Sandy Hook, Huckabee, and the Inscrutability of Evil

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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, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).