Unspeakable Acts

Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show
That man is the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain.

-- Voltaire

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

A colleague and friend called with details of a family tragedy that had shocked the community and briefly commanded the attention of national news media.  He had been one of the first to arrive at the scene and was told that his nephew, a prominent local physician, had been taken to the hospital after being savagely beaten with a baseball bat.  His home had been burglarized and set on fire.  My friend asked about his nephew’s family and was told, “They are all dead.” 

Two men with long criminal records had been arrested while trying to flee the scene.  According to police, they had invaded the home during the night and had held the family hostage while they forced the physician’s wife to withdraw $15,000 from the bank the next morning.  The bank alerted the police to a suspicious withdrawal, but they did not arrive at the victims’ home in time to prevent mayhem.  The perpetrators raped and strangled the wife and also raped one of two daughters, an 11-year-old girl.  The daughters died of smoke inhalation after they were doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Horrific crimes are hardly a rarity, even in a small state like Connecticut, but this one was particularly unsettling because it was so random. The alleged perpetrators had targeted the victims by following the wife home from the supermarket.  This was in a bedroom community that was considered so safe residents didn’t even bother to lock their doors at night. 

As creatures endowed with reason, we struggle to find a reason for such wantonness.  It quickly came out that the victims had not, in fact, locked their doors.  The men accused of the crime were both career criminals who had recently been paroled, suggesting that the parole board had not done its job.  But what we really want to know in such cases is how anyone can feel safe if there is not some underlying moral order to the universe.

Voltaire and Rousseau had struggled with these same issues following a massive earthquake in Portugal more than 250 years ago.  The 1755 earthquake was one of the deadliest in human history, destroying much of Lisbon and killing as many as 100,000 people.  Europeans inured to the depredations of plague and famine were shocked by the extent of the devastation.  It hardly escaped anyone’s notice that the earthquake struck on All Saints Day and left 35 of Lisbon’s 40 churches in ruins.  Church authorities declared that God had punished the citizens of Lisbon for their sins.  Voltaire and Rousseau both rejected this view but thereafter parted ways.  Voltaire turned decisively against the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s idea that everything works for good in a universe governed by a benevolent Creator – a notion he would later satirize unmercifully in Candide.  Rousseau, on the other hand, believed the quake had little to do with divine providence one way or the other, arguing that its damaging effects were largely the result of building houses too close together.

Rousseau’s approach now predominates in the immediate aftermath of most natural and man-made calamities.  Whether it is a plane crash, a bridge collapse, a terrorist attack or a hurricane, we grimly await the post mortems and demand that corrective measures be taken.  As long as there are reasons, we are reassured.  If nothing else, they enable us to defer consideration of larger questions. 

By far the thorniest question of all – at least for those who like to think God is on their side – is how to square belief in a benevolent Creator with the existence of evil.  There is a whole branch of theology called theodicy that grapples with this question.  The term was coined by the self-same Leibniz who argued that ours is the best of all possible worlds.  He conceded it is always possible to imagine a world in which bad things don’t happen.  But since we are not God, we are not in a position to say that a world without evil is necessarily better than this one.  There may be a greater good that can only happen if evil is permitted, or there are greater evils that might otherwise ensue.

Perhaps so, but it is small consolation to the innocent victims of the greater good that things might theoretically have been much worse.  Voltaire did not lack for evidence to challenge this view in his day, to say nothing of the tens of millions of innocent people in our own time who have perished in senseless wars, purges, pogroms and acts of genocide.  Where was God in all this?  Even before the surviving Nazi leadership faced a tribunal at Nuremberg, inmates at Auschwitz convened a rabbinical court and convicted God of crimes against humanity. 

The issues have not really changed since Job railed against the injustices he suffered at God’s hands.  The crux of the matter is this: how can an all-knowing, all-powerful and just God allow the innocent to suffer?  Leibniz and his successors recognized that the existence of evil posed a fundamental threat to belief in the existence of God; indeed, the dilemma exists only if God does.  However, the alternative is even scarier to most people: a universe in which there is no final recourse against evil.  But either way, it would seem, we have been left to our own devices. 

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