O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
When the news reports first broke broadcasting the horrific events of Friday, December 14th at Sandy Hook Elementary School, much of the tragedy remained hidden. As the hours passed, with millions watching the major news networks and countless others reading online, the true depth of the tragedy became more and more apparent. The names of the victims were released, and of the twenty-six persons murdered twenty of them were children, ages six to seven. Considering the sorrow and pain of so many, perhaps it would be best to remain silent.
Flip pious phrases and glib words of comfort easily make light of tragedy and verge on the sin of blasphemy. But of course we must speak. In this world of darkness, a world imprisoned by sin and suffering, the Christian message must be proclaimed. The message is clear: There is One to whom we can cling; He is a veritable life raft in the sea of agony and affliction.
The philosophical tradition has tried repeatedly to give a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. Among the most notable attempts familiar to our modern ears are those made by the deists. For these philosophers, Leibniz and Voltaire among them, God is distant, connected to the world as its creator, but no longer guiding its course. Permitting the following caricature, the deists say God is like a watchmaker who designs the complexities of the machine, winds it up, and lets it run on its own.
Such a god bears little resemblance to the God of Christianity. The Lord of Heaven and Earth continues to order all things according to His Providence. But this seems to create a more difficult problem. On the deist account, which separates god from creation, god cannot be held responsible for the problems in the machinery. So the orthodox Christian account becomes more difficult to reconcile with the presence of evil, because it seems God bears more responsibility. We find ourselves asking, “How could God allow this to happen to children?” Staring into the abyss of the evil at Sandy Hook Elementary we find it difficult to imagine what reasons God might give for permitting this unspeakable violence to occur—even the promise of the glories of heaven seem dim and distant in light of the present suffering of innocents.
The truly macabre—the suffering of children—tortures many. In fact, it is the principle objection to belief in God voiced by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov. Speaking of ultimate Truth and belief in God, Ivan says to his younger brother Alyosha, “for love of man I reject it. [Even ultimate truth] is not worth the tears of that one tortured child.” You see, what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is that he does not deny that God might reward the child with heaven and damn the wicked. Ivan seems to have little doubt that in the end God’s justice will account for evil wrought, but this eschatological hope does little to explain the suffering of innocents.
Out of reverence for the dead and compassion for the suffering, what then is left for us to say? It seems it would be wise to turn only to one place: the very core of the Gospel message. Evil and death are not natural to this world. Man was created for happiness and union with God, but nonetheless sin entered our lives. God Himself ultimately gave to man the remedy for sin and suffering, in the mystery of his descent to earth, his taking on of human flesh, and his holy Passion and Resurrection. The God of Christianity is not at all foreign to us. He is utterly near. He Himself came into this world and undertook suffering to free the captives of the human race condemned to the prison of darkness.
Suffering only acquires meaning when we unite our pain with His. When we join our anguish with the misery of the cross, only then is evil redeemed. Christians are preserved from trying to “make sense” of the devastation of December 14th. We do not need to join the choir of voices uttering vacuous cant about “the plan” or “ultimate meaning” because Jesus Christ reshapes our fallen world. Only by His grace do we begin to look forward to that day to come. On that blessed day, the earth will pass away. He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more suffering or death or mourning or wailing or pain. His gaze will penetrate the depths of our hearts, and we will hear His voice say, “Behold I make all things new.”
Image: Andrea Mantegna, The Crucifixion