Some tragic events defy human comprehension. They seem so senseless or evil that they leave us searching in vain for an explanation.
When terrible things happen, like the mass shootings in Highland Park, Illinois, and Uvalde, Texas, we feel compelled to ask an existential question: Why?
The Rev. Doug Swimmer, who consoled grieving families in Uvalde, didn’t have an answer.
“On this side of eternity, we may never know the why,” he told TIME.
Christians know that no matter how grim our circumstances appear, God somehow uses them for good (Romans 8:28), but that can provide little consolation in the midst of loss.
“So much of the evil in the world is simply beyond our understanding—even our theological understanding,” Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote.
But we try to understand because God made us that way.
“We like to have some sense of what is going to happen in the future,” University of Texas psychology professor Arthur Markman told Denison Forum. “When an unexpected event occurs (particularly a tragedy that signals something dangerous), we want an explanation to help make it feel more predictable. As a result, soon after a tragedy, we switch from wanting to know what happened to wanting to know why it happened.”
Striving for sense and control
The Pew Research Center released a survey late in 2021 that found that most Americans had pondered “big questions like the meaning of life, whether there is any purpose to suffering, and why bad things happen to people” in the previous year.
Even if we don’t believe in God, we want the world to make sense. Otherwise, we may be forced to admit that we have little control over our lives, or even that our lives are meaningless.
“Randomness is difficult for us to accept, and complexity is difficult for us to grasp,” psychiatrist Ralph Lewis wrote in Finding Purpose in a Godless World. “We long to feel in control, but we can only expect to fully control things that obey rules, that are simple, clear, and predictable. That is not the way the world is.”
Good God. Bad world. What gives?
Philosophers and theologians have been grappling with what they call “the problem of evil” for centuries.
“The problem can be stated very simply: If God is so good, why is his world so bad?” Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote. “If an all-good, all-wise, all-loving, all-just, and all-powerful God is running the show, why does he seem to be doing such a miserable job of it? Why do bad things happen to good people?”
There’s even a term for one school of thought, “theodicy,” taken from the title of a book by German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz published in the early eighteenth century. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines theodicy as the “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.”
The futility of explanations
An entire book of the Bible—Job—is devoted to the problem of evil, yet it remains a stumbling block to believers and skeptics alike. And even those closest to Jesus didn’t understand the problem at first, as we discover in the gospel of John when Jesus met a man who had been blind since birth.
“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:2–3 NIV).
Howard Edington, an author and a former pastor, explained the passage in a sermon called “Making Sense out of a Senseless Tragedy”: “The disciples’ question sought to determine the cause of the problem, and so viewed evil in light of the origins from which it had come; whereas the answer of Jesus sought to deal with the solution to the problem, and so viewed evil in light of the reality to which it could lead. The disciples wanted to understand tragedy by tracing it backward, while Jesus wanted to overcome tragedy by tracing it forward. In other words, tragedy is redeemed not by being explained but by being changed.”
Edington said we often fall into the same trap today as the disciples did.
“It’s almost as if we believe that determining cause and assigning blame will make the tragedy more bearable,” he said. “To be sure, in some cases such judgments must be made, for while it does the victim little or no good, such a determination may help to protect others from similar pain in the future.”
Ask, but don’t question
We can work for change or, if that’s not possible, cry out to God in lamentation. Sadly, understanding frequently comes with suffering.
Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic since a diving accident more than fifty years ago, often says, “God allows what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”
Tony Evans, senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, and his family experienced one loss after another during a two-year period with the deaths of his father, wife, brother, sister, brother-in-law, and niece.
“I have devoted my life to study and prayer,” Evans wrote in Divine Disruption. “Let me share a hard truth I have discovered along the way: God can be difficult to understand. His ways do not always make sense to mortal men. Sometimes He will explain, but often He does not. We can ask God questions, but we cannot question God.”
Evans finds comfort in seeing the hand of God in the things he can understand.
So can we.