The German cardinal Walter Kasper opens the first chapter of his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by describing the twentieth century as “a horrible century in many respects.” Continuing his deplorable description of our times, he states that “the twenty-first century which is still young and which began ominously and sensationally on September 11, 2001, with a terror attack on the World Trade Center in New York, promises as yet to be no better.” Proofs of the horrible twentieth century include the establishment of barbaric and totalitarian regimes, two deadly world wars that exterminated millions of lives, the concentration camps, genocide, and gulags. In the twenty-first century, threats include terrorism, social injustice (especially the growing gap between the poor and the rich), the abuse and starvation of children, the persecution of racial and ethnic minorities, devastating natural catastrophes, and heartless and exploitative forms of capitalism. “All of that and much more are the ‘signs of the time,’” says Cardinal Kasper.
Cardinal Kasper’s book, which was highly praised by Pope Francis, is an excellently written work. It integrates theology and spirituality in an attempt to reconcile the never-failing mercy of God with the atrocious events that have upended history. The book was first published in 2013, years before the unfolding of the latest catastrophe of the twenty-first century: the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently this invisible virus, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, has surpassed a whopping 194 million total cases and over 4 million deaths. The casualties of this virus are not mere numbers or statistics—they are humans.
We have witnessed “evil” with its many forms in the two centuries. There are two kinds of evil: natural and moral. Natural evil is a product of the unbreakable laws of nature such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and the current pandemic. Moral evil is a product of the brokenness, depravity, and darkness of heart of a human being. Humans, as free beings, are responsible for the latter, not the former. Examples of moral evil include the abovementioned crimes against humanity.
The existence of evil weighs on the imagination. Both natural and moral evil lead to the critical question: Where is God? How can the existence of a loving and good God be reconciled with the perennial problem of evil? These unanswered questions keep on battering the minds and conscience of intellectuals and ordinary human beings. No one can escape from what St. Augustine describes a “mystery of iniquity.”
How should we respond to all the evil in the world? In his classic spiritual commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff said there are three ways we can confront our “macabre situation”: revolt, resignation, or hope against hope.
“There are those who revolt against the tragic condition of the world and raise their fists to heaven: God does not exist and has never existed!”
The attitude of revolt is resorting to atheism or “denial of God.” The heavy burdens caused by evil are too heavy to bear by the body and soul. Maybe, there really is no God! If there is a caring God, he wouldn’t allow us to suffer! If God exists, then he would combat all this evil! The temptation to revolt is fitted to our in the never-ending struggle to reconcile the coexistence of God and evil.
To revolt is to murder God by completely stifling belief in Him.
“Then there are those who give way to metaphysical resignation: the ultimate principle of reality is good and evil in co-existence. It is God and the devil at the same time. We are subject to their caprices. The world and humankind are an arena where the contradiction inherent in the Supreme Reality is acted out.”
Some simply allow the co-existence of two principles: the principle of the Good and the principle of Evil. Resignation is a compromised response. Resignation is an attitude where one believes that because God is all good, all evil is caused by human beings. The goal therefore is to seek balance between good and evil. Free will becomes the enemy. People must learn to live without hope.
Resigning to such a situation, according to this approach, frees one from the God-evil conundrum. “We need to let the world go the way it is,” says the French philosopher Voltaire. This is the attitude of resignation.
Hope against hope
“And then there are those who hope against hope. They are no less realistic than the others; for them also, the world is a vale of tears. They are always being harassed by personal and historical absurdities. Nonetheless, despite the record of suffering in history, they testify to a sense of triumph.“
The third attitude is one that places supreme value on hope. Hope is the saving grace in the midst of the evils in our world. The victimizers will never triumph over the victims! There will be a day of reckoning and regeneration of history! Evil will cease in God’s time! These are signs of hope. Hope allows us to continue amidst the constant bombardment of evil.
This attitude is not passive hoping. Hope without action is incomplete. In hoping, one protests against evil, combats it, and does everything to jettison it. Active hope trusts in God and the innate goodness of human beings. After all, evil will never have the last word.
The problem of evil remains unresolved. God has not given us answers our thousands of questions about evil and its conflictive nature. The only answer of God is Jesus Christ, who “dwelt among us” and shared our frail humanity. He was crucified, He suffered throughout his life. “Only the suffering God can help,” said the Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
When Pope Francis visited the Philippines last January 2015, he presided at a Mass with survivors of Supertyphoon Yolanda at the International Airport in Tacloban City. His homily moved me into tears because it was so touching and pastoral. Filipinos felt the sincere solidarity of this shepherd. He begins his homily, delivered from the bottom of his heart, with these words:
“We have a high priest who is capable of sympathizing with our weaknesses. Jesus is like us. Jesus lived like us and is the same us in every respect, except sin because he was not a sinner. But to be more like us he assumed our condition and our sin. He made himself into sin. This is what St Paul tells us. And Jesus always goes before us and when we pass an experience, a cross, he passed there before us. And if today we find ourselves here 14 months afterwards, 14 months precisely after the Typhoon Yolanda hit, it is because we have the security of knowing we will not weaken in our faith because Jesus has been here before us. In his Passion he assumed all our pain. Therefore, he is capable of understanding us, as we heard in the first reading.”
In Jesus, God suffered with us. That’s an impressive and touching act of solidarity with humanity. Jesus received the strong force of evil, yet God vindicated him in the end by resurrecting him. The crucified and risen Jesus is our hope against all evil. In God alone is our hope, our active hope!
Image: Pope Francis visits the Typhoon Yolanda victims in one of the areas in Palo, Leyte, January 17, 2015. By Benhur Arcayan – Malacanang Photo Bureau, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37898856
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Kevin Stephon R. Centeno, is 22 years old and an incoming Jesuit novice for the Philippine province. He taught philosophy courses for one year in his local seminary. He loves reading theology books.