On October 22, 1989, an eleven-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted at gunpoint and taken to a rock quarry where he was raped and murdered. For twenty-seven years, his death was a mystery. This week, his murderer finally confessed to the crime.
It's the sort of thing that hurts your heart.
Confronted with such terrible ugliness and brutality, we turn to religion for answers, and we ask the following questions:
- Why is there evil in the world? What purpose does it serve? Where does it come from?
- If God is omnipotent - if he can do anything he chooses - why does he sit back in silence and allow such horrific things to happen to the most innocent and vulnerable among us?
- If God loves us, why does he allow such terrible things to happen to us?
When we try to answer such questions, we encounter what theologians call the problem of evil. Each believer, no matter the denomination or creed or religious tradition, will encounter this thorny problem - and it's the one problem that uniquely demonstrates the poverty of our religious ideas.
Fact is, religion has no good answers. We go round and round in circles.
We are told that God is omnipotent and almighty and can do as he pleases. So we are forced to ask: Why doesn't he intervene when a child falls into the clutches of a monster? How can he sit back in silence and do nothing? How can someone who supposedly loves you be so indifferent to your suffering?
We are told:
- He allows such things so that a greater good might arise
- He allows such things so that a greater evil will not occur
- He has given mankind free will and must respect our free will, even when we use it to do evil, terrible things
- Or, we fall back on the old standard: God's ways are not our ways. We are too small and too limited to understand his purposes and intentions. These, of course, are not answers at all.
Those of us who have experienced tragic things in our lives inevitably find ourselves one day pondering the problem of evil. We ask God: Why did you allow this to happen? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why didn't you help me? I thought you loved me ... if you loved me, you would have helped me.
God, of course, does not respond.
Well-meaning souls assure us that "God's ways are not our ways" or that God always brings "something good" out of the evil we experience.
Any serious believer will eventually explore this problem, as I have and so many others have. Numerous books and papers have been written about it.
Explore the Bible, if you want. Dig into the Quran, or the Gita, or the Vedas, or any sacred scripture. You will not find a satisfactory answer.
There are times, though, when we need answers, when silence and sophistry are simply not good enough.
The death of a child at the hands of a monster is one such time.
Yet religion cannot comfort us. It cannot explain what happened to this little boy. It can conjecture and speculate and guess, but it can't answer the questions we ask. No amount of theological hair-splitting will comfort this boy's parents, his family, his friends. No amount of well-intentioned claptrap can hide the fact that religion has no genuine answers.
All it can do is what it does best, which is offer hope when there is no hope. The religious person will say Jacob Wetterling is in a better place. We certainly hope so. The religious person will say that his murderer will be judged by God and most likely spend eternity in hell. We certainly hope so.
But ... whether those things are true is anyone's guess.
At the end of the day, the problem of evil confronts us with the fact that God, although he is all powerful, chooses silence and indifference no matter how horrific the crime or how innocent the victim. God sits back, allows it to happen, updates his scorecard. Apparently he has his reasons, Needless to say, these are not the actions of what we understand to be a loving person.
If God does not answer the cries of a child being raped and murdered, what cries will he answer? If he is not moved by such a horrific scene, what will move him, if anything at all?
If he - or she - won't protect the most vulnerable among us, who will he/she protect?
If this entity is not interested in children like Jacob, what makes us believe he has any interest in any of us at all?
What is the purpose of titles like "Savior" and "Deliverer" and "King of Kings"?
We are told that "God so loved the world" that he allowed his only child to be viciously murdered. What are we to make of such statements?
Jacob Wetterling is only one child, but there are many Jacobs all over the world, so many boys and girls who, even today, are being raped and murdered. In fact, history is littered with dead bodies - a holocaust of innocents who paid the price for others exercising their free will. If God knew we would abuse free will in such a horrendous fashion, why give it to us? We are assured that the good that comes from free will outweighs the bad - but try telling that to Jacob's mother.
We are left with the question:
Perhaps the answer has less to do with God and more with us and what we allow. Perhaps it is our own silence and indifference that allows monsters to roam so freely. Perhaps, at the end of the day, these children are victims of the world we created, a world filled with violence, hatred, endless self-seeking and self-absorption, and more weapons than we know what to do with.
Perhaps someday we'll learn how to create a world where life truly is sacred.