The terror attacks on Brussels show the human capacity to cause suffering. What is the Christian answer to suffering and injustice? What is the final outlook on the troubled life?

Europe is in shock. Brussels was hit by terror attacks. There is barely any other topic on the airways. The radio was full of new reports on casualty assessments, descriptions of the damage and eyewitness accounts. Facebook was overflowing with Pray for Brussels and other signs of solidarity with the Belgian people. Even if there were other topics, they felt out of place. The initial confusion had barely ended as the analysis began.

Why Brussels? Was it in retaliation for the arrest of Salah Abdeslam? Is the strong reaction to this attack not hypocritical compared to the late attacks at Istanbul, Ankara or even the war in Syria? Ideas and opinions from all kinds of angles appeared. But even with the many Pray for Brussels posts the Christian outlook was not discussed. What is the Christian view on these horrible acts at the beginning of Holy Week?

Pray for the Victims

Christians pray for the victims, for the dead, the wounded and the traumatized. They offer prayers for healing and strength, for consolation and for God to receive them into his beatific vision. These barbaric killings - all the suffering seems to be senseless, meaningless, utterly futile. Nevertheless there is hope in this. The Christian faith says the grace of God to redeems and transforms suffering. He unites it with the suffering of His Son on the cross. To be blunt, the Christian faith is more than a bit over the top on this issue. The belief that salvation comes from the suffering of an innocent on a cross is quite a stretch. On His undeserved death rests God’s plan for redemption.

This belief however must not diminish the suffering of those affected. They suffer horribly and their agony is most real. But it is ultimately not for nothing. God does use the bad to do good. The good might not be tangible or even remotely noticeable, but faith in the all-powerful loving God entails this belief. The proper balance between the reality of suffering and hope is difficult to understand and harder yet to keep. It is easier to focus on the perceptible suffering and to deny any meaning in it. The opposite is equally appealing. To escape worldly suffering by focusing solely on the world to come. To deny any real importance of suffering or even the physical world at large. The first is Materialism, the second Dualism. Both fail to see the truth of human suffering. Both make it impossible to suffer with dignity. Finally, under both of these terms suffering cannot be accepted.

The Dignity of Suffering

Materialism reduces the totality of existing things to the empirical, the realm of natural sciences, predominantly physics. Thus any “normative” value is limited to the individual perception of pleasure. To this view, suffering is nothing more than a lack of pleasure. It must be avoided at any cost and cannot contain any meaning beyond being unpleasant.

Dualism regards the material world as bad and corrupted, holding salvation to be the liberation from the material. The world and everything material needs to be overcome to find happiness and fulfillment. The truly wise and perfect soul is not affected by the material world. Therefore suffering as a part of the created world must be ignored.

But suffering is a vital part of human life and it has meaning beyond being unpleasant. Both come down to love. The goodness of love can be known by instinct. Human persons need to love and be loved. Without this an integral part of being human would be missing. The Second Vatican Council declared this truth most beautifully: “Man […] cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS 24). How can man make a sincere gift of himself?

By actively choosing the good of the other. Giving himself for the good of the other. This presupposes, however, a lack in the other. For an absolutely needless and perfect other this gift is meaningless. The gift cannot materialize in an act of man. Lack and suffering become opportunities to love. A world without suffering or lack would be alien to courage, fortitude, and the drama of the human life. A drama made up of high and low points, where the lowest points have more meaning than dull and ever steady “perfection”. It would be a world without love. Any doubts about this can be dealt with by a look at the increasingly rich and self-sufficient society and the decline of personal relationships and responsibility.

Pray for the Attackers

Properly understanding the truth of suffering is challenging with these horrible events. God’s vision of sin and guilt becomes almost impossible to humanly comprehend. What is the Christian hope for these criminals? Justice, for sure. Also a change of heart so they renounce violence. But ultimately it is more, way over the top more. The Christian hope is for their repentance and the forgiveness of their sins. The hope to see them in eternity, enjoying the beatific vision of God together with their victims.

To Forgive or Not to Forgive

This view will definitely draw some criticisms. It is at perfect display with an article on the conversion of Rudolf Höss, the first camp commander of Auschwitz. He received the Sacrament of Reconciliation in prison shortly before his execution. Presupposing he really repented of his crimes, God has forgiven him, and he will be in heaven. How is it possible to hope or even imagine the forgiveness of such abominable sins? Is this not an insult to the victims? Should it not be the victim’s choice to grant or withhold forgiveness?

It surely is the victim’s choice to do so. The vision of victim and attacker in heaven is not denying this. The victim being there must be especially noted. It means the victim would have forgiven the assailant. Christ affirmed an intrinsic connection between the gift and reception of forgiveness.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:14-15)

Everyone is in need of forgiveness. No one, not even a victim of horrible crimes could face the love of God while holding a grudge against his fellow man.

God’s Infinite Forgiveness

All of this only pertains to the personal forgiveness of the victim. There is more to it. One aspect can be observed within the justice system, in that, as far as the law is concerened, the forgiveness of a victim is only a side note. It might be taken into consideration as a mitigating circumstance to the severity of a penalty. It has no bearing however on the general question of guilt and the public interest of punishment for an offence.

Apart from the damage a sin does to the sinner and others, there is always damage to the relationship with God. Criminals, terrorists and dictators are made in the image and likeness of God and He intends and wishes them to be in what is called Heaven, the eternal relationship with Him. To this end He is very liberal with His mercy. As Pope Francis proclaims in Evangelii Gaudium, “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.” The sky is not the limit for God’s forgiveness. Only the human shame connected with sin is.

The Glory of Suffering

God’s mercy, His desire to forgive any and all sins and to draw all of His creatures into His love, is at full display throughout the Scriptures. There remains an obstacle to accept this unlimited mercy. The fear remains to diminish the victim and his suffering. How can this obstacle be overcome? With a look at the risen Christ. The glorified body of Christ still bears the wounds suffered at the cross. They are not just symbols, not just a nice reminder of the events that took place, but an integral part. The body is glorified with its history - including the wounds.

God does not diminish suffering. He will not simply take it away. This would render the suffering meaningless again. The importance of a deceased one and the love for him causes the suffering of loss. If there is no loss suffered, he was neither important nor loved. Just taking this suffering and making it disappear entails in return a diminishment of the deceased. God does not intend this. He, in contrast, enhances suffering and brings it to its fullness and glory. The ways He accomplishes this vary and are not fully understandable to the limited human understanding. But this is God’s plan, and He does make it happen as shown bye the prime model “the firstborn from among the dead” (Col 1:18).

God’s forgiveness is an integral part of this plan and therefore not opposed to the value of the victim and suffering. Pondering the glorified wounds of Christ could be a good exercise during the coming Easter time and in the aftermath of the next terrorist attack. Thereby receiving both hope within suffering and a better understanding of suffering and its place in Salvation History