When Tragedy Strikes

Another major disaster is leaving much of the world numb with disbelief and insoluble grief. The facts are slowly coming through, but it is still too early to know for certain all the fine details. But we do know that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine with a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people on board.

The majority of those whose lives were tragically cut short were from Holland, as flight MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. On board were 154 Dutch who died, as well as 27 Australians. Russian separatists are blaming Ukraine, while the Ukrainian government is blaming the Russian-backed rebels.

So those are some of the grim facts which we now know. Much more difficult to get a handle on is why these things in fact happen. Immediate answers have to do with geopolitical conflict, ethnic tensions, historical grievances, and so on. The various experts in these and related fields can of course discuss at length these sorts of causes.

mh17But perhaps far more people will be asking the much bigger questions of why this happened, especially in the context of Christian beliefs. Friends and foes alike will ask at a time like this well known questions: Where was God? Why did he allow this to happen? Why did he not intervene?

These sorts of questions have of course been asked millions of times over countless tragedies, disasters, and cases of evil and suffering. And they are hardly new questions, with the same sort of discussions taking place millennia ago. Perhaps as long as 3000 years ago Job was asking very similar sorts of questions.

For the theist, as well as the anti-theist, there is even a name for all this: it is called theodicy. Breaking down the Greek, we have the words for God and justification. A theodicy has to do with justifying the ways of God, especially in the light of so much evil and suffering in the world.

Basically, the issue is, if God is all-good, and all-powerful, then how can such a God be reconciled with so much terrible evil in the world? It was the German philosopher Leibniz who first coined the term in 1710. He argued that the suffering and evil in the world does not conflict with the notion of a good and omnipotent God.

As noted, for millennia now people have thought and written about all this. Entire libraries can be filled with the works on this. So it is always silly in the extreme to think one can today add anything new to the discussion. And we can barely begin to scratch the surface concerning it.

For what it is worth, I have written 186,000 words on this for a thesis (which may yet one day be turned into a book). And there are far better minds who have sought to tackle this, whether an Augustine, a Leibniz, a C. S. Lewis, or an Alvin Plantinga.

Philosophers, theologians and others have penned oceans full of ink on this, and will continue to do so. So why do I even bother to try to write about this? Well, we are all touched by suffering and tragedy – it is a common human condition which we all need to deal with and think about. And Christians especially are called to seek to think God’s thoughts after him.

So even though I have often written about these matters before, and will likely simply repeat myself here, a few thoughts can be offered, at least from the vantage point of the Judeo-Christian worldview. So here are just some general points that can be raised.

First, we live in a fallen world. Things are simply not the way they are supposed to be. God’s ideal for mankind was resisted early on by our first parents, and we have been doing the same ever since. Mankind lives in rebellion against God, so we resist and hinder his very good purposes for us.

We live in sin and in rebellion against an all-good God, and we simply bring great evil and suffering upon ourselves by living in such rebellion and selfishness. So why does evil happen? Because, in part, we are evil people who do evil things.

Much of the biblical worldview on this issue centres on the fact that human beings can decide either to cooperate with God and live in obedience and harmony with him, or to reject him and his loving and gracious purposes for us.

People are now living in active rebellion against the only source of what is good, right, just and kind. When we reject God, we reject and put ourselves outside of and against who he is. When we reject a loving, kind, righteous and merciful God, we reject those very qualities, and embrace their opposites.

That has been our condition from day one. God could have simply left us in this hell hole, both now and forever. But in his rich grace and mercy he offered us a way out. He actually took the step of becoming like us in the person of Jesus, living a perfect and sinless life, and taking our place and our deserved punishment on the cross.

Countless lives are and have been turned around because of what Christ has done on our behalf. The world would be a far more evil and wicked place had all these millions of changed lives not occurred. And in the biblical scheme of things, one day Christ will return, right all wrongs, and put an end to all evil and rebellion.

Things will then revert to how they were intended to be from the very beginning. Complete and total justice will be meted out; sin will be no more, and as a result, suffering and evil will be no more. That is the good news of the Christian gospel.

In sum: Sin is an intruder into this world, and with sin has come unmitigated evil and suffering. But God has not left us to our own devices; he has acted to deal with this perversion of his moral universe in the person and work of Christ. And one day these anomalies will be no more, and the good, righteous and loving rule and reign of God’s kingdom will fully take place.

So real steps have been taken to turn things around. Sadly, not everyone chooses to embrace this incredible offer of forgiveness and new life. Many people prefer living in their own selfish and sinful world, and have no intention of bowing the knee to the God who is there.

Because of this ongoing defiance and rebellion, much of the evil and suffering we find in the world can in good measure be explained and accounted for. So for the most part we can put down this airline tragedy to the actions of sinful and selfish human beings, who are at war with God, with one another, and even themselves.

Sure, a million more issues and questions arise here, but they have all been discussed, debated, and answered time and time again. As I said, it is not my intention to answer every question here, or even to try. But the biblical worldview goes a long way in explaining why evil exists, where it came from, how it has been dealt with, and what its final outcome will be.

I find no other worldview that answers as comprehensively, as coherently, and as satisfactorily the problem of evil. In this fallen world, all our explanations and theodicies will be less than perfect and complete. But despite plenty more questions and concerns, the biblical worldview offers us a tangible and satisfactory framework in which to think about suffering and evil.

And as to this most recent of tragedies, the Christian can of course, at the very least, pray persistently and diligently for all those involved. Even in these horrific situations, God is able to provide substantial comfort and healing. He grieves with us, and is not immune from our suffering.

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12 Replies to “When Tragedy Strikes”

  1. Good post, Bill. One of my brothers was on a flight out of Schiphol NL one hour after this one and is safely home. That brings home to me the reality of the shortness of our term on earth and how fragile we are. In the blink of an eye everything can change and we need to be ready for eternity.

  2. Well said, Bill. As a Christian with a Biblical worldview, I have no conflict in my mind about the existence of evil in our fallen world, and God’s promise to finally and fully deal with it. As unbelief grows and expands, so will the evil events. The world is suffering because God is giving the world over to the results of its contempt for Him who first created it as “very good”.
    We are reaping the consequences of rampant sin…..as you so eloquently put it, “We live in sin and in rebellion against an all-good God, and we simply bring great evil and suffering upon ourselves by living in such rebellion and selfishness. So why does evil happen? Because, in part, we are evil people who do evil things.”
    I can only pray that many people will read your wise words, understand their truth and turn to God for forgiveness.
    Thank you.

  3. G’day Bill,

    Thanks, as always. I can’t help but observe that the consistent atheistic position is well summed up by Richard Dawkins (‘River Out of Eden’ 1995).

    ‘ ‘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, or any justice. The universe that 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. As that unhappy poet A E Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither know nor care.’ DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’

    He can have it …

    Andrew Campbell

  4. The real tragedy is the fact that this could have not happened because of the weaponry required to do such a thing, but we know what happens when men do evil things.

  5. you are right Bill to not attempt to explain this latest evil. I have come to understand that for us to be able to choose good or evil, that there has to be evil. And where there is evil, always someone gets hurt. It’s that simple. Father God wants us to choose good, but if we don’t, guess what? Someone gets hurt. All the day long He reaches out to a stubborn and perverse people (people like you and me), but if we turn our backs to Him, and clap our hands over our ears so as not to hear Him, does He not see this, who rules the universe? This is why we have to have man’s alternative explanation as to why the firmament is becoming more and more out of kilter, as we turn more and more away from Father God and His ways, the more we must see signs in the weather to show this.

  6. Dear Bill,
    Thank you for your many helpful articles. May I put in a point? My late wife questioned not so much particular painful situations, but the totality of suffering as a consequence of creation. God knew in creating the world and humanity that we would ruin it with all the horror to follow. Why did he bother creating this world at all?
    My answer to her was: God evidently decided that it was all worth it nevertheless. We haven’t seen the ultimate outcome yet, but we have the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul wrote, admittedly in a somewhat different context:
    ”For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal”, (2 Cor. 4:17-18 RSV). I believe that this also applies to the whole of creation. For this see also Rom. 8:18-25.

  7. This is very sad, but I trust Obama will slither in to manipulate and do as he does best. That is, use human suffering to push his corrupt worldview.

  8. Andrew, I was pondering that “consistent atheistic position” this morning and thought to my self, I wonder how come that, if evil is supposed to be part of reality, that we fight against it, try to overcome, eradicate it to the best of our ability and yes, unbelievers do this too. Somehow the fact that we instinctively attempt to avoid evil or at least that which we are still able to recognize as such, makes me think that it somehow wasn’t supposed to be here. Of course it is now part of our reality and God can use it for good, but if the atheists were right, our response to evil or good should be indifferent, in fact there wouldn’t be a distinction at all.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  9. G’day Ursula (and Bill),

    Excellent point, which I hadn’t thought of. We rage against evil because we know it isn’t the way things should be. And Dawkins goes there, quoting ‘that unhappy poet.’ Does he, see that his consistent atheism is unsatisfying? For it is. Only faith in the Lord Jesus gives us hope at a time like this.

    Andrew Campell

  10. Dear Bill,
    Thank you for your very wise words which obviously stem from the Holy Spirit within you.

    Thank you also to your readers who have also offered some very wise and beautiful comments.

    Up to now I haven’t heard anyone ask where God is in this terrible tragedy but no doubt the question is in many people’s minds. However, a reasonable explanation is that this is a clear case of the hardness of human hearts which did not care about the preciousness of the human cargo the Malaysian plane carried. It is not the fault of our wise, merciful, loving and bountiful God who, although He allowed it, because nothing happens unless He does, did not want it to happen. It happened because of the evil choices some human beings made to fire that missile. Once God bestows a gift He does not take it back. He is not an Indian giver. He gifted human kind with a free will when He created them and gave them a set of rules to live by which He knew would maximise their happiness if they obeyed them. One of those commands is’Thou shall not Kill’ which has been broken with this terrible crime. Why can’t people see this? It is clear enough! Can’t people see that humankind would end up as robots if God were to step in each and every time evil choices were made? The precious gift of human freedom which we value so much would be destroyed forever and the good which has been done because of the good choices which have been made would not be worth anything.

    One prime example would be that had the Blessed Mother said no to God when He asked her to become the Mother of His son, Jesus might never have come in to the world to save us. Then all the good which has been done in His name might never have been done.

  11. I went to a memorial service yesterday for a Christian couple killed in this attack. Wow – what a fantastic testimony it was. Much was made of God’s sovereignty even in the midst of tragedy and that we are never out of God’s reach or beyond His help. It was a truly humbling and encouraging service and one that I pray will lead many to consider their eternal condition.

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