Theodicy refers to answering the problem of evil. The term was first coined by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to describe how the existence of evil in the world does not conflict with the supposedly essential goodness of God. Christian apologists spend an inordinate amount of time addressing this issue because the tremendous amount of suffering in the world naturally causes one to ponder why an all-loving god would allow it. The purpose of this essay is not to describe the intellectual gymnastics performed by theologians who attempt to explain why, for example, their god would allow a tsunami to snatch a newborn child from the arms of his or her mother. The purpose of this essay is simply to explain how one man finally came to see the light.
It was 7 a.m. on July 28, 2008. The dawn light had just begun to stream into our tent as my then seven-year-old daughter and I began to rouse at the base of Whistler’s Mountain near Jasper, Alberta, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. It was the kind of morning when you take a deep breath, stare up at the clear sky, and marvel at the beautiful world we live in. It was also, in retrospect, not a bad day to die if you had to pick one.
It was the last full day of our whirlwind father-daughter camping trip—a trip we had described as the trip of a lifetime before we left home and one that didn’t fall short of its high billing. For five days, we had been hiking, swimming, sightseeing, and generally inhaling the experience. Kind of a “dance on the surf while you can” week that we both knew would never again happen in quite the same way.
Our goal that morning was a simple one: to find some bighorn sheep to sketch and photograph. We left a coffee shop at about 9 a.m. and headed east on the Yellowhead Highway toward Edmonton. We drove for about half an hour before parking at a picnic area beside a small lake. I can picture the scene as if I were there right now. It was hot for a morning in the mountains. We had not bothered to put on our sunscreen (I remember thinking that my wife wouldn’t be pleased about that). We were sitting about fifty feet from the highway. Traffic was light that morning. I remember a few cars and some motorcycles passing by, most heading west toward Jasper and continuing on to the province of British Columbia.
We sat down at 9:30 a.m., and, despite not finding any bighorns, we spent the next two hours sketching scenery that was so striking it almost defies description. I took the photograph reproduced at right at 10:56 a.m. Shortly after that, we headed back to Jasper for lunch. We were a bit disappointed about not finding any sheep. As we left town, we noticed that Highway 16 was closed west of Jasper. “I bet there was a major accident in that direction,” I said as we drove by the blockade. I recall my daughter saying: “I hope nobody got hurt.”
It wasn’t until the next day that I learned what had happened on Highway 16. The following excerpt from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) press release describes it in more detail than is probably necessary for the purpose of this story (I have omitted all surnames):
Update Fatal Motor Vehicle Collision
Valemount, B.C. — July 29, 2008
Police investigators are now able to provide an update on the dynamics of a six (6) vehicle collision, which occurred on Highway #16, near Valemount on July 28, 2008.
It has now been established that a 2007 Toyota Echo from New Brunswick was traveling westbound on Highway #16, approximately one kilometer east of the Tete Jaune weigh scales, when it crossed the centre line into the path of an eastbound 1999 Kenworth tractor trailer unit from Alberta. It has been confirmed the vehicles collided in the eastbound lane. The collision damaged the steering of the transport truck, sending it off into a rest area where it collided with four (4) parked vehicles. The commercial transport first collided with a 2002 Suzuki motorcycle from Manitoba, knocking it into a pedestrian. The motorcycle was then forced into a 1993 Honda Civic from Alberta, also parked in the rest area. The Kenworth tractor trailer unit then collided with a 2002 Chevrolet Blazer, from Saskatchewan, which was subsequently collided with a second motorcycle, a 1997 Honda, from Manitoba.
The driver of the Toyota Echo, Shirley (53 years) of Kilburn, New Brunswick died in the collision. The driver’s daughter and right front passenger, Tracey (31 years) of Kilburn, New Brunswick and her daughter Katie (8 years) also died in the collision. Allie (5 years) sustained serious internal injuries in the collision and was transported to the Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, where she remains in stable condition.
Terrible accidents happen everywhere, every day. But what struck me about the events of July 28, 2008, is how dramatically different that day turned out for two little girls who came so close to each other (probably less than fifty feet) and who probably had much in common. My daughter was seven; Katie was eight. Both undoubtedly liked Bratz, Webkins, and Nancy Drew mysteries and still slept with their favorite doll. Both probably owned a Mini DS and might have been playing the same game in the back seat that morning. Both were vacationing with their families and traveling the same highway. Neither had any say about the vehicle in which they were riding that day. I was driving a small SUV. As noted above, Katie’s grandmother was driving a Toyota Echo. But it really doesn’t matter. Neither stand a chance in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer.
Katie died along with her grandma and her mom at 11:25 a.m. that morning. Katie would have passed the scene pictured above about thirty minutes before I took this photograph. The only saving grace in this incident (I hate that term) is that Katie probably did not suffer long.
My daughter made it home safe and sound—she is asleep upstairs as I write this. The scrapbook I made for her of our trip makes no mention of the tragedy that occurred that morning. She probably remembers it as one of the best days of our vacation. It was.
If the Judeo-Christian God ever existed, he/she/it died for me that day. There is simply no explanation for why an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful being would allow Katie to die in the horrific manner in which she did. There is similarly no explanation (aside from driver error) as to why Katie passed away many decades too soon, while my daughter has enjoyed two summers since then and I hope many more. Please don’t try to help me come to terms with this experience with platitudes like “It’s all part of God’s plan”; “It’s not for us to know”; “God works in mysterious ways”; or “She’s in a better place now.” All those explanations are a crock, and if the unimaginable suffering that occurs on a daily basis throughout the world does not convince you of that, nothing will.
Of course, the events that transpired on Highway 16 on July 28, 2008, were not unusual. Kids die of cancer, get run over by cars, drown in swimming pools, choke on sandwiches, get hit by stray bullets—you name it, and it will happen somewhere, sometime. Religious faith undoubtedly helps the parents who suffer these tragedies, but it does nothing to explain why they happen. The fact of these tragedies is, in my opinion, the ultimate disproof of the existence of God.