eternal life—to which humans are called—the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14). God entered time by taking flesh in the womb of a Virgin. In the Word, heaven and earth were joined hypostatically and the ultimate Temple was formed. Through her free consent, the Virgin Mary clothed the Eternal Light in the density of participation in human flesh. The Light which is so bright that it seems like darkness to the human eye became visible to the human eye as Jesus the Christ. The language of God—the Eternal Word—was clothed in human flesh and became human so that the sound and language too great for human ears could be heard in the density of human speech and the simplicity of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, the Word, clothed Himself in suffering to let us know He was never silent towards our sufferings and always longed to eat the true Passover with us. Wisdom and light were announced to a world in darkness and ignorance and a billion abuses of human freedom. God’s love was confirmed in the midst of suffering and upon the Cross. God suffered with us. God did not come to slay and punish us. God came to sacrifice His life for us so we might participate more fully in His life.
The world is not primarily about the survival of the fittest. It is primarily about love. The human animal, surpassing all other animals, has a spiritual mind that was fashioned by God to hear the language of God; and a soul, a life-force, made ready to receive the higher light and life of eternity and so participate in it. Love seeks union and so God became man. God loved man so much that He made Himself able to be butchered upon a cross. Suffering, our greatest fear, became the instrument of our salvation. The Cross and faith in Christ have become the birth canal through which we must all pass into eternity. God took our alienation upon Himself by becoming human, especially human death, to “pioneer our salvation” (cf. Heb 2:9-10). God answered suffering and death by becoming suffering and death in order to swallow it in His life.
God revealed the path and doorway for intelligent creatures to enter from time into eternity. It is via the revelation of His Son who “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The Sermon on the Mount is the following of Christ:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Why Does God Allow Suffering?: In view of God's unconditional love and His redemption of suffering, one might ask, why would God have allowed suffering to occur in the first place?
Why Does God Allow Evil?: Why would God allow evil to even happen? In this blog post, we'll flesh out one of the most common answers to this question, unpacking it point by point.
A Reminder of the Opportunities in Suffering: With Christ, we can put our suffering to work for us and the world—and find opportunities to grow in virtue and to grow the church as a whole.
Dr. Matthew A. Tsakanikas completed graduate studies in Rome with the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Pontifical University of the Lateran. His works have appeared in: Communio: International Catholic Review; Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; Homiletic and Pastoral Review; Veritas Amoris Review; Catholic World Report; Spirit Daily; New Advent; and other educational sites. He is a professor at Christendom College and an advisor with Magis.