Theodicy in Light of Eternity
Nearly two weeks following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, pictures and video of the rubble still move us. Stories stir our compassion to give, to consider hosting refugees. Suffering still pricks our consciences, even though the pattern has become all too familiar in recent years after the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the hurricane in New Orleans, and the earthquake in China.
We have also become accustomed to fielding questions about God's role in such devastation. Writing on January 19 for the BBC, philosopher David Bain explored the question of why God allows natural disasters. Following in a long line of skeptics, Bain asked why God did not prevent the Haiti earthquake if he truly exists. He echoed the conundrum offered by David Hume in 1776: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"
Several top-notch theologians have recently stepped forward to meet this challenge. They acknowledge the human longing to find meaning behind seemingly senseless suffering. But they hesitate to offer any explanation that reveals God's hidden intent. In fact, these theologians say that the best answer to the problem of natural disasters is no sure answer at all.
Because we worship a God who redeems sinners through the suffering Messiah, Christians naturally search for purpose and redemption following destruction. Perhaps the earthquake will serve as a spiritual wake-up call to Haiti and everyone watching. Maybe the earthquake will liberate Haiti from political corruption and inspire its international neighbors to find solutions to endemic poverty. After all, God has reasons for everything that happens under his sovereign care, no matter how troubling it may appear to us.
"Shared suffering can help build true community," theologian John Stackhouse writes in his 2009 book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil. "Pulling together in a common crisis, setting aside petty differences in the service of a larger goal, turning one's attention from the neighbor to focus upon a larger threat—all of these aspects of coping together with a danger or disaster can form and strengthen communal ties. Such ties grow with every sandbag passed from one neighbor to another as a flood threatens, with every nail hammered into a new barn after a tornado's destruction, with every bowl of soup ladled out in a shelter. Moreover, catastrophe can severely teach us our human limitations and need. When the river spills over all of the levees we have carefully built to control it, when the lightning blazes out of the sky and sets a valley alight, when the earth shakes cities into rubble—each is an occasion to remember our finitude and our dependence."
Sadly, we know that disaster does not always bring communities together. Indeed, the situation in Haiti appears to be dire as thousands of refugees fight for survival. On-the-ground reports from pastors James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll reveal the earthquake's tragic aftermath, including murder and sex trafficking. Distraught by disaster, we can respond in one of two ways.
"Our condition of limitation, even confusion, in this complicated and sometimes frighteningly contradictory world can drive us away from the God who seems to make no sense, or it can drive us to trust God, and keep trusting, in the face of such threats to faith," Stackhouse writes.
Careful attention to biblical example reorients us. While we are preoccupied with questions about why God allows evil, biblical characters typically asked God how long they must endure, according to theologian Christopher Wright.