Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw and experienced the unmistakable face of pain and suffering during the reign of Nazism in Germany. During his time at Berlin-Tegel Bonhoeffer exchanged letters and wrote notes that are now known as Letters and Papers from Prison. It is in these letters and notes Bonhoeffer explored the problem of pain and suffering. His address of human suffering does not flow from a philosophical armchair reflection as a passive observer but rather that of a deeply moved spectator. It is for that reason we do not find any classical defenses such as of John Hick’s Soul-making theodicy and Alvin Plantinga’s freewill-defense in his writings.
Bonhoeffer’s solution to the problem of pain and suffering, to which I concisely introduced, was crafted during his solitary confinement ward at Berlin-Tegel Military Detention Center where Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Tegel was the place where he spent his last eighteen months. He was executed on April 9th 1945.
What can Christianity offer in times of prevailing evil? God, in Christianity, according Bonhoeffer, is not deus ex machine, a being that mechanical appears to solve our insoluble problems. He is not a being that we evoke as an explanation of unexplainable due to our epistemic limitation. He is not a being that we call upon to offer us strength in are powerless and weakness moments. No. If Christian God was such a being, then He is no longer needed in the world that is “coming of age”. We are beginning to finally solve our problems. Such a God is “pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat” (Bonhoeffer 2010: 408-9)
Bonhoeffer wants us to “speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness”. He further wrote,
“When I reach my limits, it seems to me better not to say anything and to leave what can’t be solved unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” to the problem of death. God’s “beyond” is not what is beyond our cognition! Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God’s transcendence. God is the beyond in the midst of our lives. The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village.”(ibid. 366–7)
Bonhoeffer wants us to find God not in our epistemological gaps but in what we thoroughly understand. We are to find God “in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved”(ibid. 406) This means we are to live our lives in religionless Christianity “etsi deus non daretur” [as if there were no God]. He stated that, “The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!). The same God who makes us to live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God, and with God, we live without God.”(ibid. 407-9)
Bonfoeffer’s solution to the problem of pain and suffering reflects his religionless reinterpretation of Christianity. In this reinterpretation God is not called upon to solve the problem of pain and suffering as if He was deus ex machine but we, as Christians, are called to participate with God in powerlessness and weakness. He wrote: “God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us.”(ibid. 405-6)
He believed that the difference between a heathen and Christian is that in the former people call upon God to solve their problems while the latter; God calls upon His people to participate in their problem. Bonhoeffer further explained, “that is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world. Thus, we must really live in that godless world and not try to cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.”(ibid. 480)
Bonhoeffer thus argued that it is the concept of the suffering God, and not of an all powerful deux ex machine that is a solution to the problem of pain and suffering.
Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). Letters and Papers from Prison. (I. Best, L. E. Dahill, R. Krauss, N. Lukens, B. Rumscheidt, M. Rumscheidt, & D. W. Stott, Trans., C. Gremmels, E. Bethge, R. Bethge, I. Tödt, & J. W. de Gruchy, Eds.) (Vol. 8). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.