Since Friday there have been a million and one response to the evil experienced against the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Often in such responses there is little humility, but in the face of the inscrutable humility is the only wise attitude. Yet at times of such blatant evil, the religious skeptics come out in force as if such evil proved their view of reality was axiomatic. Hardly.
When the topic of theodicy arises, the skeptic acts as if the problem of evil is only a problem for those who believe in an omnipotent benevolent supreme being. There is no doubt that evil is indeed a dilemma for the religious believer, and there is ultimately no satisfactory answer. Even in the book of Job in the Old Testament, God never answers the question why, only that we are in no position to question the Almighty God. But we do, and anyone familiar with the Bible knows that these questions abound, especially in the Psalms. To question is our nature. To demand answers is understandable. To get them is another thing, whether we try to fathom such a monstrosity as Sandy Hook, or why I can’t even completely understand my own actions.
But let us say that because of the existence of evil we posit that God, a supposedly benevolent omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being simply cannot exist. Does this make evil, such as the poor people of Sandy Hook experienced last Friday, any less of a problem. Does it make such evil any more understandable? Any more palatable? Any less confusing? What does deleting God actually buy you? I would claim nothing, but hopeless despair. A universe that assumes meaning is not transcendent or ultimate in any sense is a weak foundation upon which to give meaning to events that are basically impossible to understand. The only desperately weak answer the atheist can give is, just because. Few people live Nihilism, but it really is the only consistently logical conclusion an honest person can come to (I know they argue otherwise, but it doesn’t work). This is one reason I so love Woody Allen. He’s been trying for over 40 years to talk his way out of Nihilism through his films, but he knows he just can’t.
As a Christian I of course have no ultimate answer to the problem of evil, because whatever answers I could give about free will and its necessity in God’s plans or whatever, cannot assuage the pain in any appreciable way. If I lost a child I would be inconsolable for as long as I live. How I would deal with the pain in light of my belief? I desperately hope I never have to find out. But as unsatisfactory as it might be, my faith offers some consolation and some plausible explanations.
One of the most powerful verses in the Bible is the shortest, John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” And what did he weep over? The context is really stunning when you consider who the Jesus of the Bible claims to be, and who his followers believed him to be.
He had friends he would visit from time to time during his three years of ministry, and one of those was Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus became sick, and his sisters sent word to Jesus so he could come and heal him like he had so many others before. But Jesus decided to delay his visit, in effect to let him die so that his disciples and others might see his power over death. (I love what “Doubting Thomas” says as they head back to a place where Jesus had been threatened with stoning, “Let us also go, that we may die with [Lazarus].” Even Jesus’ closest followers were often skeptical.)
When Jesus gets there, Lazarus has been dead four days. Mary and Martha are distraught. If only, they say to Jesus, you had gotten here when he was alive we know you could have healed him. Both sisters say the same thing, and it says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This seems like a very odd reaction for the creator of the universe become man who will in minutes raise Lazarus from the dead. What is even stranger, yet more powerful, is what Jesus does when they bring him to the tomb: “Jesus wept.” This seems counter intuitive. Why would Jesus cry when he knew in minutes he would raise Lazarus from the dead? Because death is ugly. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Death is a horrible aberration of creation. How you square this with an all powerful God, I have no idea.
We Christians call this sin, and the Bible tells us the wages of sin is death. Even though Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus, he knew he would die again. He also knew his mission was to experience death himself, and what that could mean for a triune God, we have no clue. But a rupture in the relationship of the Father and the Son could only be profound in a way beyond imaging.
This is why you’ll often hear religious believers speak of mystery, especially Christians; we don’t have answers. Because things don’t necessarily make sense to us, doesn’t mean we reject them out of hand. We just don’t understand, yet for some reason we trust that God is not the devil, that he is good and that somehow his plans will prevail in the end. In fact that is our hope, that we are more than dust, that our lives be they short or long have purpose, that the beauty and joy, the ugliness and sorrow will one day all fit.
The humble atheist will admit he doesn’t understand anymore than we do. In fact, what is there to understand? Brute facts are all that is, and brute facts in the face of unimaginable horror don’t bring much comfort. The problem of evil, is a problem, no matter where you stand.