The Problem of Evil in Graham Greene’s The Hint of an Explanation

“Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.”  ∼Matthew 6:34

Evil is an ever-present reality of our lives, but it is one with which we have difficulty reconciling ourselves. Why does evil happen to good people, or for that matter, why does evil happen at all? The problem of evil in the world—closely related to the equally difficult problem of free will—is one of the classic scandals when it comes to the Faith. How can anyone hold that there is a good, loving, and all-powerful God if evil also exists in the world? Why would not God just eradicate all evil? This problem was nearly the undoing of the righteous Job, as he was relentlessly pressured by the young Elihu. This problem made an atheist of Ivan Karamazov after he witnessed unspeakable atrocities while enlisted. God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind in the book named for him is mysterious: our ways are not His ways and the wisdom of man is the foolishness of God. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) Dostoyevsky likewise offers the mystical answer of universal human responsibility. It is this perennial problem of evil that Graham Greene tackles in his excellent short story with a provocatively strange title: The Hint of an Explanation.

Perhaps the most famous answer to the problem of evil in the world comes from Saint Augustine, who claims that God brings good out of evil. “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” (Enchiridion xi) It is one thing, however, intellectually to assent to a proposition such as “God allows evil so that He might turn it into goodness,” but it is quite another to have real assent to the same proposition. Real assent, says Cardinal Newman, necessitates some actual experience joined with the purely abstract and notional understanding of a proposition. It is here that Saint Augustine’s answer (also espoused by Saint Thomas Aquinas) can seem wanting or unsatisfactory, especially to one who has witnessed or experienced great suffering.

Graham Greene’s The Hint of an Explanation opens on a dark train where two strangers, an agnostic and a Catholic, begin a conversation. It is not long before the two begin to talk about God and the agnostic communicates his revulsion at the idea of a God who would allow such unspeakable evils, especially towards children. After giving the standard short answer which is coldly received by the agnostic, the Catholic launches into a story from his own childhood.

The story recounts an elaborate and wicked seduction. The Catholic, David, grew up in a small and mostly Protestant town. One of the bakers in the town, to whom Greene gives the bluntly significant name of Blacker, is an atheist who hates the Catholics. He devises an ingenious plan to secure a consecrated host. And to do this, the cyclopean Blacker cleverly and deviously enlists the help of the 10-year-old David, who happens to be an altar boy.

In Blacker, Greene has created a magnificent villain. The atheist baker who desires to examine a consecrated host under a microscope is simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. He asserts his unbelief in the God of the Catholics, yet his desire to possess the host reaches a level of ferocious obsession. He is a self-proclaimed “free-thinker” yet Greene pointedly shows how Blacker is the very opposite of free. His hate-fuelled obsession and the idea of taking vengeance against the Catholics have destroyed any freedom he once might have enjoyed. Our last glimpse of Blacker is at once terrifying and pathetic and he walks away from David’s house a broken man and in tears.

On the surface the story is horrifying. Blacker is a frightening antagonist and the calculating corruption and manipulation of David is nothing short of pure evil. And yet the story pointedly ends with David affirming that he is a truly happy man. And we are led to believe that David would possibly never have found this happiness without Blacker’s unintended assistance. Through stealing the Eucharist, David comes to a true and profound understanding of what the sacrament actually is.

The Host has always been to me—well, the Host. I knew theoretically, as I have said, what I had to believe, but suddenly, as someone whistled in the road outside, whistled secretively, knowingly, to me, I knew that this which I had beside my bed was something of infinite value.

 As a result of David’s horrific and traumatic experience, he gained a priceless treasure. And as a natural consequence of this realization, he became a priest so that he might dedicate his life to that sacrament and to the God who lovingly gave it to His creatures.

As mentioned before, this story bears a strange title. Greene is not proposing an answer to the problem of evil since it cannot be adequately answered in this vale of tears where we do not see the whole picture or, to borrow a powerful image from Chesterton, where we see only the tangled and confused back of the beautiful tapestry we will ultimately behold in Paradise. Any explanation that attempts philosophical universality will always seem to fall short when contrasted with actual experience. There is indeed an explanation; but this explanation can only be partially understood through divine hints.

“Oh, they mean very little in cold print—or cold speech,” he said, shivering in his overcoat. “And they mean nothing at all to a human being other than the man who catches them. They are not scientific evidence—or evidence at all for that matter. Events that don’t, somehow, turn out as they were intended—by the human actors I mean, or by the thing behind the human actors.”

 Father Jacques Philippe expresses this same truth in another way in his wonderful little book, Searching For and Maintaining Peace:

And I believe that this is the true response to the mystery of evil and suffering. It is not a philosophical response, but an existential one. In abandoning myself to God, I experience in a concrete fashion that “it really works,” that God makes all things work together for my good, even evil, even suffering, even my own sins.

This existential response to the problem of evil is what Graham Greene is after in this gripping little story. And indeed the existential nature of his response explains the rather strange title. The story makes no claims to explain the problem adequately, but it does give a hint of an explanation. It remains a hint because it is only truly meaningful for David. While it is not a philosophical proof that can satisfy all, it is a strong proof nonetheless for David, and through him, it is possibly a hint of an explanation for others as well. David attempts to use it with his interlocutor on the train and while it might be easily dismissed on an intellectual level, on an emotional level the agnostic is struck by David’s story and, more importantly, his happiness. And this evil experience from David’s youth is not only juxtaposed with his present happiness, but is also the very cause of it.

Stephen Fitzpatrick

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Stephen Fitzpatrick received a B.A. in the Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Scranton. He teaches at Gregory the Great Academy.

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