Imagine there were such a thing a Nazi prison fantasy camp. That is, a recreation of a concentration camp where people could voluntarily go to temporarily experience life as a prisoner for a week or so. (I seem to recall that such a thing has actually been done somewhere but I don’t have the details.) Now imagine, that a wealthy man decided to check into such a camp for a week-long holiday. Let’s put aside for the moment the question of why he would do this and just humour me. For a week he experiences life in a fairly realistic mock prison with rather harsh conditions. Afterwards, he gets to go back home to his comfortable life in which he wants for nothing. He might reasonably say that he has a better appreciation of all the good things that he has after such an experience. But imagine instead that he actually said that his experiences in the mock camp were fully equivalent to those of real prisoners who had been detained against their will in real Nazi concentration camps. That is, the suffering and deprivation he experienced during his week of voluntary incarceration was every bit as bad as that of a real prisoner and that he now he has a complete and authentic insight into what it would be like to endure such conditions for real. How would you react to such a statement?
I would be offended. The wealthy man entered the camp voluntarily, and the whole time he was there he knew that before too long he would be back in his comfortable home as if nothing had ever happened. For this man to claim that his experience was comparable to that of a real prisoner – held against his will and with no hope of release – is obscene.
Now consider the claim by theologian Richard Swinburne in The Resurrection of God Incarnate that the existence of suffering is consistent with the existence of an omnipotent and good God. Swinburne states:
He goes on to make rather bold assertions about the suffering of Jesus:
that suffering does not count against the existence of God... [because] God would become incarnate to share our suffering and to make atonement for our sins.
Suffering has been felt to be inconsistent with an omnipotent, good, and omniscient God. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to observe that the evidence is not all in yet—except in one case. Who could say that anyone suffered more than Jesus—with sweating blood (hemathidrosis) in Gethsemane, even before the physical abuse began.
Two thousand years later, theologians are yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to he problem of evil.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the sheer pointlessness of God justifying the existence of suffering in mortal creatures by inflicting extra suffering upon himself. Or the fact that this does not even begin to make sense as a resolution to the problem of theodicy. Swinburne’s claim that no one in the history of the world ever suffered more than Jesus is monumental in its sweeping arrogance. Untold masses of people throughout history have experienced horrendous suffering, including starvation, cancer, torture, and slavery, not to mention grief and heartbreak. Yet Swinburne expects us to believe without any evidence that none of this can compare to what Jesus experienced. Sweating blood! Oh yes, much worse than anything else a human could experience. This is in spite of the fact that hemathidrosis is a known medical condition that has been attested in ordinary humans, so Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane is hardly unique.
If I had to choose between sweating blood for a while and being in this man's shoes, it would be an easy decision.
There is a deeper problem with Swinburne’s claims than his lack of imagination about the extent of human suffering. Swinburne is trying to prove that Jesus was God incarnate. Yet if this were true then it is simply not possible that his suffering was in any way comparable to the depths of mental anguish that humans are vulnerable to.
Consider the qualities that God is supposed to possess. He is believed to be immortal, all-powerful and to have foreknowledge of the future. The Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus were all supposed to be part of God’s eternal plan. Therefore, God voluntarily chose to experience suffering, knew in advance exactly what it would involve, and knew all along that after his death he would rise from the dead to continue his blissful and immortal existence without any lingering trauma. Any suffering God experienced was a temporary inconvenience at worst, hardly a major disruption of his life.
God sacrifices himself to himself to avert his own anger at the sin of a mythical man and woman with no concept of right and wrong. Yeah, that makes sense.
Compare this to the human experience of real and terrible suffering. Humans are regularly inflicted with adverse conditions that they do not choose, do not foresee, and over which they have no control. A person who is murdered does not have the option of magically resurrecting afterwards. Those who survive horrific experiences are often left with post-traumatic stress symptoms in which they endure the anguish of mentally reliving the traumatic event over and over again.
If God were real he could not even begin to comprehend what it was like to be human. God could never know what it was like to be powerless, to be uncertain, to be mortal, to be traumatised, or to be heartbroken. Compared to the depths of suffering that humans are heir to, the events that Jesus supposedly went through were a fantasy camp.