When the great earthquake of 1755 rocked Lisbon, it raised all sorts of questions about God and faith. The quake, along with a devastating tsunami and massive fires, resulted in anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 deaths in Lisbon alone.
The current quake and aftershocks in Haiti may be responsible for a similar number of deaths. And like the Lisbon disaster, questions are already being asked about how such calamities can be squared with the notion of a good God.
The Lisbon quake provided further fuel for the Enlightenment thinkers who were already seriously questioning God and his goodness. French philosopher and writer Voltaire used his novel Candide to attack the concept of this being “the best of all possible worlds”.
That phrase goes back to the German philosopher Leibniz, who had sought to develop a theodicy (a justification of the ways of God). Voltaire and other Enlightenment figures argued that events such as the Lisbon quake radically challenged the notion of divine benevolence and the optimistic beliefs held by such thinkers as Leibniz.
Of course in the 250 years since the Lisbon disaster, the Western world has gotten a whole lot more secular, with the scepticism and negative criticism of the Enlightenment having done so much thoroughgoing damage. But the issue of theodicy still arises.
Atheists will simply use this most recent tragedy as another attempt to say, “See, I told you so – of course there is no God”. They will seek to offer this disaster as more evidence that the biblical conception of a benevolent deity is untenable and must be utterly rejected.
This of course is an age-old debate, and it is unlikely that either side will willingly cede any ground here, or offer any new insights or arguments. And one can rightly ask whether either side should be seeking to score cheap points here in the face of such unmitigated human suffering.
But like the earlier quake, such disasters inevitably bring out profound questioning, from both believers and non-believers alike. Thus we have an obligation to try to make sense of all this, at least on the basis of our own particular worldview.
Obviously an issue like this has been tossed around for millennia, and huge oceans of ink have been spilt on all this. I certainly have nothing new to offer on the debate, even though I have penned nearly 200,000 words on this topic for my PhD dissertation.
And even Christians themselves have differing takes on all this. Those promoting the openness of God, (or free-will theism) will seek to argue that God is almost as surprised about all this as we are. They argue that future events are not realities, and therefore even God cannot know them.
Thus according to this school of thought, God does not have divine foreknowledge. They are keen to promote such a concept because they feel it offers a better account of the problem of evil and suffering. They think a morally-superior Christian theodicy can be offered by arguing that God has nothing to do with such tragedies, and he is not responsible for such suffering.
Of course that is a very controversial theological position to take, given that there is so much biblical data affirming both God’s sovereignty and his divine foreknowledge. But this is not the place to enter into that particular debate. I simply raise it to point out how believers can and do differ on how we might think biblically and theologically about such disasters.
Getting back to the Leibnizian argument about this being “the best of all possible worlds”, a perhaps more accurate Christian response might be to say that this world might be the best possible way to the best world. That is, if we want to accept certain goods, such as human freedom, then a sovereign God must somehow make that possible.
Much evil in the world comes from human choices. But human significance presupposes some kind of free choice. That means we can abuse our freedom and make wrong choices, resulting in evil and suffering.
But that only deals with moral evil. What we have here is a case of natural evil. How do we account for that? Well, some natural evil is caused by human activity. We have certain influence on our planet, and we can pollute rivers, for example, resulting in the poisoning and/or death of fish, and so on.
This is too complex a topic to properly discuss here, but even non-believers have to account for physical or natural evil. The same water that brings life to the thirsty can also become a source of death – by drowning. The possibility of evil will always exist in such a world.
The question is, can God redeem such evil, or work a greater end out of such suffering? If we believe the biblical data that God is too loving to be unkind, and too wise to make a mistake, then we can answer such questions in a positive fashion.
We may not know the whys behind every evil, but we can know the who. We know that we serve a God who loves us so much that he even took the death we deserve so that we do not have to suffer the punishment we all rightly should face.
If it is complained that innocent people died in Haiti, then the Christian has to reply with at least two thoughts: one, there really are no innocent people – we are all sinners; and two, Jesus was innocent – totally and completely – yet he suffered so that we might benefit.
Still, pictures of grieving fathers holding their dead sons demand some sort of response. Again, the believer would argue that God knows all about losing a beloved son – indeed, his only son. God is not immune from our suffering, nor is he distant from our cries.
Of course for those who are now in the midst of tremendous grief, theological replies may well offer little comfort. What these poor souls need now is all the help, compassion and assistance that we can give them. And already many dozens of Christian organisations are into full swing in this regard.
Indeed, many Christian groups have been working with the poor and marginalised in Haiti well before this earthquake struck. We may not be able to answer all the why questions right now, but we can show in practical terms the compassion of Christ in this dark hour.
And to say that we may not have all the answers now is not to suggest that there are no answers. There may well be good answers, but we may not be privy to them all just now. We do know that God is deeply concerned with every one of us, and that he weeps when we weep.
Atheists and other ideological sceptics will find nothing convincing here. I don’t expect them to. But I certainly do not find them offering any solid answers here themselves. In the atheist worldview, crap just happens – end of story. The biblical version of events tells us that God has acted in human history and that this is not the end of the story.
One day every right will be rewarded, every wrong judged, and every tear wiped from our eyes. That may just seem like pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye to our atheist buddies, but it seems to offer a far lot more than their picture does: crap now, and then nothing.
Jesus offers us very real comfort now in our troubles, and he also offers us a hope and a future. Both moral and physical evils will one day come to a complete end. That, it seems to me, is worth banking on, and not the hopeless and despairing creed of naked materialism.
But I have only scratched the surface here in what is one of the most complex, vexing and difficult issues around. Believers have their take on the issue, as do non-believers. Which one is in fact true, and which one offers the most concrete help to sufferers I leave for others to decide.