Bonhoeffer’s Solution to The Problem of Pain

BonhoefferDietrich 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.

Bibliography:

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.

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33 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer’s Solution to The Problem of Pain

  1. A very good and thought-provoking post. I wonder if we might see in Bonhoeffer’s thought some consonance with process theology, at least as it relates to the notion of omnipotence. Maybe it is helpful to think of God’s relationship to suffering without thinking in terms of whether God permits, consents, wills, desires, or causes pain (and likewise whether God prevents, relieves, opposes, etc. pain). Perhaps we need to quit trying to blame God for pain, and quit inventing excuses for why God does not prevent pain. It seems that suffering and violence are woven into the fabric of creation, although we do well, I think, to anticipate its eschatological end, without waiting passively for that (because by aligning with God’s will we can begin to relieve and reduce suffering now–as is indeed occurring). Just some thoughts… Thanks for provoking them.

    • It seems that suffering and violence are woven into the fabric of creation? The biosphere is predicated on a prey/predator system that guarantees colossal suffering before we even get close to isolating human suffering. There’s no ‘seems’ about it.

  2. Pingback: Bonhoeffer’s Solution to The Problem of Pain: reblog from With All I Am | Citizen Tom

  3. Bonhoeffer doesn’t ‘answer’ or ‘solve’ the problem of suffering; he simply accepts it and then claims god who could change it if he really wanted to doesn’t because he is along for the ride.

    Well, this sharing looks exactly like a world with no god.

    But it takes theology to present no evidence for a god as evidence for a sharing god… apparently capable but unwilling to eliminate it… as if this conjecture ‘answers’ or ‘solves’ the problem of suffering. It’s all very mysterious god business, you see.

    Why do I get a rather strong whiff of a priori apologetic reasoning hard at work?

    • Bonhoeffer would accept that suffering sharing God world looks exactly like a world with 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)

  4. Thought provoking post. But call me crazy….

    Suppose I have a problem, and as my God, help me solve the problem and you rather want to offer the “solution” of partaking in problem. It’s like saying instead of God getting Nelson Mandela out of prison, he rather went in with him for 28 years. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?

    Pantheism, on the other hand, offers an excellent answer to the problem of pain and suffering. It says that there is more than one god – in fact many.

    It is the aim of some of these gods to annihilate humanity and others to aid us. Therefore to ensure our protection, we must search for the benevolent gods and allign ourselves with them.

    This explanation works for me given that, in this world, evil occurs easily and often than good. Suffering and pain simply means that one’s god has a lower rank in the hierarchy of gods.

    • Not only Pantheism, but also Deism and Hinduism easily solve the problem of evil. With Deism, as of Epicureans, Gods are indifferent with our sufferings while in Hinduism, our suffering is a righteous judgement for our past or present life’s evil(karma and reincarnation).

      What Bonhoeffer argued is that God, in Christianity, is not deux ex machine. A God Nelson Mandela could invoke to solve his problem of being in prison, but God who allowed himself in Christ to go through suffering as He meets the problem of pain as a subject. He called His followers to participate in pain and suffering, and “consider[ing] that [their] present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in [them]” as Paul of Tarsus stated in his epistle to the Romans(8.18).

      Is it crazy? O Yes! It is. But it being crazy does not mean it being wrong. The whole Christian saga is crazy. A Creator becoming part of His creation and participate in their struggle is beautifully crazy.

      • Thanks for the reply. Pantheism is not exactly a religion. It is an umbrella term for all religions that admit the existence of more than one god. It also postulates that god is inseparable from nature and we all know nature is indifferent.

        In christianity, we believe in one supreme God and call the supposedly smaller gods demons and their leader is the devil, precisely lucifer, right?

        I remember vaguely that, once, you condemned th Jehovah Witness for spreading falsehood. But they also made a very important observation, that in the affairs of this world God is no longer the ruler. That the devil is in charge. Do you agree?

        Thus from my understanding: the christian God, since he cannot reclaim the world, only sympathizes with his followers and encourages them to go through pain and suffering in order for them to assure themselves a place in afterlife. Right?

        Lastly, if God is not deux ex machine, why are christians encouraged to pray to him at all. Only to attract his sympathy but not to rectify the problem? Very crazy indeed!

        • You are right, in Christianity, we believe in one supreme and true God and call the supposedly smaller gods, or correct false gods, such demons. This is a Theological understand of deities which ought be separated from Philosophical understand of God. In philosophical understanding there cannot be more that one being that is rightfully in category of being God. See my article Necessity of God’s Existence.

          Jehovah Witnesses are very correct in stating that God is no longer the ruler of the fallen world in a certain sense(He allows or permits Satan to rule for a certain period of time). The Holy Writ, or more correct, Paul of Tarsus, call Satan the current ruler of this fallen world but the story does not end there. Christ is viewed as already but not yet defeated Satan rulership and those in Him, as in the study of eschatology, would live in a new upright world where Satan is no longer ruling but facing the righteous judgment of God.

          The Christian God can reclaim the world, as in Noah or in Sodom, by wiping out the evildoers but He does not in Christianity. He chose to redeem it through participating and call for those He elected to return to righteousness before the final moment where all evil and suffering would be removed.

          Prayer is not to be viewed as changing God’s will but to align with God’s will. Prayer is to state that God’s will be done on the fallen world as it is in unfallen world(Heaven) The craziness is not in God not solving the problem as deux ex machine but a God who allow to participate in suffering to redeem some of His creation before bring final judgment and take total rulership of this world as it is in heaven. This is theology, not to be confused with philosophy.

          I have dealt with problem of pain in multiple articles in this blog from philosophical position. You are welcome to explore those solutions if you are more into philosophy than theology.

  5. I find that for myself, one of the biggest “eureka” moments was to have the thought that even if we don’t see God in the midst of our suffering and trials, the fact that He would suffer upon the cross leads me to conclude at least that He is not “absent” from the suffering and pain of the world. It wasn’t long after that thought that I also considered the idea of suffering with God, instead of asking God to end our suffering. It seems to me that quite often the Biblical text does express this notion of suffering in this world, not because we are just the unhappy victims of sinners, but because we live from another place – one in which the prince of this world cannot tolerate. The heavenly vision and the reality of Zion has helped me to see that my present suffering and affliction is “momentary and light”, especially in comparison to the eternal weight of glory that we experience in the presence of the Almighty. Even in death, we still have the victory, for if the rulers of this age understood that, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

  6. I don’t know if you have watched the movie god on trial? One of the characters asks who wants a suffering god? Who wants a weak god?
    How is this a solution to the problem of evil? How does suggesting that god is weak and powerless offer a solution to the problem? I do hope you don’t take this a serious solution to the problem of evil.

    • Prayson Daniel said:
      “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.”

      It’s just a different view of suffering.

      Makagutu:
      “One of the characters asks who wants a suffering god?”
      I am not sure it is logical to think that just because no one believes they want a suffering God that such a God does not exist.

      As for me, I am not pro-suffering. But at the same time I am not sure it would be better if there were absolutely no suffering ever, and I was therefore entirely ignorant of it.

      • Joe, I didn’t say that is an argument against a god existing. It is a question worth considering especially because the orthodox belief that god is omni-max doesn’t cohere with a suffering god, how would such a god suffer?

        • If Christianity is true, then in Jesus of Nazareth we have an omnicompetent God who took on the flesh to be like one of us, namely fully God yet fully man. Thus God suffered not because of His nature as God, you are correct God as God cannot suffer, but God in human form, Jesus suffered. So if Christianity is true that would not be a problem.

        • I am not sure I agree that there is incoherence in the belief that God suffers.

          I am also not sure of the relevance of our wanting (or not wanting) a suffering God.

          • Joe, why are cherry picking such a small comment? I said how would an omnimax god suffer?
            Why do people have gods? To ask for healing and such stuff. They call their gods providence. Who would care about providence if your prayers are answered by am hungry too, we suffer together?

          • I was just wondering if there was a more fleshed out argument that those questions pointed toward. I am not sure God’s suffering would be much different than ours – if God suffered. I don’t really have a strong view on it one way or another. I am just not so sure it’s incoherent to believe he does suffer.

            “Why do people have gods?”

            This question seems to suggest we have a choice in whether gods will exist or not. I am not trying to be picky on one comment, I am just saying what I think about your question.

            “To ask for healing and such stuff. They call their gods providence. Who would care about providence if your prayers are answered by am hungry too, we suffer together?”

            I think there is comfort in knowing God is with us.

            I think allot of the differences in our thought has to do with how certain we are of what we need. Sometimes I think non-believers who address the problem of evil very much think they have it all cracked up on how to make a better universe. Sure on the surface I would agree – get rid of cancer in children. But would we stop there? Suffering is relative. So if we got rid of that shouldn’t we get rid of it all every small bit? Would we not then be completely ignorant of it? Is ignorance good?

            Like I said I am not pro-suffering. But I also am not a hedonist who thinks gaining pleasure and avoiding suffering is what life is all about. I accept that suffering may have a place in making us better people.

          • Joe, for the sake of argument, tell me how an omnimax being would suffer.
            No we don’t have a choice on whether gods exist, we create gods depending on our carprice.

          • “Joe, for the sake of argument, tell me how an omnimax being would suffer.”

            I answered that in the last post when I said:

            I am not sure God’s suffering would be much different than ours – if God suffered.

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