God and Haiti

Posted By 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.

Natural Disasters

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.

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18 Responses to “God and Haiti”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Is this a paradox when you say that Revelation teaches that in the new heavens there will be no more sea? Because it sounds like you’re saying God created the natural world with unpredictability and he loves it so much that when he comes back he is gonna get rid of it? It just sounds redundant to me (not that I disagree with the point of the essay, but will the restored world be one of dull unpredictability by that reasoning?).

  2. Jonnathan Molina says:

    sorry I meant to say “will the restored world be one of dull predictability by that reasoning. Thanks!

  3. MSH says:

    @Jonnathan Molina: I think there is a (negative) relationship between chaos restrained and the fall. I don’t think the new heaven and earth will be dull and programmed, but one with the fall undone and no more unpredictability. My image (and it’s a guess of course) is that everything will be and work as it ought in full perfection. God said the initial creation was “good” not perfect, and Eden was distinct from the rest of creation. I think the new heavens and earth will be Eden in totality.

  4. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Hey thanks for the fast response! Me and my sister had a 2 1/2 hour discussion just on this topic and how it truly does just answer everything so well. I kinda had a “doh” moment as I realized the good vs. perfect thing…it really sells because with Christ and God here (and our imperishable/perfect bodies) there’s no need for the lessons of unpredictability and faith in the face of the ‘unrevealed’ God that chaos was meant to teach the fallen human race (no sea is a strong picture of the total peace and sovereignty of our new world and relationship with the visible presence of God and I agree it will not be one bit boring!).

  5. Nobunaga says:

    I asked Dr Heiser a question similar to this and now i’m reading books on A and B time theory ! I think he means it when he says you have to put the time in.

    I like the fact you draw attention to the flawed bases of the question that suffering cannot be compatible with Good. Hebrews 2:10.

    no more sea ? is there a good sea and bad sea in Ugaritic tradition ? also along those lines with the mention of no more sea and the killing of the dragon is this related to leviathan in Isaiah 27:1. Or do you see it as just a symbol of order being restored, taking into account what the ANE thoughts on the sea were ?

    I wholeheartedly agree with your statement especially the last two paragraphs ! a rebuke to me when i hear of things like this i tend to say to myself “It’s not Gods will ! but He has allowed it” and then move on with my day, Thanks for the reminder to actually DO something.

  6. U Avalos says:

    Wait. So you said, in the new world, there will be no more unpredictability. Well, then why didn’t God created it like that in the first place? There would have been none of the suffering that resulted from chaos…

    I’m a Christian, by the way, and that’s one of the questions the “militant atheists” usually ask me. To sum up your theology, it sounds like it’s basically, “God knows everything. But that doesn’t mean that he predestines everything. God predestines *some* things but not everything.”

    My only problem with that is that is seems you are basically creating an “agent” outside of God: the Greeks called it “fate”. You call it “chaos.”

    Personally, I believe that God predestines everything including chaos. You are assuming God views chaos the same way we do–as completely “unpredictable.” But I disagree. God transcends time and space. To sum up my view, “God knows everything. God predestines everything. But that doesn’t mean chaos doesn’t exist. Chaos is still quite chaotic to us mortals…”

    I really like this post, though. It’s a tough issue. Really, when someone has made up their mind to mistrust God, it’s tough to convince them otherwise, no matter what you say…

  7. MSH says:

    @U Avalos: see my most recent update on the Haiti post.

  8. Douglas says:

    I also had the same question that Jonnathan had. You seem to say God didn’t create a world without choas because He didn’t want a boring world but a world where freedom reins. Then you say when the world is recreated it will not have chaos but will be perfected.

    So if the later is better, why not create the later in the first place?

    In answer to him you state there will be a world without unpredictability. Isn’t that the same as saying one without chaos, or a world programmed? This answer is again contradictory.

  9. Jonnathan Molina says:

    to U Avalos: I had the same thought about God being able to predestine chaos but I caught myself in that what I was actually saying was that God (of course) can foreknow chaos. And as Dr. Heiser pointed out (using the story of David, Saul and Keilah) that just because God foreknows something it doesn’t mean he has to predestine it (he is ok with letting some things “surprise” (wink, wink) Him). Another way is to say God can predict the unpredictable (from our point of view). Nothing is too complex for Him to understand. However, does the bible teach that he, therefore, must be the causing agent behind every single event in the universe? I don’t see how that matters or is supported by scripture. If He is the One True Autonomous Person in the universe…then thinking of Him as if He’s bound to the doctrine of predestination (man made by the way) is not giving Him true freedom to act apart of events in the created sphere but forcing Him to operate in predictable ways to satisfy our finite understanding.

  10. Susan says:

    This is a great blog to really get us thinking. What you are proposing above seems to be almost an open theistic view. In order to allow us free will, God can’t know what we will choose. Am I understanding what you are saying correctly? If so, it makes God out to be too small and not omniscient. I understand the problem of trying to explain to atheists, etc., why God would allow evil and suffering. But, we also see through a glass darkly and cannot fully comprehend why things occur the way they do. We do know that we live in a fallen, imperfect sinful world. We also know that God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. We can have total free will, and at the same time God knows in advance what choices we will make. That does not make us puppets. Finally, if God does not know in advance what catastrophes occur such as the earthquake in Haiti, that means He also has no control over who lives and dies. What if someone dies in a natural disaster, or a car crash for that matter, who WOULD have gotten saved 5 years from now? Then this creates a conflict with the concept of God NOT LOSING one of his own.

  11. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Hi Susan, not a scholar here but if I may? You wrote: “In order to allow us free will, God can’t know what we will choose. Am I understanding what you are saying correctly?” Actually, what this and other posts on the blog have said is more like in order to allow us free will, God (though he knows what we will choose and all the possible things we could have chosen) does not interfere with our decisions outside of influencing us towards the good. This way, we remain his “imagers” and are able to be held accountable in our limited (or contingent) version of freedom of will (as only God is truly autonomous and without need of influence to make decisions). Biblically, when God has actually ordained something he WILL interfere (as in the case of certain (not all) prophecies, war victories, signs & wonders). But it’s kind of incoherent to assume that this is how he does ALL of his dealings (what most atheists presuppose–If God is all powerful and causes all things, blah blah–) this just doesn’t conform to our reality. Again, I think it helps to remember that as the One True All-Powerful Person he has freedom to act (without affecting us even!) and we fail in our attempts to understand Him by holding him hostage to a set of theological boundaries to satisfy our psychological need to have it all figured out (systematic theology). The Bible is just not that cut and dry (to the horror of fundamentalists and atheists everywhere). Hope this helps!

  12. MSH says:

    @Douglas:

    see the follow-ups

  13. MSH says:

    @U Avalos: I answered the first one in the original post; I’m also not personifying chaos as an agent.

  14. Susan says:

    This is a great commentary on whether God causes natural disasters. It is an excerpt from Randy Alcorn’s book “If God is Good”
    http://www.epm.org/artman2/publish/Christian_living_suffering/Natural_Disasters.shtml

  15. [...] http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2010/01/god-and-haiti/ Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Faith & UnityQuestion of the day…Will the “Real God” Please Stand Up?A hard pill to swallow, I know   [...]

  16. [...] long ago Mike Heiser discussed the Haiti disaster in his blog and some of the readerss comments delved into the subjects of the unpredictability in [...]

  17. Tokyo says:

    Hi there,

    many people think that the Haiti earthquake was not a natural disaster but a HAARP action. The evicende goes stronger, that the US caused this catastrophe by using HAARP in order to take over Haiti.

    I know that this not the point of this discussion and I apologize, but I want you to know that.

  18. [...] global perfect earth is based on the error that Eden = all the earth. The text never says that. See here for some basic thoughts on this as it pertains to why natural disasters happen. [...]

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