It is quite common when any disaster or tragedy strikes for both believers and non-believers to ask, ‘Where was God?’ Or, ‘Why didn’t he do something?’ Or, ‘Why does he not intervene in these situations?’ These of course are age-old questions which have exercised the brightest minds and have been the subject of countless treatises.
The actual term for all this is ‘theodicy’. From the Greek, the term can be broken down into two words: God and justification. So this has to do with justifying the ways of God to man, especially in light of evil and suffering. It is about putting God in the dock, seeking to get from him a rationale and justification for such things.
Theodicies are as old as the Book of Job, which goes back some 3000 years. There are plenty of versions of how the questions are presented and the discussions are framed. One version came in the form of a comment to my site just days ago: “If there really is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving being who can intervene in the affairs of the world, why does he allow natural disasters to occur, e.g. a tsunami which kills some 300,000 people?”
With tens of thousands of books already written on this general topic, it may be foolish of me to try to answer such a question in a short article. And it would be very helpful to know just where this person is coming from. Is he an atheist, an agnostic, a Christian, or what?
But let me offer a few brief tentative responses. First, and of course writing from the Judeo-Christian worldview, let me say that it is not just believers who have to struggle with the problem of evil. Even atheists have to account for it – and goodness as well, for that matter.
But it does seem that the naturalistic accounts really do not offer much help. Basically all the secular evolutionist or atheist can say is this: “Crap happens, so get used to it.” That is basically what Dawkins for example is saying here:
“Theologians worry away at the ‘problem of evil’ and a related ‘problem of suffering.’ On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
As I said, crap just happens. But most thinking individuals want something a bit more useful than that. The Christian faith speaks directly to this issue. While it may not offer specific answers to every single individual case of suffering, it does give us a plausible and comforting broad brush set of answers.
One major thing it claims is that life is not the way it is meant to be. It certainly is not the way it was originally created to be. Sin has entered the world and affected everyone and everything. Because of the fall, everything is out of skew, including nature itself.
Thus massive plates move under the oceans, setting off tsunamis. Old trees fall down, sometimes striking people. Roads can get slippery resulting in people tripping and hurting themselves. That is simply life in the world we live in. But two further things can be said about this.
First, it is temporary. It will not always be this way. This world with its sorrows and troubles will not go on forever. Christ makes this doubly possible. At his first coming he dealt with the sin issue, freeing those who come to him in faith from the eternal consequences of sin. At his second coming he will right every wrong and turn things back to how they were meant to be.
Then we will have what is described in Scripture, when there will be no more death or sickness and suffering. Every tear will be wiped from our eyes, and the lion and the lamb will lie down together. So that is our eschatological hope which gives us courage to persevere now in the difficult times.
Also, Jesus promises to be with us in our trials and hardships. We don’t have to suffer alone. God himself accompanies us through our pains and suffering. We are not promised a pain-free existence, but we are promised his presence and comfort in the midst of our difficulties.
As to the formulation used by my commentator, it is of course a quite long-standing one, used by many, and made most famously by philosopher David Hume. And he even appealed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) on this. There are countless variations on this theme.
Concerning the version offered by my commentator, several things can be said. I would argue that the premises can be queried. For example, the whole concept of God being all-powerful needs to be teased out carefully. A large part of the Christian answer to evil is the matter of free will. God desires a free love relationship with us. Obviously automatons cannot give him this. So he took a risk in creating us, knowing that we could rebel against him and seek to run our lives our own way, resulting in all sorts of trouble.
So to speak about God intervening is not necessarily too helpful, at least in most cases. It is impossible for God to guarantee that we will always make right and wise decisions, and also ensure that we are genuinely free to love him or not. So appealing to a distorted notion God’s omnipotence here is as helpful as arguing that God is powerful enough to make a four-sided triangle.
God simply cannot do that which is logically impossible. So he cannot promise a sin-free world, and also have us to enjoy genuine moral autonomy and freedom. As to intervening in natural disasters, one has to ask some questions here. How do we know he does not already do this, when and where he chooses?
How many natural disasters have been avoided or diverted because of God’s intervening hand which we are not aware of? And if the person asking this is an atheist, then they already are arguing against God’s intervention in their lives. So why do they demand it here?
And a moment’s reflection would show the absurdity and impossibility of God intervening every single time some disaster or evil were about to happen. Life would be unliveable in that case. We would never know how to live from one second to the next.
If God kept trees hard so we can get wood products from them (chairs, houses) but then all of a sudden turned trees into jelly when they are about to fall on someone, such an unpredictable world would be impossible to live in. It is exactly because we live in a fairly predictable and orderly world, that we can live and do anything. Indeed, such a world makes science possible.
I know the chair I am sitting on is more than likely going to keep holding me up. But if at any second it could be turned into a feather when someone wants to use it as a weapon against me, then a world of chaos and uncertainty would ensue.
Also, I ask my questioner, do you really want God to intervene every time any evil is about to be unleashed somewhere in the world? Let me put it to you this way: if God decided that at midnight tonight he would put a complete end to all evil the world over, where will you be at a minute past midnight? Or me? Or anyone?
The real problem is not evil that is out there, it is the evil which resides in every single human heart. So if you demand that God immediately stamps out all evil, there goes you and me and all of us. So it is a good thing that he doesn’t bow to our unhelpful demands.
As to natural evils, such as a tsunami, the biblical view is that there is a real connection between natural evil and moral evil. Our sinful choices often have a direct bearing on the planet. If we mistreat the environment it may well come back to haunt us.
So while some natural disasters may seem to have no direct human causes involved, it is possible that most do have at least indirect human factors involved. But it is nonetheless helpful to distinguish moral evil (which involves human choices) from natural evil (floods, fires, earthquakes, etc.).
But so much more needs to be said about all this, so I direct the reader to Part Two of this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/09/21/why-doesn%E2%80%99t-god-do-something-part-two