Christianity - Suffering

This GCSE RE Christianity quiz focuses on suffering. The problem of suffering, in a world supposedly created and loved by an omnipotent God, is one of many challenges faced in principle and practice by Christians on a daily basis. They may know they are assured of eternal life, but there are still the ‘here and now’ to be got-through and made the best of, which is a salutary corrective in the face of any temptation to over-smug assurance.

This quiz reviews the Christian understanding of how evil and suffering came to be in the world and exercise such baleful sway; what Christians (and others) can seek to do about it, how and why.

In the Book of Common Prayer ~ that classic bedrock text of the Church of England and its associate organisations over several centuries ~ stands a comprehensive and resonant General Confession.

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This Confession is still regularly recited in many traditional churches at the early stage of a service, to deal with past and recent sins before congregants can approach God in worship with a cleansed conscience. It refers to mistakes by which we have harmed others ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’. There are probably few people alive who awake each morning with the prime and explicit intention of harming others, but even those who do (online fraudsters, people-traffickers, murderers and drug-dealers) are not beyond the love of God.

Christians have faith and hope in the longer perspective of eternal life, beyond what the Prayer Book ruefully calls ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world’: in the Book of Revelation (the last in the Bible), John the Divine can only describe his glimpse of heaven in terms of its lack of the sad earthly landmarks of war, famine, sorrow and disease: for the blissful and positive phenomena that replace them, he simply cannot find any human words, since ‘down here’ we have never yet had need to coin them.

Against this perspective, here is our quiz on Christianity and suffering.

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  1. The Bible's first book, 'Genesis', tries ~ among much else ~ to account for the presence of 'sin' and evil in a world which God had created: you may be familiar with the story of The Fall in the Garden of Eden. Where did this original sin come from?
    Answer 4 has some truth to it, but a Christian interpretation would certainly mention God (without going quite so far as to 'blame'). Answer 2 also contains a valid idea ~ in that, although an omnipotent God is capable (by that definition) of doing anything, He would not (could not?) have created anything else as His own equal, so even the 'highest' of His creation would have to contain at least some form of flaw. Free will is potentially very wonderful: but with such freedom comes the option to make mistakes, deliberately or otherwise.

    Christians believe God had already ordained what would happen with Jesus, so that fallible humans would, in the eternal perspective, have a way back to full relationship with Him even as and when they had done things which grieved Him.
  2. Exodus, the next Old Testament book, includes the Ten Commandments, in the context of a 'contract' between God and His chosen people ~ whereby He would look after them, provided (somewhat as in the Garden of Eden) they abided by a small number of cardinal rules, which were as much for their own and each other's good. The way these Commandments were organised, itself, gives a hefty clue as to how humans should prioritise their beliefs and actions in order to avoid trouble. Which of the following best summarises this structure?
    The text can be found in Exodus chapter 20, and indeed written up on many church walls and elsewhere. If we are truly right with God, it ought not to occur to us to consider breaking His other rules concerning our 'neighbours' ... but while these are mostly simple to the point of starkness, it can sometimes not be easy to abide by them in principle nor practice.

    (We hope you avoided answer 3, which didn't even add up to 10!)
  3. Leaping forward through the many intervening centuries, we arrive at what C S Lewis ~ he of the Narnia books ~ in the title of another more serious work, called 'the Problem of Pain': how can a truly loving God stand aloof while His world is full of people and peoples that are suffering daily, with illnesses, inequality and persecution, homelessness and a depressing range of other ills?
    What would be the nub of a Christian response to this challenge?
    Answer 3 is almost certainly what a 'keen' Christian would offer; answer 4 goes some way in the same direction, but without much sense of personal faith. Answer 2 rings unhelpfully hollow without specifying God's saving grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; answer 1 might almost be a pure humanist rationale, with no active religious perspective.
  4. Many of us have probably tried, at one time or another, to categorise our 'sins' and misdemeanours, believing that some are more serious than others in an attempt to square an uneasy conscience. We talk of 'white lies' (giving an easy if misleading answer, in order to be kind and avoid offending or inconveniencing someone; is that so wrong?), and assume that pinching a few envelopes or paper-clips from our workplace (which is technically theft) is no great sin, especially since we worked a few extra minutes the other day on something else. Yet even one minor lapse, however well-intentioned, renders us less than perfect.

    The following are a selection of Bible verses on this theme, with ONE exception which is either completely made-up or at least significantly distorted. Which is this wrong one?
    You may wish to look at answers 1-3 in their contexts (Romans 3:23; Matthew 26 / Mark 14 / Luke 22; John 3:16). Answer 4 covers things that the Bible says elsewhere, but rather too selectively: Christians believe there is indeed such hope, as in the earlier answers and their references.
  5. In this globalised world of the 21st century, anyone's actions may well have 'sinful' consequences against unseen other people. Our simple morning routines of washing, dressing and having breakfast involve actions within whole chains that could unwittingly include pollution (with packaging and effluent by-products of cosmetics), the exploitation of workers (where did your cheap socks come from, and what were their makers paid?) and collusion in the maltreatment of other creatures (e.g. the battery-farmed hens which produced your eggs without ever having seen daylight nor grass, in the traditional natural way). It could be argued that modern life takes materialism for granted and is inherently, practically unavoidably sinful.

    One radical option would be to revert to a more 'pure and primitive' way of life, such as has been being lived in North America by an extended community of (now) around a quarter of a million people in a tradition dating back about three centuries. Who are these?
    All the false answers here have Christian and/or Biblical echoes, but in this context it is the Amish we were thinking of: they sit interestingly aside from what we may call the 21st-century north-American mainstream, though such necessary contacts as they do have are not without their difficulties on either side (some, even more conservative, subgroups do not hold with any form of electricity, for instance ~ and hence, no computers, phones nor internet). Amish people remain as prone as anyone else to 'sin' but their structured lives and strong sense of community are probably a help towards conformity. If you have ever seen video footage of an Amish barn-raising meet, that is a fine example of community at its best.
  6. Which of the following was NOT said by Jesus in various discussions about forgiveness?
    In answer 2, of course, He was only quoting the old Jewish 'like-for-like tally' ~ which He had come to supplant with His gospel of forgiveness, as in answers 1 and 3. Answer 4 to some extent reflects sayings of Jesus, but certainly does not encapsulate His complete message.
  7. Which of the following is NOT true about Christianity and prisons?
    The whole question of people being locked-away as criminals is a challenging one for Christians. Most (if not all) Christians would be against the death penalty on principle, so taking serious miscreants out of public circulation (after due process of law, and at public expense) is probably the next obvious option. While behind bars, criminals are no longer a menace to others, and may have the time and inclination to take stock of their lives and mend their ways (what Christians refer to as 'repentance'), so they should probably be allowed this opportunity. Christians would regard an appropriate balance of justice with mercy to be a worthy, if sometimes elusive, aim in any case.

    There remains, of course, the problem that a concentration of provenly dysfunctional people with time on their hands may well breed resentment and the spreading of criminal knowledge. Punishment, as such, cannot of itself deal with all the problems and maladjustments that may have led someone into committing crimes in the first place. But prisons do have their own Chaplains (not only Christian ones) to help seeking inmates in their quest for faith, and much good work is done by volunteer prison visitors and the Prison Reform Trust in the UK.
  8. What can, and do, individual Christians actively do to relieve the sufferings of other people? Here is a range of examples: please click on whichever you believe to be the most appropriate answer.
    The problem of suffering may be tough and widespread, but 'God's people are onto it' in all manner of ways.
  9. 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the opening, in the UK, of the first modern hospice. Which of the following is NOT true about this, and the hospice movement in general?
    Figures available at time of writing are 'only' around 100,000 volunteers, but with an estimated aggregate value of £112 million (and growing). All other facts are given as true. Depending somewhat upon where you happen to live, you may discover that your local paper will quite often specify in its formal death notices that the deceased was in a hospice (along with family thanks to the hospice staff).
  10. From time to time amid so much gloomy general news, a story comes out about a Christian (usually) forgiving someone who has done them, or their family, a seriously major wrong. Readers who happen to be cynical about religious faith may find these stories surprising, even distasteful, and wonder whether the forgivers are 'only doing it for the publicity' in some (understandably) disturbed bid for attention and/or therapy.

    The following ~ bar ONE exception which, as usual, we invite you to identify ~ are all documented recent cases ... which one is the exception?
    Answer 1 was (so far as we know) entirely fictitious and 'respectably far-fetched' ~ although, seemingly, and by accepted definition, 'nothing is impossible with God'. Perhaps in certain cases, only through and beyond such suffering can healing miracles come about.

    Many people recognise the soulful depths in such music as 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', 'Steal Away' and 'Deep River'; but we only have these thanks to the extraordinary conjunction of repressive Afro-Caribbean slavery with the telling of Bible stories at the camp meetings. From the suffering of the slaves, something bittersweet and potent remains to be treasured and honoured across wider cultures. One might not wish suffering on anyone ~ indeed, we shouldn't ~ but it surely cannot be entirely wrong to celebrate the beauty of release and reconciliation.

Author: Ian Miles

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