Posted By MSH on January 18, 2010
The impact of the catastrophic earthquake last week in Haiti is still rippling through the small, impoverished country. The scale of the tragedy is still building to its full crescendo of horror. But even now the calamity prompts questions concerning the whereabouts and benevolence of God. If God is good, why do people suffer? Since this question is usually asked of Christians and Jews who embrace the Bible as the word of God, I’ll focus on the Bible in my answer.
The question is simple, but complex. One of the difficulties has to do with assumptions loaded into the question itself. Asking, “If God is good, why do people suffer?” presupposes that God’s goodness and suffering are incompatible. Why? Because of a prior presumption—an odd but common one—that the existence of a God means all events are caused by that God. But is that really true? Does the Bible really teach that?
For sure the religiously-minded like that idea when things are going fine, since it gives God credit for everything. But if the idea is really true, then it necessarily follows that God either wants tragedies and evil to happen or needs them to happen as part of a larger plan. Militant atheism charges God with the former, and much of Christianity opts for the latter. The truth is that both alternatives are, biblically speaking, flawed.
I have to issue a warning at this point. The rest of this essay can’t be read in the time it would take for a standard commercial break. Nor can it be grasped as easily as the outcome of an episode of American Idol. I have to be blunt. If you aren’t willing to invest a good fifteen minutes or so grappling with a question this important, then stop here. Answers to these kinds of questions don’t conform to sound bites. I’m writing for those who believe close scrutiny of the Bible and careful thinking about what it says is fine with God—and frankly what we ought to be doing with the Bible in the first place.
It isn’t a mystery why people assume that God causes natural disasters. The Bible describes God doing just that on occasion. The most familiar example is probably the plagues against Egypt that were part of the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. But does an example like that compel us to believe that God causes all subsequent natural disasters? No, it doesn’t, and there is nothing to suggest that is the case in the Bible. Natural disasters are, well, natural. They are part of the way the physical world works—randomly. And if we were engaged in serious study of the Bible, we’d find that the Bible tells us exactly that in its first two verses.
Genesis 1:1-2 says: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
I underlined “the deep” for a reason. In the ancient Near East, the world of the Bible, people believed that creation was a process that involved bringing order out of chaotic conditions. For example, the Egyptians described the beginning of created order as a watery abyss, from which a great mound (earth) emerged.
Since the 19th century, when Babylonian cuneiform was deciphered, scholars have known that several of the most well known stories in the Bible (e.g., creation, the great flood) had Babylonian counterparts. In the Babylonian creation story, the beginning watery chaos was depicted as a sea monster. The ancients saw the sea as chaotic and unpredictable; it was uncontrollable and to be feared. A high-ranking god killed the sea monster and brought about order—the heavens and the earth. The name of the chaos sea monster in Babylonian religion was Tiamat. The Hebrew spelling of that Babylonian word is “tehom”—which is the very same word translated “the deep” in Genesis 1:2. Hence my underlining.
What this means is that, not unexpectedly, the biblical creation story and the Babylonian story are similar yet different. Genesis does not have God killing the chaos monster. Rather, when the story begins chaos is already subdued. But—and this is most important for our discussion—chaos was not eliminated. Chaos is there, as part of the fabric of creation. And God later called creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31). God wanted creation to have unpredictability or what we’d call in the human realm “freedom.” And yet that unpredictability is under divine restraint. It is chaos restrained, not chaos unbound. The same goes for human freedom, as we’ll see in a moment.
Natural disasters are therefore not aberrations. They are not an extension of humanity’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden story (though that made things worse). Chaos was present and accounted for (and held in place) in Genesis 1:2. Natural disasters happen because there is nature. God didn’t create a computer program incapable of system glitches so he could just watch it run. How boring would that be? He created a world—and a universe for that matter—with unpredictability built in. (Spoiler: The presence of the “chaotic sea” in God’s creation is why, in the book of Revelation, when all things are set right — when they actually *are* perfect– the writer says, “and I saw a new heaven and earth . . . there was no more sea”; Rev. 21:1).
But why would God do that? Why would God run the risk of nature “acting out” and having human beings and other creatures harmed or killed? Because the alternative meant that everything in nature, including human life, would be irreversibly programmed and would therefore run, colorless and unchanging, into infinitude. Imagine a world where every solitary event is the same every day. Imagine humankind where everyone is a computer, powerless to make any decision that had not already been programmed. That was the alternative.
That God did not choose the path of monotonous determinism tells us something about God. He values a living world that is free more than static, robotic, unfeeling, and dull. He wanted to create a world that corresponded to his own nature—and to create that thing we call humankind to be like Him. Something programmed, unresponsive, impassive, virtually lobotomized is not consistent with the image of God. God was willing to take the great risk because He wanted us and his world to have a small taste of what it feels like to be Him. And he knew the desired ends to which he would steer human history — through influence, not predestination of every event — would indeed be the final result.
I would suggest from all this that, while God’s creatures suffer the consequences of God’s decision not to eliminate chaos or randomness in creation, life lived in this world is far to be preferred than the alternative world. In other words, while people will suffer because creation is what it is, and humans are what they are, God is still good because he put us in the better world. Sure, you can argue that you’d prefer being a robot that cannot think, feel, decide, love, hate, etc., but you’d be lying with every breath and you know it. Better to be thankful for the life we have, and try to live it well than never have it at all. And what better way to express that than to do what we can to help people in trauma, such as we see now in Haiti. And we can only do that because God made us the way he did, capable of seeing suffering and responding to it. If our responses were programmed (read: predestined), then they are not responses born of compassion. They are born of a divine software developer.
Freedom, Foreknowledge, and Fatalism
But isn’t everything determined? Doesn’t God know everything that’s going to happen—and doesn’t that mean it’s settled?
Here’s the point at which many Christians fall prey to militant atheism’s sincere assessment that, if there’s a God in total control of all things, then that God either wants or needs bad things to happen as part of some grand plan. Why else would bad things be included in what God has ordained? It’s also where both the militant atheist and the Christian proceed from the same flawed assumption.
The idea that God predestines everything stems from the fact that he already knows what’s going to happen. The two are linked in cause-and-effect relationship. But does the Bible teach this?
King David is one of the more famous biblical characters. His life includes an episode before he became king that overturns the predestination apple cart that so many Christians unwittingly ride in. In the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, chapter 23, we read that David is in trouble. After having saved a city called Keilah from his enemies, the Philistines, David found himself in a vulnerable position. Turns out his nemesis, the current king, Saul, heard David and his men were inside Keilah. Saul summoned his army and was moving fast to trap David inside. David thinks he can ward off Saul with the help of the people of Keilah, whom he just rescued from the Philistines, but he’s worried that he can’t really trust them. So what does he do? He asks God whether the men of Keilah will turn him over to Saul. Here’s the conversation (1 Samuel 23:11-12):
“Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O Lord, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.” And the Lord said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the Lord said, “They will surrender you.”
Well, thanks for nothing, people. What happens in the next verse answers our question about whether everything is predestined:
“Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition.”
Did you catch that? God foreknew that when Saul came to the city of Keilah the men of that city would hand over David. But that never happened. David took off before Saul got there. So what’s the point? The point is this: something God foreknew did not come to pass. Therefore, the fact that he foreknew something did not mean what he foreknew was predestinated.
The Keilah story tells us that just because God foreknows something does not mean it will happen or destined to happen. There is no necessary link between foreknowledge and predestination. The God of the Bible knows all things real and possible; the things that will happen, and the things that may happen. But his foreknowledge is not a cosmic trigger that requires an event to happen.
But, you might ask, doesn’t the Bible have God predestinating some things? Yes, it does. But that simply means that God can and has predestinated some events. It doesn’t require the conclusion that he predestinates everything — including acts of evil and natural disaster.
When bad things happen to evil people, it may be that God has chosen to punish evil. That’s a good thing, since evil deserves punishment. But what about when bad things happen and the innocent suffer? Rather than conclude that God was behind the suffering or needed it to happen so his plan wouldn’t blow up in his face down the road, we ought to think about how God has made the natural world with randomness as part of His creation. We also have to ask ourselves whether it is consistent with God’s character to make the innocent suffer. The Bible does have some examples of the innocent suffering (Job comes to mind), and of God allowing that suffering to spread amazing blessing, even for the sufferer (Job again comes to mind). But the same Bible also tells us that we have to trust that God is as loving and wise as He is lord of all things—and that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
The Human (Evil) Factor in Haiti
While God doesn’t want or need evil to work out his will for humanity, he is constantly engaged with it. Part of the fallout of his decision to allow freedom and unpredictability in creation and in humanity is that humans will freely do evil—and they have, throughout world history. A lot of the suffering in Haiti is due to generations of dictatorship, thuggery, and thievery of resources that resulted in mind-numbing poverty, poorly constructed buildings, and a feckless infrastructure. In short, Haiti is part natural disaster, part man’s inhumanity to man.
So why doesn’t God just step in and stop human evil? Because that would mean stripping humans of freedom, which in turn means that humans would no longer be in God’s image. God shares his attribute of freedom with humans; it’s part and parcel of being like God. Without it, we would cease to be in his image, and since that’s already decided, there’s no turning back without ending humanity.
What God does instead is constantly influence people to do good—to do what he wants for their own good and the good of others. How does God do this? In biblical theology He uses his Spirit, people, and angels. The God of the Bible is not the great chess master; He is the great influencer. He is near and present each day, working moment-by-moment with people for the sake of other people. God will not take away a person’s free will so that he or she cannot do evil. Evil happens—quite frequently as we know—but then God moves other people to transform that evil into something beautiful.
Haiti has seen generations of people whom God has sought to use to influence people away from policies that are exploitative and evil. He needs more willing volunteers to do what they can do to change hearts and minds in Haiti—and in other governments unwilling to lift a finger to do the right thing. It’s a struggle that seems never-ending, but the Bible reminds us that isn’t true, either. Someday, there will be no more sea, no more chaos, no more evil, no more suffering. This is the God of biblical theology, not a divine puppet master. And until that day comes, we ought to seek to be God’s agents in Haiti and anywhere else where evil needs to be opposed and suffering needs to be healed.