Various religions have attempted to answer this question, some have answers that will stand the test of time. Others may go by the wayside as did the Greek and Roman system of gods and goddesses:
Suffering is caused by a weakness in one's devotion to God. God gave humans free will to feel pleasure and pain, and His purpose in allowing deep suffering of the innocent must be good even if mysterious. God suffers along with the sufferer. God's sense of justice, and therefore the reasons for human suffering, are beyond human reason.
Will it last? Because Judaism permits people to call themselves Jews without believing in any of the dogma, there is a chance that it will endure as a culture for many centuries to come. The challenge of a paternalistic God who punishes like an angry father may be difficult for modern, scientific minds to embrace. Women of the world may object to God being portrayed as a male as they attain increasing autonomy in the world.
All of life is suffering and suffering is caused by attachments to worldly things. This attachment, which can take the form of greed, hatred, and ignorance in this life and past lives, can, unless mitigated, return as more suffering (karma)—as in Hinduism. Suffering is not necessarily punishment from a divine being, but rather something that must be transcended by not clinging to material objects or relationships.
Will it last? Because it is a system of thought and meditation, Buddhism does not depend on a paternalistic God who moves people around like chess pieces according to His divine whims. They leave God out of it completely. Buddhism depends on personal and practical life choices to alleviate individual mental and physical pain. Therefore, it is compatible with the most scientific research to date.
Many Christians see suffering as:
- God's punishment of sinful people.
- God’s punishment of the world as a whole.
- The a way a loving God tests the faith and fortitude of believers.
- Evidence of the unknowable will of a God who "works in mysterious ways" toward an ultimate good.
Will it last? The large, corrupt organizations and hypocrisy in high places may bring Christianity to a halt in centuries to come. It may not be rational enough for the modern, sophisticated thinker to trust that a punishing old man in the sky is manipulating everything for some end result that only He knows. For it to last, Christianity must undergo some radical changes and be more relatable to the educated people of the planet.
Islam: The word "Islam" means "submission." Many Muslims believe that:
- Enduring pain or loss is a way of submitting to the will of Allah.
- Some suffering is Satan's doing or is the work of his cohorts in the spirit world (the "jinn") and is allowed by Allah as a test of humility and faith.
- Suffering and adversity strengthen one's faith, as pain often leads to repentance and prayer and good deeds.
Will it last? As in Christianity and Judaism, Allah also is paternalistic and male. This approach may not be compatible with female empowerment that is sweeping the globe today. Modern, sophisticated thinkers may see the wisdom in submitting to what comes their way as a means to achieve inner and outer peace. But they may decide to leave Allah out of the equation, seeing the process in terms of Universal Principle instead. Culturally too, Islam like Judaism, has given structure to people’s lives and may endure just because of the comfort factor in retaining the “old ways” and devotional practices.
Suffering is punishment for cruelties committed in this lifetime or past lives. Even an innocent person who has not eradicated bad karma from past lives through charitable deeds may feel the pain of the karma of past misdeeds. Suffering is placed in the broader context of a cosmic cycle of birth, life, destruction and rebirth. Victims will be reincarnated and have the chance to be happier in their next life.
Will it last? Because the responsibility rests on the individual and his or her choice of action, we don’t have a God who is sending capricious punishment for reasons beyond our understanding. We also don’t have just one God. There are lots of them, some of them embodying destruction and even evil. But still, we have the reason for our suffering right now and it has to do with what we did and how we behaved. The form that Hinduism takes today, with its myriad colorful gods and goddesses may not endure but the idea of our basic responsibility for our own suffering is compatible with modern rational approaches to the reasons behind why things are the way they are.