The Catholic Thing
The Boston Bombings and the Problem of Evil Print E-mail
By Curt Lampkin   
Thursday, 18 April 2013

Theists often maintain that God permits the evils we see in the world for the sake of greater good. But when pressed to say what good might come from the pain and suffering following a horrible earthquake or – as we’ve just witnessed in Boston – a terrorist’s bomb, theists often come up short.  

This seems to be a powerful objection against God and has swayed more than a few people seriously to doubt God’s love for us or even His very existence. The main objections center around the suddenness and size of the apparent evil.

Upon reflection, however, sudden or large catastrophies are not pointless, as they might seem, and do not disprove a God who loves us or who permits evil for a good purpose.  

The only way to measure love is by suffering and sacrifice. Those not willing to suffer and/or sacrifice for their beloved show that their love is not strong – indeed, that it is not truly love. The depth of the sacrifice and suffering shows the strength of love.   

Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion showed His great love for us. So it seems reasonable for God to desire some sign of our love for Him since the first great commandment asks us to love God with all our heart and strength. This might alert us to the truth that some suffering and/or sacrifice might form part of our future.

The concept of a God fashioning crosses or paths of suffering, for our benefit, is well known to the Church. People who live a soft luxurious life often have a weak character, the result of not having been challenged or tested. It’s similar to athletes who haven’t had any real competition. They don’t develop their talents. It been the experience of many over the years that strength of character is developed by dealing with difficulties.

Consider these aspects of suffering: 

1.     Suffering separates us from the world; it improves the “signal to noise ratio” of God’s message. God speaks in a “still small voice,” which the noise of the world can drown out. Suffering gets our attention.

2.      Suffering can involve economic, physical, mental, or spiritual hardship or any combination thereof. Hardship can cause us to change the focus of our attention on what we truly need.

3.     Suffering can radically change our personal relationships with other people, and can change our own viewpoint on ourselves, elevating or diminishing our sense of self-worth.

Whether suffering’s effects are beneficial or harmful in the long run depends on our attitude, our strength of character, our sense of values. The idea of God fashioning or at least permitting a “personal cross” for each of us seems reasonable, or perhaps even unavoidable. You might think of Him as a trainer trying to develop an athlete’s talent.

Some think personal crosses need time to achieve their intended purpose. How can one balance this against the unexpected earthquake or terrorist attack where death can be sudden? Actually a sudden unexpected death is not essentially different from any other kind of death, such as a death expected from disease or old age or an auto accident. 

From a Christian viewpoint death is a door to the next life. As even the ancient pagans understood, that door always lies open and it is good for us to be reminded of that truth. The tragedy lies in the grief of the survivors who have had no time to prepare. Still, such sudden suffering does not contradict the idea of a “Good God.”

In a sudden great calamity, the number of survivors seems to present the main objection to God. However, over the span of a week the numbers that die in single accidents are usually far greater than any earthquake or terrorists bomb. 

In an earthquake or terrorist bombing, the survivors will experience sudden economic, personal, physical or mental loss. So this event does bring sudden crosses. But even if suffering comes to us suddenly, the idea that it might be planned or at least permitted by God is not unreasonable for several reasons.

We should also note that a terrorist bombing is the result of the terrorist’s free will. The terrorist may adhere to a belief system that condones such acts, but it is still an act of free will. Free will is our essential characteristic, our main gift from God.

Sacrifice is a voluntary act and it can be combined with suffering. It can be the effort of a person, despite great difficulties, to do good works. It can be the patient acceptance of small irritations or a willing acceptance of an unavoidable evil to show love for God. This is certainly not easy, but a good attitude can ease the level of suffering – sometimes to a considerable degree.

Ultimately, we may still be faced with what both St. Paul and St. Augustine call the mysterium iniquitatis, the “mystery of evil.” Like the mystery of the Good, we can’t explain such deep realities. But we can dimly discern how they might fit into a Good God’s plan.

Curt Lampkin, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is a retired physicist living in Texas.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Paul Rodden, April 18, 2013
...and what a contribution!
written by debby, April 18, 2013
i was looking for a "particular favorite" paragraph - only each was better than the next!
thank you, and WELCOME!
written by Clement Williams, April 18, 2013
Thank you for this wonderful piece. I have been thinking about the suffering part and realized that the Lord, our Creator has bound Himself along with His creation to the same laws. The law of conservation of mass and energy comes to mind in the circumstances which you have outlined. What makes us alive is our spirit breathed by God to give us life. At what we call death, it is merely the shedding of the clay and subject to the law of conservation as is the Spirit who returns to the origin through Jesus Christ.
written by Athanasius, April 18, 2013
Very thoughtful article. I wonder if obedience should be added to the list of items used to measure love. I agree that in our fallen state suffering plays a role, perhaps a big role, in our journey of love. But if Adam and Eve had been fully obedient, wouldn't suffering have been unnecessary? In which case, isn't obedience to God a truer measure of love? I'm just throwing this out there, as I don't claim to have all the answers.
written by william manley, April 18, 2013
Much to ponder and digest here. Thanks.
written by schmoe, April 18, 2013
interesting and perhaps logically sound.

will convince no one who is actually suffering, for telling someone who is that it is "good for them" just doesn't cut it.
written by Lauri Friesen, April 18, 2013
I, too, welcome you and thank you for this thought-provoking contribution. For the last couple of years, I've been working through the question of how, we are taught and believe that loss of human life is always wrong in some sense, if not always sinful, yet when God takes a life, it cannot be wrong. This article has given me much that is new to ponder. I am especially grateful for the idea of "the mystery of the Good."
written by Jerry Rhino, April 18, 2013
The human who suffered the most was undoubtedly the Blessed Virgin Mary. Was she not the one whom Jesus loved the most? The reason was to give her spiritual opportunities to respond with love and acceptance. Thus her eternal soul would carry this with her to heaven, a heaven which, in some sense, she had fashioned for herself. That is why OJ Simpson in jail shows God's love, not punishment. A new spiritual opportunity to repent.
written by Andrew, April 18, 2013
First of all, we are in deep emphathy for those who have experienced loss of their children or for those that experienced loss of limbs and injury to their bodies. A true tragedy of life, totally given to the height of evil that is in the heart of all men, but only reigned in through accepting the gift of the love of Jesus. Jesus came not to destroy men's lives but to save them. John 10:10 says, "The thief comes to steal, and to kill and to destroy, but I (Jesus) have come that you may have life and that you might have it more abundantly."

Later Jesus went on to say in Luke 23:34, ". . .Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

The Father's heart goes out to those that have experienced this loss, but also to those that do not know His Son.

Tragedies, sufferings, sacrifices, trials and tribulations are not God's way to know Him, but in Romans 2:4b it says, ". . .not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance."
written by Manfred, April 18, 2013
There is another facet of Evil stemming from the Boston Bombings, Mr. Lampkin,as Cdl O'Malley has seized this opportunity to invite President Obama to Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross TODAY in order for the President to address an interfaith service at the Cathedral called in response to the bombings. This gives the most evil President this Nation has ever had (cf. his positions on abortion, infanticide, same-sex "marriage" and his forcing of Catholics to accept contraceptives and abortifacients in their health plans) to stand in a Consecrated Building and speak as a respected leader giving a eulogy. My religion does not allow Catholic layman in the State of Grace to give eulogies, much less this fiend. Cdl O'Malley, BTW, is on Pope Francis' eight-Cardinal Council of advisors. It will be interesting to see if the Pope replaces O'Malley after this horrific scandal. A speaker on another site refers to AmChurch as the American Patriotic Church as it so resembles the Chinese Patriotic (read: Communist) Church.
written by DeGaulle, April 18, 2013
Manfred, it may be unlikely, but what if this event in the Cathedral changes the President for the better? Stranger things have happened.
written by Grump, April 18, 2013
It may turn out that the motive for these bombings was revenge -- revenge for the innocents killed by Obama's drone attacks or, as some call it, "blowback" for US aggression. Ye reap what ye sow.
written by Mack Hall, April 18, 2013
Thank you, Mr. Lampkin.

DeGaulle, I'm afraid the President is only encouraged in these matters. A consecrated church is for the Mass, not for public posturing. I pray for the President daily, but at some point people need to say no to his presumption.

Not my call, thank God.
written by Maggie-Louise, April 18, 2013
Dear DeGaulle,

"but what if this event in the Cathedral changes the President for the better?"

I think it is a well-established tenet of the Church that one can never do a bad thing to effect a good resullt.
written by Joseph, April 19, 2013
There is much in this piece that seems true. But there is something disturbing that seeks to attribute suffering directly to God's will for redemption. Specifically, the idea of a God fashioning suffering or crosses actively to inflict upon us "as a trainer" seems far from reasonable; it seems pretty evil, in fact, and does contradict the idea of a good God. It suggests either that (1) God somehow lacks the ability to save us outside of evil, which makes God dependent on evil at some level; and/or (2), God directly wills evil, which by definition would not be a good God, even if the evil is directly willed for a good.

I think the issue here is that we have to separate the evil of suffering--which is evil, plain and simple, and in no way part of God's "plan"--from the grace that can cause goodness to come out of suffering. Grace can help us overcome evil and learn from it; but the evil qua evil is not the "cause" of that goodness, any more than the evil is directly willed by God. This seems perfectly clear in Scripture.

That's why trying to tell people suffering from evil, whether natural or willed by men (and this piece elides that distinction, too), is "good for them" with the "right attitude" almost never works: we can sense that there's something dreadfully wrongheaded about the idea to begin with.

written by Frank, April 20, 2013
The tide seems like it is turning, albeit little, but turning nonetheless as Republicans in both houses of Congress are pushing back and Obama is throwing tantrums six year olds would admire. Cardinal O'Malley is without excuse here. An interfaith service with this President could be taken to a civc center or some other consenting church. This President has no business and should never have been welcome in a Catholic Cathedral. Let us hope Pope Francis takes notice and sends a discreet msg to his eminence to avoid such actions in the future.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters