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.
"Their tendency was not to demand that God give an explanation for the origin of evil but rather to plead with God to do something to bring about an end to evil," he writes in The God I Don't Understand winner of a 2010 CT book award in the category of theology/ethics. Searching the Scriptures, Wright finds no "right" explanation for disasters.
"Science can tell us their natural causes, and they are awesome enough," he writes. "That is the achievement, but also the limit, of scientific explanation of 'what really happened.' But neither science nor faith can give a deeper or meaningful reason or a purpose for a disaster. Thus we are left with the agony of baffled grief and protest. 'God, how can you allow such things? Why don't you stop them?' I don't think it is wrong to cry out such things, even if we know that no answer is going to come in a voice from heaven."
Wright studies Peter's post-Pentecost sermon, in which the apostle explained the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection. Peter argues in Acts 2:22-24 and Acts 2:36-38 that evil acts cost an innocent man his life even as God accomplished his purpose of redemption in Christ's atoning death. These events hold together three inalienable truths: evil is real, God is sovereign, and God is good. But evil will not last forever. Because God is good, he plans to evict evil once and for all, and because he is sovereign, he can do it.
This side of heaven, it may not be possible to answer the skeptic's demand to know exactly why a loving, sovereign God allows disaster. Yet no matter what evil may befall us today, we can be confident in his ultimate plan thanks to what God has already done in Christ.
"When the reign of God extends over every corner of the universe, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea, when the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, when heaven and earth are renewed and united under the righteous rule of Christ, when the dwelling place of God is again with humanity, when the city of God is the center of all redeemed reality—then we will have been delivered from all evil forever," Wright exults. "The cross and resurrection of Christ accomplished it in history and guarantee it for all eternity."
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).
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John Stackhouse's Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil and Christopher Wright's The God I Don't Understand are available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site include:
Finding Meaning in the Pentateuch | Powerful endorsements bolster John Sailhamer's new tome on the Bible's first five books. (January 11, 2009)
My Top Ten Theology Stories of 2009 | Counting down the events, debates, and books that shaped evangelical theology over the past year. (December 28, 2009)
When the Pastor Suffers | Matt Chandler comforts an anxious church following his Thanksgiving seizure. (December 14, 2009)