The Hierarchy of Suffering: What is Suffering and Why Does it Occur?



I have never seen this done before, so I am going to own this one. I have written extensively on the subjects of suffering and evil, but I have never seen anyone systematize suffering in an organized manner. I intend to do that for you now with one simple example that is easy to visualize.

The problem of suffering is not the same thing as the problem of evil, although evil almost always leads to suffering.

As far as evil goes, there are a total of three different kinds of evil. The first of these is natural evil. Natural evil is any unfortunate event that is not initiated by a moral agent (any being who is able to recognize the rightness or wrongness of their actions). Examples range from disease to workplace accidents to meteor strikes.

The second type of evil is human evil. This is any kind of unfortunate deed that humans perpetrate upon themselves, their environment, or other humans. Examples range from something as simple as refusing to hold the elevator for a stranger, to the much weightier deed of mass genocide.

The final type of evil is a matter of debate: Divine evil. This would be any kind of disastrous event initiated by a deity. Like destroying the earth with a flood, or striking someone dead on the spot.

Of course, if we are speaking of the Christian God – the one I defend – how accurately the word “evil” applies to him is a matter of debate. For the sake of this discussion, however, we must allow that at least some evil is attributed to God by some people – hence his inclusion in the list.

Now on to the subject of suffering. I posit six tiers of suffering which I will illustrate in the following way:

Imagine you lose your wallet. A simple misadventure ends with your wallet being in a place where you’re not. You feel your pocket or purse, and discover its absence. You are hit with a wave of panic and worry. You have just experienced Tier One of the Furches Hierarchy: Soft Emotional Suffering. For the purpose of this discussion, Soft Emotional Suffering ranges from every-day annoyances to a sudden lingering fear or anxiety. This kind of emotional suffering is less intense or long-lasting than the kind of gut-wrenching mental agony that leads to breakdowns or suicide – hence its low placement on the hierarchy.
So you’ve lost your wallet. Now you have to go through the exhausting process of retracing your steps, tearing your office, car and house apart looking for it, and calling all the places you’ve been in order to see if it’s been found. You don’t find it, so now you have to go through the process of canceling all of your cards and getting identity theft insurance. You have now entered Tier Two: Inconvenience. Inconvenience could be temporary or permanent depending on the situation, but it is any circumstance that requires monotonous or superfluous attention which takes your time away from anything you would prefer to be doing. For some people, school or a job falls into the second tier of suffering.

Your wallet was stolen by some clever thief. He didn’t just take your money, he began using your cards to make a huge number of untraceable purchases. He also used your ID and SSN to steal your identity. This would be an example of human evil.

Because of the identity theft, you are unable to get medical insurance. Suddenly, you come down with a chronic disease for which you can get no treatment due to the identity theft. The chronic illness puts you in pain. You have just entered Tier 3: physical pain.

Physical pain can range from stubbing one’s toe to recovering from a hernia surgery.  The pain being experienced in tier 3 may be intense for the time it’s being experienced, but there is an upper threshold it does not cross, it is not malevolent in nature, and there is hope for relief.

This leads us to Tier 4. Tier 4 is Gratuitous Suffering. This kind of suffering isn’t just your body telling you there is something wrong – it is intense, mind-numbing, chronic physical pain from which there is little hope of escaping. You can’t get pain-relievers because you have no insurance. You just lie writhing on your bed in agony.

As an aside, physical torture also falls under Tier 4, because it is malevolent in nature, no pity or relief is offered, and the only hope of relief relies on the torturer. Tier 4 is categorized by intensity and hopelessness.

Your simple error in misplacing your wallet has become the greatest tragedy of your life. You cannot get a job due to the identity theft and now your illness. You have no source of income, your friends have abandoned you, and there is no relief in sight. In light of all of this, you are spiraling down into a well of anxiety, depression and despair. Congratulations, you have entered Tier 5. This tier is characterized by emotional destruction. You are as emotionally low as a person can possibly be. This may very well be enough to kill you.

Which leads us, finally, to Tier 6. Death. The final stage in the Furches Hierarchy is the termination of life. Arguably, there is no physical or mental suffering in Death, however the prospect one’s life being taken is the worst possible consequence in most people’s minds, and the one thing humans strive in general to avoid. Even if we rule out personal suffering, the loss of friends and loved ones contributes to the net suffering in the world. The last reason that Death is included in the Hierarchy is that – when people raise the subject of the Problem of Suffering – Death is the foremost evil people attempt to confront.

With Tier 6, the Furches Hierarchy is complete. I just realized that if this catches on, my name will be synonymous with suffering. Perhaps not the wisest move. It is worth mentioning that these Tiers are not exclusively separate from one another. Of course someone can be experiencing chronic pain, and also inconvenience. Of course someone can be clinically depressed, and also suddenly panic because they can’t find their wallet. Overlap can and does occur very frequently.

When one looks at the Problem of Suffering within the context of theology, it is a problem well-studied. This very hierarchy is explored in the Biblical book of Job, wherein Satan once tells God that Job will abandon worship if his possessions are taken away, and when that doesn’t work, Satan revises his theory to say that it is one’s physical comfort and health that matters. A hierarchy of suffering is at play here, as well.

More to the point, however is this: the skeptic frequently claims that God should have created a perfect world in order to be a Good God. Presumably, a Perfect World would be devoid of suffering. If God were to make men immortal, we would still deal with pain. If pain were eliminated, we would still deal with emotional difficulties. If these were somehow resolved, we would still have to face inconveniences. One would have to have a very, very micromanaged and narrowly defined world to eliminate suffering altogether.

What would this look like? Perhaps exactly like the world predicted in the Bible when God re-creates the heavens and the earth. At this point, the residents of the world will have become immortal due to the work of Christ. Their immortal bodies would have been perfected – presumably eliminating physical pain and suffering. Their hearts, minds and spirits will have likewise been perfected by conforming to the nature of Christ, such that mental and emotional suffering becomes a non-issue.

Finally, with their desires being to fulfill their purpose in glorifying God, everything they do would lead to that end, such that there would be no inconveniences. The very Problem of Suffering becomes all the more demonstrable of the necessity of God’s work as defined in scripture.

The Furches Hierarchy of suffering

1.)    Annoyance

2.)    Inconvenience

3.)    Pain

4.)    Gratuitous Suffering

5.)    Emotional Destruction

6.)    Death