I originally wrote this piece in February 2010 when the terrible earthquake in Haiti had raised yet again the old question “how can anyone believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God in the face of horrendous natural disasters?” (or, for those who do believe, “how can God allow these terrible things to happen?”). Since then further floods, famines, hurricanes and innumerable other disasters round the world have continued to keep the issue fresh in people’s minds. And now we’re witnessing the unfolding tragedy of the terrible Japanese quake and tsunami.
Who’s to blame?
These natural disasters all seem so random, meaningless and terrible – how can we hope to understand them and the suffering they cause? And even if it is possible to find reasons why God allows natural disasters, no intellectual explanation can satisfy us emotionally. Perhaps we’re just trying to explain the inexplicable, because we’re human and we need reasons. And we also want someone to blame, someone to be responsible.
Either way, Christians over the years have nonetheless tried to offer various explanations, with varying degrees of sensitivity and success:
1. God’s wrath. I’m wary even to mention it, but some will always interpret catastrophes as God punishing the wickedness of humanity (citing Sodom and Gomorrah for example). I for one can’t accept this. Yes, we’re all sinners. But why does Robert Mugabe remain alive and in power while children – and Christians – die in a Japanese earthquake? And all of Jesus’ teaching and example argues against the idea that God would indiscriminately wipe out whole populations for the sins of some, or even of all. Jesus directly taught that individuals’ sins were not responsible for the disasters that had befallen them (Luke 13:1-3, John 9:1-3).
Others say that God allows these terrible events for his own good but mysterious purposes, perhaps to act as a wake-up call to repentance or to teach us faith. Again, I just don’t believe God works in this way. I do believe he brings good out of evil and works redemptively in our sufferings, but I don’t accept that he deliberately wipes out populations with earthquakes in order to teach us moral lessons.
2. Evil. If God’s not to blame, the next obvious scapegoat is Evil itself – the great primal forces of Chaos loose in the cosmos. There’s certainly a strand of Christian thinking that ‘Satan’ (whatever/whoever you understand by this term) was active from the outset in creation, before humans ever came on the scene. Some, like the author Charles Foster (The Selfless Gene), have even suggested that he was responsible for predation and natural selection. It’s harder to see how he could be responsible for earthquakes, but not impossible.
3. Human responsibility. A third possible culprit is humanity – that somehow all the greed, selfishness and sins of mankind disturb the natural order and balance of the planet, leading to natural calamities. Certainly we’re increasingly aware of the damage we’re doing to the planet and the disastrous ecological consequences this could unleash; we’ve not done well in our role as caretakers of creation. The Bible even speaks of the land and water being under a ‘curse’ because of human sins, whatever that may mean exactly (I’d certainly interpret it figuratively).
It’s also worth remembering that a lot of the damage that disasters cause is humanly preventable, but that corrupt governments and unfair trade systems mean that poor people do not have proper earthquake-proof housing or early warning systems, or that they live in the most disaster-prone spots while richer people can afford safer locations and better buildings.
4. Natural order. Another option is that natural disasters are, like pain and death, simply a terrible but necessary part of the complex geological, biological and climatological systems of our planet. Without these natural systems life probably could not exist or flourish at all, and it’s possible that they even provide the only means by which morally responsible, free and loving beings can develop in the universe. However, if so do the ends – life and love – justify such painful means? Perhaps, as suggested above, the good natural order has become corrupted by evil, leading creative processes to sometimes become destructive ones.
Good and evil intertwined
In Matthew 13:14-29 Jesus tells of a farmer who planted a wheat field, but an enemy came and planted weeds among it. Rather than trying to pull up the weeds and risk pulling up the wheat too, the farmer let the two grow side by side until harvest when they could be separated without damage. This is a picture of the cosmos and everything in it, including our hearts – good and bad are for now inextricably entwined, and God will not risk destroying the good by ripping out the evil.
And what of Evil itself – where does it come from; why does God let it exist? The Bible doesn’t give a clear answer. My own view is that Evil is merely the shadow side of Good, on which it is utterly contingent. I believe that for true good to exist, it must carry with it the potential to be twisted or corrupted into bad. Furthermore, love and moral responsibility both require genuine freedom, which entails the possibility of wrong, harmful choice; the rejection of love and goodness.
Suffering and redemption
Evil brings much suffering, yet suffering is not always itself totally evil; indeed, it’s often an unavoidable counterpart to true liberation, growth, transformation and healing. God, like all parents, cannot merely step in every time things go wrong to bail us out and fix all our problems. Instead, God both fully enters into and redeems our suffering – that is the message of the cross and of Easter. Though suffering is not good in itself, it becomes the means of good, of healing, of life. The enduring power of Christ’s gospel is that it transforms death into life, disaster into triumph, despair into hope.
The fruition of all this is God’s kingdom, the incoming realm in Christ in which wrongs are finally righted, harms healed, love and justice made perfect. If this present order were all there is, then disaster, death and tragedy might be strong arguments against belief in God. But since belief in God entails belief in his coming kingdom, it’s not only perfectly plausible to believe in the face of earthquakes and holocausts, it may actually be the only alternative to nihilistic despair.
Prayer in the darkness
We are small, fragile beings in an immense and powerful universe and our lifespan is short, whether cut off abruptly by a natural disaster, disease or war, or allowed to play out to a full natural lifespan. We may not have died in the Japanese earthquake but we will all certainly die one day, and we will all face some kind of pain. Perhaps the real issue is whether we – whether I – can learn to live well here and now, ready to face suffering and ultimately death whenever and however they may come.
In the end, all attempts to explain disasters, suffering and evil are inadequate. It’s painless – and perhaps gainless – to theorise from the comfort of our non-earthquake-threatened armchairs. Far more important responses to disaster are, I believe, active compassion in the face of human suffering, anger at the evil in the universe and in ourselves, humility in the face of mystery, and prayer in the darkness.