In the Michigan Quarterly Review (50, no. 1 [Winter 2011]), Miah Arnold wrote an article, “You Owe Me,” about being a teacher of poetry and prose to dying children at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. It will rip your guts out.
“The children I write with die,” she begins, “no matter how much I love them, no matter how creative they are, no matter how many poems they have written, or how much they want to live.”
Almost every line is a zinger. Considering the topic, kids and the cancer that kills them, how could her prose be anything but? In the context of these suffering, dying children, one line really caught me: “I was, like everybody else, trying to make sense of what is nonsensical.”
Nonsensical. That is, none of it makes sense. It cannot be rationally explained. There’s no good reason for it. Yet isn’t it better that evil (and children dying of cancer is evil) be nonsensical, irrational, illogical, and inexplicable? Otherwise, what? Do good, logical, and harmonious reasons exist for why these kids lose limbs, suffer the trauma of chemo, endure horrific pain, sit in the hospital for years, and then die? Please—if there were good reasons I’d be afraid to know them.
However bad these tragedies, it would be worse if there were sense to them. But there’s not. That’s why it’s all nonsense.
Ellen White wrote: “It is impossible to explain the origin of sin so as to give a reason for its existence. . . . Sin is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given. It is mysterious, unaccountable; to excuse it, is to defend it. Could excuse for
it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be sin.”*
Now, replace the word “sin” with “evil,” and it works just as well. It is impossible to explain the origin of evil so as to give a reason for its existence. . . . Evil is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given. It is mysterious, unaccountable; to excuse it is to defend it. Could excuse for it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be evil.
When tragedy strikes, I hear people say, and myself think, I don’t understand this. It doesn’t make sense. Well, there’s a good reason we don’t understand it: it’s not understandable. It’s nonsense. If we could understand it, if it made sense, if it fit into some logical, rational plan, then it wouldn’t be that evil, it wouldn’t be that tragic, because it would serve a rational purpose, and who would dare to lessen the evil and tragedy of children dying of cancer?
But what about the text “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28)? What about it? All things working together for good doesn’t mean all things are good. All things are notgood. Loving God, believing that He’s in ultimate control of the universe, and trusting in His love and His promises to “wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4)doesn’t mean that, to quote Alexander Pope, “whatever is, is right.” How could a 6-year-old child, head shaved, leg amputated, sick and scared and waiting to die—be right?
In the end, in light of the cross, in light of the fact that the Creator of all that exists, the Lord Himself entered humanity and in that humanity bore our sin in our stead; in light of all this, the goodness and holiness and justice of God will stand vindicated before human beings and angels, and “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God” (Rom. 14:11). But theodicy, a theological term that means the justification of God in the face of evil, is just that: the justification of God, not of evil.
I no longer try to understand evil and tragedy; it’s like trying to square a circle. It’s maddeningly futile. Instead, I focus on the cross, and on what it reveals about the goodness of God in a world of gut-ripping nonsense. n
* Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), pp. 492, 493.