Difficult Questions Regarding the Terror Attacks


One of the most vexing problems in theology is the problem of evil. If God is good why does He permit great evils, such as the terrorist attacks of 11 September? Could He not, with a mere thought, stop all evil in its tracks, protecting lives and souls from destruction, physical or moral? Is not His goodness diminished when innocent people suffer at the hands of evil men? 

The complexity of the issue is deepened when the question, which a number of religious commentators have raised, is asked: Did the sins of our own society merit this chastisement? In other words, was God punishing or speaking to America through this event? I will try to throw some light on both questions, though ultimately it is not possible to know definitively what is ultimately a mystery of the working of Divine Providence.

The Problem of Evil

God is by nature infinite and eternal goodness. He cannot do anything evil without violating His own nature. One could say that His omnipotence ends there. His power is not actually limited, but it is power capable only of good.

God is infinite and eternal justice. He cannot act except in accordance with the truth, which He Himself is. He cannot tolerate evil. His justice demands that it be rectified. Yet, He is infinite mercy, allowing us time to rectify our own evils through repentance and reparation. If His mercy did not tolerate evil for a time, for the sake of repentance, no one could survive His justice.

In creating angels and men like Himself God gave us the gift of free will. This gift is a great good, because it allows us to participate in God’s goodness, not as robots, but willing and choosing goodness for ourselves. God also created the universe good, free of even material evils. The pride of the fallen angels introduced evil into both their own persons (moral evil) and into creation (physical or material evil). These angels were to have a role in God’s governance of material creation. The good angels still do, but the fallen angels use their knowledge and their power to disrupt the creation they were intended to help govern. Furthermore, they tempted mankind to sin, through Adam, and thus introduced both moral and physical evil to the human race. They continue to tempt human beings to join their ranks against God, as part of a primordial battle between good and evil, between the mystery of piety (represented by Christ) and the mystery of iniquity (represented by Satan).

Thus, we can say that it is because of sin, and sin alone, angelic sin and human sin, that moral and physical evils entered the world. When the fallen angels sinned, and they continue to do so, the consequences included disorder in the material universe. When man sinned, despite God’s protection from chaos, he became subject to the consequences of the angelic sin in nature, and brought the consequences of his own sin upon himself. The principle consequence was death, both the loss of eternal life, and the loss of natural life.

The Problem of Innocent Suffering

Most of us understand the nature of justice. If we do something wrong we expect to get punished for it. More difficult to understand is why good people suffer.

In the Old Testament God tried to teach His people about justice. He started with strict justice, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If Israel was faithful she was blessed, if unfaithful she was punished. Later on, when Israel seems finally to have learned some of these lessons, God proceeded to teach His people about innocent suffering. God had not changed, but like a good parent He conformed His instruction and His discipline to the capacity and needs of His children. 

We have an example of this in the book of Job. There we see the just man Job losing almost everything, while holding himself innocent. His friends are happy to disabuse him of this claim, conforming themselves to justice as Israel had understood it until then. However, through means of a dialogue between Satan and God, we see behind the scenes into the working of God’s Providence. The suffering of innocent Job actually ends up glorifying Job in the eyes of man, bringing him greater holiness, and even more magnificent worldly success. That which evil, Satan, intended is overthrown, so that after short-lived material suffering, even greater spiritual and material good is possessed by Job than previously. This glorifies God, who is so powerful that He is able to bring good out of evil. The act of Creation only brought good out of nothing.

Ultimately, the greatest model of innocent suffering is Jesus Christ. To the idea of justice contained in Job is now added the idea of justice united with redemptive love. Suffering can be endured for the sake of others, saving them not principally from material evils, though that too occurs, but primarily from the greatest evil of all, the loss of God for eternity. As Job teaches us that innocent suffering endured for a time can bring great spiritual and material benefits, Jesus teaches us that innocent suffering endured for a time can bring great benefits to OTHERS. Thus, the innocent suffering of Jesus unites perfect justice with perfect love. It changes innocent suffering into redemptive suffering.

In summary it can be said that the evils we experience in life have two causes, the sin of the angels and human sin. God permits us to experience such evils, that is, does not routinely intervene to prevent the working out of the consequences of sin, because He foresees one of three goods coming from them. First, the good of justice, disciplining the sinner, inviting him to repentance, and balancing the scales of justice in the world. If this is fruitful converted sinners are spared an eternal spiritual punishment through a temporal material punishment. If it is not fruitful then the sinner has chosen his own fate. Secondly, there is the good of purification, by which the just are purged of their sins and weaknesses through the patience, the gracefulness, by which they endure suffering. Finally, there is the good of redemptive suffering, by which the just participate in Christ’s suffering for the salvation of others.

So, whether one endures sickness or calamity at the hands of nature, or tragedy at human hands, the cause is known, sin, but God’s reason for permitting it varies from person to person, according to their spiritual need.

Is God speaking to America?

When there is a mass calamity, such as a natural disaster or the terrorist attacks, one naturally asks about the divine calculation which permitted it. If the death of a single person involves a special divine providence, since their salvation is determined in that moment, how much more the deaths of hundreds or thousands, or even millions, as in a world war. In such circumstances there are quite obviously people who die who are guilty of sin, such as the terrorists or the aggressors in wartime, others for whom the circumstances of dying will be spiritually medicinal and lead to their being saved, and others who are just and undeserving, whose suffering makes them holier and/or allows them to participate in the redemption of others. Clearly God alone can make those calculations, such that suffering, even of the innocent, is not wasted. 

But is there a further value beyond the personal consequence to each of those who died - whether punishment, conversion, purification or redemption? Scripture, as well as the words of countless saints and mystics, tell us that there is. God uses such events to warn of the consequences of sin and to lead countless individuals, even nations, to repentance and conversion. Consider how Jesus responded to the issue of tragedies. In the first part of His response the tragedy is the death of Jews, suffering for their faith in God. In the second it is victims of probably an earthquake.

At that time some people who were present there told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He said to them in reply, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!

Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!"   (Luke 13:1-5)

Jesus offers the death of the innocent and the guilty alike as a general warning to all. The sin of Adam, from which we all suffer, brought mankind physical death (Romans 5:12), personal unrepentance brings eternal death, a far greater calamity. The physical deaths of so many brings the reality of death dramatically home to others, and becomes for the Lord an occasion to teach us that there is an even worse kind of death. 

When calamity befell Israel it was God warning the Israelites to repent. We must learn the same lesson today, in the circumstances of the terrorist attacks on America. Indeed, so broad is this tragedy that it cannot be intended for a single nation but must be for the entire world, especially the Western world, which has forgotten its Christian heritage.

Can we say, therefore, that the sins of abortion, sodomy and injustice to the poor, the three traditional sins which cry out to God for vengeance, as well as our own sins, are responsible for this act. No, if we mean personal moral responsibility. That rests solely with the terrorists, those who formally cooperated in their crimes, and those who provided immediate material support. However, to the extent that sin is the cause of death, and that by not ceasing to sin there are millions in our country and billions on our planet, who need to repent and convert, we have all materially cooperated in establishing the pre-condition for God’s permitting such a dramatic act of evil to take place. As in Sodom and Gomorrah, as in Bethsaida and Chorazin (whom Christ warned for rejecting Him), as it is in all tragedies and wars, the innocent will die with the guilty, for the salvation and purification of those who can be converted, and the judgment of those who cannot.

Are the Victims Martyrs?

Given such a vicious assault on human dignity it seems reasonable to consider those who died martyrs who went straight to heaven. Two general statements must be made. First, the victims were certainly martyrs in a broad sense, as they died on account of hatred of the Christian West. Despite the secularization of our Western societies, and the hatred by the terrorists of other elements in them which contradict Christian values, it remains true that a misguided religious fervor was behind the attacks. Secondly, notwithstanding that, it cannot be said that the victims were martyrs in the technical sense, which theology and the Church employs. For this is required the fulfillment of two conditions, the conscious decision of the victim to accept death for Christ (which St. Thomas ascribes to the Gift of Fortitude), and the motive of hatred of the faith. Thus, even if we grant the second condition, the fulfillment of the first would require  a) the rising of those in the state of mortal sin to justice by perfect contrition, and then, b) the acceptance of their death for Christ, through the now present Gift of Fortitude. It is impossible for a passive act of martyrdom to justify a person and earn them heaven. Unlike the Holy Innocents, who had no personal guilt, adults must freely change their will to attain eternal life.

Are we justified in thinking, however, that God made some special provision for these souls? I believe we are on two grounds. First, St. Faustina tells us that no human being dies without the opportunity of accepting or rejecting repentance. The statements of mystics, like Blessed Padre Pio, regarding suicides who converted in the moment of death, already suggest this. This gives the families of suicides, as well as the victims of violent acts, a real hope of eternal life for their loved ones. However, it is a possibility, not a certainty. Secondly, the honor and glory of God is the ultimate purpose of the universe. Everything works for that end. In this attack God’s honor was doubly offended. First, it was done in His name, a blasphemy of the first order. Secondly, the West was attacked, at least in part for the Christian faith. Both reasons give us great hope that the desire of the ultimate terrorist (the devil) to see large numbers of people die in their sins and be condemned was, at the moment of death, prevented by the mercy of God. If this did occur, whether the individuals who repented went to heaven or purgatory would depend, as always, on the thoroughness of their repentance. Not knowing their fate with certainty, we should continue to pray for the repose of their souls.


Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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