As always happens in the wake of such things, some are wondering where God was when those bombs went off in Boston yesterday, killing and maiming people (including children), tearing off limbs, inflicting excruciating pain and lifelong disability. And some, sadly, are certain that whoever did this was motivated, precisely, by God. (More on that in a moment.)
I understand this question. The problem of evil is, in my view, far and away the deepest and most difficult challenge to faith.
You want a horrific story? Here’s one. It’s a story told by a young man from a country in Africa that has been riven by brutal civil war:
“His native village is being attacked–on ‘one of the days my mother apologized to my brother and me for having given birth to us.’ The family’s house is burned down. He and his mother and brother spend the night hiding in the forest. In the morning, standing near a clearing, Pacifique [the young man's genuine and, given his story, poignant first name] witnesses the killing of a young schoolmate named Patrick. The boy has been tricked into approaching a rebel soldier. The soldier is holding a glass. The soldier drops it on purpose, and the glass shatters. Pacifique explains a superstition in his country, that if you drop something you are eating or drinking, you may blame a person near you for wanting it. The soldier accuses Patrick of having wanted his drink, then orders him to pick up the shards of glass and put them in his mouth. The soldier forces Patrick to chew, then shoots him in the forehead.”
There are no words for such horror. Theological approaches to the problem of evil exist that I find helpful, but, in the immediate vicinity of such a story, they can seem merely glib.
So is no theological response possible? Christians, it seems to me, have a powerful response: Their God didn’t remain unmoved and untouched in the heavens, but descended and suffered with us and for us. He isn’t a detached observer, aloof and judgmental.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. (Isaiah 53:3-8)
Part of the answer, too, is and has to be practical: Christians and other believers build hospitals, create charities, give service — at levels far higher than do secularists.
And there is this, too: I understand why, in the face of such evil as the Boston bombing, the horrible death of young Patrick, the mass murders of 9/11, the Holocaust, the Ukrainian terror-famine, the Gulag, the Cambodian killing fields, and far too many other such things, some lose their faith. I fully grasp it. I’ve wrestled with it, as well. On the other hand, faith becomes all the more important when confronted by these evils: The perpetrators of the outrage in Boston, the murderer of innocent young Patrick, the mass-murdering despots — these monsters must not be allowed to write the final chapters in the lives of their victims.
Wishful thinking? It can certainly be so dismissed. But we are not without evidence for our hope, and the truth doesn’t have to be bad.
But back, very quickly, to the confidence expressed by some that it was, precisely, a religious person who bombed the Boston Marathon. Maybe so. As I write, I don’t think we know. I certainly don’t. But it’s certainly possible, maybe even probable, that this crime was committed by a Muslim extremist. If so, I condemn him and his act. But it’s fatuous nonsense to pretend that only religious people can do such things. Suicide bombings, for example, while they’ve been prominently associated in the public mind with fundamentalist Islam, actually began among the mostly secular Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. And murder surely isn’t a monopoly of theists. To say nothing of mass murder — which, in the past century or so has been the special preserve, without any serious exception of which I’m aware off hand, of regimes that were irreligious at best and, very often, forthrightly anti-religious.
Blaming believers in God for the murders in Boston is a cheap shot, and will remain so, even if the perpetrator turns out to be a (misguided) believer.