Unbroken and the problem of evil

I recently finished Laura Hillenbrand’s terrific new book Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, 1936 Olympian and prisoner of war under the Japanese during WWII. I was compelled to buy a copy after reading an absolutely gripping excerpt in Vanity Fair, which described the harrowing 46 days Zamperini and his fellow airman Russell Phillips spent adrift at sea after their plane went down in the Pacific and before they were picked up by the Japanese. You can read it yourself here. After doing so you might think that a human being could endure no greater suffering than Zamperini and Phillips did as castaways. You would be wrong, as the rest of the book makes clear.

Unbroken is the sort of book which might provide a useful real-life “Exhibit A” supplement to the standard philosophical readings in a course on the problem of evil. The unbelievably relentless, concentrated, years-long deprivation and cruelty Zamperini suffered, first at sea, and then in a series of notoriously brutal Japanese prisoner of war camps, give the lie to any facile theodicy. I have argued that the existence of even the worst evils gives us absolutely no reason whatsoever to doubt the existence and goodness of the God of classical theism. In that sense the problem of evil poses no intellectual difficulty for theism. But I have also insisted that evil poses an enormous practical difficulty, because while we can know with certainty that God has a reason for allowing the evil He does, we are very often simply not in a position to know what that reason is in this or that particular case. We can know some of the general ways in which good can be drawn out of evil – our free choices have a significance that they would not have otherwise; we can make of our sufferings an opportunity for penance for the sins we have committed; we are able to develop moral virtues such as patience, gratitude, courage, compassion, and so forth – but we cannot expect always to know why this specific child was allowed to be raped and murdered or that specific village was allowed to be destroyed by an earthquake. Or why men like Zamperini – many of whom did not live to tell their stories – were permitted to endure what, even in light of the general considerations just mentioned, seems sheer “overkill.”

I was a student at Claremont Graduate School at the tail end of John Hick’s time there and the beginning of the late D. Z. Phillips’ tenure. Phillips was critical of Hick’s famous “soul-making” theodicy. I remember his mocking impression of God as a kind of moral personal trainer: “Here you go, a bit of cancer should help toughen you up!” As Phillips’ jokes tended to be, this was both funny and somewhat unfair – Hick is not a man prone in any way to minimize human suffering, and I don't think he would claim that we can identify a “soul-making” function for each and every instance of evil. All the same (and as I’m sure Hick himself would agree), we must not let our attempts to understand God’s reasons for allowing evil lead us to sentimentalize evil, to pretend that “Buck up, old chap, it’s all for the greater good!” should suffice to soothe just anyone’s pain.

At the same time, it is also possible to lapse into sentimentality on the other side. We all know of the sort of embittered atheist who has suffered far less than a Louis Zamperini and yet who goes about his life with a metaphysical chip on his shoulder – “God done me wrong!” or even “Maybe I’ve been lucky, but look what God has let other people suffer through!” Don’t misunderstand: I have known people who have abandoned religion because of the real suffering they endured, and for whom I feel compassion. But I have also known people whose appeal to the problem of evil has seemed to me an exercise in self-righteous rationalization. “What a compassionate person I am for rejecting a God who would allow such evil, and how cold-hearted you religious people are for not doing so!” – that sort of thing. And I have also known people who have suffered enormously – in one case, to a degree that would make for a book worthy of the Laura Hillenbrand treatment – and yet whose faith in God has been their refuge.

Certainly Zamperini is the sort of man who would seem justified in a life of bitter fist-shaking at God, if anyone would. Indeed, as his suffering continued for years after the war – flashbacks, continual nightmares, the end of his athletic career as a result of an injury suffered during his captivity, listlessness, and an unquenchable thirst for revenge – Zamperini’s attitude toward religion was for some time one of hostility. But then he had a religious conversion, after hearing Billy Graham preach in Los Angeles. His flashbacks, nightmares, and listlessness ended. He traveled to Japan, visited his tormenters in prison, forgave them, and his life in the decades since – he is now in his nineties – seems to have been one of real joy.

Why does one man survive and even flourish in the face of suffering, while another is shattered by it? We cannot presume to judge the latter; God alone can do that. But neither can we dismiss the testimony of the former. Louis Zamperini’s story should warn us against sentimentality of either a religious sort or an atheistic sort. For it illustrates both that there is evil the point of which is simply beyond our understanding and that there is no evil that of itself need break a man. We simply cannot know in every case what God is up to. But He knows, and sometimes knowing that He does has to be enough.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...