January 21, 2005


We do not understand physical evil

The recent tsunami in southeast Asia is a manifestation of physical evil. As a direct consequence of a massive underwater earthquake, and the resulting oceanic tidal wave, an estimated 162,000 people are dead, more than 500,000 people have been injured, and millions have had their lives irrevocably altered. People of every nationality, race and religion inevitably find themselves asking the questions: How can a good God permit such evil? Why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it?

There are no simple answers to these urgent, unavoidable questions. As the Church teaches, “Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question … . There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #310-311).

How does our Christian faith help us to respond to the incomprehensible reality of physical evil?

First, we are tempted to see natural disasters like this one as indications that the world itself is evil. If a seismic disturbance under the sea can cause such death, devastation and misery, doesn’t this mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with the physical universe? The witness of the Old and New Testaments speaks out forcefully against this temptation. We believe in the essential goodness of everything created by God. And, although we don’t understand physical evil, we believe that it is not a part of God’s ultimate plan for the perfection of all creation.

Second, we are tempted to regard this kind of devastating physical evil as a sign of our utter aloneness in the world. Especially at times like these, humanity seems especially weak and isolated in the vast physical universe. As Christians, we reject the notion that we are alone and abandoned in a hostile, uncaring world. On the contrary, we believe in God’s patient and unrelenting love for all of us in spite of our infidelity to God and our inhumanity to one another.

While we reject the notion that God wills disasters such as the tsunami in southeast Asia, we believe that the redemptive love of Christ and the active presence of the Holy Spirit allows even the worst physical evils to become ­occasions of divine grace and human kindness. The massive international relief effort currently underway is a sign of the solidarity that exists among diverse peoples and cultures that make up the one family of God.

Finally, in the face of such enormous human suffering and anguish, we are tempted simply to lose heart. Regardless of what we believe in faith, the reality of physical evil can seem too much to bear.

The tsunami reminds us all too forcefully that we are not in control of the world around us. This time, physical evil happened in southeast Asia. But what’s to prevent some other natural (or man-made) disaster from totally destroying life as we know it here in central or southern Indiana?

Our faith cannot prevent such temptations to hopelessness and despair, but our Catholic way of life provides us with opportunities to resist these temptations and to truly become a people of hope.

As disciples of Christ, we are called to bear witness to the goodness of God’s creation, to the redemptive power of Christ’s sacrificial love, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit!

As Christians, we are called to be emissaries of hope and missionaries of charity in our own families and neighborhoods, and in foreign lands beyond the mountains and across the seas. We believe that God’s grace can sustain us in the face of every horror and tragedy. And we insist on relying on the Providence of God in the midst of every unsettling situation of life—including the moral evils caused by human sinfulness and the physical evils caused by a world that has not yet reached its perfection.

We do not understand the mystery of evil. But we believe in the power of God’s goodness and in the ultimate perfection of all creation in Christ. Let’s give witness to this faith by our prayers for all who suffer from the devastating effects of physical evil and by our generous, sacrificial gifts.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)


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