What Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper didn't ask

Many, many people have enjoyed watching the most recent conversation (there have been several others on camera) between CNN host Anderson Cooper and late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert. During this wide-ranging discussion, Cooper brings up the death of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and expresses appreciation for Colbert’s words of condolence.

Then things get theological. Cooper quotes Colbert (who, he later makes clear, is quoting J. R. R. Tolkien) asking, “What punishment of God’s are not gifts?” (Note: the quotation is widely mangled by theologically unaware tweeters. “What punishment of gods are not gifts” is one popular version that seriously misses the entire essence of the epigram.)

Colbert and Cooper quickly agree that suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition. Colbert then says that we can be grateful for even the events of our lives that we most wish hadn’t happened (he, for instance, endured the loss of his father and brothers in a plane crash when he was 11) because they can prepare us to connect well with others who, like everyone else, have experienced suffering.

Cooper grants the point, grateful as he is for Colbert’s sympathy upon his mother’s passing. But what neither of these perspicuous men happen to ask is this: Why is suffering, in fact, universal? Why does suffering mark the lives of the great and the small? And, finally, as one wit put it, why does no one get out of this life alive?

Colbert mentions Buddhism as teaching, as does his own Christian religion, that suffering is universal. But Buddhism offers an explanation for that suffering—at least, in pragmatic terms. Buddhism says that we suffer because we cannot get all that we want in life—our desires exceed our powers—and because we cannot keep even what we do get—as sickness, poverty, or at least death eventually claims it all, and all of us.

The Buddhist solution is not to conquer sickness, poverty, and death, however, but to stop caring about them, or anything else, so that we can escape the endless cycle of reincarnation into ever more suffering. Once we detach ourselves from desire, we detach ourselves from the world—and, thus, from suffering. Frankly, it’s a kind of suicide.

Still, Buddhism doesn’t account for the existence of sickness, poverty, and death. Why must these foes remain both unaccounted for and undefeatable?

Christianity is quite clear about the second part. Stephen Colbert only goes so far in his evangelism with Anderson Cooper, only far enough to say that God knows what it’s like to suffer.

But the good news, of course, is that God not only sympathizes with our problem, but God also solves the problem. The atoning work of Jesus Christ, the renewal of his resurrection, and the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit combine to promise the everlasting defeat and destruction of sickness, poverty, and death.

As for the origin of suffering, the Biblical tradition is less clear. We know that pain can be a gift—it helps us learn what does and doesn’t work in the world (“Don’t touch that!”) so we can make the most of it. We know that suffering does help us sympathize with others, as Colbert and Cooper agree. But still…

We don’t know directly from the Bible why God created Adam and Eve with the power to choose, and thus to sin, and thus to open the door to evil in the world. We don’t know why God seems to have granted a similar power to angels.

Some of us theologians suggest that even God could not create a world of beings who were morally mature—thoroughly virtuous and constantly walking with God—who had not undergone a long, difficult process of moral maturation and spiritual experience. God certainly doesn’t seem to offer a shortcut to holiness anywhere in Scripture or church history, but only the arduous climb of sanctification.

At least, however, we know that suffering is not just a frightening absurdity in an inexplicable universe. We know that under our sovereign Lord there is no such thing as gratuitous evil, no such thing as pointless suffering. We know that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28) and that suffering is allowed to afflict us only to achieve God’s good plan for us all.

Suffering is a fact of life, Stephen Colbert avers, and he’s right about that. But the rest of the good news is that it is not a fact of the life to come.

And while Colbert purports to be very shy about proselytizing, one can be glad that he uses his moments in the spotlight at least to suggest that there is another story to be read and told that has the happiest of endings: the story J. R. R. Tolkien himself believed was The Story behind it all, that explains it all, and that makes it all worthwhile.

Even the worst thing that ever happened to you—or the worst thing that ever happened to God.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).