Many Questions—Few Satisfying Answers
ON THE morning of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755, a powerful earthquake struck the city of Lisbon while most of its citizens were in church. Thousands of buildings collapsed, and tens of thousands of people were killed.
Shortly after that tragedy, the French writer Voltaire published his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (Poem on the Lisbon Disaster), in which he dismissed the claim that the catastrophe was divine retribution for the sins of the people. Asserting that such calamitous events were beyond human understanding or explanation, Voltaire wrote:
Nature is mute, we question her in vain;
We need a God who speaks to the human race.
Voltaire, of course, was not the first one to bring up questions about God. Throughout human history, tragedies and disasters have raised questions in people’s mind. Thousands of years ago, the patriarch Job, who had just lost all his children and who was in the throes of a terrible disease, asked: “Why does [God] give light to one having trouble, and life to those bitter of soul?” (Job 3:20) Today, many wonder how a good and loving God can seemingly remain passive in the face of so much suffering and injustice.
Confronted with the reality of famine, war, sickness, and death, many reject outright the notion of a Creator who cares about mankind. One atheistic philosopher observed: “Nothing can excuse God for allowing the suffering of a child, . . . unless, of course, he does not exist.” Major tragedies, such as the Holocaust during World War II, give rise to similar conclusions. Note this comment in a newsletter by a Jewish writer: “By far the simplest explanation for Auschwitz is that there is no God to intervene in human affairs.” According to a 1997 survey conducted in France, a predominantly Catholic country, some 40 percent of the people doubt the existence of God because of genocides, such as the one that took place in Rwanda in 1994.
An Obstacle to Faith?
Why does God not intervene to prevent bad things from happening? One Catholic chronicler contends that this question is “a serious obstacle to faith” for many. He asks: “Indeed, is it possible to believe in a God who stands by helplessly while millions of innocent people die and whole populations in the world are massacred and who does nothing to prevent it?”
An editorial in the Catholic newspaper La Croix likewise comments: “Whether it be tragedies from history, technological dramas, natural disasters, organized crimes, or the death of a loved one, in each case, horrified eyes look up to the sky. Where is God? They demand an answer. Is he not the Great Indifferent One, the Great Absent One?”
Pope John-Paul II dealt with this issue in his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris. He wrote: “Whereas the existence of the world opens the eyes, as it were, of the human soul to the existence of God, to his wisdom, power and greatness, evil and suffering seem to obscure this image, sometimes in a radical way, especially in the daily drama of so many cases of undeserved suffering and of so many faults without proper punishment.”
Is the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God, as presented in the Bible, compatible with the prevalence of human suffering? Does he intervene to prevent individual or collective tragedies? Does he do anything for us today? Is there, to quote Voltaire, “a God who speaks to the human race” to answer these questions? Please read the next article for the answer.
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The destruction of Lisbon in 1755 moved Voltaire to assert that such events were beyond human understanding
Voltaire: From the book Great Men and Famous Women; Lisbon: J.P. Le Bas, Praça da Patriarcal depois do terramoto de 1755. Foto: Museu da Cidade/Lisboa
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Many doubt the existence of God because of the tragic results of genocides, such as the one in Rwanda
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COVER, children: USHMM, courtesy of Main Commission for the Prosecution of the Crimes against the Polish Nation