Two days after the World Trade Center bombing, I received a phone call from a priest friend in New York who was assigned to bless the dead at a makeshift morgue near ground zero. Together with a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi, Father Eugene was called upon to say prayers for the victims of what is unmistakably one of the worst tragedies of our time.
As they blessed the dead laid out on the floor and said the traditional prayers, my friend said he found himself mumbling a slightly different prayer, one he had heard over the radio on Tuesday night:
“…We believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining. We believe in God even when He is silent.”
Justifying God in the Face of Evil
The muteness of a God who seems too absent when evil rears its ugly head is an experience all too familiar to many of us. No matter how strong and resilient our faith, the experience of evil often creates a stumbling block to a complete trust in the power of Providence. Suffering, whether our own or others’ always serves to open the floodgates of questioning and doubt. Why? we ask. Why do we suffer? Why does God allow so much pain and misery?
This last question alone is already too great a slap on the face of a supposedly all-loving and all-powerful God. The situation confounds us. But to make matters worse, every time we ask why people suffer, we seem to be met by nothing more than a profound silence on God’s part. He doesn’t answer. Why is that?
Fyodor Dostoyevski in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, makes one of his characters ask what could very well be our deepest lament at the heart of the experience of evil: “Pray tell me, what do the innocent have to do with it?”
The questioner, Ivan, speaks to his brother Alyosha, who happens to be a monk. He tells story after story of pain inflicted upon the innocent, and caps his litany with an account of a Russian general who had bloodhounds for pets. It so happened that one day, an eight-year old boy hurt the paw of one of the dogs. Furious, the general had the child seized, then the following day, before the eyes of the child’s horrified mother, had his soldiers strip the boy naked and had his dogs run after him and tear him to shreds.
Alyosha, unable to answer his brother’s question, could only stand in silence. Not even his faith, it seemed, could justify God in the face of such horror. At the end of the scene, Ivan tells his brother that he thus would want nothing to do with this absent God and that henceforth, he is “respectfully returning his entrance ticket into heaven”.
“God is all-good; God is all-powerful; Evil and suffering exist.” This seeming contradiction between a good and powerful God and the experience of evil has so perplexed philosophers and theologians for ages that it has become the quintessential expression of the dilemma facing believers. How do we justify belief in God in the face of overwhelming evil?
Evil wouldn’t be a problem if God were only good and not all-powerful. He’d still be a kind and compassionate God, but he just isn’t able to solve evil because he isn’t powerful enough. The same holds true if he were only all-powerful and weren’t all-good. He’d be powerful enough to rid the world of evil, but because he isn’t a compassionate God, he simply chooses to keep things the way they are.
Neither idea can be taken alone. Isolated from the other, each is counter-intuitive, that is, it goes against every deep understanding we have of who and what God is. He’s got to be both all-good and all-powerful, or he isn’t God at all. And that’s where the problem lies.
The Seeming Inadequacy of Religious Answers
Of course many would see no problem here at all. When confronted with suffering and evil, they choose to take refuge in the supposedly mysterious designs of God. “God’s ways are different from man’s”, is the usual retort. Suffering is part of the divine plan, inscrutable to us and to be fully understood only when everything is revealed in the afterlife.
“It’s God’s will”, is the traditional religious answer, as if this were enough to console the sorrowing. But it really doesn’t take much critical thinking to suspect that something isn’t quite right with the idea. For how could a good and loving God plan people’s lives in such a way that many of them would experience unspeakable pain? Did he plan AIDS, cancer, volcanic eruptions, violent and tragic deaths? Was the bombing of the World Trade Center on the 11th of September 2001 part of his “divine plan”? What a monster that God would be.
Not even the idea that “all things eventually work for the good”, fully assuages the brokenness of the human heart. A good and loving God simply will not and cannot “allow” evil to happen, and no amount of pious or theological platitudes can change that. But the fact is, evil does happen. Why doesn’t God do anything? Where was he on that fateful Tuesday morning?
A Great Theological Mistake
We must not think the appeal to “God’s mysterious designs” when faced with evil, to be wrong. For in a way, that is eventually where all our finite attempts to understand evil and suffering are led. It may be unsatisfactory in the sense that it too easily surrenders our capacity to think things thoroughly and critically. But it does show us the enormous difficulty of grappling with the problem of evil and a good and powerful God.
It seems that without an appeal to mystery, we find it close to impossible to comprehend and accept that a God of power and compassion could not have done anything to stop the carnage of September 11. We ourselves are struck dumb whenever we try to understand the terror of evil vis-à-vis God’s power, after all the two seem completely irreconcilable. But could it be our way of understanding one part of the God-and-evil-equation that is dubious?
God’s power, we believe, is such that he can do anything and everything he wants. And not even the worst kind of evil can stand up to him if he wanted to eradicate it. It’s easy to see how this can lead us to ask why he doesn’t get rid of it. But the fact is, it represents a mistaken notion of what divine power means. It’s also one of the greatest theological errors of all time.
Far from being a truly divine kind of power, it is rather the power of an almighty tyrant who is believed to be able to do anything at will. Far from representing a humble stance in the presence of the creator of the universe, it is actually an arrogant projection of what man wishes he himself possessed, i.e., the ability to mold existence according to his liking.
Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Feuerbach, and many other atheists were not exactly wrong in criticizing this idea of a tyrannical god. They aren’t alone. Many Christian thinkers agree that the real tragedy of evil is that in our wish to be spared from life’s heartaches, we tend to project onto God, an absolute power that can change anything. The supreme irony here of course that when we do face suffering and evil, we often find ourselves questioning why this power seemed absent when it was needed most.
The answer is because this God is hardly the Abba (Father), of Jesus Christ. Neither is it “the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. It’s an idol, a Golden Calf, like the one molded by the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It’s meant to give assurance and security, but as Marx correctly pointed out, it “robs us” of the power for good which the true God has given us. The hope it provides is a false one, a temporary relief, an “opiate”. A tyrannical God weakens humanity. It’s a convenient excuse for defaulting on our responsibility to do good to our fellowmen and women.
But more than that, this misguided idea of divine power has an even more treacherous and sinister side to it. For in the name of this tyrant-God, men throughout the ages have been killed and have killed. Intolerance, not compassion has been its hallmark. Crusades, inquisitions, gulags, lynch mobs, concentration camps, and terrorism, are but some of its fruits. Inauthentic religion has destroyed more lives throughout the ages than any other human institution.
A New Understanding of Power
The great monotheistic religions of the West: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are one in teaching a God of compassion. “Love” defines the Abba of Jesus Christ. In fact, any notion of power that can be gleaned from Christ’s teachings is always circumscribed within his teaching on “love”. It is what defines divine power in scripture. The Christian tenet that “God is love” is more than a pious slogan of a simplistic and saccharine religiosity. Rather, it is the foundation of a radical understanding of power that is one of the greatest contributions of Christianity to the evolution of human thought. Love is Christianity’s revolutionary philosophy of power. Sadly, traditional theology has often neglected this idea.
Understood in the context of divine love, power—in the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead—“neither rules nor is unmoved”. It’s a power, defined not by tyrannical control, but by taking the supreme “risk” of allowing “genuine freedom” in the world. It’s foundation is a “letting-be” and a “letting-go” for the sake of genuine growth. It’s perfect analogy is that of a parent, anxious and yet brave enough to risk letting go of a son or daughter trusting that this alone, despite the risks, will allow the child to come into his or her own.
God could lessen risk through greater control, but to do so would limit the potential of man towards the fullness of life. The greater the risk, the greater the possibility for suffering, but the greater the possibility for doing good as well. Gloria dei vivens homo—“the glory of God is humanity fully alive”, is a basic tenet of Christianity. Were God to lessen the risk at the root of suffering and evil, he would also be lessening human potential for fullness. That God would never do. He took a risk in giving us freedom, and it’s a freedom for good, but evil as well.
The Silence of the Suffering God
But wouldn’t this idea be just as unacceptable as a God who merely “allows” us to suffer? Isn’t it just an oblique way of saying the same thing? Some philosophers and theologians have even criticized it as creating a powerless God who can only stand in silence while creation suffers. Are we not left with the same situation with which we began—like Ivan Karamazov wanting nothing to do with a God who stands silent in the face of evil? Have we no choice but to also “return our entrance ticket into heaven?”
That God takes risks for creation to come into its own, is just one part of Christianity’s understanding of power. The other, and more important part, is God’s conscious entering into the mystery of suffering itself. Mystical theology calls it a theologia crucis—a “theology of the cross”. God, being unable to change the inexorable law of freedom and risk, chooses instead to enter into the very heart of the mystery of evil, and suffers himself. For Christians, the death of Christ on the cross is the embodiment of this divine tragedy which some mystics have spoken of as a “spear thrust at the very heart of God himself”.
The silence of God in the face of evil and suffering is not the silence of a God who chooses to abandon man when he is needed most. Neither is it the silence of a God who “carries” man as that overly pious “footsteps in the sand” analogy portrays. Rather it is a silence that represents a total participation human suffering. As such it is the most radical form of power there can be, for it does not explain away evil, but takes it up and transforms it.
This isn’t simply a Christian idea. The Nobel prize winner, Rabbi Elie Wiesel relates his profound experience of God’s silence in a Nazi concentration camp. For every prisoner that tried to flee, the Nazis would round up and hang ten people. Once, when a prisoner did try to escape, they rounded up ten men and one little boy. They were marched to the gallows and hanged. As he stared at those hapless individuals whose only fault was their being Jews, the rabbi said he couldn’t help but ask God where he was at that moment. He was met with silence.
Wiesel leaves, unable to bear the horror that was happening. Minutes later, he returns to see most of the men already dead. But the little boy was still alive, now turned blue, gasping for breath, his tongue sticking out. “How could God allow such suffering”, he wept. “Where are you, O God?” he asked. Silence.
Then, the rabbi says, in that utterly profound and unbearable silence, he heard a voice deep inside him respond, “Here I am, dying in front of you.”