The Understanding of Suffering in the Early Christian Church

  • Leo D. Lefebure Georgetown University


Early Christians knew that life as normally lived in this world is profoundly unsatisfactory, marked by the suffering that comes from impermanence, sin, and death. The Buddhist tradition warns of the three poisons of craving, ignorance, and anger. Early Christians recognized analogous dangers. Justin Martyr (ca. 100 to ca. 165) viewed sin as rooted in “erroneous belief and ignorance of what is good” (pseudodoxia kai agnoia ton kalon). 1 Living in a society of dramatic inequality, early Christians were acutely aware of the suffering caused by poverty, greed, and the abuse of wealth. Sickness was a constant threat, and devastating plagues periodically inflicted widespread suffering, dramatically demonstrating the transience of human life. Moreover, because Christianity was not recognized as a legitimate religion until the fourth century, Christians faced the chronic danger of persecution from Roman authorities who could demand that Christians worship the protecting deities of the Empire, and threatening torture and execution for those who disobeyed. This posed the challenge of how to respond to violence

Relational Suffering and Its Causes