Tsunamis, tragedy, and God:
Where is our Father when his children hurt?
Dr. Jim Denison
Why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people? The tragedy of tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, and hurricanes are only the most recent events to call into question God’s love, his power, or both. September 11, 2001, and the Holocaust of the previous generation, are equally problematic for those who believe God is all-powerful and all-loving. And each of us bears our own burdens, faces our own suffering and pain. A college professor said to me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.”
What is the question?
In theological language, we are dealing with the issue of “theodicy” (from Greek words for God–theos, and justice–duke). “Theodicy” was coined by the philosopher Wilhelm Leibniz in 1710. He defined his term, “The question of the compatibility of metaphysical, physical, and moral evil in the present world order with the justice and absolute power of God” (Leibniz, Theodicee, my translation).
The Bible is willing to ask Leibniz’s question of its Author. Habakkuk complained to the God who allowed the devastation of his people at the hands of the Babylonians: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:3). Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
The medieval theologian Boethius provided the classic expression of our problem: “If God exists, from whence comes evil?” The pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer spoke for many: “The shortness of life, so often lamented, may perhaps be the very best thing about it.”
Christians are especially susceptible to this issue, because we believe three apparently contradictory facts to be equally true:
God is all-loving.
God is all-powerful.
As the Stoic philosopher Epicurus observed, the “solutions” to this dilemma are four:
God wants to remove evil but is unable.
God is able but unwilling.
God is both able and willing; why doesn’t he?
God is neither able nor willing.
Can we defend the third approach with intellectual honesty? If so, how?
Popular but wrong approaches
The easiest way to “solve” the problem of evil and suffering is to deny or minimize one of its three conditions. Regarding the love of God, we can agree with the ancient Stoics that everything is fated by God. They claimed that we are all dogs tied to carts. We can trot alongside the cart, or be dragged by it, but we’re going with the cart.
The ancient Greeks saw their gods as capricious and immoral, Zeus throwing lightning bolts at those who displeased him. A common secular viewpoint today is that life is random coincidence, that if there is a “God” he has little interest in us. He is a clockmaker, watching his creation wind down.
We can also deny or minimize the power of God. Dualism argues that evil is coequal with good. From ancient Zoroastrianism to today, it has been popular to see God and Satan, good and evil locked in a battle for supremacy. J. S. Mill asserted that God is limited in his power; he loves us, but cannot do everything he would wish to help us. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his kind and sympathetic bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, agrees that even God is not able to do everything he wants to do.
A third wrong approach is to minimize the nature or existence of evil. The Hindu tradition views evil as maya, illusion. The ancient Greeks saw evil as the product of the material world, to be escaped through ascetic discipline and philosophical reflection. The Buddhist worldview treats evil as the product of wrong desires. Hinduism likewise believes that suffering results from wrong choices, as the karma we deserve.
One other wrong “solution” is to deny the existence of God altogether. David Hume, the 18th century “father of skepticism,” proposed this syllogism:
If God exists, he must be loving and powerful and thus eradicate evil.
Therefore God does not exist.
While atheism says there is no God, “agnosticism” (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge, and a, no) asserts that we cannot know if he exists or not. Alternately, the “soft” agnostic admits that he or she does not (or cannot) know, without claiming that such knowledge is impossible for us all.
The existence of evil and suffering has perhaps motivated more people to question or reject the existence of God than any other factor.
Since theodicy is a problem as old as the Garden of Eden and the flood of Noah, Christian theologians have wrestled with it all through the history of our faith. Five basic approaches have been proposed most often.
The spiritual warfare model
Satan is very real. He murders and lies (John 8:44). He accuses the people of God (Job 1:9-11), resists the godly (Zechariah 3:1; Matthew 13:38-39), and tempts us to sin (1 Chronicles 21:1; Matthew 4:1). He has power over unbelievers (Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4). He is a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
As a result, much of the evil and suffering in the world is attributable to his malignant work. Paul was clear: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
However, not all suffering is the direct result of Satan’s work. We live in a fallen world, in which natural disasters and disease are inevitable. People misuse their free will (see the second approach below). God permits some suffering for our greater good (see the third approach). Satan would like us to attribute all evil to him, giving him too much power; or blame nothing on him, pretending he doesn’t exist. The right approach is to ask the Lord if there is a Satanic component to our suffering, and trust that he will guide us to the truth. If we are under attack, we can claim the power of God over our enemy and find victory in his Spirit and strength.