The Catholic Thing
Believers, Atheists, and Sandy Hook Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 14 April 2013

In the weeks after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the New York Times, the moral compass of secular humanism, ran two stories that considered how the humanist-atheist-agnostic comes to grips with suffering and evil. One writer opined that in the face of such horrors, she prefers the atheist’s perspective over that of the believer. “It is a positive blessing,” she writes, “not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.”

The theodicy problem – the attempt to reconcile the presence of evil in the world with the existence of an omnipotent God of love and goodness – has for centuries remained a barrier to faith for more than a few souls. Some of the greatest minds in the Church have grappled with this question, and their collective work, for all its richness and deep expressions of faith, has yet to supply a satisfactory rational answer. The normal response – the misuse of free will – still  cannot completely explain why throughout history individuals and groups have declared, “Evil, be thou my good.”

Is the writer correct? When encountering evil, is the atheist in a better position to cope than the believer because the former need not ask – or live with – why God would allow an innocent to suffer so cruelly? Is the atheist more comforted because she “is free to concentrate on the fate of this world without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next?”

“Why?” is the fundamental expression of human rationality; the ability to ask this question distinguishes us from all other animals. It is also the fundamental expression of our existence: by our very nature we desire to know the causes of things, be they mundane, complex, beautiful, or horrific. So many of the most profound “why questions”Why the universe and the earth? Why life? Why love? Why death? Why evil? – lay beyond the realm of a rationality that is closed to the possibility of divine transcendence.

Yet when giving comfort, the modern atheist, according to a psychologist quoted by the Times, seeks “to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering.” But how can reason closed to divine transcendence explain the complete irrationality of the actions of Adam Lanza? Irrationality often drives us deeper into the mystery of “why?” Is the grieving atheist expected to cope without being able to consider fully the depths of the mysterium iniquitatis?

           Job Mocked by His Wife by George de La Tour, c. 1630

The atheist’s supposed freedom from theodicy actually brings imprisonment within a static and incomplete worldview. By choosing to ignore the “unseen overlord,” the atheist foregoes the possibility that justice will eventually be done, even if it will be done beyond our purview (a view, by the way, that even a pagan like Plato knew was crucial). And in concentrating on the fate of this world to the exclusion of the next, the atheist, for all the good that humanitarian work can bring, precludes the possibility of ever having relief from the valley of tears.

For the believer, the difficulties surrounding the theodicy problem are not the end of the story. We cannot explain why God allows evil to occur, but with faith we can hope that a greater good can follow from it, even if we may not see this good or see it unfold as we would desire.

But even more, faith in God gives us a Father and Friend who empathizes with our most bitter pain. God himself allowed his own Son to suffer the cruelest torture for the sake of our salvation. God does not allow us to undergo pains that he himself has not already borne. He is with us in our sorrow, not just as a companion, but as the Man of Sorrows who mysteriously promises to turn sorrow into joy.

Accepting this reality will not necessarily remove the pain and suffering we feel, but it will transform it into a means of redemption. This is the great paradox of Christianity: even though it cannot fully explain why there is evil in the world, it declares that evil’s byproduct – suffering – need not be senseless or hopeless. It was the Suffering Servant who redeemed the world through the cross. By freely joining our suffering to his, we can experience God’s redemptive mercy even in our pain. 

The closed rationalism of atheism, far from freeing us from the problem of theodicy, imprisons us in a suffering that, without God, cannot be anything but senseless and hopeless. When the pain is sharp and chronic, no dosage of reason can supply the meaning we crave or the love we need.

The unseen overlord of the next world is actually the merciful Father who, for whatever his reasons, allows us the opportunity to use the suffering of this world as a pathway to the next. We may not be able to answer all the “why questions” satisfactorily on the human plane, but the true blessings lie not in freedom from the difficulties, but in the willful surrender to the only means of transforming them.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Jacob, April 14, 2013
The atheist says: "You have to deal with evil and the chance for redemption, I only have to worry about evil."

Shouldn't she be more miserable with all the bad and none of the good?

Based on the actions of pedophilia and abortion alone, I would kill myself if no one had told me about the possibility of Christ. Who would go on if there were no chance to know justice and peace ever? You'd have to be a fool to pretend that you'll find any in this world or decomposing in the grave.

Oh well, different strokes for different folks I guess!

(I do think we Americans are confused though.. To me the nutjob is the one who says that she's happier with evil as long as she doesn't have to admit God..)
written by Bangwell Putt, April 14, 2013
"God himself allowed His own Son to suffer the cruelest torture ...". We explain in human terms those things we cannot truly grasp. We cannot, needless to say, reveal what God has shrouded in mystery.

Still, "consubstantial with the Father," provides us with things to ponder in our hearts. How is suffering experienced by the Godhead, the "Trinity of a single nature" who is understood by us as distinct in persons, one in being, equal in majesty?

The question of Adam Lanza, questions relating to his responsibility for his actions, is in the end also only known to God. Severe mental illness has, as is known by anyone who has actually been in its presence, power over the sufferer's thought. For those of us who believe that Satan exists, it seems likely that the Father of Lies can use the illness for his own purposes.

What should our response to this be? Should we blame God for dereliction of duty? Or should we expend every possible effort of faith and science to assist those who suffer from this truly cruel affliction, in this way becoming instruments of God's will?
written by Manfred, April 14, 2013
What really exposes the atheist's argument is the Holocaust/Shoah.If there is no God then all this horror had to come solely from the Gentiles in Europe so the root cause was anti-semitism. This fear led to the creation of the State of Israel as a refuge for Jews throughout the world should they be persecuted. For Catholics who are trained, they understand that wars, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are punishments from God, whether or not they are understood as such. So ALL of the period from 1933 to 1945 in Europe is understood as a whole rather than ethnic specific. Mr. Bonagura correctly points out that the horrible death of the Son of God is a mystery we will never understand but we must belief that it, and all the suffering in the world, play roles in the Divine Plan as atonement for the sins of the world.
written by DeGaulle, April 14, 2013
Ironically, one of my own first reactions to Sandy Hook was to feel sorry for atheists. I put it down to Justice, because without Divine Justice, the murderer/suicide of Sandy Hook won, 26-0. He ended the lives of so many, destroyed the hopes of so many others, for his own grim satisfaction, and then evaded punishment and excoriation by taking his own life on his own terms. Without a Judge beyond death, people like Lanza always win, hands down. We believe otherwise, of course.
written by Frank, April 14, 2013
Those who seek a logical reason facing the impenetrable wall of mystery will perpetually chase their tails into an eternity of torment.
written by Gian, April 14, 2013
The problem of virtous pagans is no less troubling for a Christian than the problem of theodicy. It occurs often in Dante. Of course, this problem does not exist for an atheist.
written by Grump, April 15, 2013
Whenever something bad happens and I hear it was "God's will" I want to throw up. There is no satisfactory explanation to why innocent children die horrible deaths while others go on to live long and wonderful lives relatively free of suffering.

Relying on "faith" is a weak reed for many atheists and agnostics including myself who fail to grasp the unfairness of God. That somehow accounts are settled someday and justice and rewards will be meted out in the next world is insufficient solace. The undeniable truth is that Evil has triumphed over Good ever since man crawled out of the slime and all the bromides religion offers in counterpoint are woefully inadequate to convert me into a full-time believer.
written by Andrew, April 16, 2013
Mr. Grump, I hope that you are able to read this. May I say that many misrepresent God when bad things happen in this world. God is not the author of evil. He is full of mercy and grace. 1 John 4:8 says that "God is love." God doesn't just have some love. He is love. That is His nature and essence. Please don't look at the situations in this world to arrive at your view of God. He is Our Father, who created heaven and earth. Whether we believe or not does not change that fact. Please don't look in this world for God but ask Him to reveal himself to you as your read His Word - the Bible. Ask God to renew your spirit to His spirit -John 3:3,5-6.
If your desire is heartfelt, He will. God desires a relationship with you because He loves you. Today is the perfect day to seek Him.
written by enness, April 17, 2013
"The problem of virtous pagans is no less troubling for a Christian"

Can you explain why that should trouble me? I have come to believe that the Catholic Church has the "fullness of truth," not that nobody else has any. One of the people I most frequently agree (or have civil and respectful disagreements with) happens to be a pagan...
written by enness, April 17, 2013

I'll make an exception to my habit of nonviolence and grant you my permission to smack the person who said that (kidding - mostly). In all seriousness, God does not not NOT will evil; He may permit it for reasons that are yet unclear to us, but we know it will not prevail in the end.

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