Unbroken is the sort of book which might provide a useful real-life “Exhibit A” supplement to the standard philosophical readings in a course on the problem of evil. The unbelievably relentless, concentrated, years-long deprivation and cruelty Zamperini suffered, first at sea, and then in a series of notoriously brutal Japanese prisoner of war camps, give the lie to any facile theodicy. I have argued that the existence of even the worst evils gives us absolutely no reason whatsoever to doubt the existence and goodness of the God of classical theism. In that sense the problem of evil poses no intellectual difficulty for theism. But I have also insisted that evil poses an enormous practical difficulty, because while we can know with certainty that God has a reason for allowing the evil He does, we are very often simply not in a position to know what that reason is in this or that particular case. We can know some of the general ways in which good can be drawn out of evil – our free choices have a significance that they would not have otherwise; we can make of our sufferings an opportunity for penance for the sins we have committed; we are able to develop moral virtues such as patience, gratitude, courage, compassion, and so forth – but we cannot expect always to know why this specific child was allowed to be raped and murdered or that specific village was allowed to be destroyed by an earthquake. Or why men like Zamperini – many of whom did not live to tell their stories – were permitted to endure what, even in light of the general considerations just mentioned, seems sheer “overkill.”
At the same time, it is also possible to lapse into sentimentality on the other side. We all know of the sort of embittered atheist who has suffered far less than a Louis Zamperini and yet who goes about his life with a metaphysical chip on his shoulder – “God done me wrong!” or even “Maybe I’ve been lucky, but look what God has let other people suffer through!” Don’t misunderstand: I have known people who have abandoned religion because of the real suffering they endured, and for whom I feel compassion. But I have also known people whose appeal to the problem of evil has seemed to me an exercise in self-righteous rationalization. “What a compassionate person I am for rejecting a God who would allow such evil, and how cold-hearted you religious people are for not doing so!” – that sort of thing. And I have also known people who have suffered enormously – in one case, to a degree that would make for a book worthy of the Laura Hillenbrand treatment – and yet whose faith in God has been their refuge.