A World of Hurt
Our cleaning lady showed up as usual on a recent Tuesday morning, and my wife greeted her by asking how she was doing. “Fine,” she replied, before launching into a fresh tale of woe. A judge had just sentenced her adult son to three months of mandatory rehab. Our cleaning lady viewed this as good news, presumably because the alternative was jail. Also, she admitted, this meant she would not be called upon to bail him out of trouble for the next three months.
By now we are well acquainted with her son’s misadventures. He has been in and out of rehab and the emergency room for quite some time. He is jobless, an alcoholic and a drug addict. His wife divorced him and obtained a restraining order against him. Our poor cleaning lady has been obliged to drive him everywhere after his license was revoked following a drunk-driving conviction.
As parents of adult childen, my wife and I already knew you never stop worrying about your kids. But our cleaning lady, who is far from young, finds herself living a nightmare. And her experience is hardly unique. The same day she told us her son was in rehab, my wife learned from a co-worker that her own son had informed her he was on methadone. He had been living with a woman who was a drug addict and had lost custody of her children for that reason. This young man had recently survived a life-threatening illness that had severely damaged his liver, and he was now on a waiting list for a new one.
We all know the world is in a sorry state, and all too often we are reminded of just how close to the bone the world’s troubles can cut. My wife and I have reached an age when disease and death are all too commonplace among our close contemporaries. My sister-in-law had fully expected to live as long as her long-lived parents but died many years before either one. The husband of my wife’s best friend was grievously hurt in a bicycling accident, then was diagnosed soon afterward with hip cancer and recently died.
I am part of an intercessory prayer group at my church that offers prayers on behalf of others, whether in our parish, the community or the world. There is never any lack of need. We meet once each week for an hour, and I come away each time with the strong sense that we live in a world of hurt – not just war and disaster in faraway places but misfortune to those near and dear. Admittedly, our focus is on people who are hurting. Still, there is no denying how pervasive the suffering is.
Curiously, suffering seems to be more of a problem for people with strong religious faith. Not that they suffer more than other people; rather, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that God owes them something in return for their faith. At the very least, he owes them an explanation when disaster strikes. Yet even the righteous Job, who suffered so grievously at the hands of God and the devil, even he was unable to wrest an explanation from his tormentors.
In the absence of such, we are often tempted to supply our own, with decidedly mixed results. There are those, like Job’s friends, who blame the victims for the calamities that befall them. If Job suffered, it was obviously because he had done something to offend the Lord. The Book of Job itself suggests Job was made to suffer to test him, another standard explanation. Then there are those who simply throw up their hands in the face of affliction and say all will be made right in the sweet bye-and-bye.
I am inclined to agree with Voltaire, who complained that in the face of humanity’s unceasing woe, all philosophical explanations are false and vain. Nevertheless, theologians in particular have felt obliged to address the issue, given the sentiment among the faithful that some explanation is owed them. After all, the world as God created it was good, at least in the Lord’s original estimation. Therefore, there either has to be some gross defect of workmanship, or someone else is to blame. And yet who else is there, other than creatures made in God’s image who were also judged to be good? Inescapably, the problem comes back to God. The philosopher David Hume, who was not a believer, wrote of God: “Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able?· Then he is impotent.· Is he able, but not willing?· Then He is malevolent.· Is He both able and willing?· Whence then is evil?”
In Hinduism, the god Shiva is the source of both good and evil, which solves the problem of where evil comes from. In Gnosticism, a pagan cult that flourished during the early Christian era, the world itself was regarded as evil, thanks to the machinations of a lesser deity called the demiurge.· Manichaeism, a sect that existed during that same period, believed that spiritual forces of good and evil battled it out for supremacy in the universe. While this left the ultimate outcome in doubt, no one believed God owed anyone an explanation for the sorry state of the world. ·
In trying to account for evil, Christianity has created its own kind of demiurge in the figure of Satan, a minor character in the Old Testament who emerges as Jesus’ arch-nemesis in the New Testament. In two of the gospel accounts (Matthew and Luke), Jesus ventures into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil at the outset of his ministry. Satan reappears later in the story to tempt Judas into betraying Jesus. He is there again leading the forces of darkness against the Lord’s armies at the climactic battle at Armageddon.
The theologian Elaine Pagels has complained that Christianity has effectively abandoned monotheism in favor of a cosmic dualism that pits God against Satan. But what is the alternative? Perhaps it is time that the Lord owns up to the evil that exists in the world – or rather, that those who claim to speak for him should. Speaking on God’s behalf, the Prophet Isaiah says, " I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."· Christian apologists insist the Lord’s statement in Isaiah that he creates evil has been misconstrued. The word translated as “evil” is ra’ah, which can mean “calamity,” “disaster,” “misfortune,” or “hardship.”· A separate word altogether (rasha’) would be used for “evil” in the sense of wickedness. The distinction is certainly worth noting, since it removes any implication that the Lord acted malevolently. However, for those who suffer calamity, disaster, misfortune or hardship, it may be a distinction without a difference; certainly, it would provide small consolation to the victims.
According to the creation story in the Book of Genesis, evil comes into the world by way of a serpent described as “more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made” – subtle in the sense of cunning. Note whose creature it is. And what need is there for cunning except to trip up those guileless creatures who have been created in God’s image? Having not yet tasted of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they stand no chance against the serpent’s wiles. Even the threat of death has little impact on those who have never known death.
St. Augustine saw something else in the Genesis creation story: a way to absolve God of any direct responsibility for the presence of suffering and evil in the world. It was not due to any defect in workmanship on God’s part but to the disobedience of the first man and woman. According to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, humanity is to blame for the presence of sin in the world. And while there is some truth to the idea that people bring suffering upon themselves, the fact remains that the consequences of bad behavior often extend far beyond the immediate perpetrators. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, refused to let the Lord off the hook in The Trial God. "Every man who suffers or causes suffering, every woman who is raped, every child who is tormented implicates Him," he wrote. "Listen: either He is responsible or He is not. If He is, let's judge Him; if He is not, let Him stop judging us."
Are there crimes so monstrous that God is complicit if he fails to intervene? And if so, what does it mean for anyone who has faith in a benevolent God? These were essentially the questions addressed by a rabbinical court that Wiesel witnessed as a 15-year-old inmate at Auschwitz. The court was explicitly convened to determine whether God should be condemned for allowing the Holocaust to happen. These, of course, were not abstract issues to be decided by the rabbis, most of whom would not survive to share their verdict with the world. After hearing arguments for both sides, the rabbis ruled unanimously that God was guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. After the verdict, Wiesel later recalled, there was an "infinity of silence." The court then adjourned, and the rabbis began to recite their evening prayers.
Voltaire, “The Lisbon Earthquake”
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion