On Wild Fires and Other Tragedies

With Australia’s greatest fire tragedy still unfolding, (not to mention terrible flooding in the north of the country), all sorts of questions arise. Attempting to answer them may be the height of foolishness. What new or original insights can anyone offer in the face of such suffering and misery?

Indeed, for as long as humans have been on the scene, questions about suffering have been asked. At least three millennia ago Job was asking some hard questions about suffering. For those at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it should be somewhat comforting to note that God takes the issue of suffering seriously. Devoting an entire book (of 42 chapters no less) to the question is evidence of this.

While any answers one can provide will be unoriginal, tentative and far from complete, it seems some answers nonetheless can be offered. Indeed, some answers appear to be better than others. Let me begin by mentioning some answers which I think do not get us very far at all. At least seven come to mind:

One. Evil is an illusion. This response is found in some eastern religions, in Christian Science, in the writings of Spinoza, and some New Age thinking. But it really is a non-starter. Try telling the bush fire victims (or rape victims, or the 9/11 victims) that evil is really an illusion and does not exist.

Two. Monism. Found in most eastern religions and much of the New Age Movement, this is the idea that all is one. Thus good and evil are seen as one, with no real distinctions existing in reality. But any worldview which cannot make a qualitative moral distinction between say Hitler and Mother Teresa also seems to fail the reality test.

Three. Dualism. This reply says that good and evil are co-equal and co-eternal. Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Marcionism are forms of dualistic philosophies. But this is a pretty defeatist worldview, arguing that we can never overcome evil, and that this struggle will always be with us.

Four. Deism. In this system it is argued that God set up the world, but let it go its merry way. God is viewed as a watchmaker or an absentee landlord. He got the whole ball rolling, but he is not interested in our petty details, and takes no personal interest in, or interaction with, the affairs of men.

Five. Determinism. This is the belief in fatalism which says, ‘that’s just the way it is’. We must simply accept what we are handed in life – no questions asked. Islam, Darwinism, and hyper-Calvinism are some of the deterministic worldviews in operation today.

Six. Finitism. In this response it is argued that God is not powerful enough to stop evil. God may not like our suffering, but he is not in a position to do much about it. Plato, Whitehead, Brightman, Rabbi Kushman and others opted for this view. But it certainly does not offer much comfort, as we are simply left to our own devices.

Seven. Naturalism. This is the view that there is no God or any other non-material reality. There is no supernatural or metaphysical dimension to life. Thus there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to life. Crap just happens, and that is all there is to it, so we might as well get used to it.

Other unhelpful answers could be mentioned, including those made by some Christians. For example, some believers argue that all suffering is a result of sin. But this is only partly true. Sure, sin is what brought death and suffering into the world in the first place. But not every individual case of suffering is directly due to some specific sin. The book of Job makes this clear, as do such passages as Luke 13:1-5 and John 9:1-3.

So what can be said?

While some unhelpful responses can be rejected, there still remains the task of offering some positive contributions to the debate. But this has been going on for thousands of years now. Sure, we can benefit greatly from the wisdom and insights of those who have gone before. And Scripture itself gives us much material to ponder here. But mystery will always be part of any discussion of evil and suffering.

Many questions can be raised about the current devastating fires raging across southern Australia. For example, some might ask, could they be the judgment of God? One always needs to be careful about issues like this. Yes, it is possible they could be. In one sense all tragedies and disasters can be seen as judgment, or the general result of sin. We live in a fallen, cursed world, where tragedies are commonplace. Was 9/11 God’s judgment? It could have been. It could also have just been the results of militant Muslims who hate the West. And these fires could be the result of dry weather, of arsonists, etc. Multiple causes come to mind.

While in the Old Testament God could raise up a prophet who could speak about a given situation and say, “This is happening because…,” we really do not have that occurring today, at least in the same fashion. So we really do not always know why tragedies strike. Again, a combination of factors can be at play.

Of course all this raises much bigger theological questions about how much God is in control of things. Does God cause all things to happen? Or does he simply allow things to happen? Is he sovereign over every human action? What role do humans play in all this? How much genuine freedom and responsibility do we have? What about demonic aspects to all this? And how do all these factors interplay with one another?

These are questions which have filled entire libraries. So I am not about to seek to sort them all out here. Suffice it to say that God is very much concerned about what happens on planet earth, and is at work in various ways. But our free choices also contribute to the overall mix. And this being a fallen, sin-affected world, we can unfortunately expect to see suffering and tragedies as the norm. This was not part of God’s original intentions, and one day all suffering and death will end, and all tears will stop flowing.

And this also raises questions of theodicy – of why God allows suffering. It is a huge topic and very complex. And it is not new. As mentioned, Job wrestled with these very issues. All of human history has been taken up with such questions.

For example, during the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which levelled the city and killed tens of thousands of people, hard questions were being asked as well. The sceptic Voltaire could ask, “Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices than London or Paris immersed in their pleasures? Lisbon is destroyed and they dance in Paris.”

The idea of God’s judgement is certainly a biblical theme, but we must be very careful in seeking to apply it to specific tragedies today. For example, we know that in these fires, like most tragedies, there is no discrimination. Everyone is affected. The ‘good’ and ‘evil’ alike suffer.

In some places one house was burnt to the ground while the house next door was completely spared. One television news report was mentioning this and quoted a young woman: “It’s like God put a ring around the house and saved it.” That comment of course raises even more questions. If it is true, it means he did not put a ring around nearby houses.

And we know that some homes and ministries of believers were destroyed in the fires. So why spare some and take others? As I said, we simply do not have a lot of specific answers to these sorts of specific questions. Indeed, the ‘why’ questions may be impossible to fully answer – at least in this life.

But we do know as believers that God is not immune from suffering or indifferent to it. We may talk all we like about why the innocent suffer, but God personally knows this more than any of us ever will. God suffered exceedingly when his own son was killed for our sins. Jesus was the only true innocent sufferer. He was certainly the only sin-free sufferer.

Yet he entered our world of suffering and death, and took upon himself our iniquities, and the just punishment for them. Thus he knows all about suffering. And we also have the comfort of knowing that one day all suffering will end, and death will be no more.

Philosophers may speculate as to whether this is the best of all possible worlds. It may not seem like it is. But we may be able to say more accurately that this may be the best possible way to the best possible world – to God’s goal of the greatest good. In order to allow for genuine human freedom, the risk of wrong choices must exist. Loving relationships cannot take place among robots. Only really free people can love. But free people can also spurn their creator, make bad choices, and bring the world down in devastation, suffering and evil.

But our loving God has not left things alone. He has decisively entered into human history, suffering on our behalf, so that we no longer have to suffer. And one day every right will be acknowledged and every evil punished.

Such remarks merely provide the briefest of outlines of the Christian hope. They will not satisfy many. They are not really meant to. And they may or may not offer much to grieving families in Australia right now. But they are answers that can be added to the overall discussion. I believe they make for better answers than many of the alternatives. And they do offer hope, which many of the other answers cannot give.

But we remain stunned with sadness and with many questions. Mystery will always be part of the response to suffering and evil. But God is not silent. He has spoken. And he has acted. For many, that is a tremendously comforting response in the face of such tragedy.

Whether any worthwhile answers are forthcoming in this time of horrible devastation, we all can pray, and offer practical help for those suffering victims.

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