Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami and Theodicy

Listen, when over 100,000 people die in a single cataclysmic event, it's only natural to ask the question: where is God in all of this? And once you become more familiar with the details of the tsunami that swept the basin of the northern Indian Ocean, you start to ask more questions. Why would a good God allow somewhere between 30 and 50,000 children to perish--on Christmas Day? Why would that same God visit such death and destruction on some areas of the world least equipped to deal with it? If God did not allow this to happen, does that therefore mean that he (or she) was powerless to prevent it? What does it all mean?

These are all classic questions of theodicy, the defense or explanation of God's work in the face of tragedy or evil. It is a very difficult subject. No answer seems sufficient, especially when applied to something of this magnitude.

Before we get to my own attempt to answer these questions, let me supply you with a few that plainly do not work. For example, here's what Hal Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth had to say:

Jesus indicates that all the natural disasters will begin to increase in frequency and intensity in concert with each other shortly before His return. And it is as these "birth pains" begin to take place that believers in Jesus are to know that their deliverance is near.

I believe we are at that time in history. As Jesus promised, He will come and deliver His own out of the worst that is to come. That is our hope. And God has never failed to keep His promises.

It sounds good at first: hey, we're just about to see the second coming! God will save his own! But if you stop to think about it, it's an awful message. First of all, it's monstrous to think that God would deal out such death and destruction as a signal of good yet to come. As the guy who found this quote commented: "if we're really lucky, we might just make it to the Rapture without being horribly killed by a sign that our deliverance is near."

Even worse, that answer cheapens the deaths of tens of thousands of people by making them a sign of our salvation. Are we to believe that God kills mostly brown-skinned, mostly non-Christian babies so that we can know that heaven is near? As my source says, wouldn't it just be easier to try the star over Bethlehem again?

Nor is it ours to predict when the end-times are upon us. In fact, that's an arrogant abuse of the passages upon which such predictions are built. The point is that we will not be able to mistake the end of the world when it comes, and that when it does come, we will know for certain that God is still in control. Despite what anyone might tell you, I don't think we're there yet, and to say that we are only takes the focus off where it ought to be: the suffering of the people affected by this terrible natural disaster.

Then there are the people who believe that these things are judgments visited upon us for our sins. Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan famously opined that 9/11 was repayment for the depravity of American culture, and some Hindu commentators are saying the same thing about the tsunami and India.

Utter nonsense. Utter insulting nonsense. If God repays sins by killing 50,000 children, then I want no part of him. I will deny with my last breath that the God I know and worship could be responsible for such bloodthirstiness.

Those two perspectives are easily disposed of, but some others are more difficult to do away with. Look, for example, at our reading from Jeremiah:

With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back.
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble...
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd [keeps] a flock."
Like some other passages of the Old Testament, this excerpt seems to come right up to the edge of saying that God gives us pain, suffering and death so that we might know God's comfort in the midst of them. Now, you and I might find that pretty offensive, but it is in fact a fairly biblical point of view. You find it in Isaiah, in Lamentations, and in Job, among other places. It's a perspective that Biblical writers at least struggled with, if they didn't actually endorse it.

Our lesson from Ephesians presents another, similar angle:

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
This doesn't say exactly that God causes bad things to happen so that we can praise him for saving us from those things. It's more like saying that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but God knows how to pluck out a few special people before it gets there. And naturally, that's reflected in the praise that "we," the special people, ought to give to God.

Again, that sounds good at first. God knows how to take care of his own. Great. But then you start to push a little deeper: does God take care of his own by killing off a bunch of other people? It's no less disturbing than Hal Lindsey's idea that a cataclysm such as this is a signal that the end of the world is coming.

So let's be clear: an event like this does not mean that the end-times have arrived. Nor does it mean that we are somehow special people because we were spared, or that God spared us for the purpose of comforting us in our grief and horror. It means none of that.

Does it mean anything, then? Can we say anything about God in the face of such a tragedy?

I think we can: "the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."

The good news of Jesus Christ is that in his birth, God came to stand with us as one of us. That is to say, God became as vulnerable as we are: the inexplicable logic of love that motivates the universe became a human being, saw what we saw, felt what we felt, experienced what we experienced. In becoming flesh, he forged with us a new and everlasting covenant: that he would be with us forever, and that we would never be abandoned by the God who loved us.

So where is God in all of this? With us. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, God holds the arm of a limp baby and wails in grief with us; God searches frantically through the pictures of the missing with us; God buries the dead in mass graves with us; God sorts through the twisted wreckage with us; God sits stunned at the loss of friends, family, property and livelihood; God recoils in horror and stunned disbelief, bewildered by an event that the mind simply cannot comprehend. God does not sit up there disconnected and immune to our suffering; God is down here in the midst of it, saying: where are you?

Where are you? Amen.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Egarwaen said...

Very interesting post, dan. Very interesting. One of my favourite authors - Terry Pratchett - once posted, on the subject of the differences between the New and Old Testaments, that the New Testament was what happened after "God Got Religion". After reading that second-last paragraph of yours, I think I finally understand what he meant.

However, I've got a question for you. My understanding of theodicy was not that it asked "Where is God's work in the face of tragedy or evil?" though that is an important question to ask. Rather, my understanding was that it asked "How can an all-powerful, all-knowing God allow for tragedy/evil to occur?" I answer that for myself in terms of allowing free will - that, in order that we might have free will in the same way He does, God has used His power to prevent Himself from knowing or doing certain things. But I'm curious about what your answer is.

At 3:41 AM, Blogger - said...

"I answer that for myself in terms of allowing free will - that, in order that we might have free will in the same way He does, God has used His power to prevent Himself from knowing or doing certain things."

How would God preventing horrible natural disasters like the one that just occured impact free will in any way? Preventing a human from murdering another is one thing, preventing an earthquake that was in no way caused by humans is another one entirely. I think things are much more complicated than the free will response can answer.


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