As the Rev. Brian Jordan walked back to his friary after comforting the wounded and blessing the dead at the World Trade Center disaster site Tuesday, he was confronted on Sixth Avenue by a frantic man.
"Why did God permit this catastrophe to happen?" the man screamed at the brown-robed Franciscan priest.
Jordan tried to calm him. "God did not do this," he said. "It was evil acts done by men."
The man, uncomforted, turned and walked away, cursing God.
Similar scenes played out across the country last week, as ministers and rabbis, philosophers and theologians, and people in the pews grasped for an explanation to provide comfort or offer meaning to the tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington.
The horrors of terrorism and mass death, people leaping from burning buildings, victims buried under rubble, the suffering of the wounded and anguish of loved ones are all the result of what was repeatedly described as unmitigated evil.
"Americans tend to downplay the forces of evil, but now, we've stared at evil in its rawest form," said the Rev. Constantine M. Monios, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore. "The devil is a very powerful force."
In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in American history, both clergy and their congregants are wrestling with perhaps the oldest theological quandary. It was articulated by the Rev. Billy Graham at Friday's national prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington: "Why does God allow evil like this to take place?"
Easy answers are elusive.
"I'm stumbling here because this kind of thing makes me question in my own mind what evil is and how I personally understand evil," said the Rev. Teresa Jo Martin-Minnich, consultant on children's ministry for the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore.
"To me, evil comes from the choice to do what is opposite of God. If our understanding of God is a God of love and compassion and selflessness, evil is the opposite of that," she said. "Killing innocent people to get the world's attention or to get revenge, it boggles my mind."
The problem of evil is a stumbling block even for a veteran evangelist like Graham.
"I have been asked hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and suffering," he said in his sermon Friday. "I have to confess that I really do not know the answer totally, even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and he is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering."
For many, the answer lies in the concept of free will - in which God gives humans the freedom to act, rather than acting as a puppet master. Under this explanation, humans must bear responsibility for their actions.
"What happened here was an exercise of God-given freedom, but an exercise that was insane and irrational," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, Roman Catholic archbishop of Baltimore.
"It's tragic; it is beyond ordinary logical comprehension. But our faith tells us it's not something God directly willed," Keeler said. "In this case, it's human freedom being used in a bad fashion - which is sin."
Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman, spiritual leader of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Stevenson, called freely committed evil acts the "shadow side of religion."
"It's not the absence of God, but the abrogation of God's power and wisdom and omniscience, and assuming that human beings have it," he said. "It's the idolatry of thinking you know for sure what God wants. This is an exercise of human free will, man exercising his own free will and the evil to which man is capable of descending in order to have one's way."
Some see the death and devastation as a divine warning or punishment.
Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion activist group, called the suicide attacks "just another sign of the judgment of God upon our nation" for tolerating abortion.
"We have turned our backs on God, and we are now reaping the horrible consequences of our error," said an Operation Rescue news release.
"We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, 'Why does this happen?' " said religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. "It is happening because God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."
The problem is that such explanations run into contradictions or limitations, said the Rev. Christopher Leighton, a Presbyterian theologian and director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.
"If God's a God of history and God disclosed [himself] in events that define our world, as Christians and Jews have historically insisted, then where was God in all of this?" Leighton said. "Now if one says God wasn't involved in all this because this was an act of free will and that these were godless acts, then one in essence clears a space where God is not."
In other words, Leighton asserts, it would not be a God of the Bible, who is present in all events.
Nor would a God who orchestrates such a disaster to punish humanity comport with Christian tradition, Leighton said. "It certainly doesn't seem to be the act of a God that claims life is sacred," he said.
Looking for comfort
A third alternative was offered by Elie Wiesel in his autobiographical novel Night, in which he describes witnessing the hanging of a child at the Auschwitz concentration camp. As the child dangled from the rope, a man behind Wiesel shouted out, "Where is God now?"
"And I heard a voice within me answer him," Wiesel wrote. "'Where is God? Here he is - He is hanging here, on this gallows.' "
God is present in such an evil act because God is with those who suffer, Wiesel asserts.
"Well that's not good enough for me," Leighton said. "Because if God is a powerless victim, then many of the characteristics of God in my tradition are a mismatch - almighty, all-powerful, all-good, all-loving - all those things would not seem to apply."
The answer to the problem of evil might be the one God gave to Job: My ways are inscrutable to humans. I am a mystery.
"This is a time when those prayers of lament seem to me to be enormously germane," Leighton said. "The ones that say, 'God, wake up! Where are you? You're asleep at the switch.' That is a kind of piety that resonates very much with me."
As communities of faith gather this weekend, they will confront the reality of evil. They will look within at the evil in their lives.
And they will also comfort one another, and their children, with the reassurance of their own communal goodness and fellowship. "We should be honest with our children and let them know evil does exist," the Rev. Dean Moralis told his congregation at Baltimore's Greek Orthodox Cathedral last week. "And yet," he said, "we should let them know the strength of their faith and families they have in their young lives will always be with them."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times