Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 17, 2005
Why did God let this happen?
People often put God on trial when faced with horrific disaster
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth."
-from the Apostles' Creed
If God is all-powerfuL and all good, why does he permit suffering on the scale of the tsunamis that devastated Southeast Asia?
Any time tragedy strikes, theological questions arise about how one can defend the goodness and sovereignty of God - a branch of theology called theodicy.
In the news media and the blogosphere (the network of online journals or blogs on the Internet), theologians and journalists are weighing in with their arguments and explanations after last month's horrendous natural disaster. Here's a sample of some of the opinions.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams created controversy with his take on the tsunami with an article he submitted to the United Kingdom's Jan. 2 Sunday Telegraph headlined, "Of course this makes us doubt God's existence."
Williams objected to the headline, but he did write the following in his column: "Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. Faced with the paralyzing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged - and also more deeply helpless.
"'The question: 'How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?' is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't - indeed it would be wrong if it weren't," he wrote.
In a blog at www.crosswalk.com/news/weblogs/mohler, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler described William's column as how not to give a Christian answer."
Mohler wrote that he agreed with remarks made by the Anglican dean of Sydney, Australia, Phillip Jensen who described the natural disaster as a warning of the coming of God's judgment.
Mohler notes that the more "liberal" Roman Catholic dean of St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney described Jensen's comments as "a rather horrible belief when you begin to think about it."
Mohler nevertheless defends Jenson's warning of judgment to come. "Well, that's orthodox Christian theology, when you think about it," wrote Mohler, saying that Jesus' warned in the Gospel of Mathew that earthquakes and wars "and other ominous phenomena" would be "birth pangs" of coming tribulation and judgment.
On Jan. 3, LifeSite News posted a news story culled from various international sources with the headline: "Top Israel Rabbi, Indian Catholic Bishop, Anglican and Muslim Leaders Agree Tsunami is a Warning From God" which mentions Jenson's comments, and included that of Israel's Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who said, "G-d is angry" and "We must pray more and ask for mercy."
Catholic Bishop Alex Dias of Port Blair in India's Andaman Islands was quoted as saying, "I believe that the tsunami is a warning. A warning from God to reflect deeply on the way we lead our lives."
Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte told Le Devoir that he categorically rejected any notion of a vengeful God and pointed out that it is normal and sane to ask questions in the face of a catastrophe.
According to a Jan. 5 article, Turcotte said that since Adam man has been in revolt against his Creator, and that God is not a puppeteer controlling events. He pointed out that one should not pray for a magical healing or for a supernatural intervention, but for the strength and courage to pass through a trial or ordeal in the way that Jesus did.
The director of the theology secretariat at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Father Richard Coté has been following the debate with great interest.
"The Christian God is a God of vulnerability."
- Fr. Richard Coté
God suffers when we suffer
In an interview at the CCCB Secretariat in Ottawa Jan. 5, Coté said the earthquake was a "purely seismic natural phenomenon." God made a material world, with laws of gravity, and that he is not an interventionist, he said. "God suffers when we suffer. He does not force his love on us like a tidal wave.
"The Christian God is a God of vulnerability," he said. "The biggest risk God takes is to love us unconditionally. God is forever taking risks.
"He's in our shoes. God has stepped into our shoes in solidarity with us in all things," Coté said. "He shared in our humanity to show that he didn't make a mistake when he created you and me."
Coté said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear, that doubt, and that holding onto doubt, and letting the questions form, without trying to answer it prematurely can lead to an "existential encounter" with God.
He thinks it's good to question, that it "takes us out of our complacency" as we struggle to interpret the answer to the question that Jesus poses to every age, "Who do people say I am?"
In a Jan. 5 piece in the Ottawa Citizen entitled "Thy Will Be Done: It's hard to understand why an all powerful God would allow so many people to die in last month's tsunami," deputy editorial page editor Leonard Stern encapsulated the various theological arguments into five categories: 1) God doesn't exist 2) the innocent are not innocent 3) God is wrathful 4) God is weak 5) God is unknowable.
Stern describes Rabbi Harold Kushner's position outlined in his famous book Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People as that of a compassionate God who is weak.
"The problem with Rabbi Kushner's compassionate but impotent God is that it is not the God who parted the Red Sea, or, if you're Christian, who produced a virgin birth.
"For most people of faith, God must by definition be all-powerful. And also all-good. Which brings us back to square one: Why does he allow evil in the world?" Stern writes.
While many theologians will explain innocent suffering as a result of humankind's free will, this leap is difficult in the face of natural disasters such as the earthquakes and tsunamis. However, this is a leap made by Mark Roberts, a Presbyterian pastor in Irvine, California and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.
"There is so much about this world, not to mention God's sovereignty that we simply cannot understand. But one thing we know for sure is that this world, having been created good, is now broken. It doesn't work how it's supposed to work," he wrote in a blog series Jan. 2-5.
"Somehow human sin has infected, not only human hearts and human society, but also the very universe in which we live," said Roberts, who has been tracking the theodicy debate on his blog at www.markdroberts.com.
New Testament theologian and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright in a Jan. 1 article in the United Kingdom's Independent writes "What's the point in saying 'the heaven's declare the glory of God' if tidal waves declare his incompetence?"
Evil is real
Wright points out that the Bible "constantly acknowledges evil - 'human' and 'natural' alike - as a terrible reality. It doesn't try to minimize it, explain that good will come of it, or blame someone. . . . It tells a story about the Creator's plan to put the world to rights, a plan which involves a people who are themselves part of the problem as well as the bearers of the solution."
Wright starts his article saying that ancient Jewish writers "saw the sea as evil." He says that early Christians didn't see Jesus "as simply a teacher, a moral example, or even as one who saved people from a doomed world.
"They told a story as the point where the dark forces of chaos converged, in the cynical politics of Herod and Pilate, the bitter fanaticism of the Pharisees, the wild shrieks of diseased souls, the sudden storms on the lake," Wright says.
"They invite us to see his death on the analogy of Jonah's being thrown into the sea, there to be swallowed by the monster called Death.
"They insist that in this death God has taken upon himself the full force of the world's evil. As a sign of that, the final book for the Bible declares that in the new world, now already begun with his resurrection, there will be no more sea."