The Catholic Thing
Sandy Hook, Huckabee, and the Inscrutability of Evil Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 21 December 2012

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“How could God let this happen?” That was the question asked of the former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, by Fox News host Neil Cavuto in an interview following the horrific slaughter of innocent school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 

Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, replied:

We ask why there’s violence in the schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we do not want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability. That we’re not going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us, but we stand one day before a holy God in judgment.

The governor is no doubt correct that transgressions against justice do not occur in a vacuum. For what a person is taught about the good, the true, and the beautiful – which depends on the health of the cultural institutions committed to transmitting those beliefs – often strongly influences the development of a person’s character and virtue. 

It is, of course, far from a sure thing. After all, Judas Iscariot was tutored by the finest teacher the world has ever known, and yet he committed the most infamous act of betrayal in human history. Bad character remains a mystery even in the most idyllic of circumstances. 

The question that Huckabee was asked, however, was about the absence of divine action in an event in which everyone wishes that God had intervened. For that reason, his answer was not to the point.  

When confronted with the question of accounting for inexplicable evil in a world created by an all-good and all-powerful God, Huckabee offered an answer that he could not possibly know is true. It is simply beyond his, or anyone’s, ken to know whether the proximate cause of a horrific occurrence is the result of divine punishment or reward.  

Short of knowledge received through special revelation, speculation on such matters is a fool’s errand, and in some cases, such as the Newtown massacre, an occasion for bringing needless ridicule to the teachings of the Christian faith. 

It does not take much imagination to begin deconstructing Huckabee’s theological conjectures. What if all the children were from the families of devout Christians? Would Huckabee entertain that fact as evidence that the God of a rival faith had punished these Christians for their mistaken devotion? 

Prior to our “removing God from our schools” in the early 1960s many of those very schools were racially segregated. Was the presence of prayer confirmation of segregation’s goodness? What accounts for the 2006 Amish schoolhouse murders? Had the Amish banished God from their classrooms? 

My point here is not to say that it is wrong for one to offer an answer as to why evil exists in a world that one also believes was created by a benevolent and loving deity. It is an ancient philosophical question that is asking us to consider whether God and evil can co-exist and whether we have fulfilled all our intellectual duties if we in fact believe that is the case.  

To put it another way, this query is asking us to offer an account of evil and divine providence that shows that we can believe in the existence of both without falling into incoherence.  

But that philosophical inquiry is not the same as asking, as Cavuto asked Huckabee, why God in a particular circumstance did not intervene to achieve an end that, from our vantage point, would seem to be far better than how things in fact turned out. 

When such questions arise, Scripture teaches us that the proper response is intellectual humility and submission to divine providence. If anything, the sort of spiritual guesswork found in Huckabee’s answer is strongly discouraged. 

In John 9:1-3, Jesus and his disciples come across a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

In the story of Job, it is only because we are allowed to peer in behind the veil of heaven that we know the rhyme and reason behind his unimaginable loss and suffering. His friends attribute it to what they presume is Job’s religious infidelity. Job, on the other hand, equally ignorant of his misery’s cause, continues to trust in the providence of God, though never ceasing to engage that providence just in case he may stumble upon a satisfying answer.

Each of us at some point in our lives will confront pain, suffering, and loss, some of which will seem inscrutable. We can, like Governor Huckabee, Christ’s disciples or Job’s friends, attribute these events to someone’s particular sin or God’s special punishment.  

Or we can, in submission to divine providence, fall at the foot of the Cross and put our trust and hope in He Who absorbed all the world’s evil and in Whom “God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19)


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, and Resident Scholar in the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University. Among his many books is To Everyone An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview (co-edited with W.L. Craig and J. P. Moreland).
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Comments (19)Add Comment
written by Melville, December 21, 2012
Mike Huckabee gave a perfectly good answer if it is considered in its totality, and not simply torn asunder and quoted peicemeal. Yes, as Dr. Beckwith hammered on in his post, he had the audacity to point out that through the many efforts of liberals who had spent the last thirty years removing God from every public institution in the U.S., the question“Where was God?” seemed strangely out-of-place. But considering his complete remarks, Rev. Huckabee went beyond this, answering more profoundly by noting the behaviour of several Christian heroes at Sandy Hook, including one modest schoolteacher who, from presence of mind, was able to save every child in her classroom, by the sacrifice of her own life. To get a sense of his complete remarks, you need to watch the initial brief Cavuto segment (where he was given only 3 minutes), and the longer segment on Fox and Friends Saturday (5 minute discussion with the 3 hosts), and then again on his own show that evening (8 minute segment). In no way does Rev. Huckabee "attribute these events to someone’s particular sin or God’s special punishment." Only if one dwells exclusively on one sound bite and doesn't attend to Rev. Huckabee's complete remarks can such a conclusion be drawn.

We know as part of the Roman Catholic Church that our lives are united with Christ's. in an important manner, God is present or absent in us. He is present in the Saints, but also in every act of human decency and genuine kindness, by a Christian or, indeed, anyone else. His absence is conversely marked by indecency, by faithlessness, and in the extreme, by the behaviour of real devils in human flesh. Pope Benedict XVI offered remarks similar to Rev. Huckabee's after the Norway massacre in his Sunday reflection after it occurred.
written by Paul Rodden, December 21, 2012
Sadly, Huckabee's response is yet another of those unintended consequences of the Reformer's alternative metaphysics...
written by Manfred, December 21, 2012
" an occasion for bringing needless ridicule on the Christian faith." Why is Mike Huckabee even being written about on this site? For that matter why is Sandy Hook even being referred to? It belongs in the New England Journal of Medicine under severe psychiatric disorders neglected by both parental and state authorities. The One, True Faith is taught by Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. Mike Huckabee, who admits to being the first male in his family to graduate from high school, does not submit to any of these. Cavuto might as well have asked him how did God allow World War II? I strongly object to the use of the term Chritianity on this site as those sects and "faith communities" outside the Church are rife with error and heterodoxy. They hide behind the inanity of: "How can I be wrong? I mean well"
written by Jacob R, December 21, 2012
I think you have made some mistakes yourself here Prof. Beckwith.

The Amish, as the new reality show proves, are often far more influenced by secularist culture than Amish culture. Many are no different than the others who call themselves Christian but don't live Christian.
A better example would have been the Virginia Tech shooter who had messianic fantasies. But he was a part of a theologically shallow Protestantism that functions more as a social club than a true outlet for theological education.

Again with the segregation thing. That came out of hackish WASP Protestant churches that miseducated their followers about the true nature of Christianity.

The hardcore secularism that's causing these mass murders is of course just another Christian heresy.

So I don't think you've proven, by any stretch of the imagination, that Gov. Huckabee was wrong.
He never said "the non Christians deserve it" as you suggest. He said that when people live their whole lives without any true spiritual guidance, even if they call themselves Christian, they're far more likely to be in a place where mass murder seems like an option.

Listen to Morgan Freeman from Se7en: the worst thing you can do is treat these mass murderers like they're the same as a truly mentally I'll person. They have their own cold logic, and a lack of real Christian understanding makes it far more likely that they will not be shown why that cold logic will lead to misery and ruin, perhaps for eternity.

It's not about who deserves what. (Even Christians now seem to get that tingle of self righteousness pretending other Christians are dangerously misguided for speaking out about the consequences of giving up authentic Christianity.)
It's about what the mind needs to survive this hellish place without going mentally insane or growing rageful at the unfairness of the world. That seems to be far more difficult for people without a Christian education. (This is why Christians who go to orthodox churches regularly are the most healthy in the world and people who call themselves Christians but live secular have the exact same stats as outright secularists.)
written by William Manley, December 21, 2012
I agree completely with Melville's response above. Mr. Beckwith, you have distorted the courageous words of Gov. Huckabee. When you take prayer and Bible readings out of the schools what are the consequences for a civil society based on Judeo Christian values? I went to a public elementary school in the 1950s and our teachers started every day with a Bible reading. The impact was great. Today, by law, our schools are godless. Three cheers for Gov. Huckabee to have the courage to say this in the face of the scorn of the liberal media. Abortion, another slaughter of the innocents, was illegal when school Bible readings were legal. Think about that, Mr. Beckwith.
written by Mack, December 21, 2012
Mr. Huckabee's simplistic and cliched' response needed deconstructing. To say "(W)e’ve systematically removed God from our schools" is wrong: (1) No one can remove God from anywhere He wishes to be, and He will never remove Himself; Calvary proves that. (2) No one -- certainly not "we" -- stood in the school door, like a sort of George Wallace, and told God to stay out (and George Wallace repented, showing that God was in him too). (3) K-12 teachers are neither ordained, licensed, educated, nor commanded by each area's democratically-elected school boards to teach theology, and given the thousands of denominations, this would be impossible in any case.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, December 21, 2012
My answer to Neil Cavuto and the rest of the Godless is this: Why is it always convenient when tragedy strikes for you people to pull God out of the closet as if He's on trial? How does God figure into the equation of your lives when things seem to be going well? Do you spend time in awe worshipping Him?

I'd just refuse to answer the question and ask the question: Aren't YOU God? Those of you who are pro-abortion, aren't you reserving to yourselves the power over life and death that belongs only to God? You answer the question for us all. Where were YOU in this tragedy?
written by Howard Kainz, December 21, 2012
I don't think Huckabee was indicating a direct causal relationship: "Take God out of schools and expect mass killings!" The point was that if students have access to the Bible and knowledge about God, there is the possibility that they will respond of their own free will in a positive way. One cannot respond to the Gospel if it is not accessible, and even prohibited.
written by Wollie Wolcott, December 21, 2012
Putting aside the discourse following the Q & A between Neil Cavuto and Gov. Huckabee, Dr. Beckwith correctly outlined a path to understanding the senselessness of the tragedy. We of small intellects and narrow vision (myself especially!) needed to be reminded of the reference to John chapter 9 and the book of Job. Falling at the foot of the Cross with Job's humility precisely gave me what I needed to step back from the initial horror and helplessness and re-orient my thinking. Both Sts. Aquinas and Irenaeus articulated that God allows evil to exist to bring precisely to bring about good in the world. Evil is the consequence of our free will. PLEASE CONTIBUTE!
written by Louise, December 21, 2012
Francis, I agree with your point.
"Who knows the mind of the Lord and who has been his counselor", or something like that. God is not subject to our judgment but man always wants to put God on trial and find Him guilty of not being Godly.
written by senex, December 21, 2012

As I view Professor Beckwith’s analysis, I concur that Governor Huckabee’s answer was unsatisfactory because it did not respond to the underlying misunderstanding in Cavuto’s question. But I did not find Professor Beckwith’s comments very persuasive either. To call for intellectual humility and submission to Providence, without greater explanation, seemed to be inadequate also.

A more satisfactory explanation, in my opinion, is found in the Catechism, sections 302-314. There, moral evil is distinguished from physical evil, a distinction that becomes meaningful if we compare the Sandy Hook school shooting with damage from natural disasters such as from hurricane Sandy.

If we start with the premise or assumption that “with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely created a world ‘in a state of journeying’ towards its ultimate perfection” (CCC 310), this process of journeying involves constructive and destructive forces of nature (which is another way of saying physical good and physical evil) as long as creation has not reached perfection. (CCC 310)

Besides physical evil, like the natural effects of hurricane Sandy, moral evil also exists. Moral evil is the result of man’s actions. God created man with the freedom to make choices. This includes the freedom to make evil choices, and as a consequence of original sin, man has also inherited an inclination to sin, i.e. to choose moral evil. The massacre at Newtown was the effect of human choice to commit moral evil, notwithstanding the psychological excuses that will surface. The moral evil committed “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause …. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it.” (CCC 311)

While God could have created man like all other animals with no free will, that was not what he did. While a freedomless mankind might avoid moral evils, he would not escape the physical evils of injury, sickness, death and other perils that all animals face. Nor would he have the moral goods of intelligence or the gifts of faith, hope, charity and immortal happiness by observing His commandments. Even the suggestion of this alternative evidences a certain chutzpah. God just as easily could say to us “Where were you when I created the world?”

A response that incorporates the above principles, in my opinion, would have been more satisfactory and to the point than Governor Huckabee’s reply or Professor Beckwith’s analysis.
written by DeGaulle, December 21, 2012
I find this incident so horrific, that the existence of a salvivic God is necessitated in the cause of Justice. The alternative seems to me unthinkable.
written by DS, December 21, 2012

Regarding the use of the term "Christian" as it relates to non-Catholics, perhaps you should consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."
written by Manfred, December 21, 2012
The Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Barack Hussein Obama are considered to be Christian. The founders of the Reformation denominations were all excommunicated at the time of the Council of Trent. Most non-Catholic Christians support divorce, contraception, abortion, women ministers and increasingly, same-sex marriage. BTW, the main editor of the C.C.C. was Cdl Schoenborn. Does any of the above give you pause?
written by DS, December 22, 2012
Many teachings of the Church, when juxtaposed with the reality of the world, give me pause. But that's why there is a magisterial authority: so personal whims, passions and fancies guide us.

So yes, Manfred, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Barack Hussein Obama are Christian, though they sin like you and me.
written by Jim Flynn (JRF), December 22, 2012
I like to think that if Huckabee had more than 90 seconds to answer the question he might have called on Romans 1:24 -31 to help him. My take is that God today, as with the Romans, has given us up to our lusts, passions and secular desires. Our society is exchanging the TRUTH for evil desires at a rapid rate and God,having no other choice (given our free will) leaves us to our own devices. When God abandons the evil doer he does not impel him to evil. The evil one will take on that job.
written by Manfred, December 22, 2012
@DS: My last point-Fr. Karl Rahner created the term the "Anonymous Christian" to cover anyone, even if they had never heard of Christ. The very term has lost its meaning over the last fifty years. The only fact which matters is will the person spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. Nulla Salus Extra Ecclesiam.
written by Miriam, December 23, 2012
The question "How could God let this happen?" and all questions about the mystery of evil remind me of a question my father asked me to think about in my teens before he sent me off to study photoscience in college.

My father's question was "Why did God create light and not darkness?" I was able to answer this question only after I completed my undergraduate program and long after my father died.

The answer?

It's the same answer why God created LIFE and not death. It's the same answer why God created HEAVEN and not hell. Because darkness, death and hell are NOT created things.

God created light. We can measure light in photoscience. We cannot measure darkness.

God created life. We look for signs of life. Signs of death are meaningless.

In the beginning, there WAS only God. Then God withdrew His presence in the space we now call 'hell'. God is everywhere except for hell. "Free Will" would be meaningless if we cannot choose to be truly separate and apart from God.

Jesus answered His disciples with "He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

LIGHT, LIFE, and HEAVEN await to be revealed to us. So, rejoice in His LOVE always and peace be with you.
written by Gerry Gentile, January 01, 2013
The problem that I and other unbelievers have with Gov. Huckabee's remarks--in fact with the remarks of so many other so-called Christian ministers like Bryan Fischer and Jerry Falwell--is that there are a handful of issues that they obsess over--abortion, homosexuality, prayer in school, evolution, atheism. They know that their followers likewise hate these issues. So whenever some horrific tragedy occurs, these ministers quickly jump up, waving their arms, screaming, "Yuh SEE! It's them ay-thee-yists/homoseck-shoe-walls/evil-loo-shunists! THEY'RE the reason this happened!"

No, that's NOT the reason this happened. What we need in America, when something happens, is for more ministers of the gospel, whether Catholic or the other guys, to stand up as President Obama did, crying and grieving with those who are suffering. I'm sure that everyone on this site can agree that if any one of us lost a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a loved one, the last thing we'd want is for some pompous, self-righteous ghoul to use our pain, our agony, to try to score political points.

This is what Paul meant when he wrote that, "Love is not self-seeking" (I Cor 13:4). And it's why most people are vulgarized by supposed Christians exuding self-satisfaction with comments that do little more than convey a sense that they're saying, "See? We TOLja."

If I were a believer, and if someone interviewing me on the air had asked why this happened, I'd hope that I would have said simply, "I don't know. All I know is that God is crying."

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