Reflections on suffering: How atheists and believers view pain and hardship

Suhaib Rana, Student Jamia Ahmadiyya UK

Atheists argue that the existence of a Benevolent and Omnipotent God conflicts with the presence of hardships and suffering in the world. They say that if God is Compassionate, then it follows that He should desire an end to suffering, and if He is All-Powerful, He should be capable of ending suffering. Suggestions are made that the existence of suffering implies that either God lacks power, mercy, or does not exist altogether.

It is surprising that, on the one hand, atheists disregard God’s wisdom and knowledge, yet, on the other, they submit to human wisdom they may not even understand. For example, when visiting a doctor, we assume that the doctor has authority. We completely trust the doctor based on their knowledge and even take the prescribed medicine without thinking twice; however, when it comes to the All-Knowing and His wisdom, the questions and allegations come pouring in!

A captivating story from the Holy Quran springs to mind about the question of suffering: The story of Prophet Mosesas [Musa] and Khizr; a man bestowed with knowledge by God.

Prophet Mosesas eagerly asks to join Khizr on his journey; however, Khizr warns him that he may not be able to bear with him patiently. Mosesas persists, Khizr agrees, and they set out on their journey, during which Khizr performs several things that seem strange to Mosesas, at first glance. However, as the journey unfolds, Khizr eloquently explains the wisdom and purpose behind each deed. (Surah al-Kahf, Ch.18: V.66-83)

This story not only demonstrates the greatness of God’s wisdom but also provides key lessons.

The first is humility: to understand God’s will, it is essential to approach it with a humble heart. Prophet Mosesas recognised that Khizr possessed more knowledge than him and approached him with a willingness to learn.

The second lesson is that patience and steadfastness are essential for coping with suffering. Through Prophet Moses’as journey with Khizr, he had to endure the discomfort of witnessing, what seemed to him, strange actions, but he remained patient and open to learning.

It is understood by all that suffering was not created as an independent entity, but as a counterpart to pleasure. The very absence of comfort is itself a form of suffering, much like how darkness is the shadow cast by light, or how there can be no death without life. In essence, pleasure and suffering are two sides of the same coin. If suffering were to cease to exist, the very essence of pleasure would be lost.

Pain can only be seen as objectionable if it was created with no meaningful role in the grand scheme of things. However, without the awareness of suffering, the essence of pleasure and comfort would be completely lost, resulting in the loss of the purpose of life, and thus threatening evolution.

Take for instance this “perfect” scenario: All organisms are equally provided with a share of happiness with no suffering whatsoever, thus removing the problem of suffering.

Now, everyone is happy, and life moves on like before – or does it?

Of course not! In such a scenario, we wouldn’t be able to take even a minute step toward progress because an equal share of comfort and the nullification of suffering would eliminate the need for evolution. Without struggle, there would be no survival of the fittest.

The need to struggle and survive orchestrates development and improvement in all matters, as the saying goes, “If there is nothing wrong with it, there is no need to change it.”

This sense of eagerness to find comfort and relief is the secret to scientific investigations. The very motivation behind the discovery is to move from a state of suffering to a state of ease. Suffering awakens the need for search and exploration; remove it, and the progress of mankind comes to a halt.

It should be remembered, however, that whatever pain a person is met with is due to his actions. As stated in the Holy Quran:

فَاَصَابَہُمۡ سَيِّاٰتُ مَا کَسَبُوۡا

“So the evil [consequences] of what they had earned overtook them.” (Surah az-Zumar, Ch.39: V.52)

Choice plays a vital role in the decision-making process of humans. Therefore, if, as a consequence of one’s own actions, a reward or penalty is given, one has only themselves to blame for it. At times, people may not even realise they are to blame, as not all consequences appear immediately.

This is the very concept of free will. We are given the ability to choose to commit certain acts, with the possibility of consequences. Good actions result in positive outcomes, and wrong actions result in penalties.

Regarding this, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa, said:

“Generally, the law of nature is such that there are consequences to all actions. It cannot be that you carry out (harmful) actions and still hope that you will be saved from their consequences because Allah the Almighty has already told us that the law of nature is in effect.” (“Student Members of Lajna Imaillah from India have Honour of a Virtual Meeting with Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”,

This concept then leads to the question of children born with defects. Why are they made to suffer? It cannot be said that it is due to a fault of theirs.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh, in Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth, states:

“If there is any fault it might have been of their parents, yet that may have not been intentional on their part. In this context, the term “fault” should be understood in its widest application, covering even accidental occurrence of congenital diseases. Such faults are far from being conscious crimes.” (Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth, p. 185)

Huzoorrh goes on to say:

“[…] The solution to the understanding of this problem lies in the realisation that all suffering cannot be categorised as punishment, nor all happiness as reward. There is always a small percentage of individuals who seem to suffer as though without justification. However, a closer, more careful examination of such cases would reveal that there is no question of willful injustice involved. They are merely an unavoidable byproduct of the wide plan of creation, but they also play a meaningful role in the general advancement of human society.” (Ibid.)

Now, one may ask what is the role of suffering in this “plan of creation”? For an atheist, there is no problem to solve; all suffering in this world is due to chance, and that is to be blamed. No Creator is accountable. However, believers in God are taught their purpose:

“And I have not created the Jinn and the men but that they may worship Me.” (Surah adh-Dhariyat, Ch.51: V.57)

How can this purpose be fulfilled by someone who has only experienced comfort and hasn’t tasted an iota of suffering? Such a person, under their state of comfort, will forget God, as though the attributes of God are perfect. Not seeing them manifest in this world would make recognising God difficult. For example, without suffering from illness, we would not appreciate God’s attribute as The Healer.

It is further stated in the Holy Quran:

تَبٰرَکَ الَّذِيۡ بِيَدِہِ الۡمُلۡکُ ۫ وَہُوَ عَلٰي کُلِّ شَيۡءٍ قَدِيۡرُ ۣالَّذِيۡ خَلَقَ الۡمَوۡتَ وَالۡحَيٰوةَ لِيَبۡلُوَکُمۡ اَيُّکُمۡ اَحۡسَنُ عَمَلًا ؕ وَہُوَ الۡعَزِيۡزُ الۡغَفُوۡرُ

“Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things; Who has created death and life that He might try you” (Surah al-Mulk, Ch. 67: V.2-3)

This world is a place of trial and tribulations. Suffering is a branch of such tests, to trial our conduct, and consequently, ensure our moral and spiritual growth. God being All-Good, wishes for us to attain eternal pleasure in the hereafter, but to place everyone in heaven without trial would be a violation of justice, so he created a plan to differentiate between the believers and non-believers.

It must be remembered that suffering paves the path for a greater good, known as a “second-order good”, such as patience, sacrifice, and courage. Such qualities can only be attained through some sort of pain or suffering, making suffering a pathway to goodness.

Islam, to motivate believers in their journey, has empowered them with hope and patience by declaring suffering to be a means of purification. The Holy Prophetsa states: “No calamity befalls a Muslim but that God expiates some of his sins because of it.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith no. 5640)

The Holy Prophetsa also said trials are a sign of God’s love and describe the affairs of the believer to be as such that “if he gets into trouble and shows resignation (and endures it patiently), there is a good for him in it.” (Sahih Muslim, Hadith 2999)

Atheism merely leads to a life of misery and hopelessness; those who have experienced pain and hardship can attach no reason to it – their sacrifices mean nothing. Their pain has no meaning. Their suffering was all in vain. Their only solution is death.

Where death is the end for atheists, it is the beginning for believers. It acts as a gateway to the hereafter, where they will – after experiencing the pleasures of heaven – forget all the suffering of the past world and enjoy the pleasures of the new.

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