St John Chrysostom comments on the horrible massacre of the innocent children by King Herod in this way:-
“The Evangelist by this history of so bloody a massacre, having filled the reader with horror, now again sooths his feelings, shewing that these things were not done because God could not hinder, or knew not of them; but as the Prophet had foretold.”
Doubtless some people will be satisfied with this account of these terrible events on the basis that once a matter has been foretold in prophecy, and therefore being part of God’s plan, even the most horrendous actions of men can all serve God’s ultimate purpose. Whereas I would agree that such an interpretation is in accordance with both Scripture and the Tradition of the Church I am nonetheless unhappy with the implication, namely that these things have to happen in order that God’s will might be fulfilled. After all, what is this really saying about God? … that He is prepared to allow the suffering and death of so many innocents in order to achieve his divine purpose? This is a question not without significance in the Middle East today and especially Syria as thousands of new innocents are being slaughtered in the context of a Civil War which is ripping the heart out of both a modern multicultural state and an ancient civilisation.
Although God’s will for goodness and human flourishing can and does triumph over opposing forces of darkness and evil it is not, I think, defensible to claim that God allows such horrors even for a higher purpose. The great Russian novelist and Orthodox Christian, Fyodor Dostoevsky could not allow, rightly in my opinion, that the God of love whom he knew would ever allow such a thing. He wrote the following for one of his characters in his novel “The Brothers Karamazov” after posing a hypothetical question concerning a world where just one child would have to suffer in order to save it:
“Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering.”
We need, therefore, to take seriously the truth that human beings can do terrible things and in so doing oppose the will of God, at least for a time. Even Muslims with their emphasis on the sovereignty of God’s will and Kismet - which we might translate as our divine fate under that will - do not go so far as to say that God wills human sin. Christians certainly are bound to resist strongly such an idea, which would make God Himself culpable of evil. In the light of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross we do insist that God’s will, although suffering many reversals in the affairs of men, cannot ultimately be undone. In this act of faith we have the testimony of the resurrection that God’s love and redeeming power is far stronger than sin, suffering, evil and death. No matter what we do to each other, God will not abandon us to our own fate, by which I mean the consequences of our sin. It only takes one or two people to change their lives by divine grace for even the most corrupting evil to be cleansed from the face of the earth.
The transformative power of God’s love is an intensely personal thing but its effects can be universal. We should never therefore underestimate what God can do through the actions of even one virtuous man or woman of faith. We saw this in the life and work of the recently reposed Nelson Mandela. Before his incarceration on Robin Island it would be fair to say that he was to some extent an embittered angry young man; understandably so in the light of the horrors of the apartheid regime. However, although he left Robin Island with this convictions and life vocation still intact, he did so as a changed man, a man who was now prepared to fight with justice and truth and not with a rifle. His fortitude and faith, forged through years of privation and suffering, were his strongest weapons. As a result a whole society was transformed for the better with little or no bloodshed. Since he was a believer we can confidently claim that God achieved outstanding social change through the perseverance and sacrifice of this one man.
If we apply this lesson to those situations in the world today where innocents still suffer we may draw two conclusions. First, we can recognise that blame must be attributed where it is due; namely that humans themselves are responsible, rather than God, for the suffering they inflict on each other. Second, God waits on those who will be capable of rolling back the tide of evil through their own sacrifice for justice and truth. What God will require of such a person varies of course according to each given situation. In the case of Syria what is needed now are men and women of integrity, perhaps also even children who will show persecutors and murderers a better way to live and a Godly route to reconciliation and reconstruction. Among Syrian Christians and Muslims alike there will surely be such persons who will stand against the tide of meaningless hatred and who will stand up, to death if needs be, for a divine love that can rebuild that beautiful and historic country.
Let us seek the prayers of the Holy Innocents of old that the sacrifice of all those innocents today will not go unheeded but rather itself will become a turning point for new life. Closer to home let us pray that each one of us and each family may guard the precious flame of life, of liberty, of compassion and of truth, by faith both in God and in humanity. The fire of this hope must not go out for as the great St John the Theologian wrote in the prologue to his Gospel concerning the Incarnation:- “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) For all those who bear the name of Christ, the darkness must not overcome their indwelling Light, which is the God of resurrection and the God of hope.