Suffering & the Problem of Evil

The most fundamental and yet the most controversial point in my book, Why All People Suffer, is that God uses evil, even the evil of sin, to support His most fundamental goal for humanity: to bring his wayward children back to Him, where we can bask in the eternal joy of Beatific Vision, exposed to all that is good and true in the universe. This is problematic for many people, both theists and atheists, who believe that evil is opposed to good and who therefore struggle with the “problem of evil.”

‘The Problem of Evil’ was first highlighted by Epicurus over two millennia ago. Epicurus sought to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the world with a benevolent and all-powerful God. As Epicurus saw it, “if God cannot stop evil, then he is not all powerful and if he can and chooses not to, then he is not benevolent.” This logic, which is still used by atheists and theists alike to argue both sides of the problem of evil debate, is itself predicated on three faulty assumptions.

Three Assumptions About Suffering & Evil

The first is that evil and suffering are one and the same when, in fact, suffering is not evil at all but an evil-detector, our God-given ability to sense when we are being threatened by evil. It is a harsh and persistent sensation because, like any good alarm system, it must be unignorable to get our attention and force us to take the necessary action to mitigate the evil. For instance, if one is starving, the feeling of hunger alerts us to this fact and motivates us to eat. Suffering, the feeling of hunger, is good because it warns us of our lack of food to fuel our bodies, the real evil.

The second is that evil opposes good. It does not. As the creation story in Genesis 1 points out, God made everything from nothing and everything he made was perfect for its purpose. Since nothing is inherently evil, then evil exists only as the absence of good, like darkness is absence of light and silence is the absence of sound.  

The third faulty assumption is that human comfort and pleasure are the greatest good desired by God. It is not. God’s greatest desire for man is for us to become like Him so that we can share in His life. This is why he has given us free will, reason and suffering to warn us when we are threatened by a lack of some good and to motivate us to attain the good as described above.

The simple fact is that not only does God not oppose evil, he uses it to bring about the salvation of man. This is rendered obvious by Jesus’ crucifixion, the greatest sin ever committed, leading to his Resurrection, the greatest sign of redemption the world will ever see. There are plentiful examples of God using evil, even the evil of sin, which He neither causes nor condones, to bring about spiritual goods. We see it every time there is a disaster and individuals respond with love to help out their neighbors in need, sometimes from a continent away.  

Ryan’s Story

One example of God making good out of heinous evil is the cyber bullying of a vulnerable 13-year-old that led to his suicide. His Father, John Halligan, recounts this, in a remarkable book titled Ryan’s Story: a Father’s Hard-Earned Lessons about Cyberbullying and Suicide. In 2003, John’s 13year old son Ryan committed suicide after extensive cyber-bullying. “Mason” had physically and emotionally bullied Ryan since 5th grade, making fun of his learning disability and telling his classmates that Ryan was gay. “Ainsley,” a girl he liked, led him on and then humiliated him in public, calling him a loser that no one would go out with. Others taunted him online, telling Ryan he was a loser and that he should kill himself, sending him links on how to do so. 

On October 7,2003, Ryan’s 17-year-old sister found him hanging from the shower rod. His death devastated his family but also Ainsley, who he had told the day before “you are the kind of girl that could make someone kill themselves.” Mason, on the other hand, continued to bully Ryan, now dead, telling his classmates that “Ryan was weak. He couldn’t handle life and he was gay.”

When John heard that Ainsley was being harassed by classmates and became suicidal, he called her mother and invited her and Ainsley to his home to discuss the situation. When they came over, he took ‘Ainsley’ by the hand and said to her, “Ainsley, you did a mean thing but I don’t believe for a second that you are a mean person or that you would have done what you did if you knew Ryan would do what he did. This is not your fault. “He followed up by telling the parents of his son’s friends that they had met with Ainsley and didn’t believe it was her fault and asked them to ask their sons to defend her if others harassed her about her role in Ryan’s suicide.

When John heard that Mason continued to harass Ryan, even after his death, he went to his home and asked to talk to his parents and him. John told Mason:

“You probably have no idea. You probably have no idea of the pain you created in my son’s life. So much pain because of you and your friends who decided to bully my son, since the fifth grade about the two issues he struggled with for most of his life. And I just got this call tonight and I’m finding out that you are continuing to bully my son. My son who is no longer here to defend himself.”  

When Mason denied it, John told him, “You are lying to me and your parents right now. But you know what. I refuse to believe that you are that heartless. I refuse to believe that you are that empty of a soul. I think you are just a dumbass thirteen-year-old, trying to act tough, trying to keep this stupid bully reputation going on at the middle school. I refuse to believe that you are this heartless.” Mason began to sob and apologized profusely.

John’s actions toward the two most obvious culprits in his son’s suicide showed great love for them and their parents, showing them what they had become and giving them a picture of what they could be. This love of your enemy that he displayed is remarkable. His suffering will be redemptive and the two bullies have learned to be better people from his loss.

But there’s much more to this story. John quit his lucrative and safe IBM job and began devoting his life to battling cyberbullying. He has been telling Ryan’s story to packed middle school assemblies since May 2015 and has reached over 1 Million students to date from across the spectrum. As far as he’s been able to track, none of these schools have had a suicide due to cyberbullying since his presentation. Whether he understands this himself or not, God is at work in John Halligan, giving him the grace to do a lot of good for a lot of people out of a crushing evil that resulted in the heavy loss of his son, Ryan, a scenario that makes every parent shudder, whether their child is the bully or the bullied.

Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash

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Paul Chaloux was born in Maine in 1960 to Paul and Dolly Chaloux, the oldest of 6 children. He grew up in Northern Virginia and attended public schools. After graduating with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Virginia in 1982, Paul worked for over 30 years as an engineer, manager, and strategist for IBM in upstate New York. While there, he also served as a catechist for 15 years at St. Columba Parish in Hopewell Junction, NY.  In 2015, after earning a master’s degree in religious education from Fordham University and retiring from IBM, Paul was accepted into the PhD program at the Catholic University of America to study Catechetics, with the goal of teaching future catechists.  However, his plans changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s Disease just after moving to Washington, DC for his studies.  His new neurologist, after learning that Paul was studying theology, asked him why people suffer. He had no answer since it was not his intended field of study, but the question intrigued him enough to cause him to take up the subject. Five years later, having earned his PhD in moral theology, Dr. Chaloux wrote Why All People Suffer for general audiences as a follow on to his dissertation, The Grace Concealed in Suffering: Developing Virtue and Beatitude, which he defended at CUA on March 5, 2020.   Dr. Chaloux currently teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America and serves as a catechist at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, Virginia. He has been married for over thirty years to his wife Sue and they have 4 adult children and 2 granddaughters.

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