Pain, Suffering, and Doctor Who

I will return to counting down my favorite episodes from Matt Smith’s era as the Doctor next week.

I am a second semester seminary student and this upcoming week my theology class is going to touch upon theodicy. Theodicy deals with the questions surrounding the existence of God, of evil, pain, and suffering. If God exists, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? If God exists why is there so much senseless death and destruction? I’m sure that many of us, regardless of our current beliefs, have asked these questions or similar ones during some point in or lives. Perhaps while mourning the death of a loved one, we have cried out in anguish, “Why her? Why now?” Or the questions may have surfaced during an intense period of battle within ourselves, where we debate whether or not to end our lives. “Why am I in so much pain? Am I alone?” Many of us have also been smacked with well-meaning but painfully inadequate theological ideas: “It was God’s plan. Don’t question God’s purposes, God’s ways are higher than our ways.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.” While such sentiments bring a measure of comfort to some people, others find them to be meaningless platitudes. Such sayings strike some as surprising superficial and shallow.

When tragedy strikes, many of us are at a loss. We live in a society that tends to favor ignoring pain, death, or suffering. It’s better not to think about said subjects, so when tragedy strikes we fall back on and repeat theological ideas and platitudes that may not be so helpful.

Now I’m sure some of you may be wondering, “Ok Naiomi, what the hell does this have to do with Doctor Who?”

One of the safest ways to explore questions of pain, death, evil, and suffering is in the form of books, TV shows, movies, music etc and when done well such issues can be explored beyond a superficial level. For instance, Doctor Who can be silly and even down right ridiculous, but it also deals with subjects that as a society we often want to ignore and because it presents it in such a nonthreatening way, it allows the space for conversation (for those who seek it).  How does the Doctor, as a deity figure, compare to some of the popular images of God, especially in regards to suffering?  Needless to say as a blog post, this will not be an extensive examination.

What type of God allows pain and suffering?

One of the central questions surrounding theodicy concerns the character of God. In essence what type of deity figure would allow pain and suffering?  In the episode, The Rings of Akhaten the “god” is presented as being incredibly cruel and the source of the planet’s pain and suffering by periodically demanding human sacrifices. The Doctor refers to said god as a parasite.

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Immediately, the impulse is for those to defend their image of God by stating, “well our God is nothing like that, but is instead loving and kind.” However, for those outside of said belief systems, God appears at best to be ineffective and at worse cruel. Some might want to immediately state, “well God is a loving God, but also mysterious and we can’t understand God’s ways.” Or “God does not cause evil but humanity through free will does.” Such answers, come out as dismissive of those asking the questions. “How is humanity responsible for earthquakes or tornadoes?” And if we are to simply insist on the mystery of God when confronting suffering, does that mean we should simply accept all forms of suffering, as if we were passive vessels?  While any theological response to the question of suffering is due to be inadequate, one sentence responses come off as especially trite.  What do we mean when one says God is a loving God? Where is God in the midst of suffering? Is God similar to the God in the Rings of Ahkaten, a parasite that feeds off of pain and suffering? Or instead of feeding off of suffering, is God instead in the midst of suffering? If so, what exactly does that mean?

Other responses to suffering include references to God’s omnipotence-or God’s power as well as God’s involvement in the world. For example when a person narrowly avoids a disaster he or she might say, “well God saved me.” And without wanting to offend the person, whenever I hear someone say that God prevented them from getting into a plane or dying in a car accident, I want to ask, “Well what about all those other people God didn’t save?  What does it say about God if we imagine a deity figure that picks and chooses who lives and who dies in a seemingly arbitrary fashion?”

In the Voyage of the Damned, the Doctor promises to save those on planet earth as well as all those abroad the ship.


Yet as the episode progresses, one by one the passengers with him die. One of the few survivors, Slade, is an incredibly selfish and condescending jerk.  One of the other survivors, in noticing the Doctor’s disappointment and perhaps anger, states, “Of all the people to survive, he’s not the one you would have chosen, is he? But if you could choose, Doctor, if you decide who lives and who dies, that would make you a monster.”

When one says that, “God saved me from a disaster” that killed other people, what does that say about the type of God one worships? And how do you think said God comes across to others, especially those reeling from a loss?

God’s absence

In The Snowmen, the Doctor retreats to his little “home” in the Sky.  The image is striking. The Doctor is an extremely intelligent figure, who has traveled to the beginning of time and witnessed the earth’s destruction, whose intelligence surpasses that of humanity and who almost never dies (he is of course not exactly immortal). While his companions often aid in saving the day, in many cases, it is the Doctor himself who prevents tragedy. Yet in this episode, this almost god-like figure runs away, into the sky, unwilling to get involved, not out of malice but because he suffers. He is not an unchanging or uncaring figure, but instead he agonizes and feels pain and suffering.


When one is in the midst of terrible suffering, the absence of God is palpable. It often feels as if God has run away.

As Simone Weil said, “Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell.  A kind of horror submerges the whole soul.”

When comforting those who are in pain, the natural impulse is to say, “Well God is in the midst of your pain.” But what exactly does that mean?  When one is in the midst of darkness, how does one explain the absence of God? How does one explain that God is not running away, hiding in the sky?

When tragedy strikes, it is natural to try to offer words of comfort, and sometimes said words take on a theological bent. But perhaps we need to think more deeply about what those words mean and how they come across.  Are we portraying a parasitic God, as the god in the Rings of Akhaten, are we presenting a monster, who seems to  arbitrarily chooses who lives and who dies and  when to get involved and when do step back? And finally how do we make sense of a seemingly absent God?


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