A wise reply to atheism’s strongest argument

Book review: Where is God in Suffering? by Brendan Purcell

I was well into reading my friend Fr Brendan Purcell’s beautiful book on suffering when the earthquake struck in central Italy. Although more than 60 miles away, most people in Rome were woken at 3:40 in the morning on August 24 as the buildings shook. I turned on the light to make sure I wasn’t imagining things and the lamp in the centre of my room was swaying from side to side. I was tempted to go and stand in the doorway but the movement ceased after a couple of minutes.
At the epicentre of Amatrice they were not so lucky, as the entire ancient village of houses, built before the anti-earthquake regulations were drawn up, was thrown down and collapsed into rubble. Later I realised that this was the place where spaghetti Amatriciana was first created – and two euros from every plate sold in Italy is now going to the earthquake appeal. Other villages were also destroyed completely and about 300 people died.
Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict in 480 AD and his sister St Scholastica (and, much earlier, the Emperor Vespasian, who helped destroy Jerusalem in 70 AD) escaped more lightly. Although it, too, was above one of the epicentres, Norcia benefited both from the building regulations introduced by Pope Pius IX in 1869 in one of his last decisions before the end of the Papal States, and from following the subsequent construction requirements. The earthquake caused no deaths there.
The saints’ birthplace is marked by a Benedictine monastery on the town square and, while the chapel was extensively damaged, the buildings remained standing. The young community of about 15 monks, mainly from the United States and led by Fr Cassian Folsom, was evacuated to Rome as a precaution.
Why does God allow such events to occur, as well as many other types of disaster? This question is asked differently by those studying the problem of evil philosophically or theologically, by those on the edge of a disaster and by those who find themselves, with or without their loved ones, at the centre of the suffering.
Why does God allow so many bad things? Perhaps the good God is not all-powerful or perhaps the all-powerful Creator, the Supreme Intelligence, does not love us and is either disinterested or even capricious? The ancient Greeks and Romans saw their gods in this light. Is God vengeful?
Evil and suffering constitute the most formidable argument against monotheism, for those who believe in the existence of one good and transcendent Creator God.
I believe that the intellectual arguments now available to be drawn from biology (the discovery of DNA) and from physics and chemistry and the fantastic improbabilities necessary for evolution from the Big Bang to humans, mean that the rational or metaphysical path to the Supreme Intelligence is easier for us than in the past. Thinkers are coming to God from or through science.
To ask whether this Supreme Intelligence is good and loving is a further question. Christians also believe that the Creator requires us to live according to moral rules and that this unique Creator will judge each of us after death. These are two further impediments to belief for many moderns.
Fr Purcell deals with all these questions, and many more, with wisdom and compassion. This work could not have been written by a young person because the author’s formidable learning is leavened by the insights of a long life lived according to Christian teachings. While it is not an easy read, Where is God in Suffering? is always enlightening, never turgid and occasionally deeply personal and encouraging, as the author reveals how he sought out and found Christ, the One who loves us most, in the difficulties he himself encountered.
Not all suffering is caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and bush fires. We also have the mystery of death, of human suffering, especially that of children and of the innocent, and the terrible evils humans inflict on one another. Recently we have become more aware of the suffering of animals.
Stephen Fry and the Australian Peter Singer are two of the atheists Purcell strives to answer. For Fry, bone cancer in children convinced him that God does not exist and, for Singer, God is either evil or a bungler.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian believer, especially in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, has provided us with the figures of the Inquisitor, who condemns Christ for his belief in freedom, and Ivan, who rejects a God who allows children to be tortured and killed. Through these characters Dostoevsky was grappling with the consequences of the 19th century attempt to “murder” God, which meant everything was permitted. Hitler, Stalin and Mao exemplified this in their 20th century atrocities.
The case for unbelief has rarely been set out as powerfully as it is in this Russian masterpiece, and Purcell is at his best as he explains how the atheist position not only rejects the promise of an afterlife, where all will be well and love will prevail, but also believes that nothing exists outside the space-time universe. Indeed, atheism is based on a rejection of the world as it is, an exaltation of feeling above reason and a hatred of the human freedom which God gave us and does not control. Purcell quotes GK Chesterton, who pointed out the importance of humility and the obligation to be grateful for all that is good.
Purcell does not try to whitewash the situation, because suffering and evil are the great mystery. But goodness, truth and beauty also require an explanation.
Believers and the overwhelming majority of people know that they outweigh the sadness, even in this life.
We get a brilliant exposition of the Old Testament figure Job, as he wrestles and argues with God about his own innocent suffering; hear the stories of Etty Hillesum, who refused to escape and perished in the Holocaust; of the blessed Chiara Badano, who died of bone cancer aged 18; and of Eddie McCaffrey, who lived until he was 30 with muscular dystrophy and told us: “You don’t solve problems, you love them.”
As a follower of the Focolare spirituality of Chiara Lubich, Purcell believes, as all Christians do, that Christ suffers with us and for us, but that the crucial moment – what Lubich called the “divine atomic explosion” – was when Christ dying on the Cross felt, at least momentarily, that God his Father had abandoned him. Jesus forsaken, who plumbed the depths of human suffering, is our Redeemer – he saved us in his helplessness. The Crucifixion means what it says.
The final chapter is also unusual, because it avoids the customary silence and half-truths to outline the Christian imperatives as we strive to move beyond the evil and destruction of Islamic terrorism. This is a gem of a book and the different chapters answer different needs.
For much of my priestly life, religious formation or education said little about God, about his nature and why we believe in Him. The resurgence of atheism should jolt us out of our silence and indifference as many youngsters, and the not-so-young, will be tempted to follow Fry and Singer into unbelief.
All those interested in how and why we believe, all priests and all those in religious formation will find Where is God in Suffering? thought-provoking, reassuring and well worth the effort it requires.
This article first appeared in the September 9 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here

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  1. As if I wasn’t confused before, I’m twice as unsure now! I was hoping to find an answer, but instead found only more questions. I have been so terribly disheartened by the savagery that war holds for children. The poor starving children in Ethiopia…why? Children who suffer abuse at their parent’s hands, the orphaned and dispossessed children of Syria and other war-torn areas. It just seems so unfair and so wrong. If God really loves children, then why do they suffer so? I can not, for the life of me, understand. I keep “trusting” as I have been told to do. I try to have faith and believe, but it is so hard when I see the way children are being treated and abused. God said He would not give us more than we could handle…where is there a choice? How much can a child stand that has just had his legs blown off and both parents killed in front of him? There is no choice! They cry and cry and there is no relief. I wish there was some answer to bring me to understand why God allows such atrocities to children, when He specifically states that hell will be paid by those who make His little ones suffer. Why doesn’t He just protect them?

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