That being said, I want to Scripturally and philosophically address a reaction that invariably is made by skeptics whenever a tragedy dominates the headlines. And I would like to remind any reader that this is not an exhaustive explanation of death and suffering. There are many resources I would encourage anyone to explore such as Padre Pio's Secrets of a Soul, Dr. Peter Kreeft's Making Sense Out of Suffering, C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, or any of Fr. John Corapi's talks on suffering.
Anyway, I read two skeptical posters at the Catholic.com forums make similar comments today. I remember back in the day watching the South Park movie (not a good example for kids by the way!) hearing the same basic line in the face of disaster: "Where is your God when you need him?"
Along with sympathy for the victims of the tragedy, I do have sympathy for the skeptic's reaction. It is no easy thing for a human being to feel at a loss while simultaneously believing God loves him. Even a faithful Christian might feel unsettled by the innocence afflicted by such a disaster.
The reason I think this reaction is common is because in the human mind, there is often an equation of suffering or death with evil. If God permits an innocent person to suffer, He therefore must not love that person.
I think some strains of Christianity, such as those who espouse a "prosperity gospel" have an inadequate response to tragedy and God's love. However, I think Catholic theology can make sense of such suffering.
First, as apologist Jimmy Akin once wrote on his blog:
[God] gives all of us an infinite amount of [the gift of life] because, once we are created, we will endure forever. After the resurrection, we will all--every one of us--have an infinite amount of physical life ahead of us. What we are discussing, therefore, is whether some of us receive an infinite amount of physical life plus a varying amount of finite physical life as well.
When someone dies to the terrestrial, temporal universe, it is by no means the last word. If the Catholic truth that eternal life awaits those who lived faithfully to the divine movements in their hearts, then no amount of measurable, temporal punishment can possibly compare to an eternal reward. The temporal suffering is obliterated by an eternal life with no suffering.
So why is there suffering at all, even if temporal? Catholics understand suffering to have value for the soul as well as humanity itself. Catholics believe that the path fallen man must take to be reunited with God in eternal joy is through Jesus Christ who opened this door for humanity through his suffering on the cross. Thus, if Jesus Christ was truly God incarnate, and if he willingly permitted himself to endure suffering at the hands of his own creatures, then even if we do not fully understand the scope of suffering, we can see a great testament from divinity himself that there is purpose to suffering.
In Catholicism, we believe suffering is a means to be united with Christ's salvific work on the cross. St. Paul teaches about the salvation of mankind with the included caveat: "provided we suffer with him" (Rom. 8:17). Temporal suffering, as Christ experienced on the cross, is a sequential prerequisite to resurrection into eternal life. That would include even infants who must undergo temporal death despite never having committed "actual sin."
As well, in Catholicism, suffering is seen as a mechanism of cleansing a person of the effects of sin, conforming him to the spotless being he shall be in the next life. This takes place as an extension of the singular sacrifice of Christ (see CCC#1473 and preceding). A non-Catholic who does not believe in the temporal consequence of sin will not recognize the value of suffering in this way.
Not to limit this apologetic to Scripture or even exclusively Catholic theology alone, we can in some way grasp the idea that something once perceived valueless can be of the utmost value. As Dr. Peter Kreeft said in his talk Making Sense Out of Suffering a few years ago, if a baby in the womb could rationalize, he would say to himself, for example, why do I have feet? There are no sidewalks here! While the existence of feet in his current domain appears valueless, the next domain beckons their use and feet are of value.
Another example is one that is used as a Christian figure of God's relationship to mankind (although it is evident to anyone): The father-child relationship. Fathers (or mothers) discipline their children. Sometimes it can come in the form of letting a child touch a sharp weed so that the child will learn the danger of the action. The father could lovingly inflict or permit suffering for a variety of reasons including that the child misbehaved or did something detrimental to himself that the father did not want the child to repeat. The discipline is applied to the child for a) reasons the child does not understand, and b) for reasons that result in the improvement of the child's person. If we look at this example categorically, then we must admit not all infliction or permission of suffering equals evil or lack of love even if the recipient does not recognize value in the pain.
If a skeptic recognizes the love of a parent who permits his child to suffer for that child's betterment, then he must acknowledge God could similarly do the same. God's permission of suffering can rationally have an entirely loving motive behind it.
There's an animated science series featuring a "Dr. Quantum" that covers various topics including quantum physics and spatial dimensions. One of the videos is called "Flatland." In the video, Dr. Quantum exists in 3-dimensions just as any terrestrial human being does. He stands over a "flat" universe in which dwells 2-dimensional "Pac-man-looking" people. The 2-dimensional people understand only length and width. Depth is inconceivable to them. Nothing in their existence can be used to depict depth either. Dr. Quantum dips his finger into the 2-dimensional world. A 2-dimensional character only sees an expanding and shrinking circle as Dr. Quantum's finger passes into and out of the 2-dimensional surface. From her perspective, Dr. Quantum is a circle who varies in size. She cannot conceive of the reality beyond her 2-dimensional perspective.
The analogy can help us understand God's perspective. God as an eternal, extra-terrestrial being has a perspective and understanding of reality beyond that of terrestrial man. He may see more of suffering than we see.
In summary, if this world is not the final say, it is specious to measure the value of any divine action or permission based on man's temporal reaction. It is specious even for a skeptic to conclude that if suffering and death occur that God must therefore not love or perhaps not even exist. There are enough signposts in the terrestrial domain that show how suffering can have value.