A Religious Response
Some of the toughest questions I have been asked as a pastor are some variation of the following: Why is God allowing this to happen to me? The life situations that prompt these questions can range (and have ranged) from the relatively insignificant to the profoundly traumatic and unsettling, but the brute existential fact underlying life on this planet is that things do not always—or even often—go as we want them to. If one chooses to believe that a good God presides over a world that so frequently and sometimes agonizingly frustrates even the most basic human desires and aspirations, the questions of theodicy become even more acute. If God is in control and he’s supposed to be so good, why all this misery? Why any misery for that matter?
Christopher Hitchens asks similar questions in an essay from today’s Slate about the death of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—one of the few people who lived through the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki (h/t: Experimental Theology). If ever there was someone who had a right to ask, “Why me?” or who had good reasons for wondering about the order and goodness of the cosmos it would be Yamaguchi!
Of course Christopher Hitchens rarely turns down an opportunity to heap scorn upon religion and he doesn’t pull any punches here either. Whatever else might be said about Yamaguchi’s story, according to Hitchens, it is “one of those cases that demonstrates the absolute uselessness of official piety.” Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism—all are equally worthless in preventing or somehow altering their adherents’ experience of a world chock-full of evil. All religion does is pile illusion upon misery.
Hitchens’s response to the story of Yamaguchi’s tragic life is predictable. The reason God appears silent and life appears to be random and chaotic and oblivious to human concerns is because a) there is no God; and b) life is random and chaotic and oblivious to human concerns. Yamaguchi is just the victim of dumb bad luck in world devoid of purpose. There is no God presiding over the cosmos and it is foolishly naive to think so. The only proper response to the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—or any of the horrors of history—is (pardon Hitchens’s indelicate terminology) “WTF?”
What Hitchens seems not to realize is that “WTF?” isn’t all that original a response to the problem of evil. In fact, it’s a downright religious one. It’s even a biblical one. The Psalms of lament frequently express bewilderment, frustration, and anger at the apparent triumph of evil over good. To cite one of many potential examples (roughly one third of the Psalter is comprised of Psalms of lament), Psalm 6:1-3 says this:
How long, O LORD Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
Or how about Psalm 74:9-13?
We are given no miraculous signs;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, O God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Many other examples could be cited within the Psalter alone (to say nothing about books like Job and Lamentations!). The point is simply that Hitchens’s protest isn’t all that new. While the biblical writers may not phrase things as crudely as Hitchens does, the questions they ask are the same: Why do things seem so screwed up? Why don’t the good guys win more often? Why isn’t there a more obvious connection between virtue and blessing? Why is hardship so indiscriminately distributed? Why doesn’t the state of the world make more moral sense to us? What’s wrong here?
Christopher Hitchens is not the first person to figure out that the world contains apparently random suffering and misfortune. The Hebrew poets (among others) noticed that rather obvious feature of life on this planet some time ago. For Hitchens, WTF? is “one of the most pressing, relevant, and ultimately humane” questions we can ask. And indeed, it is. I think the Hebrew poets would agree.
Both the Psalmists and Hitchens feel free to protest against the state of the world. But who is more justified in expecting things to be better than they are?