The Senselessness of Suffering and Death

I recently posted a note on social media in which I said that Christ’s death and resurrection changed the “senseless” character of death. Therefore, Christians need no longer fear it. I got a bit of push-back.

What is senseless about suffering and death?

There are two aspects of suffering and death that are particularly felt to be senseless. The first is suffering that seems to have no purpose: the death of a child quickly comes to mind. The second is death itself: regardless of what we do in this life, we come to an end and pass back into dust. This latter thought is presented in a very stark manner in both the book of Job and Ecclesiastes. The brevity of our existence has always been seen as a challenge to any transcendent meaning. Purpose is swallowed up by meaninglessness.

I am certain that some of the push-back I received was a reaction to so much of popular Christianity that tries to put a happy face on everything in the world. Such glib and shallow treatments of suffering deserve the scorn they receive. On the other hand, no reader of this blog has ever accused me of treating suffering and death lightly. Indeed, in the past year, my writing was described as full of “existential despair.” I certainly hope it is.

The Scriptures, as in Job and Ecclesiastes, do not shy away from the abyss of meaningless suffering. Isaiah states something of the paradox that confronts believers:

The Voice said, “Cry out!”
And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is as grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa. 40:6-8)

The meaninglessness of our passing existence is brought into contrast with the transcendent reality of God. The great paradox for believers is the question of what one of these has to do with the other. Is the transcendence of God nothing more than a mockery of what we are? Does His exemption from suffering and death do nothing more than increase our misery? Those who approach this mystery in that manner (for whom the transcendence of God usually stands for nothing more than an idea) understandably rail at Christians for our easy pronouncements regarding suffering and death.

This is made all the more problematic by various forms of Christianity that marginalize suffering and death. They are treated like punishments, a suffering that we deserve. The Christian life becomes a moral exercise and an arena where religious belief alone brings a lasting reward. Sometimes, we deserve to be mocked.

But this is not classical Christianity: it is a cheapened version reducing the faith to a postcard and making it a subset of the American Dream.

The problem of suffering and death, the absence of transcendent meaning and existence, are at the true heart of the Christian faith in its classical form. Christianity, properly understood and taught, does not treat suffering and death as problems within something else – they are seen as the very problem itself of our existence and the heart of the Christian gospel. …

Among the most primitive proclamations of the faith is:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Christ is not seen as dying in order to pay a sin debt. Death and sin are synonymous. When the Orthodox say, “sin,” we mean “death,” and all that it entails.

We proclaim that Christ has “trampled down death by death.” This could be restated as “Christ has trampled down senseless suffering and death by senseless suffering and death.” We do not deny that suffering and death are senseless – indeed, that is an inherent part of the problem. Our teaching is that God, in Christ, has Himself become the complete senselessness of suffering and death, such that He has filled them with Himself (cf. 2Cor. 5:21). Suffering and death no longer stand as an absurd triumph over existence, but are now themselves filled with existence.

This is something we say, not by looking at suffering and death. If we look directly at them, we see only suffering and death with all of their senselessness. But we confess our faith by looking at the resurrection of Christ. That event alone is the single evidence of Sense trampling down senselessness, of death trampling down death.

In the resurrection of Christ these things have been abolished – though, that truth is only seen from within. And it is at that point that our conversations come to a stop. I cannot argue with anyone who beholds suffering in this world and declares it to be “senseless.” Of course, it is. And there is nothing whatsoever within that suffering that makes it otherwise.

Contemporary presentations of heaven and hell often play to the postcard reduction of the faith. Discussions of heaven and hell as answers to suffering and death are like proposing Santa Claus as an answer to poverty. Our conversations must go deeper. That which is referenced by the words “heaven” and “hell” has no resemblance to the semi-pagan parodies of popular conversation. They have meaning only in the context of the abyss of existential despair.

Christ’s resurrection is not an argument: it is a reality. As such it does not serve as a logical solution to the absurd nature of suffering and death. It is only in union with that reality that we can see within suffering and death anything other than complete meaninglessness. This, however, is the very proclamation of the Christian faith. Christ is risen, trampling down meaninglessness by meaninglessness, filling it with Himself, such that this meaninglessness itself is undone and becomes meaning itself.

Of course, it’s hard to put that on a bumper sticker.




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