This morning I received an email that was so touching and so important I had to respond with a full column rather than a short email. Actually, I could write a number of columns in response to the email. But, for now, I’ll just respond to these two important lines imbedded in its first paragraph: “Right now I'm in doubt about the existence of a God at all. I'd like to know more about what you believe - how you look at tragedy and evil in relation to a loving God.”
What the reader is asking, in effect, is how I can believe in God despite the existence of evil. In my case, abandoning atheism came about because of the existence of evil and a desire to see justice in its aftermath.
The very second the inner gates of that Ecuadorian prison opened up I could smell the foul odor of rotten food, urine, and solid waste. I knew, to the very core of my being, that it was wrong of the government to have no maintenance budget for that 150 year old prison. It was wrong to let prisoners walk around through puddles of their own urine mixed with fecal matter as they awaited trial for years – even for offenses carrying sentences of mere months.
When Pedro told me he was acquitted weeks before but was still in prison I again smelled something rotten. I knew it was pure evil that led the officials to force him to raise money for “processing fees” in order to set him free after fours years of wrongful incarceration.
As I walked into the 36-square meter cell I saw 45 men staring back at me – some of them wearing the same rotting clothes they wore the day they were arrested months or years before. When I saw a butcher knife sitting on top of a broken TV set, I knew why so many of the prisoners wore bandages. And I knew it was pure evil that kept the guards from seizing the weapons and from even caring that prisoners killed other prisoners every day.
When I saw a young man – he appeared to be a teenager – up against a wall being beaten with a club, I knew that I was witnessing pure evil. The guards quickly stopped the beating because they knew it, too. As I heard the sound of that club whacking against his torso, I wasn’t sure whether I heard the sound of bones breaking. But I knew I was witnessing evil.
It was that same sick feeling I had when I first went to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. The pictures of those bodies piled upon bodies at Auschwitz made me sick to my stomach immediately. No one had to teach me to feel sick. I just did. It was because of what God had written on my heart.
And I felt very sick again when I walked into that prison kitchen and peered down into the boiling vats. I asked the cook to explain why they were boiling everything - the fruit, the vegetables, and the meat. It was because it had all started to rot after no one would buy it in the old town market in Quito. So they sold it to the prison officials who tried to boil off the rot before serving it to the prisoners.
As I walked out of the prison doors I thought of the guards telling me they did not need capital punishment. When they wanted to shoot someone they just told them they were free to go, shot them in the back, and reported it as an attempted escape.
But no one was shooting at me as I looked up at the statue of the Virgin Mary. I was free to walk out of the prison and out of the shadows of evil and darkness that shook me to the core on that damp March afternoon.
It was at that very moment that I recognized the wrongfulness of my hardened atheism. I knew then that those dark shadows were conclusive proof of the existence of the sunshine. Without the Sun I would not know what darkness was. And without the Son I could not escape it.
The reader who inspired this column asked how I look at tragedy and evil in relation to a loving God. That is simple: I look at tragedy and evil in relation to a loving God.