Problem of History: Does the Harshness of Life Make Sense? – Gospel in Life

Problem of History: Does the Harshness of Life Make Sense?

Tim Keller |  June 14, 1992

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  • Suffering
Ecclesiastes 3:9-4:3
RS 30-3

Understanding life’s meaning: Ecclesiastes 3:9–4:3

Let’s look at the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s a deep dive into what life means, questioning if there’s more than what we see around us. Without God or eternity, everything could feel meaningless. It talks about how history seems to repeat, how it doesn’t look like we’re moving forward or seeing justice, and it addresses the problem of people suffering unfairly. This book gives us important insights to help us understand and navigate these tough issues.

1. The monistic view

In Eastern philosophy, there’s a concept called Monism. It suggests that the physical world and suffering aren’t real, but illusions we can rise above with the power of the mind. This view, often found in New Age books, can make serious pain and unfulfilled desires seem less important. It fails to recognize the reality and significance of human suffering.

2. The stoic view

Stoicism believes in a random universe and sees suffering as real but pointless. It suggests we should be emotionally strong to handle it. But this approach can slowly make us lose touch with our deep desires for love and joy. On the other hand, monism denies the existence of suffering, making pain seem unimportant. Both views don’t fully accept the true nature and impact of suffering.

3. Dualism

Ecclesiastes also discusses dualism, the idea of an ongoing struggle between good and evil. This view implies that God cannot control or is not responsible for the suffering caused by evil, which can lead to moral confusion and a potential loss of humanity. It also raises the question: why choose goodness over violence and selfishness if there’s no divine control or judgment day?

4. Existentialism

Existentialists, even though they resist the world’s harshness and senselessness, have trouble creating a moral foundation because they don’t believe in God or absolute truth. This leads to personal and arbitrary ideas of justice and compassion. Meanwhile, monists make light of suffering, while dualists and stoics just bear it, all of which leads to loss of humanity and a meaningless existence.

5. The hedonist approach

The hedonist approach suggests avoiding suffering by focusing on oneself and avoiding responsibilities. But this is a short-term solution, as suffering is unavoidable and will eventually show up. Without resilience, character, or understanding, hedonists will find themselves overwhelmed by suffering, showing that this approach is not sustainable.

6. The romanticist approach

The romanticist view suggests that suffering is due to personal sin. This oversimplifies the complexity and purpose of suffering. This viewpoint, like the one held by Job’s friends in the Bible, can lead to feelings of guilt when suffering happens, as people start looking for their own sins and comparing their lives to others. It’s important to remember that suffering is not always a punishment or a reflection of our morality.

7. The political approach

Society often blames suffering on things like race, gender, or family, believing that being angry at these factors will bring relief. But this only keeps the cycle of pain going, leading to more blame and revenge. It would be better to try to understand suffering more deeply and work toward healing and reconciliation.

8. The masochistic approach

We shouldn’t deny, endure, defy, avoid, or confess suffering, but rather welcome it. But we should be careful, as thinking that suffering makes you better can lead to shallow and dehumanizing attitudes, which aren’t just found among non-Christians. True understanding and handling of suffering can only come through faith in the God of the Bible, a powerful Judge and a wise, loving Orchestrator of history.

1. Qoheleth teaches us God is an all-powerful Judge

As the Creator, God has the power and authority to judge. Even though it’s hard to understand why He allows injustice, we need to remember that His delay in judgment comes from His love for us. Trying to take over His role as judge can lead to bitterness or self-punishment. Instead, we should trust in God’s perfect understanding and justice.

2. He’s the loving and wise Orchestrator of history

The true meaning of history can only be understood from God’s perspective, like seeing a word spelled out in shrubs from above. Jesus coming to earth and suffering unfairly shows God’s deep empathy and love, assuring us that He understands our suffering. Even though we may not see immediate outcomes, we’re called to trust and follow Jesus, our only guide through the deep, dark river of suffering.


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In The Reason for God, Tim Keller examines literature, philosophy, real-life conversations and reasoning to present how faith in Christ is a sound and rational belief with intellectual integrity.