We have been going through a rough patch lately, and this morning I had news of the passing of a friend. My heart is aching and this morning one of my friends related a story I have heard several times about Corrie ten Boom and the “fleas in the barracks.” For those who have not heard the story, Corrie’s family helped Jews escape from Nazi occupied Holland. They were exposed and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, and she was the only member of her family to survive. After the war she wrote a book, The Hiding Place, about her experience in which she tells a story about how she hated the fleas in the barracks. Her sister Betsie told her to be thankful in the midst of the vermin, and later Corrie learned that the guards had allowed her to hold a Bible study through which many women came to faith, because they did not want to come into the vermin-ridden barracks to stop it. The fleas turned out to be one of those “blessings in disguise.”
I understand the point of the story. God can cause good to result from adverse circumstances. Many people have found comfort from Corrie’s story, and I don’t want to take that away from them. It is absolutely true that God can work good in the midst of evil. But we must be very careful here. We must never say that God causes evil in order to work good through that evil; otherwise we run smack into Ivan Karamazov’s indictment.
What do I mean by Ivan Karamazov’s indictment? Shortly after the Indonesian tsunami David Bentley Hart wrote his masterful essay Tsunami and Theodicy in which he disagreed with all of the Christians who were appearing in the media and trying to make “fleas in the barracks” sense out of the catastrophe. These misguided men were trying to “justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand.” Hart rightfully worried that efforts to discern how God might “use” evil to accomplish a “greater good” are bound to backfire, and he used a passage from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to illustrate his point. In the book Alyosha Karamazov is a novice at a Russian Orthodox monastery. His brother Ivan is an intellectual atheist. Hart picks up the story in a passage where Ivan is explaining to Alyosha that he had rejected God because of all of the senseless suffering in the world:
Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to ‘dear kind God’ in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.
But what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is not that he accuses God of failing to save the innocent; rather, he rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—’for love of man I reject it,’ ‘it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child’—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?
Hart responds to Ivan’s indictment by explaining that he has God all wrong. God does not “use” evil to accomplish good. Evil is a privation of the good. It has no nature of its own and it plays no role in God’s determination of himself or the purpose for his creation (though Hart does allow that, as everyone who has ever read the story of Joseph knows, God can bring good from actions men intend for evil). Hart argues that Christians are simply not allowed to take comfort from a “grand cosmic scheme” in which God balances out all of the good and the evil in the end, because that comfort would be purchased at an enormous price: “it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known . . .” We must not while trying to render the universe morally intelligible render God morally loathsome.
I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. . . . while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child [or the death of my friend Dave] I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy . . . God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; . . . He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’
Amen. Evil never accomplishes some great cosmic purpose. God hates it, and in no sense does he intend it so that he can use it to accomplish his purposes.
Taking the “fleas in the barracks” story to its logical conclusion one might argue that God “used” the existence of Ravensbruck concentration camp to bring about the salvation of the women who came to faith in Corrie’s Bible study. And Ravensbruck concentration camp would not have existed except in the wider context of the holocaust, and taking the logic to its very extreme end point one could say that God “used” the holocaust to accomplish the good of salvation for those women. And that would, of course, be damnable nonsense.
God can bring good in the midst of evil, but he does not cause evil in order to accomplish that good. Holding these two truths in counterpoise allows us to stay sane. As Chesterton wrote:
The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them . . . Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also . . . It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
As KF has several times pointed out lately, that was Friday, but Sunday was coming. Similarly, today I groan, and I am not alone; scripture says the whole creation groans. That is today, but tomorrow is coming. In the midst of our groaning we wait, in faith, not for the revelation of how it “all works together” but for the redemption of all creation that was accomplished (but not yet fulfilled) at Calvary.