Believers, Atheists, and Sandy Hook

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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.