A Personal Perspective on the Problem of Evil
How God Brings Good Out of Tragic Loss
[This article was first published on Memorial Day, 2004 in response to an article in the Washington Post Magazine.]
Luther and Warhol
Martin Luther once wrote that “a theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating.” Andy Warhol is often quoted as saying that “everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” What do these two quotes have to do with each other? Simply that the truth of them both has been profoundly driven home to me this Memorial Day.
First, let me give you a brief account of my—or more precisely, my family’s—fifteen minutes of fame. The cover of this week’s Washington Post Magazine features a photograph of a young World War II soldier in uniform, along with a black-and-white snapshot of a young woman with her infant son. The title reads, “The Soldier in My Attic: A yellowed paper discovered in the rafters after 60 years leads to a forgotten hero, his lost son and the meaning of sacrifice.” That “forgotten hero” is my grandfather. His “lost son” is my father. And the woman in the snapshot who loved them both is my grandmother.
It’s not every day you get a reporter for the Washington Post piecing together your family history for you, but that is precisely what happened in our case, and the blessing it has been will be felt long after our fifteen minutes of fame are over. Peter Perl, a reporter who has lived in the Washington D.C. area for years, went into his attic one afternoon to measure it for new insulation. In the process, he discovered a tattered cardboard cylinder containing the personal effects and Purple Heart certificate of Second Lieutenant George Charles Oertel Jr., a soldier killed in World War II. Curious to find out who this soldier was, Mr. Perl embarked on a process of discovery which has helped to fill in some of the blanks in my family’s history and to acquaint my dad with the biological father who died when he was just six months old.
I would, of course, encourage everyone to read the aforementioned article, not merely because it concerns my family, but because it is a powerfully written and fitting Memorial Day tribute to the soldiers who have sacrificed—and who continue to sacrifice—everything for the cause of freedom.
By now it should be clear why I quoted Warhol’s comment about everyone enjoying fifteen minutes of fame, but Luther’s enigmatic statement about a theologian “dying and being damned” may take a little more explaining. I understand Luther to mean by this that a true theology must be worked out in the context of real life and refined in the crucible of facing death and its aftermath. Theology cannot merely be done by means of scholarly research and philosophical speculation, because it deals with questions of life, death, and the hope of salvation. The true theologian is one who can apply his theology to life, and whose life informs his theology.
My grandfather’s brief life and tragic death raise an important theological question: how could a good God allow such a promising young life to be cut short? It is a question we ask whenever we witness tragic loss, senseless suffering, or random catastrophe. If God is perfectly good and all-powerful, why does he permit such evils to take place? Theologians and philosophers refer to this question as the “problem of evil,” and it has puzzled mankind since the beginning of time. Assuming, however, that Luther was on to something, let’s use this real-life tragedy as a test-case for understanding the problem of evil. Can we make sense of such a senseless loss? Can we possibly see God’s hand in the midst of it?
A Tragic Loss
My grandfather’s brief life was one of tremendous promise, as I think anyone who reads the Washington Post article would agree. First, there was the promise of his individual potential. A gifted athlete, he had dreams of a professional baseball career after he returned from the war. As a soldier, he appears to have distinguished himself, going from enlisted man to Second Lieutenant during his training, and receiving the Combat Infantryman Badge for “exemplary conduct in action against the enemy.” As a young man, he was apparently deeply religious, very close to his family, and devoted to his young wife.
This last character trait brings us to another area of promise in this young man’s life: the promise of his family legacy. George Oertel Jr. had met and married Gabrielle Louise Hopping, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Brigadier General Andrew Hopping, while back home on leave. They got pregnant right away, and he was shipped out just before George Oertel III, my father, was born. Father and son never saw each other except in photographs, never got to toss the baseball George Jr. was so adept with, never got to live together as a family.
George Jr. was cut down by German artillery fire in an Italian village when my father was still a baby. His wife was a widow at the age of twenty, and she and my dad went to live with her parents for a couple of years. Eventually, she met and married Allen Lang, who adopted my father and changed his name to George Charles Lang.
It’s a Wonderful Death?
For all the reasons listed above, my grandfather’s death was a tragic loss that makes little sense. This loss is compounded when you consider that he was just one of many millions of young soldiers and civilians whose lives were lost in that epic war. But what if that war had never happened? What if my grandfather had been allowed to grow old with his new wife and son? Asking these questions is a little like It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse, but it’s an exercise that will help us come to terms with the “problem of evil” in a way that no logical syllogism could ever accomplish.
If World War II had never happened, if Adolf Hitler had been content with murdering his political rivals in Germany rather than embarking on a course of world conquest, it’s uncertain whether George Oertel Jr. would ever have met, much less married, Gabrielle Louise Hopping. Theirs was a whirlwind, war-time romance, and if it hadn’t been for that war, my father might never have been conceived. For that matter, if it weren’t for World War I, my grandmother likewise might never have been conceived, since she was the daughter of an American doughboy who married a French woman, my great-grandmother “Dee-Dee” (so called because my dad couldn’t pronounce Gabrielle). In a very real sense, I owe my life to the two costliest, most devastating wars in history.
Now, suppose my grandfather had survived the war and returned home. If that had happened, it is doubtful my father and his family would ever have moved to Florida. My grandfather’s family lived in the D.C. area, and he likely would have done the same. Even if he would have decided to move his family elsewhere, what are the chances he would have taken them to the small town of Winter Haven, Florida, where my father met my mother? My father moved there because that was the home of his adoptive father, Allen Lang. Had my grandfather lived, I might never have been born, my wife would be married to someone else, and my four beautiful children [now five] would never have come into this world. When that artillery shell exploded on July 11, 1944, it tragically ended a promising young life, but it also set into motion a chain of events for which I cannot help but be thankful.
Was it good that my grandfather was killed a few short months before his twenty-fifth birthday? Absolutely not. But can it be said that God has used that tragic event for His good purposes? I’d like to think it can. I’m not so sure my presence in the world can be considered an unqualified good. I’m certainly not a better man than the one whose blood runs through my veins. But when I look into the faces of David, Caleb, Bethany, and Alexa [and now also Josiah], I know that God has used my grandfather’s death to make the world a better place. My grandfather gave his life to stop fascism, and God has used his death to bring about new and wonderful life.
It’s Not Always So Easy
It’s admittedly not always so easy to see how God uses tragic events for His good purposes. My grandfather was cut down in his youth, but not before he had conceived a son who in turn has had two children and seven grandchildren [soon to be nine when my sister has her fourth child later this year]. There were countless other soldiers who died without leaving any descendants behind. Where is the good that came out of their deaths? Or what about my nephew, Chad, who developed leukemia at age four and died just weeks before his ninth birthday? Where is the good in that tragic loss? What about the thousands who died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon on what would have been Chad’s twelfth birthday? How has God used that horrific event for good?
We may never know, or see, the countless ways God brings good out of evil, gain out of loss, or blessing out of tragedy. Yet we have two sources of assurance that God always intends for good what man and his fallen world have intended for evil (Genesis 50:20). First, we have the example of the cross: how the salvation of many was accomplished through the greatest evil the world has ever known. Second, we have the assurance of God’s Word, which tells us that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB). We may not always see how, but we have no reason to doubt that God will be true to this promise. The cross of Christ, and the empty tomb, should be all the evidence we need. And if we look closely at those tragedies which touch our own lives, we may just catch a glimpse of God’s good purposes in them, and find reason to give thanks even in the midst of our tears.