When I talk to atheists about Christianity, one of the most common objections they raise is the existence of suffering. An atheist friend recently cited one of the more disgusting stories from the day’s news and asked: “How can you believe that there’s a loving God when something like that happens?”
One self-described ex-Christian explained it to me this way: “They always told me in church that Jesus died on the cross for me because he loved me. I used to believe that, and then my mom got cancer and my sister was killed in a car accident. Now I don’t see why Jesus’ death on the cross matters, and I definitely don’t believe that he loves me.”
I can sympathize with those feelings. Though I’ve never seriously doubted the Faith since I became Catholic, the moments when I feel most distant from God, least able to make sense of it all, are when I hear of great injustice and suffering. Just a couple weeks ago I came across a particularly horrific story from the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, and I was so distraught and angry that it felt like God was a million miles away. Echoing the sentiments of my atheist friends, I thought, Lord, how could you allow this?
This is why we need Ash Wednesday. In fact, I’ve often thought that if I could invite my atheist friends to only one Catholic event, it would be an Ash Wednesday Mass. Because it is there that we receive the key piece of information that makes it all make sense.
Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.
Those words from Genesis 3:19 are probably the one thing on which all humans from every place and time can agree. The modern parlance might be, “You are chemical reactions, and one day those reactions will cease,” or maybe “Your body is matter, made of atoms like all the other lifeless stuff in the universe, and one day it will return to being lifeless matter like everything else,” but regardless of how it is phrased it is nevertheless something we all know to be true. It is probably simultaneously the most important, most agreed upon, and most ignored fact of life. And when we ignore it—when we slide into the mentality that our eternity is here, that this world is all there is and all there will ever be—Christianity ceases to make sense.
But to hear those words is to have your priorities instantly ordered. It is to realize that all those questions about what happens here on earth—“How could God allow suffering?”, “Why does God permit injustice?”—are focused in the wrong place. We have a few short years here in the material world, and then we face eternity. A God who permits a finite amount of suffering and injustice doesn’t seem so cold when you consider that he’s leading us toward an eternity of perfect peace and justice. The incalculable value of Jesus’ death on the cross can only begin to be understood in light of a timeless future. When we adopt a heaven-centered worldview, it all starts to make sense.
Peter Kreeft wrote in this must-read article:
Quo vadis? Where are you going? That’s the most important question for a traveler. And we the living are all travelers. Death calls us all and moves us on. Stability is illusion. So those who cannot abide illusion must raise the question: Quo vadis?
If heaven is not the answer to the question, our whole faith is false, and Jesus was a fool. If it is, then there’s nothing that is more important in the whole world. Indeed, the whole world is only heaven’s womb. [emphasis mine]
This is why I love Ash Wednesday Mass each year. Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return. I hear that simple nine-word litany, repeated as each person is marked with ashes, and I am reminded of the truth that makes it all make sense: that our lives here on earth are merely a brief stay in the womb of heaven.