Since my sons, who are 5 and 10 years old, attend a non-Catholic school, I have been giving them Catechism lessons. The format is that I try to get them to propose topics, encourage them to share what they think themselves and then attempt to round out the picture we arrive at together. When we kicked-off these weekly catechism sessions, the first one was me pretending to be an alien and asking them to explain to me what this whole God, Jesus, Church business is all about - as you can imagine it was hilarious both for me and for them and I believe it gave catechism a place in the entertainment category :).
At the end of the most recent session, I again asked my boys for suggestions for the next topic, to which my older son replied: “Why did God make bad stuff?” I have to say I was really pleased with this question, since it shows that he is thinking carefully about his faith and also that he applies and contrasts it with his life.
What I would like to do next, therefore, is to sketch out the answer that I’ll try to get across in our Q&A-style format and thereby to attempt a response to the question of evil in language accessible to a 10-year-old, with a 5-year-old listening in. The following then are some of the questions/ideas I will try to share with them. As you’ll see, they expect certain responses from the boys that you’ll just have to intuit from my half of the conversation :):1
“What do you like best about your friends?I know the above is incomplete and far from a satisfactory treatment of the problem of evil for an adult audience (and probably even for kids). What I tried to do though is to give my sons a sense of how freedom plays a role here, how it is that we don’t have anything like a full answer and also how Jesus’ death and resurrection can help us at least intuit the value of suffering. Any thoughts on the above would be much appreciated - as always!
Great! Can you think of some examples when someone was kind/friendly/nice to you?
And you do the same to others as well, don’t you?
But do you think you can make someone be nice/friendly/kind?
That’s right, you can’t! They have to choose to be nice to you, don’t they? And sometimes even your friends aren’t nice - right? Can you think of some examples?
That’s not good, is it? But, do they stop being your friends?
Exactly, of course they don’t … What do you think you can do when they are not nice? Can you make them be nice?
Is there something else you can do though?
That’s right, you can keep being kind and loving towards them, regardless of what they do. But it’s best when they are kind and loving back to you, isn’t it?
What do you think God would like us to do?
And do you think he can make us be nice?
Sure, he could - but then it wouldn’t really be us who are loving him, would it? We would no longer choose to be kind and we’d be like robots instead. Do you think God wants us to be like robots?
So, it looks like God needs to give us the choice to be either good or bad, so that we can really choose to love him and the people around us … But, let’s think a bit more about the question we started with: “Why did God make bad stuff?” Do you think he really made bad stuff?
That’s right - he didn’t, because he is good and he always loves everyone! Good things are like light and bad things are like darkness - in the end there will be light everywhere. No matter how much darkness there is, it cannot stop the light shining from even just one candle.
So, you can see that when we are unkind to others it is not God who makes them suffer. He only lets it happen because he wants us to choose to be kind instead of forcing us. But, instead of choosing to be kind, we are sometimes mean - that’s pretty sad, isn’t it?
How do you think God feels when we are mean to each other?
Yes, he is sad too, because he loves every one of us very much and when we are mean to others we are also mean to him.
How about another, even more difficult question: Why is it that bad things happen that are not the result of someone being mean? Why do people get sick, why are there earthquakes or tsunamis, or why is it that God doesn’t stop people from being mean when what they do is very bad? What do you think?
It is tricky … And, to be honest I don’t know either! I don’t think anyone really knows. What we do know though is that when Jesus came to show us how God loves us, in the end he suffered a lot for us. As you know, he was killed in a very painful way on the cross. What do you think this tells us?
Yes, it must mean that there is a reason for suffering. We don’t know what it is, but we can trust that God is loving us even when things are difficult and painful. Just imagine that God, who can do anything he wants, chose to show us that he loves us so much that he is prepared even to suffer for us.
And do you remember what happened after Jesus was killed on the cross?
Yes, he came back to life and then went up to heaven. It is the same for us - when bad things happen we can say to Jesus: “I know you are with me now and I am with you on the cross.” You will see that you will feel Jesus close to you and he will then take you with him to heaven.”
1 Not that I can hope for anything remotely as masterful as Camus’ The Fall, but at least the half-dialogue format of the following is inspired by it :).