Suffering has been a part of existence since the beginning and defines what it means to be human. Death, tragedy, and hardship are a part of life on earth and it is something that will eventually come to everyone. However, when suffering becomes unbearable, we immediately look to God, wondering why a loving creator would allow His people to walk through pain. We become angry with God, pointing the finger at Him, and question His will for our lives. Some even deny the existence of such a being because of this reasoning.
In the 2009 Bones anime, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, young alchemists Edward and Alphonse Elric wrestle with the same issue. They themselves have experienced some of the worst pain a human can endure and believe that, since God refuses to help them, they should use their alchemy to solve all their problems. Through their past alchemic mistakes and journey searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, the boys learn the truth of suffering. For people in the real world, their stories of tragedy and hardship mirror what the Elrics experienced and unknowing give the same conclusion, pointing directly to Jesus Christ.
Suffering wasn’t always a part of the boy’s lives. In fact, their childhood started out as peaceful with their mother on the beautiful countryside of Risembool in the military country of Amestris. Far away from the influences of society, the boys grew up in a small farming region without conflicts or quarrels. Every day was another joy to be alive exploring the creeks, running through the wheat fields, and doing what other six and seven year old boys would do. Most of their time was spent with their best friend Winry and her grandmother, Pinaco, and the two families were very close. Life was peaceful for Edward and Alphonse and they experienced true happiness growing up.
However, once the health of their mother began to decline over time, the boys eventually found themselves kneeling before her grave, roses falling out of their hands and tears streaming down their suits. That day, the boys met death for the first time in their lives and it shattered their hearts. Edward and Alphonse were not willing to let go of their beloved mother, the one that raised them with warmth and love. This drove them to an insane obsession to transmute her from the dead using the science of their world, alchemy, which is the deconstruction and reconstruction of matter.
On a dark evening inside their family’s barn, the two boys dug up the corpse of Trisha Elric and laid her body in the center of a large transmutation circle. The elemental makeup for a human body in addition to a drip of blood set the preparations of their taboo experiment, hoping to see their mother’s precious face one last time. During the alchemic reaction, however, something went horribly wrong and Alphonse himself was deconstructed for the transmutation along with the other materials, sending his body to the other side. Edward watched helplessly as his brother disappeared before his eyes.
Seconds later, Edward Elric finds himself brought before God in an unknown place with never ending white-washed walls. He has been brought there for the act of human transmutation and is told that he will learn the secrets of alchemy because of payment from his leg. Edward’s portal, a set of double stone doors that held his alchemic power, were slowly opened behind him and he was thrust inside, screaming as information about the universe pours itself into his brain, overwhelming his consciousness and ripping him apart mentally. When he has returned to God, his leg materializes and he disappears back to the real world.
Blood gushing down his leg stub, Edward wakes up to the horror that his brother and him had done. Hearing nearby hissing from the center of the transmutation circle, Edward flashes his eyes in anticipation and waits for the moment that him and his brother had been waiting, sacrificed everything for. However, the lifeless red eyes, dismembered rib cage, and ash colored melanin of the monster before him told him otherwise. Edward, in a desperate attempt to prevent losing his brother too, transmutes his arm using alchemy to seal Alphonse’s soul with blood to a metal suit of armor.
After these horrifying experiences, the Elric brothers must have had dozens of questions racing through their minds. Why did Alphonse have to lose his body? What did we do to deserve this? Why would God allow us to suffer? They were broken and tired of being tossed around by an “unloving” deity, feeling like they were puppet toys controlled by the master puppeteer. For many in the real world, they feel the exact same way as these two boys. When they experience suffering such as the death of a loved one, affliction of a deadly illness, or sexual assault, the immediate response is to question God and His control over the universe. We feel like our strings are being manipulated just like the Elrics and are tired of this control over our lives.
Even though alchemy failed him to raise his mother from the dead, Edward decides that he doesn’t need God and that he can completely rely on the science to restore his brother’s body. Despite seeing God face-to-face, he calls himself an atheist, blames all of his problems on a God that he believes doesn’t exist, and leaves on his quest to revive Alphonse back to normal. Again, this same mentality is what a lot of the afflicted hold, thinking that if God won’t help them, that they suddenly have the ability to solve all of their problems on their own.
Edward does this by seeking the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, a stone of unlimited power that can perform alchemy without fail. He knows that once he has his hands on the stone, he can restore his brother’s body and decides to search it out with everything he has. Each step in the direction of this pursuit further increases his reliance on alchemy and he even believes that alchemists are the closest to gods there are. His brokenness and hurt filled his empty heart with pride, something that actually causes his own suffering.
At the end of Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, when Edward stands in the space of endless white-washed walls, God and him have a conversation about the payment Edward will provide to win his brother’s body this time. The response from Edward, however, is strikingly different than when he was first shown the truth of alchemy and tells God the entire “truth” that he had learned through suffering.
God asks, “I take it your here to retrieve your brother? Just how do you plan on pulling an entire human out of here? What’s your payment? Do you intend to offer your own body?”
“Yeah, I’ve got your payment right here,” Edward responds. “So go ahead and take it! This thing is my portal of truth, so I get to make the decision on how it’s used, is that right?”
“It’s come to that? And you’re sure about this? You do realize you won’t be able to perform alchemy again without your portal?” God rebuttles questioningly.
Edward explains, “I’m aware of that. This portal, I know it contains every secret alchemy has to offer. However, it’s also led me astray. I saw the truth that lies within it. I became convinced that I could solve everything with alchemy, but I couldn’t have possibly been more wrong. That was just arrogance.”
Edward attempted human transmutation as a child and searched for the Philosopher’s Stone because he believed that he could achieve anything with alchemy. Edward learned from his first meeting with God that one leg was not enough to raise his mother from the dead and one arm was not enough to save his brother’s body, yet he still continues the pursuit to no avail.
The creation of a human chimera with an innocent girl, the unjust murder of Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes, and many other tragic events tried to show Edward that the powers of life and death were not his to control. However, he refused to accept the truth and ended up causing himself much more pain along his journey. While he stands before God, burnt from his self-lit furnace, Edward admits that alchemy had led him astray and calls it arrogance on his part.
In reflection of these mistakes, Edward was humbled to understand his place in the universe: at the very bottom. He has no control over those who live or die, those who suffer and those who don’t. No matter how much he tries, he will never be able to defy the ultimate, all-powerful, omnipresent creator of the universe. Suffering had broken his spirit and taught him to accept his status as a human.
“You’re willing to cast it aside, to lower yourself to a simple human?”
“What do you mean “lower yourself”? That’s the only thing I’ve ever been.”
Unlike God from the world of Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Jesus Christ shows us our arrogance through suffering not only to show us our humanity, but also because He loves us. Mankind chose to reject God and pursue sin, accepting the punishment of Hell of their own free will. People who don’t know Jesus Christ walk every day of their lives in rebellion and it breaks their savior’s heart. He loves them far too much to see them living in sin and He will do anything He can to save them.
Suffering is one of God’s love letters to humanity to show that there is something greater than themselves. However, He will also not hesitate to do this harshly as necessary, showing people the error in their arrogance.
“Humans who would dare to play God must pay a steep price for their arrogance. That is truth.”