When it comes to human suffering, natural disaster confronts Christianity with a real theological and intellectual challenge. We can assign the suffering of war to the sinfulness of our world. We can see the suffering of those who hunger linked to the corruption of governments and systems that keep people locked into poverty. We can work against the suffering of those who are abused because we can work against the abusers in hope of stopping them. When human suffering finds its cause in other humans, we can make sense of it and address it within the frame of sin, forgiveness, redemption, and justice.
The natural disaster, however, is different. We cannot assign an earthquake and tsunami to some Middle Eastern tyrant drunk with power. We cannot easily link the earth’s shifting ground to evil men who prey on children in human trafficking. We cannot neatly find another human to blame…which leaves God.
The new vocal atheists have already made their opinions known. Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith” and a prominent atheist thinker and commentator, published the following on a CNN website blog: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely” (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/20/finding-faith-amid-disaster). For Sam Harris, natural disasters that create human suffering reveal a multiple choice test for the reality of God. A, B, or C – make your choice. For someone as intelligent as Sam Harris, I am disappointed that his thinking comes down to a multiple choice.
Christianity cannot dismiss the real challenge natural disasters and the human suffering that results from them present to the faith. We, like atheists, struggle with questions as well. Why did it happen? Why did so many have to die? God, could You not have stopped this? The real challenge, however, is not about God’s existence. The real challenge is whether we can submit to the mysteries of life and death, admit there is power greater than we can control, and that as much as we would like to create a God whose only interest is being “nice” by our standards, we have no right to create God in our own image. The earth shakes and the oceans roar. We stand in worshipful awe of creation when we watch the sun rise above the watery horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. We stand in fearful awe of creation when we see the footage of a tsunami wash away houses and cars. But, we do not claim that these competing moments dismiss the reality of the Creator. Does the earthquake and tsunami, then, point to an “evil” Creator? Not it all. The Bible consistently assigns evil to humanity because evil is linked to sin. The natural disaster can be devastating and cause a great deal of suffering, but earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes are not “evil.” These natural events are part of a created world that exists in a tenuous balance of earth, water, and air, all held together by the mysteries of gravity and atmosphere. That life exists at all on this planet is a wonder – a wonder of the goodness of God.
So, Sam Harris can have his multiple choice. He is not looking to explore the mysteries of these things but have “reasons” to be free from God. I struggle with the suffering I see in Japan. I’ve got questions. I’ve got some frustrations that I’ve shared with God. But, in the midst of the suffering, God is present. God is at work for good. My faith centers not on “reasons” for God’s goodness, but the powerful “evidence” of God’s goodness at the cross.
The Lord be with you all, Randy
Randy Carter is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Hillsborough. This article was originally printed in their church newsletter, The Messenger.