The novelist Somerset Maugham had trained as a doctor. In his autobiography, The Summing-Up, he confesses that, as a Christian, he had been taught the redemptive value of suffering. His experience of working in medical wards persuaded him that such a view was wrong. He saw how suffering stunted and impoverished people, mentally and physically. He did not perceive any spiritual elevation, any inner refinement or meaning brought on by much anguish and pain. That sad realisation partly led Maugham to lose his faith in a benevolent and loving God.
There is a difference however, between voluntary and involuntary suffering. Maugham’s patients had not freely chosen to suffer. They had not of their own free will embraced their pain as means to redemption. It came on them as a necessity imposed by physiological conditions over which they had no control. That is not the case with Jesus Christ. The teaching of the Christian Church is that suffering may have a redemptive quality, the supreme and normative example being, that of the sacrifice of the Cross. A supernatural event willed by God as indispensable to the salvation of humanity, to which Jesus freely submitted. Accordingly, article 31 in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer states that: ‘The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. And the Catholic Catechism affirms that it is ‘love to the end that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation’.
Doctrines apart, at the level of popular spirituality many worshippers have focussed on the Passion of Christ to the radical point of wanting to share in his sufferings. St Francis of Assisi’s example is especially impressive. We are told that at the end of his life the Saint received on his flesh the stigmata – bleeding marks corresponding to those left on Christ’s body by the nails and spear at his Crucifixion. In the Philippines today there are cases of believers who literally have themselves nailed to a Cross, just before Easter, in order to share in Christ’s agony.
Beyond such extremes, a sick and faithful person can, thanks to the grace conveyed in the Sacrament of Anointing, receive the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion. In this way suffering is no longer a brute fact of human mortality. It acquires a new, deeper and richer meaning by becoming a participation in the redeeming work of Jesus – at least according to Roman Catholic theology. Protestants do not recognise such a sacrament as belonging to the Gospel so they would not agree with this.
It is well-known how Islam denies the reality of the Crucifixion. Also, the Qur’an, Chapter al-Najm, verse 38, seems to say that no person can bear the sins or burden of another. In that sense, Islam’s Holy Book rejects the whole Christian theological idea of Atonement. All Muslims appear at one about that. On the other hand, it is distinctive of the Shi‘a tradition that it crucially focuses on the martyrdom of Imams like Ali, Hassan and Husayn. Here suffering takes on a more profound meaning and purpose. Husayn particularly is seen as victorious at Karbala despite undergoing a cruel and excruciating death at the hands of his unrighteous enemies. Every year during Muharram, in the rites of Ashura, devout Shi‘a Muslims commemorate the sacrifice of Hussayn and his companion with the utmost sorrow and passion. Some commentators have seen a parallel between the Shi‘a position concerning the spiritual benefits of innocent suffering and the Christian view, despite the obvious differences in doctrine.
Two writers, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, have slammed the doctrine of the Atonement. They speak both as feminists and as Unitarians – the latter being a marginal sect which rejects the Incarnation and the Resurrection. They accuse the Christian view concerning redemption and self-sacrificial love as importing family violence and child abuse, a caricature of the Church’s teaching! A medieval theologian like Abelard would respond that the example, the message of the Atonement is truly moral. You look at the Cross and properly react: ‘How much does God love me! So I must love others myself, to the point, if necessary, of sacrificing my life for others.’ Where is the abuse in that?
In 1941, a prisoner in the Nazi Concentration Camp of Auschwitz, the Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe, volunteered to die in the place of another prisoner, a stranger who had been sentenced to death by Hitler’s SS. Maximilian – canonised by Pope John Paul II – is one of the 20th century martyrs depicted in statues above the West Door of Westminster Abbey. His example shows how a righteous, innocent person can choose to lay down his life for another. But, what about redemption? How can St Maximilian Kolbe’s sacrifice redeem people at large, apart from the single prisoner whose life he saved?
A tentative answer might be that even amongst the inhuman horrors of a Nazi death camp love – a selfless, self-sacrificial, God-inspired love – can sprout up and flourish. Such divinely-based love is linked to redemption. Because it is a love capable of rescuing humanity from pessimism, from despair, from the discordant, cacophonous, satanic lying voices that constantly whispers that life has no meaning, that genuine, altruistic love is impossible, that there is no God.
If divine love cannot redeem, cannot save people from sin and evil, what else can?