The appalling devastation following the recent tsunamis in south-east Asia have had countless people asking the age-old question, ‘Where is God when things go wrong?’
A reader’s letter published in the Daily Telegraph put into print the conclusion reached by many: ‘Those with religious beliefs are surely right to consider that a national disaster is a test of their faith. On the abundant available evidence does it not seem that, if there is or was a God, it is now malevolent, mad or dead?’
The prima facie case against the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God is simply put. How could such a God preside over natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and hurricanes, sweeping thousands of people to their deaths in a matter of hours?
Can he really be the Creator of the many living organisms, from poisonous vegetation to viruses, which can disfigure, dismember or destroy us? Can he possibly be standing idly by while millions of accidents wound and kill countless people every day? Is he benignly supervising ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, from international wars to one-on-one violence?
Many people go beyond accusing God of impotence or worse and simply declare that he does not exist. But this conclusion raises critical questions. If we are biological accidents rather than part of God’s creation, why should we be remotely concerned at other ‘accidents’ such as natural disasters?
If we are the chance products of mindless evolution, how can we make moral judgements that define good and evil, just and unjust? How do conscience and our sense of personal obligation have any traction if we reject our creation by an all-righteous God?
Strange as it may seem to many, our perception of evil and suffering points towards the existence of God, not away from it! Getting rid of God leaves us trapped in what Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘that hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silence of the universe’.
The Bible does not give us all the answers to our anguished questions on the subject of evil and suffering, but that should not surprise us. God’s transcendence puts the understanding of his sovereign ways beyond our finite understanding and he is under no obligation to tell us everything we want to know.
Yet being left with doubts is not the same as being left in the dark. The Bible tells us all we need to know — and begins at the beginning.
God created the world without blemish and crowned his creation with humanity, made ‘in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27). Everything was ecologically and ethically perfect until Adam first sinned — wrecking his relationship with God, shattering his own personality, condemning his own body to decay, disease and death, and throwing the whole cosmos out of sync.
As the representative head of the human race, Adam took the entire species with him. As a result, we are all by nature rebels against God, and contribute repeatedly to the world’s sin, sadness and suffering.
The argument that an all-powerful, all-holy God would intervene to prevent evil leads logically to an uncomfortable idea — that in moral matters we would be reduced to the role of puppets, not responsible for a single word, thought or deed (good or bad). But this is not what the Bible teaches!
While making it crystal clear that God decrees everything that happens, the Bible teaches that he is neither the author of sin nor in any way implicated. Instead, it tells us that human beings are free, responsible and accountable moral agents, answerable to him for every thought, word and deed.
Then where is God when natural disasters happen and when moral evil leads to pain and suffering? Exactly where he was at the moment of the world’s greatest sin and suffering — the crucifixion of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Then he was in complete control of an event brought about with ‘the help of wicked men’ but which nevertheless took place according to ‘God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23).
Analysing how this could be so is utterly beyond our finite understanding. As Don Carson puts it, God’s way of working ‘defies our attempt to tame it by reason … we do not know enough to be able to unpack it and domesticate it’.
Compassion on the needy
Traumatic experiences often put this conviction to the test — but the test can be passed. One survivor of Hitler’s notorious Holocaust wrote that during his time in an extermination camp he never once questioned God’s action or inaction.
He wrote, ‘It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God — to blame him or believe in him less, or cease believing in him at all because he didn’t come to our aid.
‘God doesn’t owe us that, or anything. We owe our lives to him. If someone believes that God is responsible for the death of six million because he doesn’t somehow do something to save them, he’s got his thinking reversed.’
One last thing. God is in compassionate control when things go wrong, graciously pointing to our limitations and to our utter dependence upon him.
He diverts our attention from time to eternity, warning us of an eternal day of reckoning, yet promising to comfort, strengthen and enable all who commit their cause to him — the one who is ‘gracious and compassionate’ (Psalm 111:4) and who pours out his ‘unfailing love’ (Psalm 33:5) on all who truly turn to him.