Mark Twain’s Little Bessie & The Problem of Evil

By | May 13, 2010

I thought of posting something on the problem of evil. It is a problem I have studied and thought much about; eventually I will post some of my thoughts on the issue. But presently I thought that a piece from Mark Twain would do. He was a master at presenting hard philosophical, social issues by way of sympathetic and interesting characters. In this case, he uses a precocious young girl, Bessie, to present a number of issues regarding the traditional attempt to explain why bad things happen in light of a faith that a good, all-powerful God is in control.

Enjoy and think about the difficulties that Bessie’s mother encounters when she gives her standard replies to the child’s probing questions.

Little Bessie would assist providence…”, from the writings of Mark Twain:

Little Bessie was nearly three years old. She was a good child, and not shallow, not frivolous, but meditative and thoughtful, and much given to thinking out the reasons of things and trying to make them harmonize with results. One day she said:

“Mama, why is there so much pain and sorrow and suffering? What is it all for?”

It was an easy question, and Mama had no difficulty answering it:
“It is for our good, my child. In his wisdom and mercy the Lord sends us these afflictions to discipline us and make us better.”

“Is it He that sends them?”


“Does He send all of them, Mama?”

“Yes dear, all of them. None of them comes by accident. He alone sends them, and always out of love for us and to make us better.”

“Isn’t it strange?”

“Strange? Why no, I have never thought of it in that way. I have not heard anyone call it strange before. It has always seemed natural and right to me, and wise and most kindly and merciful.”

“Who first thought of it like that, Mama? Was it you?”

“Oh no, child, I was taught it.”

“Who taught you so, Mama?”

“Why really, I don’t know — I can’t remember. My mother, I suppose, or the preacher. But it’s a thing that everybody knows.”

“Well anyway, it does seem strange. Did He give Billy Norris the typhus?”


“What for?”

“Why to discipline him and make him good.”

“But he died, Mama, and so it couldn’t make him good.”

“Well, then, I suppose it was for some other reason. We know it was a good reason, whatever it was.”

“What do you think it was?”

“Oh, you ask so many questions! I think it was to discipline his parents.”

“Well then, it wasn’t fair, Mama. Why should his life be taken away for their sake, when he wasn’t doing anything?”

“Oh, I don’t know! I only know it was for a good and wise and merciful reason.”

“What reason, Mama?”

“I think … I think … well, it was a judgment; it was to punish them for some sin they had committed.”

“But he was the one that was punished, Mama. Was that right?”

“Certainly, certainly. The Lord does nothing that isn’t right and wise and merciful. You can’t understand these thing now, dear, but when you are grown up you will understand them, and then you will see that they are just and wise.”

(After a pause:)

“Did He make the roof fall in on the stranger that was trying to save the crippled old woman from the fire, Mama?”

“Yes, my child. Wait! Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. I only know it was to discipline some one, or to be a judgment upon somebody, or to show His power.”

“That drunken man that stuck a pitchfork into Mrs. Welch’s baby when …”

“Never mind about it, you needn’t go into particulars; it was to discipline the child — that much is certain, anyway.”

“Mama, Mr. Burgess said in his sermon that billions of little creatures are sent into us to give us cholera, and typhoid, and lockjaw and more than a thousand and other sicknesses and — Mama, does He send them?”

“Oh certainly, child, certainly. Of course.”

“What for?”

“Oh, to discipline us! Haven’t I told you so, over and over again?”

“It’s awful cruel, Mama! And silly! And if I….”

“Hush, oh hush! Do you want to bring the lightning?”

“You know the lightning did come last week, Mama, and struck the new church, and burnt it down. Was it to discipline the church?”

(Wearily) “Oh, I suppose so.”

“But it killed a hog that wasn’t doing anything. Was it to discipline the hog, Mama?”

“Dear child, don’t you want to run out and play awhile? If you would like to ….”

“Mama, only think! Mr. Hollister says there isn’t a bird or fish or reptile or any other animal that hasn’t got an enemy that Providence has sent to bite it and chase it and pester it and kill it and suck its blood and discipline it and make it good and religious. Is it true, Mother — because if it is true why did Mr. Hollister laugh at it?”

“That Hollister is a scandalous person, and I don’t want you to listen to anything he says.”

“Why Mama, he is very interesting, and I think he tries to be good. He says the wasps catch spiders and cram them down into their nests in the ground — alive, Mama! — and there they live and suffer days and days and days, and the hungry little wasps chewing their legs and gnawing into their bellies all the time, to make them good and religious and praise God for his infinite mercies. I think Mr. Hollister is just lovely, and ever so kind; for when I asked him if he would treat a spider like that he said he hoped to be damned if he would; and then he — Dear Mama, have you fainted! I will run and bring help! Now this comes of staying in town in this hot weather.”


Obviously Mark Twain held a low opinion of the standard, Christian attempts to explain the reality of evil and suffering in a world created and controlled by an all-powerful, perfectly good deity.

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