Posted on Oct 28, 2012
It’s amazing how little the Bible asks why God allows natural disasters, and how much less it answers. The problem of evil is widely named as theism’s number one most difficult challenge, yet the Bible hardly addresses it, at least not in the philosophical terms favored today.
The disciples asked Jesus in John 9 who did what to cause a certain man to be born blind, and Jesus answered “no one; it was so God’s glory could be shown through him.”
The Psalmists often asked “how long?” but hardly ever, “why do you let things like this happen?” Although in some places the Old Testament attributes human troubles to human sin, the book of Job blows that theory away. The apostle Paul prayed for some “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, and was simply answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness” (1 Corinthians 12).
The Bible offers no great, overarching answer to the problem of natural evil. It doesn’t even ask the question in today’s philosophical terms. In some cases we see good coming of difficulties, as God’s followers are strengthened and purified, and as it gives opportunity for doing good. God even uses it for judgment on those who hate and reject him. None of those results, however, shouts “Here’s your answer!”
The response God finally made to Job was to remind him he was God. He could have revealed Satan’s behind-the-scenes machinations, but he didn’t. I can’t imagine it would have done any good. It would have only opened up more questions: “What, am I your plaything? Why did you pick me? Is this the thanks I get for doing what’s right?”
I don’t think we really want the answers to every question we think we want answered.
The usual atheist explanation is that these things happen because they happen. Some tweak that slightly to say disasters happen because the laws of nature produce such effects from time to time; but a careful examination of “laws of nature” reveals that it’s shorthand for “what happens every time.” It’s still a roundabout way of saying these things happen because they happen.
If you like that as an explanation, then you are too easily satisfied. It leaves too many other questions unanswered, especially, What makes these things so significantly wrong? For we know there is something significant in death, destruction, and loss. What is it? Things happen. On many atheists’ view, we people ourselves are things that happen, too. So when people die, so what? Why does that matter so? Love happens; death happens. Joy happens; destruction happens. What’s the essential difference?
Christians have an answer: these things matter because God created us in his image. We are more than things happening, we are spiritual beings created within and for eternity. Love is real because it is in the very fabric of reality, in the person of God. Loss is real because it is a real privation of real good. Redemption—the recovery of what has been lost—is also real, in Christ.
None of these categories makes sense without God. Not love; for it’s just another thing that happens. Not loss; for in its most fundamental aspect it’s no different than love, except in its emotional effect: it’s another thing that happens. Redemption isn’t even something that happens; it’s strictly meaningless without God.
But enough about atheism; I want to speak of Christianity now. If you as a Christian are content with cause-effect explanations for natural evil, then you too are too easily satisfied. The message of Job is that there are mysteries wrapped around difficulties and disasters that we will never plumb in this lifetime.
And why should we expect to understand it all? Surely the question of suffering must be among the deepest of mysteries; surely whatever God means to accomplish through the evils we experience would take God to comprehend. If God’s ways were simple, straightforward, and completely accessible to human minds, then God could hardly be God.
This might seem like another instance of being too easily satisfied with an explanation, but I don’t think so. There’s nothing to hinder the Christian from struggling with it. It is more a wrestling with God than with philosophy, however. This is indeed the model of the Psalms, the Prophets, and Jesus and the apostles: to study, yes, and to ask why and how long; but also to cry, most of all to pray: always remembering the clear evidence of God’s goodness in history, especially on the Cross.
My family and I moved away from the U.S. east coast a few months ago. We’re expecting only a mild brush-by from the storm here in southwestern Ohio. I’ve already seen a photo on Facebook of flooding in a friend’s back yard in Virginia, though. The church we attended there canceled services there this morning, even though the worst is not expected until tomorrow. I am in tears for my friends. I dread the loss they will suffer. I am in prayer for them, and for others who have been or who will be in the path of this storm. Having had experience with a destructive earthquake I pray for those on the other side of the continent this morning; not to mention all the turmoil felt around the globe every day.
These things are dark and painful, yet through the Cross we know God remains light and goodness. I am certain it all makes sense to him in his goodness. I’m pretty sure someday he’ll show us how it makes sense, too. Not yet, but someday. In the meantime we pray, we seek God’s face, we let God be God, and we worship him for his incomprehensible greatness.