In my London flat I have a copy of a striking depiction of the Crucifixion by the French artist Georges Rouault (d. 1958). A recent visitor stopped to study it. Then she turned away, repelled. “It is a man in pain,” she said.

The pain and suffering, physical and mental, that are part of everyone’s life and central to the Eastertide story are the strongest weapons in the armory of the atheist thinkers who are unleashing a denunciation of religious faith. They talk about the “virus” of belief and of themselves as “doctors.” It is a dangerous metaphor that has been pressed into service in recent history with terrible results. One who does not talk in that way is a leading BBC presenter, John Humphrys, whose book In God We Doubt is subtitled “Confessions of a failed atheist.” But for him, also, it was an unspeakable evil that spurred an inquiry into belief—the horror that was unleashed on September 1, 2004, when terrorists took over a school in Beslan in the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.

round the world, prayers were said for the safe release of the children, teachers, and family members attending this first day of the school year—more than a thousand of them. The prayers were not answered. After several explosions were heard inside the school building, the Russian security services went in. By the time the slaughter had ended, more than 330 innocent people were dead, including more than 180 schoolchildren. Many more were seriously injured.

After the firing stopped, John Humphrys telephoned the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He asked him to come on the BBC’s Today program the next morning to answer the question, “Where was God in that school?” The archbishop agreed. Their dialogue spurred a series of radio programs titled Humphrys in Search of God. The response was huge. In half a century of journalism the BBC presenter had never received so much mail.

Humphrys recalls the Beslan atrocity in his book. He writes:

This was no random, freak event, no desperate stunt that had gone horribly wrong, no moment of insanity by a deranged psychopath. Those men loaded their weapons and laid their explosives in the classrooms in the full, calculating knowledge that they might use them to murder children. Over the three days of the siege they must have come to know many of those children. They must have seen reflected in their frightened young faces the faces of their own children. And yet they butchered them.

Some horrors are on a scale so vast it is impossible to grasp them: the Holocaust, the purges of Stalin, the millions murdered by Mao Tse-tung. But not Beslan. We could grasp it only too well. How many of us imagined our own children in that school, facing that fear?

It is “understandable,” Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges in his encyclical on Christian hope, Spe salvi, that there should be protest against belief in God when the world is marked by so much “injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power.” Here, the pope believes, is the root of modern atheism. A God with responsibility for such a world, the protesters maintain, would not be a just God, much less a good God.

Without a God to create justice, human beings must themselves undertake the task of establishing it. But in this they cannot succeed. “It is no accident,” the pope argues,

that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice...grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power...will cease to dominate the world.

The doubting John Humphrys accepts this logic, in opposition to Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. Humphrys quotes the political theorist John Gray, who points out that much of the terror of the past century was spawned by secular faith. “The fantasy that society can be progressively transformed by violence,” Gray warns, “inspired some of humanity’s worst crimes, and it casts a poisonous spell today.”

Humphrys agrees: “Clearly the world would be a better place without religious extremism of any kind, but for atheists to claim that without religion, peace and harmony would reign is patently absurd. It’s not the Bible that proves that. It’s the history books.”

Human beings dream of those historical wrongs being reversed. They want, as Benedict puts it in his encyclical, “an ‘undoing’ of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright.” But that cannot be had in this world. Nor can we find a judge who will listen to the story of our life with full understanding of everything that happened—the failings that were ours and the pressures we were under, the cards we had to play as best we could. So, the pope concludes, there can be no secular substitute for the Last Judgement. Indeed, Benedict writes, “I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life.”

In the world, the pope writes, “it is not by sidestepping or fleeing suffering that we are healed.” He quotes from a letter written by a nineteenth-century Vietnamese martyr, Paul Le-Bao-Tinh. The pope calls it “a letter from hell.” In the concentration camp where he is incarcerated, the oppressors add to the suffering they inflict by encouraging the outbreak of evil among the victims themselves, so as to enlarge the extent of their cruelty. Thus Paul, “in chains for the name of Christ,” relates that “to cruel tortures of every kind...are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief.” Yet he testifies that he does not feel alone, for Christ is with him. He wants his readers, like him, to “give endless thanks in joy to God.” He writes to them “in order that your faith and mine may be united.” The “letter from hell” leads the pope to consider the meaning of consolation. The Latin word consolatio, he writes, “suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude."

Evil and suffering remain the strongest argument for atheism, and Richard Dawkins makes the most of it. A riposte to him is offered by the Catholic author and journalist John Cornwell in his book Darwin’s Angel. The guardian seraph of the title seeks to commend creative imagination—religious, artistic, and scientific—to natural historians from Darwin onward. One of the angel’s sallies against Dawkins is devoted to inculcating a true understanding of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

The novel can be read on a variety of levels. Dawkins fastens on one belief advanced by Ivan Karamazov: that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. “It is widely believed,” Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, “that Dostoyevsky was of that opinion.” But, he continues, correcting the novelist, “I have inclined toward a less cynical view of human nature.” For, he asks, “do we really need policing—whether by God or any other—in order to stop us from behaving in a selfish and criminal manner?” To think so “seems to me to require quite a low self-regard.”

Cornwell’s angel gently chides the professor. Unlike Dostoyevsky, the angel remarks to Dawkins, “you have never spent any time in prison. You moved in smooth transition through prep school to private secondary school and on to Oxford, where you have been mostly resident throughout your working life, and where you have formed your mainly optimistic view of the world.”

But in any case, the angel maintains, Dawkins has misread Dostoyevsky’s work. The atheist brother, Ivan, is not saying that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted, but that he knows God does not exist, and therefore everything is permitted. The proof, he holds, lies all around. In the novel, Ivan is less motivated by science and reason than by his awareness of the “human tears with which the earth is saturated, from its crust to its center.” For him, nothing—including the burning of the perpetrators in hell—could justify the existence of a God who allows crimes to be committed against children.

Ivan tells his believing brother Alyosha that he has put together “a fine collection” of anecdotes from newspapers and books. Among these stories of savagery is one about a girl of five whose parents shut her up all night in a freezing outside lavatory because she wet her bed; as a punishment her mother smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement. Then there is the serf boy, aged eight, who threw a stone in play and by accident hit the paw of a Russian general’s favorite hound. The general had the boy stripped and made to run, then set the whole pack of hounds upon him, to tear him to pieces. Nothing, says Ivan—nothing—can justify the idea of a God who could create human beings with the freedom to do such things.

Dostoyevsky does not advance “an answer” to Ivan’s arguments. There is no “Christian answer” to suffering. But there is a Christian way of using it. In the novel, Alyosha, the believer who is a novice monk under the direction of the saintly Fr. Zossima before going out into the world, identifies with suffering children and shares with them. At one point Ivan notices Alyosha’s distress over his “fine collection” of anecdotes. “I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself,” he remarks. “I’ll leave off if you like.” Alyosha mutters: “Never mind. I want to suffer too.”

He had learned from Fr. Zossima, Darwin’s angel observes, “nonjudgmental, communal love.” Alyosha follows in the steps of Jesus, “the only human being,” in the angel’s words, “who has suffered and lost everything for the sake of others.” Hence, the angel declares, “only Christ can forgive everything—even those who have tortured and murdered children.”

Nevertheless, in his encyclical Pope Benedict voices a “terrifying thought.” He warns that “there can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love.” In them “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” But most men and women are not at such risk, for they retain “in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God.” Before Christ, the judge who is also their advocate, they will encounter “the fire which both burns and saves.”

In the light of such a scenario, every human being must feel compassion for every other. A society that cannot share its sufferings “is a cruel and inhuman society,” the pope declares. But, he adds, there is a prerequisite: “Society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves.” And an individual cannot accept another’s suffering unless he or she personally “is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope.”

Easier to say than to do. When I read this passage, I thought immediately of my late friend and colleague Donald Nicholl, who died from an inoperable cancer after a year’s illness in 1997 at the age of seventy-three.

Donald was a working-class intellectual—a breed that English Catholicism has fostered—born in a Yorkshire mining village. As a boy, Donald would travel to his school by bus, alarming the schoolgirls in their mid-teens who were going the same way by talking about Dostoyevsky. One of them, Dorothy, was as petrified as the rest but refused to be daunted. She went to the local public library and read every book by or about Dostoyevsky that she could get her hands on. Then she sat beside Donald as the bus took her to her own school, which was further on than his, and told him that the work of the Russian novelist was familiar to her. She became Donald’s wife, and they had a son and four daughters.

Donald won a scholarship to Balliol, the famous Oxford University college, and took first-class honors in history. He taught for more than twenty years at Keele, where he became a professor. He was a political and social radical who never lost touch with his working-class roots. He used to tell me how every family in the village where he was brought up was in hock to the doctor, whom they were paying back at the rate of several shillings a week, and how there was a carter who got cancer in his eye but, unable even to think of paying for treatment, clapped an eye patch over it and kept merrily on until the day he died. Never forget, Donald would comment, how much a universal health service, free at the point of delivery, has achieved. Academies, he thought, should be “centers of resistance” to ideologies and political correctness. “I no sooner see a current of opinion,” one of his friends once told him, “than I see you rowing against it.”

When he contracted his final illness, I visited him at his home in the village of Betley near Crewe, and we kept in touch by telephone and letter. He told his friends at this time that he had decided that thinking was a consequence of the Fall, and that he therefore proposed to give it up from now on and just to gaze. His close friend and spiritual adviser, the Jesuit Gerard W. Hughes, was therefore somewhat disconcerted when Donald presented him with a twenty-four-page typescript about death and dying. But Donald merely said these reflections were the fruit of gazing.

Meanwhile, he was recording on tape his experience in this last stage of his life. When a hospital consultant told him at last that there was no reason for them to see each other any more, he said to himself that now his sails were set for the journey home. He remembered Jesus’ words when he said farewell to his disciples: “I go to prepare a place for you.” And that, he thought, was what the journey home meant—going to the place prepared for you. His wife Dorothy transcribed those tapes for him, and after his death we published them in the Tablet, for which he had written more than a hundred articles. We ran the transcribed tapes under the title “My Last Voyage.”

Donald was often in great pain as the cancer ravaged him. “Are you all right?” I asked him when I phoned in April 1997. “No,” he replied. Earlier he had told me that he and Dorothy had decided to tell inquirers: “Donald is a bag of bones with his heart in the right place.” He was glad, he told me on another occasion, that the Christian faith promises a new creation. “That’s good, because the bit of a body I have left is not much.” When he looked in the mirror, he said, he got a shock. “I never had much flesh—but now!”

I remember telephoning him one evening some months before he died, when he was in great distress, sobbing and gasping for breath. “I manage it from minute to minute,” he said. “I will be faithful to the end.” When he passed the crucifix in his house, he would put his hands into the nail holes in Jesus’ feet and recall the words of Blaise Pascal, “Jesus is in agony until the end of the world.”

Yet even in this extremity, his wry, searching humor did not desert him. He told me one day that it had been revealed to him in a dream that there was no Tablet in heaven. “Does that make you feel better?” But how did he know, I asked: “God in heaven sees everything, including the Tablet, doesn’t he?” No, he assured me, he had seen a notice on the heavenly billboards announcing, “No Tablet here. Official.”

He was always fighting against exhaustion. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think, well, I won’t get up today. And by the evening I feel utterly spent. Yet just before I settle down for the night I have always so far been able to look back and say, ‘Today I have been able to say a word to someone which has helped them.’”

He did not want the inscription on his grave to read, “May he rest in peace.” He had no intention of doing that. He wanted to accompany others making the same voyage, if that was permitted to the dead. He offered to do that for me. There wouldn’t be any exterior signs of it, he thought. “You don’t need them if you dwell in each other.”

He had told me on the telephone that he wanted his death to be connected with the suffering of the poor people of the world. “The human family” was a reality to him. “I wouldn’t want my destiny to be separated from them,” he said. On those final tapes he told how he wanted his last days to be “part of a process of joining my suffering with the suffering of people throughout the earth; and if we accept it in that way, instead of its being malign there can be a redemptive quality about it.”

At the close of Spe salvi, Pope Benedict remarks on the sure hope of the resurrection, which is central to the Christian faith. He ends with a clarification:

Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: How can I save myself? We should also ask: What can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

Donald passed that test. Even in his final weeks he could still write to me full of concern about the conflict in Palestine, which he had studied for many years and experienced at length as rector of the ecumenical institute at Tantur, near Bethlehem. All the people of those lands had been living in fear for three or four generations, he said. So their sensibilities were not like those of others, who did not understand them.

As Donald looked back at his life, he found it transformed by gratitude. He gave thanks for his wife and family, and the other communities that had nurtured him: the village, the school, the church, the army (he became a Catholic after the war), and the university. There was no room for bitterness or recrimination against anyone, he said as his dictation neared its end. He felt—these were his last words recorded in the Tablet article—“so full of gratitude.”

The existence of suffering and evil perplexes all of us as much as it perplexes Richard Dawkins. But when I think of Donald Nicholl, I see that, as in The Brothers Karamazov, there are different levels on which one can view the ills that flesh is heir to. On Donald’s level, one follows a guide who, in the words of the English Puritan Richard Baxter, “leads me through no darker rooms / Than he went through before.” And on that level one’s final thought, despite the evil and suffering that every life is subject to, can be one of hope and gratitude.


Related: The Editors, The Gift of Hope
John Garvey, Reasons for Our Hope
Matthew Boudway, Suffering, Silence & Holy Week

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.

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Published in the 2008-08-15 issue: View Contents
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