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Religious Views on Human Suffering

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 2874 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The complexity of suffering has plagued mankind since creation and there have been many philosophical attempts have to made to make sense and explain such notions. Suffering is the bearing or undergoing of pain or distress. Most people experience suffering at some time in their life and religious traditions such as Buddhism and Islam attempt to explain suffering, help people understand, cope and learn from it. For some religious people, the reality that people suffer raises difficult questions about why God allows cruel and evil things to happen.  Philosopher and theologian John Hick described evil as “physical pain, mental suffering and moral wickedness” (1938). Two types of evil exist Natural evil – suffering caused by natural disasters, for example, the eruption of a volcano killing humans and animals and moral evil, the suffering caused by human selfishness such as Hitler’s killing of Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies. Islam is a monotheist religion that believes God to be omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. Within Islam, there are two views on suffering, both of which resemble views held by its sister faiths, Judaism and Christianity; suffering is either the painful result of sin or is a test. It is believed suffering is built into the fabric of existence so that God may see who is truly righteous. Therefore, God not only allows the various agonies and struggles of life but has a purpose for them. Muslims believe suffering opens the soul and reveals it to God, as he uses suffering to look within humans and test their character and correct the unbelievers. This is exemplified through Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace prize winner and advocate for education. Buddhism is a non-theist religious adherence solely based on the acceptance of suffering. Buddha’s first noble truth, life is suffering, Dukkha, proves the fundamental belief as to the foundation for Buddhist teachings of the Middle Way and Eightfold Path. The Dalia Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist in exile from his country of birth demonstrates Buddhist teaching of life to be and inherent part of existence itself. The reality of suffering in the world becomes evident through examining the philosophical and theological arguments placed forward.

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Suffering refers to pain that is caused by injury, illness or loss. It can take the form of physical, emotional or mental pain thus suffering and the consequences of evil are inevitable. Moral evil refers to acts caused by the actions of human beings. The suffering caused by such acts of evil are often difficult to comprehend for it is the result of actions caused by human beings which arguably brings forth personal growth and purpose. Such acts appear to have no motive whatsoever and it is difficult to understand why they happen. Examples of moral evil include the Holocaust, where approximately six million Jews, homosexuals, gipsies and disabled people were killed under the orders of Adolf Hitler. Natural evil is evil caused by events that happen within nature and are not controlled by human beings. These events happen when nature is believed to malfunction in some way. Incredible suffering can come from this evil, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides which have the capability to devastate whole cities. Disease is another type of natural evil; the most reasoned cases are cancer and AIDS. Whether such diseases are always wholly natural evils is however a polarising debate. In his famous essay ‘Evil and Omnipotence’, JL Mackie tried to develop a clear argument against God’s existence based on the apparent conflict between evil and a world created by an omnipotent God. Mackie listed the beliefs which most Christians, and indeed members of other faiths, have. Here he presented the notions God exists and is omnipotent, God exists and is omnibenevolent and Evil exists. This forms what David Hume called an “inconsistent triad” of beliefs. Mackie noted that, “there seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions so that if any two of them were true, the third would be false. But at the same time, all three are essential parts of most theological positions.” He admitted that a good thing always eliminates evil so far as it can – but Mackie contends that it is still a big enough problem for believers to make it difficult for them to consistently uphold the three propositions doing so is essential.

Atheist take the view that the is no greater entity thus they do not attend to the notion of the existence of suffering and the possible reasons for its existence. Many atheists argue that moral evil and suffering in the world from a sociological or scientific viewpoint. They may argue that moral evil is caused by unfairness or injustice in society and regard natural evil to be characterized by chance; the laws of nature do not distinguish between good and evil. The epicurean paradox highlights the complexity of evil and suffering and the seeming contradiction of the existence of evil and suffering to a theist perspective. Greek philosopher Epicurus (342- 271BCE) claimed that the existence of suffering proved there is no God. He claimed that if God cannot stop evil then he is not omnipotent. He then argues that if God can prevent evil but does not, then God is not good. He lined these two points together claiming that if God is all-powerful and good, then evil would not exist. From the perspective of traditional world religions, God is meant to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent. Some would argue that these characteristics of God are not compatible with the existence of evil and suffering in the world. For instance, if God was meant to be all-powerful, then he could unquestionably do something to prevent people from committing acts of evil. As he is also believed to be omnipresent, then God would know what is happening everywhere in the world and would, therefore, know where evil was happening and would be able to do something about it. Finally, if God is meant to be all-loving, he would care about his creations and would want to prevent them from being hurt. Atheists contend hold the belief that He does not any of these things.

Buddhism is a key religion that bases its doctrine on the inevitability of suffering. The Four Noble Truths that  Buddha discovered upon his awakening under the bodhi tree were: suffering exists, suffering arises as a result of causes, suffering can be eliminated, and the way to eliminate suffering is through right view, right intentions, right speech, right action, right effort, right livelihood, right mindfulness, and right concentrations. The Buddha is quoted saying, “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” The Buddha taught that humans ultimately create their suffering. Buddhist adherents concur human beings are not rewarded or punished by external forces but are subject to the natural law of cause and effect, karma. Ultimately, it is said, all suffering is rooted in ignorance brought on by desires and aversions which arise in the mind and cause dukkha – the second noble truth. The Dalai Lama, a Zen Buddhist, is an award recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, who fled into exile in India in 1959 from Lhasa, China after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule. The Chinese government was torturing Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhists, the only alternative for the Dalai Lama the spiritual Guru of Tibetans, was to fight them or seek asylum in another country. He and his followers decided to take asylum in India to preserve Buddhism and fight for the rights of Tibetan from Indian soil, which he and his followers are doing ever since they settled in India. The Dalai Lama divides every kind of happiness and suffering into two main categories: mental and physical. He states, “From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquillity comes from the development of love and compassion.” Therefore, suffering is influenced by the decisions man makes every day thus wrong decisions lead to evil, misery and inequality. Through his tribulations, the Dalai Lama is a living embodiment and example of Buddhist doctrine of The Four Noble Truths and the practice of the Middle Way and Eightfold Path. Buddhists perceive the ultimate source of suffering to be within one’s mind, including one’s reaction to difficult or distressing situations.

Irenaeus maintained that the presence of evil order was a deliberate action of an omnibenevolent God who wanted God’s creation to develop the qualities that would make them spiritually perfect. His ideas are a result of his interpretation of Genesis 1:26 which states, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  Therefore, life is a place where human beings develop their potential and grow from the image, possessing the potential qualities of God’s spiritual perfection, to the likeness, actualising those qualities, of God, through trials and tribulations that they face and the decisions that they make. For every moral decision faced where a good choice is freely made, then the individual develops more fully towards spiritual maturity. Evil is necessary for humans to develop, without it, decisions in life would have no real value. A person never appreciates being in good health unless they have been ill. Virtues such as courage, patience and perseverance could never be developed if there were not the challenges in life that tested such virtues. Suffering allows humans to be stronger and appreciate goodness more. The ability for humans to be able to freely choose to do good was therefore instrumental in achieving God’s purpose for his creation. Irenaeus formulated an analogy where God is the craftsman working with human beings as his material to mould them into perfection by allowing the experiences of life both good and bad to make us into a perfectly crafted item. Those who resist God will be punished in the next life. But in Irenaeus theory, God’s mercy continues into next life where those who rejected God have another chance to earn forgiveness and develop spiritual perfection in the next.

Many Muslims believe they are only on this earth for a short time and this life is a test from Allah where they must endure evil and suffering as preparation for paradise. They sometimes understand it is Allah’s way of educating them or as retribution for a wrong they have committed or as a test. Suffering is understood to be a calling from God. The pain endured on earth is a reminder to turn to Allah. Prophet Muhammad has related that God said: “I was treasure unknown, then I desired to be known so I created of which I made myself known; then they knew me.” This goes to say that Allah allows people to suffer to remind them of his existence due to the numerous distractions of their world.  Those who stray from his path are reminded by their difficulties to call upon the guide. It is stated in the Qur’an, “When God desired the redemption of his people, he causes them to suffer in their world. But then he is averse, He leaves them to transgress until death overtake.”  If they respond with patience and remain firm in their faith, they will have increased reward in the afterlife. For some Muslims, the test of suffering is perceived as a blessing. In the Qur’an, Allah says that he will forgive anyone who sincerely repents, just as he forgave Adam and Eve when they were tempted by Shaytan and are the forbidden fruit. Muslims believe that they see people who are suffering, they should treat them with mercy. When they see evil actions, they should ensure that justice is done. Islam teaches that a knowledge of right and wrong is intrinsic to human nature. Muslims teaching state individuals should know, without having to be informed, which actions are evil and will contribute to the suffering of others and which actions are good. This inner sense of right and wing is called fitrah. Malala Yousufzai is a Pakistani Muslim activist for female education. She is known for her human rights advocacy notably on the education of women and children. The Taliban’s constant destruction of schools and fear shut down many schools in her native village in Swat Valley. She is commended in her efforts as she stood up to the Taliban, an Islamic extremist group, who did not women and girls to be educated. She particularly did this through her blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban. For this, she was shot in the head but survived to England for medical treatment. Getting shot however did not stop Malala. On her sixteenth birthday, Malala gave a speech to the United Nations. In the speech she addressed the importance of education. She additionally expressed she did not want revenge of violence on the Taliban, she simply wanted peace and opportunity for all. Although she suffered unimaginable pain for what she believed, she continues to be an example of what Muslims believe to be the reality of suffering and the way one should respond when faced with evil and suffering.

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Suffering is an integral part of human existence brought on by one’s decision. The inevitability of suffering and its existence forms the foundation of Buddhist adherence which does not support the notion of there to be an all loving, all knowing and all-powerful God whereas Islamic adherence contends the contrary. Apart from death, suffering is a certainty. Suffering and death are gravely integrated into human lives that they seem to be inherently part of existence itself. “In certain circumstances, however, suffering may not be considered a problem that needs to be alleviated. Rather, it may be understood as something of value which makes possible spiritual connection and transformation” (Fitzpatrick et al, 2016). This view is supported by between both religious traditions. For Malala Yousufzai, a women rights activist who survived an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman reinforced her belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient God. The Dalia Lama being exiled and leading his people to refuge demonstrates the doctrine of dukkha within Buddhism and the practice of compassion despite existence is unsatisfactory and all conscious beings should be assisted in becoming aware of this.


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