The Boston Bombings and the Problem of Evil

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 is a retired physicist living in Texas.