Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.”
— The Gospel of Saint Matthew, 27:39-43
When the crowd welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem days before His Passion and Death, waving palms, chanting praises, and laying cloaks on the road, they thought He would restore the Kingdom of Israel to its former power and dominance. When our Lord did not fulfill their messianic expectations, they turned against Him. Even His apostles left Him.
At His crucifixion, Jews high and low continued demanding that Jesus do what men expected of God. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross,” taunted the crowd. Echoed the priests: “let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.”
Today, man still wants proof that God is God. Not just climbing down from the cross, but ending illness and injustice, striking down tyrants and criminals, punishing evildoers and protecting innocents. And stopping all calamities, of course. If He doesn’t perform and bad things keep happening, then there is no God, the thinking goes.
“Where was God when six million Jews were exterminated?” said one doubting soul last Sunday at a family chat about attending Mass. “Where is God when 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria?” The same questions about divine intervention arise amid deadly disease and disaster. Where was God when Haiyan lacerated the Philippines? Where is He when a devout Catholic is dying of cancer?
No coming down from the cross
Jesus asked His Father to forgive His tormentors and doubters, “for they know not what they do.” God also forgives us when we press God to end to our woes as the condition for faith in Him. Or even when we fume and curse at Him over our pain.
Jesuit Fr. Jordan Orbe, a Philippine General Hospital chaplain, often counsels dying patients and distraught families. He told his Good Friday retreat audience last month: “God can take it when we get angry with Him.” After all, if He forgave His Son’s tormentors, He can do so to those whose respect of scientific knowledge or agony over tragic events make it hard to see His love and presence.
But while God understands and forgives anger amid agony, and doubt without proof, don’t expect Him to perform as man demands. Jesus certainly didn’t. Rather than climb down from the cross, He suffered death and was buried. Then, after three days in the tomb, He astounded even His disciples.
So it was, is, and ever shall be: just as man is his own man, God is His own, well, God. He acts in ways man never expects and, like the Resurrection, may even find hard to believe. But when good somehow emerges from great enormity, calamity, atrocity or injustice, many people sense a heavenly hand and exclaim, “Thank God.”
Thus, heaven did not stop the horrors of World War II, as many millions of believers prayed, but that global conflagration led to, among other positives, the liberation of colonized peoples from weakened imperial powers. The Nigerian schoolgirls have not miraculously escaped Boko Haram, but their tragedy may finally galvanize governments to stop those terrorists. Positive outcomes do not justify terrible events, but they show that evil can lead to good, and, for believers, that God is advancing His will in the world.
Adversity the mother of perfection
Sadly, that isn’t enough for many people crushed by great misfortune or evil, or those who appalled by reports of such agonies every day. For many, it’s hard to just believe in God’s existence, goodwill and love, whatever enormities and catastrophes befall people, especially loved ones.
Even devout believers may find that faith challenge pointless and even cruel. Why should man believe, pray and hope with no assurance of deliverance? And why should there be so much suffering, death and destruction, in the first place?
After Yolanda lacerated the Visayas, many survivors burying their close family members and picking over the rubble of their homes still hoped for heavenly succor, partly because no earthly power could give them assurance. Others saw divine punishment for human sins, and prayed for forgiveness and deliverance. For these believers, rightly or wrongly, faith and hope in God helped them strive to rebuild their lives and not succumb to despair.
Still others take heart from the good that emerges from ill. Countless unfortunates do rise to a better tomorrow, from rags-to-riches achievers to victims of calamity and oppression who win liberation. And for all the ugliness, untruth and injustice in today’s world, many evils have been largely banished, including the subjugation of whole continents and the trade in enslaved races.
Indeed, so much of human progress and even biological evolution stem from better ways and forms emerging in response to adversity. As Charles Darwin observed, the decimation of the unfit enabled the fittest to flourish. Less capable species die out, while better adapted ones dominate and multiply. And scourges like tyranny, wars of conquest, and rabid religiosity have prodded humankind to curb them.
In sum, adversity can be the mother of perfection, as ills and evil show where man and the world are flawed, so human action and natural and social evolution can bring things and beings closer to the ideal. And by striving to make the world better, man shares in God’s creative power, and becomes a channel of His love, justice, and goodness.
So is that it? Evil exists so man can join hands with God in eradicating it and bringing himself and the world closer to His perfection? Wouldn’t it be better if everything were perfect from the start?
Everything perfect would indeed be infinitely better. But it would be God, not us. To be creatures distinct from the Creator, we had to be different from Him, with parts of our being unreached by His perfection. Call it sin or evil. But it’s the price of everyone’s and everything’s existence.
Of course, for believers, the good news is that God’s own Son took earthly form so we can all reach heavenly perfection. Amen.