I approach this post with considerable caution and trepidation.
One, because this is not a theoretical situation but real people’s lives. Two, because I have no direct personal relation to the situation and know nothing but what I’ve seen in the news. Three, because despite that lack of involvement and knowledge, it still arouses incredibly strong feelings and questions in me. Four, because some of the feelings and questions it arouses seem to impugn the God who I love and worship.
So I’ll try to tread carefully through the minefield.
‘Maddie’ is back in the headlines just now, after some years’ media silence. Fresh lines of inquiry have opened up and the BBC has run a special Crimewatch programme which has provoked a massive public response. There seems once more to be a small but tantalising new hope that she might be found – or at least that the truth of what happened might finally emerge.
The Madeleine McCann case is one that has stirred an enormous emotional response in countless people who are in no way connected with the family or the situation – myself included. It taps into some of our deepest instincts – to protect young children; and our deepest fears – that our own child may be taken. And the fact that the image we’ve all seen of Madeleine’s face shows us a sweet, innocent, trusting and pretty young child hugely strengthens the emotional and visceral pull.
Of course, hundreds of other children go missing every year, and receive no media attention. They all matter just as much as ‘Maddie’, and are all as tragic and troubling. But ‘Maddie’ has somehow become symbolic or representative of all of these, and of something deeper and wider than herself. The search for her has taken on an almost spiritual significance.
So though I have no personal involvement with the case, I find I still have strong feelings and views on it. And some of those take the shape of profound theological concerns, which is why they’ve made their way onto this blog.
The problems of pain and evil
Now of course the problems of pain, of suffering and of evil are not new theological conundrums. Probably every Christian throughout the ages has wrestled with them, not just intellectually but personally, when faced directly with the reality of death, disease, war, poverty, violent crime, betrayal, bereavement and all the other pains and horrors of the world. The Bible is chock full of these things, which is partly why it’s such uncomfortable reading – and frustratingly it offers very few answers.
So we know that there is evil in the world (and in us), and that bad things frequently happen to good people apparently for no reason. Most of the time most Christians are still able to worship God despite this – even in some cases because of it, driven to God by our desperate need. We live with the tension and the mystery, as I think we have to. Much of the time we simply ignore it, because it’s too difficult to face.
But occasionally a case comes along which causes some of us to pause and question again, and for me Madeleine McCann’s is just such a case. Perhaps it’s because it involves a young and defenceless child. Perhaps it’s also because I have a daughter of my own, whose safety and wellbeing are regular subjects of my prayers.
For some the main question raised by the ‘Maddie’ case is why God let it happen. Doubtless the McCanns prayed for their daughter’s safety like most parents who have any form of religious faith. Why didn’t God answer that most basic of all parental prayers?
I don’t know. But I do know and accept that God does at times let all sorts of awful stuff happen, including to Christians. I don’t like this; but I do accept that it may just be part of how the world has to be if we’re to have any degree of freedom and moral responsibility. And I believe that God is in the business of redemption, of bringing good out of bad.
When God knows but seems to do nothing
So for me the big question is not why God let it happen, but why God has not (apparently) done anything about it since it happened.
I did a double-take when I first prayed ‘God, please find Madeleine’ and then realised that God didn’t need to find her. For if God is who I believe him to be, he knows exactly where Madeleine is, and always has done. Furthermore, I believe that God must be capable of communicating the knowledge of her whereabouts to someone who could do something about it. And this is what bothers me – that God knows and yet appears to do nothing.
I struggle with this. If God is good and loving and has any power at all, I can’t make any sense of this apparent inaction. It also hugely challenges my own faith – not that God exists, but that he will look after my own children.
The thing is, belief in a perfect, all-wise and all-loving God is axiomatic for me. I consider that the existence of goodness, reason, beauty and love in the universe point inevitably to a personal God who is both the source and epitome of these qualities. Otherwise their existence makes no sense to me. And much in my own experience backs up this view.
Yet the world also throws other evidence at me – like the Maddie case – that doesn’t seem to fit with this at all. At times I feel like the title character of Voltaire’s satirical Candide, who naively refuses to let go of his philosophy that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’ in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Atheism, Deism and other possible answers
It would be easy then just to say that life is meaningless and God is a childish fantasy. Many do say this. But for me this is too easy; a cop-out.
Others will say that God exists but never intervenes; that’s just not the kind of God he is. After all, it’s obvious that a loving, wise and powerful God should act in such a case unless he’s fundamentally opposed to such involvement or intervention. QED.
The trouble is, I’m convinced that I have experienced God’s active involvement in my own life, and seen it in the lives of others. Which makes it harder to understand why he isn’t apparently acting in cases like this one; but at the same time slightly easier to trust that he does care and knows what he’s up to.
A few possible answers occur to me which preserve God’s character in the face of his apparent failure to act.
Firstly, it may be that God just hasn’t been able to act overtly or directly, because any such action would endanger Maddie or not actually be in her best interests. He may well have been acting slowly and painstakingly behind the scenes, and the new lines of inquiry may be the fruit of that. Just because God takes a lot longer to do things than I’d like doesn’t mean he’s not doing anything.
Alternatively, it may be that God has been doing his best to communicate her whereabouts, but no-one’s been listening. That strikes me as harder to accept, because I’m sure plenty of people have been listening; and surely an infinitely wise and resourceful God could find a way to get a message across even to the most recalcitrant of non-listeners. There are plenty of Christians who claim to receive messages from God on an almost daily basis; if even any of them are for real, couldn’t God have spoken through one of them?
Finally, there’s the longer-term answer which feels like a cop-out but I think isn’t. Which is that this life and this world are passing away, and there is a coming Kingdom in which all the wrongs of this world will be finally and fully righted. Evil will not get the last word. But that’s not always very comforting right here and now.
I’m sure there are other possible answers too. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to provide answers when God himself offers none. Perhaps we do sometimes simply have to live in the unresolved tension between our faith and our experience.
And perhaps we’re also allowed to get angry with God and to hold him to account according to his character. The biblical psalmists and prophets did it all the time, and God generally didn’t seem to object. Perhaps such anger can at times even be the truest worship.
- The Sandy Hook tragedy: a response
- Remembering Millie – tragedy transformed
- Does God intervene?
- Earthquakes, suffering and God
- Getting angry with God