“A wise reply to atheism’s strongest argument”

Firefighters clear rubble in front of the bell tower in Amatrice (AP)

Firefighters clear rubble in front of the bell tower in Amatrice (AP)

by Cardinal George Pell

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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6 Responses to “A wise reply to atheism’s strongest argument”

  1. Toad says:

    How very disappointing. Despite the headline, this article doesn’t “reply” to anything. It just refers us to another source, some book. Why doesn’t CP&S try tackling the real thing?
    However, let’s tackle what we have:
    “You don’t solve problems, you love them.”
    This is fatalistic, defeatist, nonsense. I had a problem with my eyes. I didn’t love it – why should i? It was inconvenient, and laser surgery, skilled doctors and science solved it.
    Sure, what ever can’t be cured must be endured. But that’s another thing.
    What I’d really like to know is – why God seemed to find it necessary to create a world for us that is so unstable that we can’t be confident that one square inch of its surface is impervious to destruction at a moment’s notice.

    “..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.”
    Oh, really? Then why are the churches in the West emptying at such indecent speed?

  2. Toad says:

    Kathleen likes to run my comments if they make her laugh. Fine – this will split her sides.

  3. Roger says:

    Toad is right the ‘article doesn’t “reply” to anything’.

    Why bother with these Atheists.
    When the wise and prudent tried to trip Our Lord up He told them NOTHING.

    Mark 11:33 And they answering, say to Jesus: We know not. And Jesus answering, saith to them: Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.

    Luke 20:8 And Jesus said to them: Neither do I tell thee by what authority I do these things.

    Much more interesting is the attested Bilocation of numerous saints. These have been well documented, witnessed and investigated, they are accepted facts in the history of the Church.

    Bilocation is physically impossible according to Natural Science.

    St Alphonsus Mary De Liguori (d 1787) numerous witnessed occasions. Famously at the death of Pope Clement XIV whom he attended. Once he was seen at the pulpit preachinf and at the same time being in the confessional.
    St Gerard Majella (d 1755) a Redemptorist.
    St Paul Of The Cross (d. 1775)
    St Joseph Of Cupertino(d.1663) Assisted at His Mother’s death and at the same time was at Assisi.
    St. Lydwine Of Schiedam(d.1433)
    St Martin De Porres (d.1639) Spent all his religious life in Lima , Peru. Seen at different times in Mexico, China, Japan, Africa, Philippines, France.
    St Catherine Dei Ricci(d. 1590)
    Ven Mary Of Agreda (d.1665) spent 46 years and never left Agreda , Spain. She was identified by the Indians in America (New Mexico) as the Lady in Blue who had come to them to preech the Faith.
    St Francis Of Paola(s 1507)
    St Drogo(d 1186)
    St Anthony Of Padua(d. 1231)
    St. Peter Regalado(d.1456)
    St.Francis Xavier(d. 1552)
    St.Vincet Pallotti(d.1850) known to bilocated to deathbeds to save poor sinner’s souls.
    John Edward Lamy(d. 1931)
    Fr. Paul Of Moll(d. 1896)
    St. John Bosco(d. 1888)
    St Padre Pio(d.1968)

  4. johnhenrycn says:

    “Much more interesting is the attested Bilocation of numerous saints.”

    Lord have mercy.
    Did I say I deny it? No, what I said is: Lord have mercy. Make of that what you will.

  5. kathleen says:

    St Thomas More famously said: “We cannot get to Heaven on a feather-bed!”
    IOW, we cannot shun the Cross.

    Suffering is part of Man’s condition in this fallen world. No one escapes it entirely of course, but the more we selflessly try to alleviate the suffering of others – physical suffering too, but most especially spiritual suffering of the soul – the more we shall be capacitated to accept and to bear our own crosses.
    Suffering purifies and humbles us if we allow it to. It likens us to Our Suffering Saviour and draws us closer to His Sacred Heart. Suffering is redemptive.

    How can an atheist ever understand this?

    The book the good Cardinal recommends may well be excellent, but we have many treasures written about the mystery of suffering already coming from the pen of saints.

  6. Toad says:

    “..a hatred of the human freedom which God gave us and does not control. “
    The human freedom to die of cancer, or be killed by falling buildings, in fact. What good fortune to be given such freedom. (Which, we are told, we did not have before we sinned.)

    Suffering is redemptive.
    How can an atheist ever understand this?

    I wonder what Stephen Hawking would have to say on this issue.
    He knows more about suffering than most people

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