The suffering of the innocent

What does the Bible tell us about the suffering of the innocent?

The objection of Ivan Karamazov, in the well-known novel by Dostoyevsky, remains for many people the greatest obstacle to faith in a God of love. Can we still trust in God in a world where children are tortured? If God is good, how can he permit the innocent to suffer?

A witness to the spiritual searching of human beings down through the ages, the Bible itself attempts to come to grips with this question. The psalms depict the anguished perplexity of the faithful when confronted by the happiness of the wicked and the misfortune of the just. "Was it useless to have kept my own heart clean, to have washed my hands in innocence, when I was under a hail of blows all day long, and punished every morning?... I cry to you, Lord, every morning my prayer comes before you; why do you rebuff me, turn your face away from me?" (Psalm 73:13-14; 88:13-14). It becomes more and more obvious that the age-old explanation linking affliction and sin does not always work; there exist countless examples where suffering is not merely the well-deserved consequence of an existence far from God.

At the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, the figure of Job is the living symbol of this enigma. An upright and religious man, overwhelmed by sorrows, Job refuses to deny either his claims to innocence or his relationship with the Lord. Holding firm to these two poles at all costs, Job sees his dispute with the Lord lead to a startling new insight. It is not an intellectual explanation, still less a justification of the necessity of suffering—an aberration which God could never in fact offer—but rather the revelation of a context in which everything changes colour. Job comes to the realization that the apparent solution which blames God for affliction leads to a dead end, and is in fact the greatest mistake it is possible to make. Once this has been clearly sensed, the road lies open for a truer vision of things.

And in fact, this vision was there from the beginning of the biblical revelation. The first innocent man we encounter in the pages of the Bible is Abel, unjustly murdered by his brother Cain. The author of the book of Genesis writes these stupefying words about this act: "What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!" (Genesis 4:10). Blood in the Bible is life (see Leviticus 17:11,14) and paradoxically, life snuffed out by human wickedness finds a voice. Instead of being silenced by violence, the desire for life in the victim’s heart is liberated by his wounded innocence. His cry reaches God’s ears and causes God to act.

This same process enters salvation history in the story of the Exodus. What brings God to earth is not some feat of heroism or devotion on the part of human beings, but rather the cry that springs from their oppression. The groaning of slaves sets in motion a vast movement of liberation by which God becomes present (see Exodus 2:23-25).

A further step is taken by the prophets of Israel. They experience in their very flesh the rejection of God, the first Innocent, by a people that wants to have full control over its own fate. So we find Hosea, for example, forced to put up patiently with betrayal by his beloved, a living image of God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people. Or Jeremiah, excluded and persecuted by his fellows, "a man of strife and dissension for the whole country," condemned to remain alone with his "incurable wound" (Jeremiah 15:10,17-18). It will take time to realize that these men, through their own pain at not being listened to and understood, offer us in fact a glimpse of God’s own heart.

If the life of the prophets reveals that the suffering of the innocent does not only incite God to act in order to restore justice, but in addition is the privileged locus where human beings can enter the divine mystery, then a mysterious figure that we meet in chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah makes this explicit. This figure is described as the lowest of the low, a being who attracts all the malice of others like a magnet in order to transmute it into suffering (see Isaiah 53). But this man who was despised by all and apparently rejected by God is in fact God’s Servant, in other words someone who makes the divine plan of salvation a reality on earth. If "it was the Lord’s good pleasure to crush him with pain," (Isaiah 53:10), that was in order to raise him up in the sight of all, so that all might see in him God at work reconciling to himself those who reject him by taking upon himself the consequences of their unfaithfulness.

Does the life of Jesus tell us anything more?

It was not by chance that the first Christians kept returning to these chapters of Isaiah when they were combing the Scriptures for insights concerning the fate of their master Jesus. Already his acts of healing had witnessed to his willingness to take upon himself the pain of others out of love (see Matthew 8:16-17). But it was above all the way he faced an atrocious death that broke the infernal cycle of evil. The condemnation of an innocent man who responded with forgiveness (see Luke 23:47,34) enabled God’s intention of bringing justice to the multitude to be fulfilled (see Isaiah 53:10-11). In other words, the suffering of an innocent person, accepted to the very end, brought to all human beings the lightheartedness of a rediscovered innocence. Jesus’ blood was "more eloquent than Abel’s" (Hebrews 12:24) because it obtained God’s descent to earth as an inexhaustible wellspring of new life.

The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, makes this whole process explicit in chapter 6, a great vision of human history seen in terms of a book sealed with seven seals. The first four seals depict humankind left to itself—a downward movement heading inexorably towards death. With the fifth seal we enter into the opposite movement, that of God’s coming to save. And it begins with the cry of "the souls of all the people who had been killed…" (Revelation 6:9-11). We should not limit this group to Christian martyrs; it evokes rather "the blood of every innocent person that has been shed on earth, from the blood of Abel the just" (Matthew 23:35; see Revelation 18:24). In God, the blood of the innocent receives an effective power that counteracts the destructive effects of violence. Their apparent defeat inaugurates a movement of liberation that culminates in the cross of Christ.

This is what is shown in the opening of the next seal, which leads to "the great Day of the wrath of the Lamb" (Revelation 6:17). In the Bible, God’s "wrath" or "anger" is a technical term that describes the divine response to sin in order to restore justice that has been flouted. Here, it refers to the act by which Jesus takes all human sinfulness upon himself by undergoing its consequences to the very end, in his own body (see 1 Peter 2:21-24).

By giving his life to the end, then, Jesus shares the fate of all the innocent victims of inhumanity and in this way ensures that their torment has not been in vain. He carries their suffering within his own relationship with the One he calls abba and, since the Father always hears him (see Jean 11:42), we have the guarantee that this suffering is not wasted. It brings about the disappearance of the old world order marked by injustice, and the appearance of "new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13). This is the definitive response, because it is a lived one, to Ivan Karamazov and to Job. Far from tolerating even for a single moment the suffering of the innocent, in his beloved Son God drinks to the dregs that bitter cup with them and, in so doing, transforms it into a cup of blessing for all.

Letter from Taizé: 2003/6

Printed from: - 21 June 2024
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