At 3:20 on Monday afternoon, I was struggling through page 14 of a 20-page research paper when a notification from a German newsmagazine popped up on my phone. Expecting an update on the Eurozone crisis or the score from a soccer game, I was shocked by these words: “Explosion beim Boston-Marathon.” Minimizing my research paper, I pulled up a news website and felt my heart breaking. And with the rest of America, I watched in horror as nightmare became reality.
Barely a day has passed since the bombs ripped through Boston. The pain is fresh, the hurt still palpable. The search for the truth is just beginning, and many more days will pass before we know anything concrete. Answers will be slow in coming, and even when they do, they will likely be disappointing. Because no apprehension of a suspect or conviction of a criminal can do more than barely scratch the surface of the real questions, the heart questions, the ones that keep us up at night and make tragedies like Monday’s so senseless, so hopeless, so inconceivable:
Why would anyone do this? Why did this have to happen? Why didn’t God stop it? Why? Why? Why?
While I don’t have answers, I do have a few thoughts. If you are interested, please keep reading.
As human beings, we are creatures of immeasurable dignity. Since we are made in God’s image, we have each been gifted with a mind, with emotions, and with a will. We can reason, think, and make decisions. And because we have this God-given “dignity of causality,” our choices don’t just affect us, but they have the power to impact others for good or ill. To quote John Donne, “no man is an island,” and neither do our decisions exist in a vacuum.
But though we bear this God-image in us, we are broken. Our minds are corrupted, our feelings are confused, and our free will is bondage. We are not as we should be, and as result, the world is not as it should be. And what has caused this terrible conundrum?
In our postmodern, rational, humanist age, the notion of evil seems outdated at best, delusional at worst. Rather than admit to its existence, we would rather psychoanalyze, research, and probe, hoping to find rational explanations for harmful behavior. And while these efforts are often beneficial, as evidenced by the successful rehabilitation of some criminals, they can only go so far. Why? Because they fail to account for—or even acknowledge—the true root of the problem, which is evil. Evil not in abstract or the aggregate, but evil inside every one of us.
When asked to respond to The Time’s question, “What’s wrong with the world?”, Catholic theologian G.K. Chesterton famously replied:
Yours, G.K. Chesterton”
And while his response is humorous, it also contains a profound truth. Whether we decide to recognize it or not, the dividing line between good and evil runs through every one of us. And until we acknowledge both the reality and the proximity of evil, we will never grasp the problem—and God’s solution to it.
If we assent to both the existence of evil and its presence inside each of us, unsettling though it is, then Monday’s tragedy starts making more sense. Someone with evil inside them (like each of us) chose to do something very evil (by killing and injuring innocent people with multiple bombs). Certainly, the story will become more nuanced as specific details emerge in the coming months, but the core explanation will stay the same. Someone chose to give into their inner evil and harmed other people in the process.
So if evil exists (which it does), and God is good (which He is), then why doesn’t He do anything about it?
He already has… through Jesus’ crucifixion. And He still is… through you and me.
In his book Evil and the Justice of God, theologian N.T. Wright explains that, in His death on the cross, Jesus bore the full weight and felt the full judgment for the evil of the entire world in all of human history. According to Wright, Jesus “suffers the full consequences of evil […] as the act of redemption” (92). As a result, this crucifixion story is not simply about individual redemption, but is God’s answer to the problem of evil:
“What the Gospels offer is not just a philosophical explanation of evil […] but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it […] the story of the Creator God taking responsibility for what has happened to creation, bearing the weight of its problems of His own shoulders” (93-94).
In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God stoops down to get dirty—and bloody—to make the world right again. When He returns, He will destroy evil forever and complete His renewal of creation. But until then—for reasons that remain a mystery to us—the battle between good and evil continues, and He calls us to join Him in the fight.
Though our inner evil makes us part of the problem, God has also made us part of the solution. By His grace, we can choose daily to partner with Him and stand in the gap between the way things are (broken) and the way things ought to be (renewed). Through our prayers, we remind God of His promises and begin to see things from His perspective. And through our actions, we literally become His hands and feet as He uses us to impact others on His behalf.
This world is a painful, broken place. Monday’s tragedy was heartless, senseless, and unspeakably evil. While I don’t know why it happened, I do know this: God is good, God is faithful, and God is still working in the world. And as creatures of dignity, we can be a part of that work right here and right now, by joining the fight against evil and by reaching out to its victims—beginning with those in Boston.
Note: I’m no theologian, and even if I were, I wouldn’t be able to answer these cosmological questions in a simple blog post. The problem of evil has no simple solution, and I’m still grappling with it myself. If nothing else, I hope these words have stimulated your mind and given you something to think about—superficially written or poorly developed, though it may be. Here are a few helpful books (by people far wiser and more educated than I), if you would like to explore these questions further:
Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright
Unspeakable by Os Guinness
People of the Lie: The Hope of Healing for Human Evil by M. Scott Peck