God and Moral Horror


John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”) is the shortest verse in the New Testament, and also, in my judgment, one of the most significant.


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)


And Latter-day Saints, in particular, do not believe in God as an “Unmoved Mover.”  Rather, we have a God who weeps, a God of empathetic emotion.


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.




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  • Stephen Smoot

    “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 let’s not forget the actions of the secular, extreme-left, Marxist-Leninist Baader-Meinhof group (Die rote Armee Fraktion) in Germany during the 1970s and 80s. Their terrorism (including bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, etc.) was enacted to promote an entirely secular political agenda.

    I mention this group just because I recently watched the excellent film by Uli Edel titled, appropriately, “Der Baader Meinhof Komplex”, which chronicles the despicable actions of the totally amoral members of the RAF.

  • Louis Midgley

    What of the evils inflicted on human beings by the Princes of this world who were seemingly driven by real desire to do something grand, glorious and honorable? Even leaving aside the wars fought over worldly glory, or for more base motives, many of the most impressive human accomplishments have rested on the suffering (and death) of those who did the building, sailing, and fighting, as well as freezing, boiling and starving for a presumably grand and glorious person and/or cause. What seems wonderful to me as a mere comfortable tourist may have resulted in the extreme suffering and death of many who were not concerned with the glory sought by those forcing others to dig, pound, cut and build monumental buildings, or fight and suffer for some “glorious” person, and so forth. I marveled at but was sickened by having a look at in China, among other things, both the Grand Canal and the Great Wall, as well as those remarkable buried fake soldiers, and a host of other wonders. I could not avoid imagining the toil and tears of those forced to do the necessary hard work.

    The one and, I believe, only real consolation is that the Lord himself came and directly experienced the evils of this world. He announced the peaceful and kind, genuinely gracious Kingdom of God, but suffered abuse and was killed by the demonic powers. But he won a stunning victory over death in all its forms. This is, for me, truly good news. Only God can save us, and he has already, but not quite yet for those of us still enduring our mortal probation. I rejoice at the thought that eventually the demonic in all its many forms does not ultimately have the last say.

    • danpeterson

      Excellent points.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    Humans living on planet earth make choices and those choices absolutely do not have to involve slavery, or child sex trafficking or sweat shops or child labor. At the turn of the last century, there were half a million children working fourteen hours a day in the most despicable of conditions right here in the United States. Grass roots, democratic organizations eventually mandated the creation of labor laws to restrain capitalists from exploiting kids. Dr. Midgley, I think you are selling people short when you write that only God can save us. Could it be that God is testing us to see if we will save ourselves?

    I’ve read numerous comments over the months that “secular” people live in a world with diminished hope because they deny the truth claims organized religions make. And today, you can pretty much find any religious truth claim you happen to be looking for. Every church picks scripture which conforms to a particular ideology or belief system. If you happen to believe the Lord wants you to drive a Mercedes, there are plenty of churches that teach a “prosperity Gospel”. If you want to believe that the Bible is innerant from the first word to the last, then one can join various Baptist churches.

    People have the ability to change to course of history as has been clearly demonstrated right here in these United States. Today, more and more people are connecting as never before which means individual human voices have grown stronger to fight oppression where ever it exists. We vote with our pocketbooks and our conscience. I for one, am very hopeful because hope is one of the best things we have.