In the midst of our Christmas and New Year’s celebration, tragedy has struck. A massive earthquake, reportedly the fourth largest in recorded history, has devastated central Asia and portions of India. Tens of thousands are known dead. One report estimates that over a third of the dead are children.
Suffering of this magnitude pushes us to confront again and again the ancient question of the problem of evil. If God is good and all powerful, the argument goes, then why is there suffering. Either God is not as good as we thought or not as in charge of the universe as we believed.
Different theologies have different answers to this problem. Christian fundamentalism, for instance, simply weaves destructiveness and anger right into the fabric of God’s character. They claim that God is good but there are limits to God’s patience. You might recall that after 9/11 Jerry Falwell suggested that the terrorist attack was the result of America’s lax attitudes towards certain sinful behaviors.
Of course, a quick reading of the New Testament ought to be enough to convince us that if God destroyed all the sinners, no one would be left.
There are other views about suffering. Calvinism, for instance, believes that God is both good and in complete control of the universe. Unfortunately, our limited knowledge prevents us from comprehending all of God’s ways. Even though we don’t see how, a terrible earthquake is nevertheless intended to accomplish some purpose of God.
With all due respect to my Calvinist friends, a purpose that results in the destruction of innocent children is beyond any definition of either goodness or love.
The other alternative, of course, is the way of despair. Voltaire decided after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed over 30,000 people, that God simply did not exist. Voltaire was prepared to live in a universe void of divinity rather than believe in a God who could kill so capriciously.
I choose to cling to the hope of God’s goodness. The tragedies of life are not instances of God’s anger or absence. The tragedies of this life are the painful price that we pay for being human. God does not inflict our suffering but does not prevent it either. In much the same way that parents allow children to fall as they are learning to walk, so the forces of this world are allowed to blow against us. The hope is that we might learn the proper way to be human in this world.
And what does that way look like? The world’s response to the earthquake is a picture of what the human community could be all the time. Food and medicine now making its way to Asia was actually desperately needed before the earthquake struck. We must learn to respond to daily tragedies such as poverty with the same enthusiasm we have for periodic tragedies such as earthquakes and floods.
Christians ought to understand this better than most. The symbol of our faith is an ancient instrument of torture. The cross was used by the powerful to oppress the powerless for economic gain. According to the Christmas story, God entered the world as a human being and was killed on one of those crosses.
That does not explain why earthquakes wreak havoc in our world, but the cross at least gives us a way to embrace the goodness of God. With the cross we can believe that God knows what it is like to suffer as a human being, and perhaps suffers with us.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.