At a recent Sunday adult class, someone asked a provocative question--one that I often ponder.
Referring to the first earthquake in Nepal, which killed more than 8,000 people and devastated that small country, he asked: Why didn’t God prevent that disaster?
I did not get the sense that the questioner was bating me, using a natural disaster to argue against the existence of a loving God, as many people do, but that he was genuinely seeking to understand God, even reaching out to God with his question.
People of faith and people without faith have long sought to understand Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, as Rabbi Harold Kushner's classic book poses the question. ( I recommend this book and would happily lead an exploration of it, if anyone were interested.) An earlier classic, the biblical book of Job, also deals with the question of evil and the God of love. I commend Job to you. Thank God the Bible comprehends Jobian questions.
Evil is personal
Every person, I reasonably assume, has experienced his or her own personal Nepal, if you will. On several occasions, Penny and I have. Penny's niece, Toni, for instance, was murdered by her boyfriend about 10 years ago.
That horrific tragedy certainly challenged our family's faith. It still does. Toni's murderer is serving a life sentence. Penny's mother, Norma, a person of deep and strong faith, says that it is only by the grace of God that she can pray for James, which she does. I do not know whether I could.
No person, and certainly no theologian, no matter how learned, will ever fully and satisfactorily answer the question posed by that man in the adult Sunday school class.
Although I do not have any answers--not in any conclusive sense--I do have some thoughts, perhaps even insights, standing as I do daily amid the rubble of evil, tragedy, pain, and suffering. I hope they help you in your journey of believing.
Faith is at the heart of the journey
Mine is not Christian certainty but Christian faith. I am like the man in Mark 8. 17ff. He takes his son who is possessed by an evil spirit to Jesus to be healed, if Jesus can. And Jesus responds, If I can. “All things are possible to him who believes.” And the man answers, as I do: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Given so many questions and so few answers, I could stop believing. I could give up on God. But I choose to believe in the God of love, even when the evidence sometimes seemingly contradicts the existence of God.
A cellar in Cologne, Germany once sheltered thousands of Jews from Nazi evil. When WW II ended, someone discovered a few sentences scratched on a stone wall there. No one knows the name or what became of the author, who wrote: "I believe in the sun even when it's not shining. I believe in love even when not feeling it. I believe in God even when He is silent."
This anonymous author suffered and likely died during the Holocaust, as did more than six million Jews. These and other millions of other deaths came not as a result of natural evil, like that earthquake in Nepal, but from human evil: Hatred, discrimination, cruelty, violence, horrible death. It is impossible to prevent earthquakes, tornadoes, many diseases, and, although it is impossible to eliminate human evil, it is possible to curb it and even to prevent future Holocausts, with God's help and with our faithfulness to God.
God is love: Not a cliche but the truth
As a Christian, I believe that God became human in Jesus Christ. St John's Gospel and John's letters teach that Jesus showed us the nature of God. God is love. God's love for us is so great, as St. Paul writes in Romans 5.8, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Jesus goes to his death for the sake of love--He dies on the cross as a political criminal because He did the very best for every human being He ever encountered, be that person stranger, or friend, or enemy. And loving this way brings ridicule, persecution, and even death. His was a radical love, a love that the world had never seen before; indeed, a revolutionary love that sought--and that still seeks--to eliminate all that is unloving in the world today. This is the mission of every follower of Jesus.
God offers His love to human beings as gift. And God gives us the freedom to accept Jesus and God's love embodied in Him and to live according to His teaching and example and in His Spirit; or we can choose to reject Jesus and His love. Daily, people--yes, even Christians--reject God and do ungodly things to one another. Our niece's murder is a particularly monstrous example.
I believe it was scholar and famous preacher Fred Craddock who once said that Jesus' crucifixion was humankind's NO to God, but His resurrection was God's YES to us. You killed my son, I imagine God saying, but I went on loving you and seeking you and will never stop doing so. You can never destroy my love.
The resurrection, which we celebrate in the great 50 days of Easter, proclaims the beginning of God's act of new creation, according to theologian and Anglican bishop Dr. N.T. Wright. The natural world, which, perhaps like human beings, is in rebellion against God's good purposes--will be made new. It will be perfected as it was at the beginning. Then, there will be no more Nepals. No murdered young women. That is because all creation will act in conformity with the purposes of God. Why does God wait for this perfection? Could it be that He waits on us, hoping that all, not just a few, will choose Him and live eternally in fellowship with Him? And in the judgment of the living and dead, God, may I be among those who live with you forever.
In class that Sunday morning, the only thing I remember saying in response to that man's question was not profound at all, but was truthful: We all come into this world in the same way, at birth; and we all leave this world the same way, at death. Some deaths come at the end of long lives well and faithfully lived. Other deaths come too soon and sometimes tragically, as in the case of Toni and those earthquake victims in Nepal.
But I believe--there is that word again--that as God is there at our beginning, to paraphrase the poet T.S. Elliot, so God will be there at our ending and that ending will be only the beginning of life eternal.