Five children died in a house fire at a day care in Erie, Pa., last year. I read their obituaries on a local news website. One of the children “always wanted to be with his father.” Another was “inseparable” from her grandmother. A third was a nine-month-old infant who “loved to eat and was just learning to walk.” The Associated Press filmed the fire’s aftermath. The cameraman canvassed the house, its siding melted from the flame and its windows like pitch with the black of smoke. An empty stroller sat in front of the day care, consumed by fire. I was struck by the banality of it all: This was a small-time news story that hardly made it beyond Erie County, Pa. Five children were dead, their entire lives yet unlived. They would not get married. They would never have children. They would never grow old. Yet the world turned as if this unthinkable thing had never happened. Maybe the world should not be blamed for failing to stop and mourn every tragedy near and far. Tragedy is inevitable, and a fact of life. It is still a terrible fact.
There are countless Erie-type tragedies every year. Some, like that fire, make headlines in a local newspaper. Others do not. The most recent figures available from the World Health Organization counted more than 6 million deaths of children under the age of 15 in 2018. More than 80 percent of the under-five deaths that occurred globally in 2018 were located in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia. I venture that most of those children did not make the newspapers — the world at large continued to spin, Wall Street traders continued to trade, parties continued to be thrown, and life in the First World went on without much to-do. A day, a dollar, a hundred deaths in Djibouti.
The world is full of suffering, but you already knew that. One glance around our country at the moment will reveal as much: The aged sit alone in quarantined nursing homes, businesses built over generations have gone under with no certainty of return, and millions of people are unemployed. Each of those indignities may be but a faint shadow of the workaday indignities borne by a Malawian peasant, but it is suffering still, suffering enough to make a reasonable person wonder how a loving God could create a world in which such ignominy prevails. It is not merely an “unfair” world — to say that the world is “unfair” is to understate the magnitude of its brutality for the unfortunate children who waste away in their own filth in rural Somalia, or the hordes of elderly Americans who die alone with families sequestered by a generational virus. For all of its pleasures and joys — and there are many — the world is a place of unthinkable suffering.
The part of the Erie story that troubled me most was the terror those children must have felt as the fire enveloped the day-care building. Perhaps their terror lasted ten seconds; perhaps it lasted a minute. It is conceivable that it lasted longer than that. It is the thought of those five children confused and terrified that cries out to heaven for an answer, for some response to the charge that a God who would allow such a thing to happen is a cruel and capricious one worthy neither of our love nor our devotion. If God acquits Himself on that question, He did so in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the road to what many a gospel singer has called “the lonely hill of Golgotha.”
Jesus, to the Christian, is God. On Good Friday, it is God Himself who suffered in every conceivable way that human beings suffer. He died, sure — all men die — but He was tortured like a common criminal, He was humiliated in front of His family, He was reviled, spat upon, mocked and rejected by the members of His own community. With the prescience of the Divine mind, He sat in the garden of Gethsemane awaiting all of these horrors, and the certain arrival of his captors. God Himself sweat blood in anguish, lamenting the certain tortures of His scourging at the pillar, His crowning with thorns, and His crucifixion and death that lay in the immediate hours to come. But the torture was more than physical; Christ was a man, and He felt the crushing blow of being spurned and betrayed by one’s friends. It was His friend who handed Him over to die. It was His friend who denied Him three times. It was His friends who could not stay awake as He sweat blood in Gethsemane. All have been betrayed, but none quite like this.
Christ stood before the secular and religious authorities, bound like a farm animal, deemed worthy of death by the men He created before time. The state whose authority He ordained condemned Him to die — “You would have no authority over Me,” He tells the Roman prefect, “if it were not given to you from above.” The Nazarene accepts His fate without protest. He carries that heavy wooden cross to His death, whereupon He is laid in the tomb of a stranger after dying the death of a criminal. If Jesus of Nazareth is who He said He was, we have no reason to think that God Himself does not know what it is to suffer — as the British mathematician John Lennox said, “God has not remained distant from human suffering, but has Himself become part of it.” The Christian God hangs limp from an instrument of torture — that seems the only sort of God fit for a world such as this.