Apologetics: Evil and Suffering
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Every thoughtful person must deal with the problem of evil. Evil acts and tragic events come to us all in this vale of tears known as human life. The problem of evil and suffering is undoubtedly the greatest theological challenge we face.
Most persons face this issue only in a time of crisis. A senseless accident, a wasting disease, or an awful crime demands some explanation. Yesterday, evil showed its face again as Hurricane Katrina came ashore on the Gulf Coast.
For the atheist, this is no great problem. Life is a cosmic accident, morality is an arbitrary game by which we order our lives, and meaning is non-existent. As Oxford University’s Professor Richard Dawkins explains, human life is nothing more than a way for selfish genes to multiply and reproduce. There is no meaning or dignity to humanity.
For the Christian Scientist, the material world and the experience of suffering and death are illusory. In other religions suffering is part of a great circle of life or recurring incarnations of spirit.
Some Christians simply explain suffering as the consequence of sins, known or unknown. Some suffering can be directly traced to sin. What we sow, so shall we reap, and multiple millions of persons can testify to this reality. Some persons suffer innocently by the sinful acts of others.
But Jesus rejected this as a blanket explanation for suffering, instructing His disciples in John 9 and Luke 13 that they could not always trace suffering back to sin. We should note that the problem of evil and suffering, the theological issue of theodicy, is customarily divided into evil of two kinds, moral and natural. Both are included in these passages. In Luke 13, the murder of the Galileans is clearly moral evil, a premeditated crime—just like the terrorist acts in New York and Washington. In John 9, a man is blind from birth, and Jesus tells the Twelve that this blindness cannot be traced back to this man’s sin, or that of his parents.
Natural evil comes without a moral agent. A tower falls, an earthquake shakes, a tornado destroys, a hurricane ravages, a spider bites, a disease debilitates and kills. The world is filled with wonders mixed with dangers. Gravity can save you or gravity can kill you. When a tower falls, it kills.
People all over the world are demanding an answer to the question of evil. It comes only to those who claim that God is mighty and that God is good. How could a good God allow these things to happen? How can a God of love allow killers to kill, terrorists to terrorize, and the wicked to escape without a trace?
No superficial answer will do. Our quandary is well known, and the atheists think they have our number. As a character in Archibald MacLeish’s play, J.B. asserts, “If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God; take the even, take the odd . . . .” As he sees it, God can be good, or He can be powerful, but He cannot be both.
We will either take our stand with God’s self-revelation in the Bible, or we are left to invent a deity of our own imagination. The Bible quickly excludes two false understandings.
First, the Bible reveals that God is omnipotent and omniscient. These are unconditional and categorical attributes. The sovereignty of God is the bedrock affirmation of biblical theism. The Creator rules over all creation. Not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge. He knows the number of hairs upon our heads. God rules and reigns over all nations and principalities. Not one atom or molecule of the universe is outside His active rule.
The sovereignty of God was affirmed by King Nebuchadnezzar, who confessed that God “does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” [Daniel 4:36]. Process theologians have attempted to cut God’s power down to size, rendering the Creator as one power among others. The evangelical revisionists pushing open theism have attempted to cut God’s omniscience down to size, rendering Him as one mind among others.
Rabbi Harold Kushner argues that God is doing the best He can under the circumstances, but He lacks the power to either kill or cure. The openness theists argue that God is always ready with Plan B when Plan A fails. He is infinitely resourceful, they stress, just not really sovereign.
These are roads we dare not take, for the God of the Bible causes the rising and falling of nations and empires, and His rule is active and universal. Limited sovereignty is no sovereignty at all.
The second great error is to ascribe evil to God. But the Bible does not allow this argument. God is absolute righteousness, love, goodness, and justice. Most errors related to this issue occur because of our human tendency to impose an external standard—a human construction of goodness—upon God. But good does not so much define God as God defines good.
How then do we speak of God’s rule and reconcile this with the reality of evil? Between these two errors the Bible points us to the radical affirmation of God’s sovereignty as the ground of our salvation and the assurance of our own good. We cannot explain why God has allowed sin, but we understand that God’s glory is more perfectly demonstrated through the victory of Christ over sin. We cannot understand why God would allow sickness and suffering, but we must affirm that even these realities are rooted in sin and its cosmic effects.
How does God exercise His rule? Does He order all events by decree, or does He allow some evil acts by His mere permission? This much we know—we cannot speak of God’s decree in a way that would imply Him to be the author of evil, and we cannot fall back to speak of His mere permission, as if this allows a denial of His sovereignty and active will.
A venerable confession of faith states it rightly: “God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs, and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any way to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”
God is God, and God is good. As Paul affirms for the church, God’s sovereignty is the ground of our hope, the assurance of God’s justice as the last word, and God’s loving rule in the very events of our lives: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose.” [Romans 8:28]
We dare not speak on God’s behalf to explain why He allowed these particular acts of evil to happen at this time to these persons and in this manner. Yet, at the same time, we dare not be silent when we should testify to the God of righteousness and love and justice who rules over all in omnipotence. Humility requires that we affirm all that the Bible teaches, and go no further. There is much we do not understand. As Charles Spurgeon explained, when we cannot trace God’s hand, we must simply trust His heart.
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 7, 2004. The questions raised by Hurricane Katrina have once again pushed this issue to the forefront of our thoughts.]
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The scale of suffering and the magnitude of the disaster in Southeast Asia defy the imagination. Sitting comfortably in our own homes and offices, we can look at the images, video segments, and computer simulations, knowing all the while that, in the nations that encircle the Indian Ocean, the death toll continues to mount.
This much is clear—the direct death toll from this disaster is likely to reach 250,000, and subsequent deaths related to the disaster may drive the total number of deaths to well over half a million. Those numbers are hard to take, but the video images are even harder to see. Satellite pictures taken before and after the massive tsunamis struck unprotected coastlines tell the story. Before the tsunami, a thriving region is clearly visible. In the aftermath, entire towns, villages, and cities have been wiped off the map. A wall of water traveling several hundred miles an hour and reaching the height of a multi-story building slammed into Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka with devastating force. At least nine nations were affected, with some of the waves bringing destruction as far away as Somalia on Africa’s eastern coast.
The magnitude of this disaster is multiplied when we realize that these very areas most devastated by the tsunamis are among the most impoverished and helpless regions of the earth. On December 26, families were washed away, children were ripped from their parents’ arms, and suffering beyond description settled upon the earth. Why?
That question comes immediately to the mind of any sensitive person, and any individual whose mind is allowed to rest for even a moment upon the magnitude of this disaster. At the first level, the scientific explanation seems clear. A massive earthquake, registering over 9.0 on the Richter scale, occurred more than six miles beneath the surface of the Pacific, just off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In an instant, one of the most beautiful parts of the world became one of the most deadly, as successive mountains of water radiated from the epicenter of the quake and headed for some of the earth’s most densely populated coastal areas. The sliding of tectonic plates beneath the surface of the ocean led to massive devastation and a tidal wave of grief and questions.
How do Christians explain this kind of suffering? What do we have to say about the meaning of an event like this? In short order, questions like these found their way to the front pages of the newspapers and the front lines of our cultural conversation. All too soon, confusion was evident, as various religious leaders offered advice and counsel.
Writing in The Guardian, reporter Martin Kettle put the problem in clear form: “Earthquakes and the belief in the judgment of God are, indeed, very hard to reconcile. However, no religion that offers an explanation of the world can avoid making some kind of an attempt to fit the two together.” As Kettle asserted, “As with previous earthquakes, any explanation of this latest one poses us a sharp intellectual choice. Either there is an entirely natural explanation for it, or there is some other kind. Even the natural one is by no means easy to imagine, but it is at least wholly coherent.”
For the atheist or agnostic, the natural explanation will suffice. Those who hold to a naturalistic and materialistic worldview will simply see this disaster as one more meaningless event taking place in a meaningless universe. As British philosopher Bryan Appleyard concluded, “The simple truth is what it has always been: nature, uncontrolled, unbidden, unpredictable, can still humble our pride and wreck our schemes in an instant. We are a thin film of thought confined to a narrow band around an undistinguished planet orbiting a pretty average star.” In other words, this is just one more accident taking place in an accidental world, observed by accidental human creatures.
The challenge to the Christian faith is clear, even as it is often crudely put forth by secular critics. If God is both omnipotent and benevolent, how can disasters like this happen? This question was stated concisely by playwright Archibald MacLeish in his Pulitzer-prize winning play, J.B. Through his character Nickles, MacLeish poses the theological challenge: “If God is God, He is not good; if God is good, He is not God.”
An example of how not to give a Christian answer was provided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Williams said this: “Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. Faced with the paralyzing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged—and also more deeply helpless. We can’t see how this is going to be dealt with, we can’t see how to make it better. We know, with a rather sick feeling, that we shall have to go on facing it and we can’t make it go away or make ourselves feel good.” The newspaper headlined the archbishop’s column, “Of Course This Makes Us Doubt God’s Existence.” After the article was published, the archbishop protested the headline, and his spokesman claimed that the paper’s characterization of the archbishop’s article was “a misrepresentation of the archbishop’s views.”
In response, the paper acknowledged that while it may have misrepresented the archbishop’s argument, nevertheless, “he himself must accept much of the blame.” Surely speaking for the paper’s readers as well as its editors, the paper observed, “His prose is so obscure, his thought processes so hard to follow, that his message is often unclear.” In exasperation, the paper simply concluded, “If Dr. Williams hopes to teach and inspire his flock, he really must learn to express himself more clearly. Otherwise he will be forever doomed to be the victim of his own erudition.”
In Australia, much closer to the tragedy, the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, explained that natural disasters are a part of God’s warning that judgment is coming. Jensen was right of course, as Jesus Himself pointed to natural disasters as a warning to human beings of our own mortality and of the coming judgment of God. Nevertheless, this was too much for more liberal churchmen in Australia. Neil Brown, Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral [Catholic] described Jensen’s comments as “a rather horrible belief when you begin to think about it.”
Well, that’s orthodox Christian theology, when you think about it. Jesus clearly warned His disciples that famines and earthquakes, along with wars and other ominous phenomena, would be the “birth pangs” of coming tribulation and judgment [Matthew 24:7-8].
This is no time for theological hand-wringing and evasion. A great tragedy like this is often the catalyst for bad theology offered as soothing counsel from religious professionals.
A faithful Christian response will affirm the true character and power of God—His omnipotence and His benevolence. God is in control of the entire universe, and there is not even a single atom outside His sovereignty. And God’s goodness and love are beyond question. The Bible leaves no room for equivocation on either truth.
We must speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Scripture is silent. Christians must avoid offering explanations when God has not revealed an explanation. Finally, Christians must respond to a crisis like this by weeping with those who weep, by praying with fervent faithfulness, by offering concrete assistance in Christ’s name and, most importantly, by bearing bold witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the only way to bring life out of death.
Tomorrow: God and the Tsunami—Theology in the Headlines, Part Two.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The tragedy unfolding in the Indian Ocean demands the world’s attention—and calls for a clear Christian response. In the aftermath of the disaster, some religious leaders suggested that God was simply unable to prevent the tsunamis that destroyed so many lives. Some secularists jumped on the opportunity to argue that the tragedy was further proof that God does not exist. Others simply blamed the earthquake and tidal waves on fate or claimed that God had sent the destruction as punishment for the victims’ sins.
How are we to deal with this? What approach will affirm the full measure of Christian truth while taking the disaster into honest account?
First, a faithful Christian response must affirm the true character and power of God. The Bible leaves no room for doubting either the omnipotence or the benevolence of God. The God of the Bible is not a passive bystander, nor a deistic Creator who has withdrawn from His creation and is simply watching it unfold. Just as creation itself was a trinitarian event, so also the triune God reigns over His creation. There is not one atom or molecule in the entire cosmos that is not under the sovereign rule of God. As the Christian tradition has always affirmed, God’s active lordship over the universe is the sole explanation for why the cosmos even holds together.
At the center of this universe is the fundamental fact of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul argued in Colossians 1:15-17, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Jesus Christ is the explanatory principle of the universe, and any effort to understand the creation apart from its Creator can lead only to confusion.
Liberal theology attempts to solve this problem by cutting God down to size and removing Him from the equation. Having established a truce with the naturalistic worldview, liberal theology simply accommodates itself to the secular temptation by denying God’s active and sovereign rule. In other words, God’s goodness is affirmed while His greatness is denied. Process theology does this by putting God within the created order, struggling along with His creation toward maturity. At the popular level, this theological approach was turned into a bestseller several years ago by Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The rabbi simply asserted that God is doing the best He can under the circumstances. He would like to prevent tragedies like cancer, hurricanes, and earthquakes from happening—He is simply unable to do so.
This is not the God who revealed Himself in the Bible. God’s omnipotence is clearly revealed and unconditionally asserted. At the same time, God’s goodness is equally affirmed. Christians must point to these conjoined truths as the very basis for our confidence that life is worth living and that God is ultimately in control of the universe.
Second, we must avoid attempting to explain what God has not explained. In the end, the Christian knows that all suffering—indeed every experience of life—is meaningful. We understand that God is revealing Himself in every moment of our existence. We also know that all suffering is ultimately caused by sin. That’s about as politically incorrect an assertion as we can now imagine—but it is profoundly true. Even so, we must be very careful in how we present this truth. In the Gospel of John [John 9:1-7] Jesus and His disciples were confronted with a man blind from birth. His disciples, posing the conventional question of their day, asked Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus responded that it was neither the sin of this man nor the sin of his parents that explained his blindness; rather, “It was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, Jesus boldly explained that this man was born blind so that in the miracle Jesus was about to perform, his restored sight would be evidence of the dawning of the Kingdom and of the glory of God.
Armed with this knowledge, we must be very circumspect in assigning blame for natural evil. Were the people of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India more sinful than all others? Did God send this tsunami because of the paganisms so prevalent in Southeast Asia? Martin Kettle posed an interesting observation: “Certainly the giant waves generated by the quake made no attempt to differentiate between the religions of those whom it made its victims. Hindus were swept away in India, Muslims were carried off in Indonesia, Buddhists in Thailand. Visiting Christians and Jews received no special treatment either.”
We are in absolutely no position to argue that there is no link between human sin and this awful tragedy. The Bible makes clear that God sometimes does respond to specific sin with cataclysmic natural disaster. Just ask the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nevertheless, in the Bible’s book most centrally concerned with the issue of suffering, it is Job’s friends, who tried to offer detailed theological explanations, who end up looking foolish—and worse. Job himself was censured by God for “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.” In the end, Job is vindicated by God’s grace and mercy, and Job can only respond, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know. . . . I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” Job’s humility should serve as a model for our own.
As the Apostle Paul reminds us, the judgments of God are unsearchable and unfathomable [Romans 11:33]. Unless God reveals the purpose of His acts and the working of His will among us, we would do well to affirm His sovereignty and goodness, while holding back from placing blame on human agents for disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.
At the same time, the Bible is clear that sin is the fundamental explanation for these awful disasters. Not sin that is immediately traceable to one individual or another, or even to a specific culture, but the sin that is so clearly indicted in the biblical account of the Fall. According to Genesis chapter 3, Adam’s sin had cosmic implications and effects. The effects of sin are evident all around us, most clearly in the undeniable fact of death. This is why the redemptive work of God in Christ points to a new heaven and a new earth as coming realities. As Paul explains, “We know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” In Revelation 21, we are told of a new heaven and a new earth and of a day when God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the redeemed, “and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
Third, Christians must respond with the love of Christ and the power of the Gospel. Jesus is our great example in responding to such crises. When confronted with the man born blind, Jesus healed the man and showed the glory of God. In response to the death of Lazarus, Jesus brought life out of death, even as He had mourned with Lazarus’ sisters.
While Christians are not empowered to perform similar miracles, we are called to be agents of Christ’s love and mercy. Following our Lord’s example, we must first mourn with those who mourn. The unspeakable grief and incalculable suffering experienced by literally millions of persons in Southeast Asia should prompt every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ to fervent prayer, concern, generosity, and sympathy.
Relief efforts are now under way, and Christians should be at the forefront of this response. Churches, denominations, and Christian agencies are sending support in the form of food, medical care, reconstruction programs, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. In offering concrete help and assistance, Christians are doing nothing less than following the express command and example of Jesus Christ.
Beyond this, Christians must seize this opportunity to confront this awful disaster with the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked in the name of Christ. This is a powerful testimony, but acts of compassion must be accompanied by words of conviction. Our answer to this reality of unspeakable tragedy must be witness to the gospel of unfathomable power—the power to bring life out of death.
Furthermore, we must indeed point to this disaster as only a hint of the cataclysm that is yet to come—the holy judgment of God. On that day, the tidal waves of December 26, 2004 will be understood to have been one of the warnings all humanity should have heeded.
This is no time for Christian equivocation or cowardice. In the face of tragedy and suffering on this scale, we must answer with the full measure of Christian conviction and the undiluted truth of Christianity. In this life, we are not given all the answers to the questions we might pose, but God has given us all that we need to know in order to understand our peril and His provision for us in Christ.
So, let us weep with those who weep, pray for those who suffer, give and go in missions of mercy, and bear bold witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only in Southeast Asia, but right here at home.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Memo to: WFB
Dear Bill: I remember your thoughts as written in Nearer My God over the Turkish earthquake a dozen years ago. The terrible quake in Iran brought them to mind. Why not share them with our readers? Your struggle, as a Christian, to understand . . . the earthquake.
Memo to: RL
Dear Rich: Okay. A thought on that terrible event . . .
A Christian Struggles To Understand the Earthquake
A few years ago, when I was weekending with an old friend in the English countryside near London, the morning paper brought news of an earthquake in eastern Turkey that had the day before killed some 400 men, women, and children. Years of experience warned me to resist the impulse; even so, I gave in to it. Why does He permit such suffering — self-evidently unrelated to human misbehavior?
I tried on myself the argument of life-is-that-way and injustice-is-random. The death of 400 human beings as the result of an earthquake isn’t any more a sign of ad hoc divine neglect or disorder than the death from cancer of 400 people scattered about the globe. That is the way the world works.
But I threw away the cancer-victim examples. They didn’t help me on that Sunday morning. I tried something else: the furtive search for an intersection, God’s will over against human understanding of a phenomenon. Of course it didn’t work.
* * *
If everything that happens serves a divine purpose, is it conceivable that the resourceful mind can come up with the point of intersection between that earthquake in eastern Turkey and God’s intelligent, not to say benign, superintendence of human and natural affairs? We know one of God’s ends, which is to give us each the opportunity for eternal life in His company. But we don’t know all of the purposes of God. What else might He have had in mind for the Turks who died? Our answer is that He could not have had anything commendable in mind, unless it is so that the laws of congruity — what on earth did the Turks gain from their disaster? — are impossible to penetrate, without a divine perspective. In our world we can understand why a child gets burned when he touches the hot skillet: Once burned, twice shy. We do not know why a child suffocates in the fire that burns down the house. It simply didn’t pay off to speculate on what might have been God’s purpose, benign or punitive, in permitting the earthquake yesterday in eastern Turkey.
* * *
Well then, still another avenue of thought: Did He will it? — or merely countenance it? Was it a rogue act of nature, incidental yet intrinsic to the functioning of the earthly organism He created?
We don’t know, and persistence isn’t rewarding. If God had willed that geological convulsions should not occur, there would be none. It is certainly more prudent to acknowledge the barrier of mystery than to go to pieces searching for rational explanations that are beyond human reach. Do not seek to know the unknowable. Frustrate frustration by declining to divine divine purpose. Christian theology goes no further than to assure us that we will never be asked to believe anything, within Christian architecture, that contradicts reason. Earthquakes do not contradict reason. They just happen.
But human beings tend to search out moral meaning, and though fatalistic about tabloid atrocities, the mind begins to reel at something on the scale of Gulag. I remember the rabbi, or rather the erstwhile rabbi, who told us at a television forum in Chicago that when the details of the Holocaust were revealed, he forthwith renounced his faith in God, giving up his rabbinate. Yet it is easier to understand the Holocaust than the earthquake, because God did not create man with capacity for merely measured evil: the evil of man, plus electricity, could give us a Holocaust. The earthquake can’t rationally be ascribed to man’s evil.
My next question, that Sunday morning, asked whether by permitting the earthquake in Turkey God knew what would be the consequences. Well of course God is all-seeing and knows, therefore, the consequences of everything, as Ronald Knox so patiently and conclusively explained to Arnold Lunn, in a famous exchange. So there is going to be human attrition in the love of God, in those, like the ex-rabbi, who hold Him accountable for that earthquake, that Holocaust. Since we live in a world in which earthquakes or their equivalents are everywhere around us, what of the man who feels correspondingly absolved of any need to love God? “It would be most unreasonable of the Church to demand the love of God as an essential condition for escaping hell,” Fr. George Tyrrell wrote, going on to say that “the love of God is the luxury of a few happy and imaginative temperaments. Man was not created nor designed for the love of God in that mystical sense, but for the love of man.”
“God,” Lunn concurred in his exchange with Knox, “has the right to demand obedience, but not love.”
Yet on that point there is simply no question of God’s law. “‘Which is the great commandment in the Law?’ Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.’”
The God of the random earthquake, as one might here put it, should not expect reflexive love, except by those who tabulate the odds. I promise I am not about to say that everyone who on that Sunday morning was not victimized by an earthquake figured that, on the whole, God was doing all right. No, but I would say to myself: the Christian needs to begin his adjudications by acknowledging an infinity of gratitude for being alive and a candidate for perpetual life. Ivan Denisovich* in the cold horror of the Arctic labor camp felt a rush of gratitude on that day when fate conspired to give him an extra ounce of bread. The conventional grace recited before beginning a meal cedes to our Lord the credit for furnishing the food we eat (“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ our Lord”). People I saw on a visit to Lourdes were happy, and, in their perspective, grateful. Christianity asks that we cultivate the love of God. Some do so, one supposes, primarily out of fear. Christians know that God is to be feared, for He is the dispenser of eternal punishment. It is a common psychological phenomenon that those whom we fear we can also love; even as Ivan the Terrible was loved, or, for that matter, Josef Stalin. In analogous circumstances, they call this the Stockholm Syndrome, love-thy-jailer.
Why does God desire — command — love? Because His benefactions are critical to day-by-day living and must be lovingly besought?
Once again we run into problems. I remember a story relayed by my music teacher when I was a boy. She intended only an anecdote when she told me of a neighboring fifteen-year-old boy who undertook assiduously to cultivate a patch of earth alongside the spare dwelling in which he and his parents lived, to which end he devoted many hours, day after day, month after month. Eventually it bloomed with flowers and vegetables. The local priest, stopping by one afternoon, exclaimed to him, “Conrad, that is a beautiful garden that you and God grew.” Bringing from the boy the blurted response, “You should have seen it when just God was taking care of it.”
The sequence here brings to mind not only the question, so to speak, of the division of labor between God and man (God made fertile the earth on which young Conrad worked), but also the question: What is the point in glorifying God when God — in the nature of things — is already the locus of infinite glory? From His infinity we cannot subtract, to His radiance we cannot add. And so the restless mind asks, Are such prayers as we devote to the glorification of God redundant?
And, in skeptical freefall, one’s mind is tempted to go further. Is there, in such prayer, an element of sycophancy? (Sycophant: “A servile self-seeker who attempts to win favor by flattering influential people.”) A committed Christian seeks to be servile to God. He seeks to win favor from God. God is an influential figure. Here is a fine example of a secular definition inapt when applied to God. Sycophancy, whether before headmasters or emperors, is deplored. But the word is meaningless, is it not, in thinking about God?
* * *
Consider a passage from St. Augustine. I select it because it is more than mere cant-adoration, building as it does on the great paradoxes that attach to God the Creator. And I select it also because it was framed by someone at once a great metaphysician and a great poet. St. Augustine wrote,
What art Thou then, my God? . . . Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong; stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing, and bringing age upon the proud, and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. Thou lovest, without passion; art jealous, without anxiety; repentest, yet grievest not; art angry, yet serene; changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged; receivest again what Thou findest, yet didst never lose; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting usury. Thou receivest over and above, that Thou mayest owe; and who hath aught that is not Thine? Thou payest debts, owing nothing; remittest debts, losing nothing. And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what saith any man when he speaks of Thee? Yet woe to him that speaketh not, since mute are even the most eloquent.
It is not for the mind harnessed by finite measurements to parse such language. It is rather for the mind disposed to worship, and worship requires emancipation from the boundaries of reason (. . . seeking, yet having all things). The morning I read of the earthquake in Turkey I went to Mass at Stonor. It is the little chapel that lies one hundred feet from the hidden recess of the great house in which Edmund Campion hid from the Elizabethan militia commanded to find him and bring him to the Tower of London to answer for the treasonable activity of distributing the sacraments under Catholic dispensation. He would be tried and found guilty; and Fr. Campion, sometime protégé of Queen Elizabeth, would submit to days of crippling torture before being hanged, drawn, and quartered.
In that little chapel where Campion prayed during his seclusion the congregation read from the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for the Sunday I was there.
Father in heaven, it is right that we should give you thanks and glory; you alone are God, living and true. Through all eternity you live in unapproachable light. Source of life and goodness, you have created all things to fill your creatures with every blessing and lead all men to the joyful vision of your light. Countless hosts of angels stand before you to do your will; they look upon your splendour and praise you night and day. United with them and in the name of every creature under heaven, we praise your glory as we say:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
It is right that we should give you thanks and glory intimates, with that inflection of we-say you-say, that there are those who believe that it is not right that we should give Him thanks and glory. But why would some of His creatures be reluctant to give Him thanks and glory? Well, one reason might be that they believe in an omnipotent God and cannot understand why only a few hours ago He would cause an earthquake in a little town in Turkey; or if He did not cause it, they do not understand why He failed to prevent it.
They ask: Is such a God, who permitted such random violence, indeed the God to whom we owe thanks and glory? Yes; our God is the source of life and goodness, who created all things. But did He not also create that geological malformation that caused life and goodness sharply to end for 400 of His creatures? Since God is perfect we cannot dismiss — can we? — the Turkish event as divine oversight. And inasmuch as countless hosts of angels stand before Him to do His will, why was not one angel dispatched to Turkey to appease the restive geological substratum? If God does not give us the analytical resources to descry a rational motive in that earthquake, then indeed, as the prayer says, He is in unapproachable light; but why then do we say that He illuminates the thought of the world with His life and goodness?
Hosts of angels look upon His splendor and praise Him, night and day. But why does He seek praise? Why does He tolerate praise?
And isn’t the question necessarily raised, Does it not demean these creatures of God, to lift our poor voices in praise, through that hailstorm of praise with which the elements themselves storm the throne of heaven?
* * *
Or does the problem lie in the word “praise”? What exactly is it that we intend? To praise is to extol, commend, admire the subject’s virtues or talents. But how is this applicable when the subject is already the essence of virtue, whose talents are indefinable, even as infinity is immeasurable? Doesn’t it run the risk of belittling God — to proceed as if to praise Him were to enhance Him? If to praise Him is to augment Him, then He is not perfect. If praise cannot augment Him, how is He susceptible to praise? Is there a problem posed by Christian prayer? Does it summon human endeavor to exercises beyond human capacity, to an end unachievable?
We arrive finally at the simple question, How, reasonably, can man be expected to praise that God which we have agreed to call the god-of-the-earthquake?
* * *
The answer, by no means obvious, has necessarily to do with the purpose of worship, which is not to magnify God, but to enlist ourselves as among the faithful. To recognize that we pray to the entity described by St. Augustine tells us that we are making strides in understanding the immensity of the divine undertaking, and the immensity of the human being for whom God sacrificed the pain, sorrow, and humiliation of — Himself. To praise the asceticism of St. Francis of Assisi is to focus attention on the difference between his, and your and my — lifestyle. To ponder the glory of God is to worship a transcendence that gives us a measure of man, near-infinitely small on the scale of things, but infinitely great, as the complement of divine love. Who are you, buster? I am the man Christ-God died for.
Does reality, illuminated, generate love? That is not unreasonable, to love the person who sacrificed so much. But as we move from deduction (why we worship) past the hindrances of reason to ecstasy (why we love), then an element of mystery enters (why does it happen to Alice and not to Beth?), as also of grace (why has Alice the buoyant pleasure of spiritual life, and Beth not?). In a television exchange with Malcolm Muggeridge we arrived at this point: What comes after deduction? He answered,
“The deductive process is the means, but faith is the motive force that takes you there. It’s exactly like — Bill, it’s exactly like falling in love. You see another human being and for some extraordinary reason you’re in a state of joy and ecstasy over that person, but the driving force that enables you to express that and to bring it into your life is love. Without love, it’s nothing; it passes.”
* * *
Christ said it directly, in answer to the question, Which was the greatest commandment? And went on to prescribe the Second Commandment (Matthew 22:39): Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
I have seen this point probed by asking, Just how much do you love yourself? Enough to satisfy the Lord’s commandment? But this is theological word play. Still, if we treat our neighbor as well as we do ourselves, are we then living by the Second Commandment?
No, because to care for your neighbor does not require that you love him, and most of us love ourselves. I recalled the opening lines of the novel Father Malachy’s Miracle by Bruce Marshall. I read it soon after the war, led to it by the enthusiastic notice given it by Albert Jay Nock, a scholar and litterateur (and anarchist), in his autobiography Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. I cannot remember whether Nock paused over the meaning of the opening page of Marshall’s words, but I did. There was the piquancy of the priest who found himself staring his duty in the face one day in a railroad car, as well as the delight in the language; but there was also the challenge it spoke at a very deep level, a parable on one’s attitude toward one’s neighbor. . . .
A fat man climbed into the same compartment as the little clergyman, a fat man with a face that was so red and pouchy that it looked like a bladder painted to hit other people over the head with at an Italian carnival. He sat down, or rather threw himself down, in the corner opposite the priest and began to read a pink paper in which the doings of horses and erotic young women were chronicled at length. He was followed by a middle-aged woman who had a peaky, shiny nose with a funny little dent in the middle and whose hat was one of those amorphous black affairs which would have been, at any moment, out of fashion in any country.
The priest was distracted from his meditation. It was impossible, he told himself, with a wry little mental smile, to think competently of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeding from Both, with such a bulging, red face in front of him and such a peaky, peering woman placing her parcels here, there and everywhere. How hard it was, here below and with the material and the temporal crowding out the spiritual and the eternal, to love one’s neighbour, how hard and yet how necessary. For the soul behind that bulging, red face had been redeemed by Christ just as surely as had his own, and Our Blessed Lord, while He hung on the cross, had seen the funny little dent in the middle of the peaky, peering woman’s nose just as clearly as He had seen the broad, bland visage of Pope Pius the Eleventh, and, so merciful was He, loved it just as much. And yet it was difficult to imagine bulge or dent in heaven unless, among the many mansions, there were one which should be one-tenth Beatific Vision and nine-tenths Douglas, Isle of Man. Of course, if it came to the point, it was difficult to imagine the majority of contemporary humanity in any paradise which did not syncopate Saint Gregory, and whose eternal sands were without striped bathing tents and casinos.
He closed his eyes again. If he must love his neighbour he would love him without looking at him. He closed his eyes, and not only did he close them, but he kept on repeating the reflex action in his brain so that, with the bulging red face and the peaky, peering woman, away went the compartment, the train, the station, the world; and, as Scotland went swinging after Scandinavia and Spain came scampering after and Australia flew to join the stars, he was alone with God.
A great nothingness was before him, a great nothingness that was Something, a great nothingness that was All; and in the warm freedom from the tangible he knew his Saviour and was absorbed by Him.
One knows what one should feel, why one should feel so, and how light is our effort alongside the exorbitance of Christ’s example. Still, sometimes it is easier to do with eyes closed.
* * *
So: we come to rest with the mysteries. We have the wonderful tabulation of them done by St. Augustine. In agreeing that that is what they are, we are not violating the rule of Ronald Knox to prefer mystery to vagueness. We do not abandon reason, we merely recognize its limitations. We reason to the existence of God, it is revealed to us that His Son was the incarnation, and that such was His love of us that He endured a torture excruciating in pain, and unique in aspect — the God of hosts, mutilated by His own creatures, whom He dies forgiving, loving. Can we do less? Yes, we do less, but must die trying to do more.
[*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Dutton, 1963)]
Cal Thomas (archive)
PORTSTEWART, Northern Ireland - Throughout the United Kingdom, following the Christmas tsunami that killed at least 150,000 people and changed the lives of their surviving relatives forever, some are asking how a “loving” God, if He exists, could allow such a catastrophe to happen. Another question is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
The questions are mostly rhetorical, since by asking them, the questioners don’t actually expect, or even desire, an answer. They are asked in an accusatory way, as if the questions themselves indict, try and convict as fools those who believe in God.
One counterquestion should be: Why do good things happen to bad people? The Scriptures say, “Only God is good.” All humanity is diagnosed as “sinful” and “not righteous.” Our desires are “only evil all the time.” Look it up.
What about a “good God” allowing bad things? Death is the destination of all living organisms. Some die sooner than others. Shouldn’t a “good God” provide a way to escape the grave? He has, but that requires faith, which critics and skeptics lack.
Here’s another question for those who ask the other questions: If catastrophe proves there is no God, does charity prove He exists? Individuals in Britain have contributed millions of pounds to the tsunami survivors, more than their government. Most of the world’s charities helping in the effort are Christian and American.
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, yet Muslim nations, including the fabulously wealthy Saudi regime, have given chump change compared to those countries with majority Christian populations. Don’t expect Christians, or Americans, to gain points with those who believe America is the “Great Satan.”
Human tragedy is bad enough, but listening to some theologians trying to explain it is doubly irritating. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, wrote a Jan. 2 column for The Sunday Telegraph about the tsunami disaster. The front-page headline about the column proclaimed, “Archbishop of Canterbury admits: This makes me doubt the existence of God.”
The headline writer misrepresented the archbishop’s view, but so convoluted was Dr. Williams’ statement about the disaster (as noted by an editorial the next day) it is understandable how the writer of the headline reached his conclusion. Theologians should offer hope and truth. The pagans serve up enough doubt.
Rather than attempt to bring mankind up to God’s level, many skeptics try to bring God down to man’s level, remaking Him in a human image and thus encouraging the false view that God is someone who is supposed to make us happy and prosperous. If we are unhappy and not rich (or not rich enough), we will deny He exists. Prosperity and good health provide their own motives for unbelief, as C.S. Lewis and numerous other thinkers have eloquently written.
When Dr. Williams says prayer provides no “magical solutions” and most of the stock Christian answers to human suffering do not “go very far in helping us, one week on, with the intolerable grief and devastation in front of us,” where would he suggest we turn, if not to God?
As with most liberal clerics who question God, more than trust Him, Dr. Williams offers nothing from Scripture for comfort and explanation. It was the same when Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in that Paris car crash. Clergymen were interviewed, but none offered more than empty platitudes. What good are the clergy if this is the best they can do? Why are they drawing salaries paid by parishioners who might properly expect, even demand, more?
Let me, a nontheologian, offer some help to the skeptics. In Job, Chapter 1, Job suffers a catastrophe when God allows Satan to take away his children and worldly goods to test his faith. Job makes two statements that ought to be remembered and repeated in times like these.
The first is, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. May the name of the Lord be praised.” Job also says in response to his skeptical and nagging wife, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
If you prefer a secular source, consider Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Seeking to understand the Civil War catastrophe, Lincoln concluded, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Those are answers (and questions) that resonate far better than the pap coming from the skeptics and certain theologians who have their degrees, but seem to know less about God and His nature than what causes an undersea earthquake.
An online poll at Beliefnet.com, the popular website on religion and spirituality, is asking what role God plays in natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami that has devastated much of Asia. The poll offers five options:
(1) God is punishing us.
(2) God is testing us.
(3) The earthquake and tsunami were sent by God, but we don’t know what the purpose was.
(4) Although I believe in God, the supernatural had nothing to do with this tragedy.
(5) God doesn’t exist; disasters like this are just forces of nature.
As one who believes in a God of both creation and history — a God involved in the lives of individuals and nations, and without whose existence our own existence would ultimately have no purpose — I voted for No. 3. So did 29 percent of all who have voted so far.
But the runaway winner, at 51 percent, is No. 4 — God exists, but He had no connection to the tsunami. Insurers may call such catastrophes “acts of God,” but to a majority of Beliefnet’s respondents, that is only a figure of speech.
Online polls are not scientific, of course, but the belief that God was uninvolved in the greatest natural calamity in years is being widely expressed.
“There is no God in this disaster,” says essayist Rodger Kamenetz, a scholar of religion and literature at Louisiana State University. “It is not for the good, it is not for the bad. It just is.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Christian theologian David B. Hart sees in the tsunami only “the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls.” The Reverend Hakon Langstrom, a Lutheran deacon in Stockholm, tells worshippers: “The God we believe in is not someone who lies behind everything. God did not make this happen.”
Harold Kushner popularized this view almost 25 years ago in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a book he wrote after his young son died from a terrible disease. God, Kushner argued, does not cause the miseries brought on by illness and natural disasters and accidents, and He is powerless to prevent them. Earthquakes, cancer, plane crashes — “these events do not reflect God’s choices,” he wrote. “They happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos. . . . And chaos is evil . . . because by causing tragedies at random, it prevents people from believing in God’s goodness.”
How an all-powerful and benevolent God can permit innocents to be massacred or suffer undeserved agonies is a question as old as monotheism itself. Kushner’s answer is that God isn’t all-powerful. Tsunamis happen, and for no reason at all. There is no divine calculus at work; there is simply bad luck. And so there is no reason to think hard thoughts about God when tragedy strikes. In Kushner’s words, “We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry at God.”
But what is so bad about being angry with God? Why shouldn’t we challenge Him to make sense of the injustice and cruelty that He Himself has taught us to hate? Isn’t it better to angrily question a God in whose universe we are sure nothing happens without a reason, than to resign ourselves to a weakling God who can do nothing about a world that kills and lays waste at random?
Calling God to account, arguing with Him when He seems to be acting unjustly, has deep roots in Judeo-Christian faith. When Abraham learns of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he heatedly confronts God: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be 50 innocents within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 who are in it? . . . Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25).
When Pharaoh increases the Israelites’ crushing workload, an outraged Moses challenges God: “Why have you done evil to this people?” (Exodus 5:22). When the blameless Job is afflicted with horrific suffering, he repeatedly demands to know why it is happening. “I speak out in the bitterness of my soul,” he cries to God. “Tell me why You contend with me. . . . Does it befit you to plunder?” (Job 10:1-3).
Elie Wiesel tells the haunting story of three rabbis in Auschwitz who convened a court of law and put God on trial for allowing His children to be slaughtered. At the end of the trial, which stretched over several days, they pronounced Him guilty of crimes against humanity. Then one of the rabbis glanced at the darkening sky. And now, he said, it is time for our evening prayers.
To wrestle with God is not to abandon Him. To protest against the unearned suffering He inflicts or permits is not to reject His message — quite the opposite. But having protested a seeming lack of compassion and justice from Heaven, we are obliged to reach out to the victims and work even harder to establish justice and compassion here on Earth.
As the death toll from the Tsunami in Asia mounts to over 150,000, it raises one of the most haunting questions of mankind: If God is a loving and merciful God, why would He allow such a disaster? Some assume the existence of such suffering disproves the reality of an all-powerful God. When actor Robert Deniro was once asked what he would say to God if he met Him, Deniro said, “I would tell him He’s got a lot of explaining to do.” That seems to be the feeling of many.
It must be admitted troubles are a part of the fabric of life — and if God created the world as it currently exists, He would not be a good God, He would be evil. But the Scriptures teach God didn’t create the world in the state in which it is today; suffering was the result of man’s rebellion against God.
Since human departure from God in the Garden of Eden, affliction has been mankind’s lot in every age. After Adam and Eve sinned, nature was deeply affected. No longer would the soil produce plentifully as it had, but man had to toil and work the ground — he had to struggle to get the natural processes to cooperate with him. The human body started to fail with sickness, aging, and ultimately death. Women would bear children in pain. Sorrows of every kind beset the human race.
Jesus said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33).
Longfellow once wrote, “Into each life some rain must fall. Some days must be dark and dreary.”
God is not evil. Pain and suffering are simply the natural consequence of man’s foolish decision to go his own way rather than the way of his Creator. Apologist Josh McDowell explains: “Because of the Fall, the world now is abnormal. Things are not in the state they should be in. Man, as a result of the Fall, has been separated from God. Nature is not always kind to man and the animal world can also be his enemy. There is conflict between man and his fellowman. None of these conditions were true before the Fall. Any solution that might be given to the problems mankind faces must take into consideration that the world as it stands is not normal.”
“But,” someone may protest: “I thought nothing was supposed to be impossible with God. If adversity and calamity are the results of sin, why didn’t God just create human beings so they would always resist temptation?”
The answer is there could never be genuine love between God and man unless love is freely given. Unless man is a free agent, he is nothing more than a robot. To say, “God should have created man with free will, but programmed him always do what is right” is as meaningless as to say: “God ought to have made a tripod with four legs.” Part of being human, being made in the image of God, is that like God we can make our own choices.
C.S. Lewis further observed: “We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of the abuse of free will by his creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void ...”
Although disaster came into the world through man’s sin, God wasn’t content to leave mankind and the world in a fallen state. In the person of Jesus Christ, God Himself set out to forever do away with the afflictions of life. In her book, Creed or Chaos, Dorothy Sayers has written: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is — limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death — He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst of horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”
The Bible says Christ was tempted and tried in “every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He died on the cross to take the payment for our sin. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). In providing a remedy for sin, Christ cancelled the source of our sorrows and promises to return and set up a new world where there is no more pain — a world essentially paradise regained (Rev. 21:5).
Of course, this doesn’t mean believers in Christ should simply sit around ignoring the tribulations of their neighbor, while they wait for Christ’s second coming. Because trouble wasn’t God’s original intent, Christians ought to endeavor to ease or eliminate it. Natural disasters and the like will never be stopped until God’s plan of redemption is complete. Nevertheless, in the interim, followers of Christ must work, pray, and sacrifice to help those whose lives have been shattered.
Last week, columnist Dennis Rogers in the Raleigh News and Observer told the remarkable story of a rescue helicopter flying over isolated islands off the coast of India where the tsunami struck. According to Rogers, the islands are home to a few primitive tribes that have virtually no contact with the modern world. When the chopper’s crew spotted a naked man standing on the beach, they assumed it was probably somebody who needed saving. As they hovered above the naked man and prepared to land, they watched him defiantly fix an arrow to his bow and shoot it at the aircraft.
The Scriptures do not tell us why God allowed suffering to come into the world, it only tells us how it got here. God’s purposes are sometimes beyond our understanding. But what can be known is that God is willing to turn our tragedies into triumphs, if we’ll let Him. As the hymnist William Cowper wrote: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. / Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” Moreover, God promises to eventually deliver us from all life’s troubles and disasters, if we’ll put down our bow and arrow of doubt and disbelief and stop assailing the One who came to rescue us.
A panel of six spiritual leaders, including Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler and Catholic priest Michael Manning, answered questions regarding the role of God during the deadly earthquake-tsunami, on CNN’s Larry King Live
“How do we find God after losing so much in a historic tragedy? How much is our faith and a higher power tested by the tsunami killing more than 150,000 people in a matter of moments?”
Such were the questions addressed by a panel of six spiritual leaders on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on January 7, 2004. The religious and spiritual leaders, one of whom was the Southern Baptist leader R. Albert Mohler Jr., each expressed their views about God in a different manner: some viewed God as a loving Father under whom everything is made and changed, others viewed God as a “Cosmic force” that drove the tsunami, and still others viewed him as playing absolutely no role in the tragedy.
Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, began the comments by explaining the Christian concept of a sovereign God of love.
“Well, this God who has created this incredible universe has disclosed himself in his written word, the Bible. He tells us that he loves us, he reveals himself as all powerful,” he said.
Mohler explained that through sin, there are “natural laws” that operate, similar to gravity.
“It’s clear that in this incredible universe that is affected by sin, there are these natural laws that operate. Gravity can save us and gravity can kill us. And unfortunately, we must now weep with those who weep because they’re in South Asia,” said Mohler. “This enormous wave was caused by the moving of tectonic plates. There’s not one atom or molecule that is outside of God’s control. God is love. He loves his creatures. But these laws operate.”
In contrast, another panelist, Jewish rabbi Michael Lerner, argued that the conception of God as the sovereign controller above is outdated and invalid.
“And for many liberal and progressive people in the Jewish world and for many of us in the interfaith organization…we don’t see God anymore as a big guy in heaven who’s throwing down punishments and judgments,” said Lerner, the editor of the Tikkun Magazine in San Francisco.
“So, I think that the older conception of God as a big guy up in heaven shaping and controlling everything has to be replaced,” said Lerner.
According to Lerner, the new and “evolving” concept of God is that of a “force of healing and transformation in the universe - The force that moves the universe towards greater love, towards greater kindness, towards greater caring.”
New Age author and spiritist Deepak Chopra said he agrees with Lerner’s identification of God as one who “changes as we evolve.”
“I think the idea of sin and punishment is very, very primitive. And we have to ask ourselves right now, are we going to choose between sin and compassion? Compassion is the way to go right now,” said Chopra, who took part via telephone from India.
Chopra, who noted that no animal died from the tsunami, added that humans must “transcend to a level of consciousness” similar to that of animals because we are all “part of nature.”
Buddhist monk Henepola Gunaratana said he does not believe God had any part in the tsunami. Rather, he said the event was part of a “universal force” and “eternal law” that determines the way of nature.
“This [suffering] is part of nature, that things come into existence and are going out of existence in one way or another,” he said. “And this is one of those ways that things went out of existence.”
Mohler pointed out the differences in these schools of thought, saying “Christians don’t believe that God is some cosmic principle.”
“Mr. King, as you look at this program today, you have two very different understandings of God. Christians don’t believe that God is some cosmic principle. We believe that he is the triune personal God who has revealed himself in his word, he has told us who he is, and he has told us how we can come to have peace with him,” said Mohler.
Therefore, said Mohler, in the aftermath of the tragedy, Christians respond to the need by doing good things in the name of the Lord.
“We are to do good things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that means we have to tell people we’re doing this because God has sent his son who died on Calvary’s cross and was raised by the power of God as the only way of bringing life out of death. And thus we take the good news of Christianity as we do these acts in Christ’s name,” said Mohler.
He further explained that while people of all religions are coming together with the same broken heart of concern for the people of South Asia, Christians act in Christ’s name and have a deeper concern for what lies after death.
“For the Christian, that concern is not only for this life, but even more urgently, for the life that is to come. That’s what drives us in our concern,” said Mohler.
Meanwhile, Michael Manning, a Catholic priest and host of the internationally syndicated program The Word and the World, explained that in the aftermath of the tragedy, Catholics can only hold onto the faith in the resurrection of Christ.
“My only understanding is in Jesus Christ, who is God. He came into the Earth. He came as a battler. He came as a battler against sickness. He came in and battled against Satan. He came in and battled even against the control of nature when we see him calming the sea, or when we see him walking on the sea,” said Manning.
“There was a force that he was driving at. But, but he was overcome. He was overcome. He was killed. And he died. He experienced the anguish that the people are experiencing now. The anguish that I have when I have a funeral of a little 3-year-old girl that dies of cancer. It’s all there. But, and this is the faith of a Christian, we believe that from that death, he came to life. And that becomes then a foundation. But with that faith in that life I can start to move with hope and victory and life,” said Manning.
Upon being questioned whether the tsunami was a punishment thrown down by God, Mohler said there is no biblical permission for saying the sins of the victims caused the tsunami.
“There are certainly no biblical permission for saying that we know that the specific sins of these specific victims caused this tsunami,” said Mohler. “We do know according to the account in the Bible in Genesis Chapter 3, that it was sin originally in the fall that caused all these cataclysmic events, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes to enter the world picture. We do know that God is sovereign over all of this. But we need to be very careful. I’m speaking as a Christian, to my fellow Christians. We need to be very careful not to speak where the scripture does not tell us we have any particular insight to know why God has allowed this to happen in this particular place to these particular people.”
Muslim scholar Maher Hathout agreed that the tsunami was not a punishment thrown down by God.
“The Koran says, “if God takes people to task for wrongdoing, there would be no living creature on the face of the earth.” So it’s not punishment. It is an accident,” said Hathout.
Whatever the reason for the tsunami, Mohler explained that what is important is the response in the aftermath.
“The Christian response to this is to affirm that we know the character of God. And we know that God is even now working through his people in the midst of this. And we have a Christian responsibility. That’s why so many people are going to south Asia and giving in order to help the people who are there,” said Mohler.
“We must now do what is right in the aftermath of this and a part of this is assuring people that God does love them, even, and especially in the midst of, this incredible suffering.”
Suzanne Fields (archive)
George W. Bush and the Asian tsunami have put religion back on the front page. Exit polls revealed that a majority of religious folk voted to re-elect the president; after tens of thousands died under the waves millions turned to religion for answers to the question that men and women have asked wise men for millennia.
A headline in the New York Observer puts it bluntly: “Disaster Ignites Debate: ‘Was God in the Tsunami?’”
If so, how can such things happen? If not, how can such things happen?
Some of the answers seek to exploit tragedy. Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin reports that one Palestinian imam told his congregation that the tsunami was the result of “Jewish American corruption and destruction.” Other imams blamed Christians.
Every Sunday-school scholar is familiar with the teaching that God rewards righteousness, as seen in the flood that spared Noah, the endless suffering of Job, the New Testament presentation of the Gospel. But skeptics have forever mocked religious exhortations in politics and religious explanations of natural disasters. After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Voltaire’s Candide ridiculed the idea that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Marx jeered that religion was “the opiate of the people,” and Freud suggested that neurotics sought a “heavenly father” as protector to replace the biological father.
But religious faith thrives. “Almost everywhere you look around the world, with the glaring exception of Western Europe, religion is now a rising force,” reports The New York Times. “The tsunami in Asia could spur religious revival as well, as victims and onlookers turn to mosques, temples and churches both to help them fathom the catastrophe and to provide humanitarian assistance.”
In Washington, humanitarian assistance is discussed in pragmatic terms, suggesting (probably a triumph of hope over actual expectation) that our generosity will show Muslims, whose radical extremists seek to persuade with terrorism, that Christians and Jews are not so bad after all.
But generosity needs no political analysis. You don’t have to be religious to be charitable to the victims of “acts of God,” but it’s the religious impulse that has guided American idealism and benevolence through our finest hours.
G. K. Chesterton, the English writer, called America “the nation with the soul of a church.” David Gelernter, writing in Commentary magazine, examines how American democracy was built on a Biblical foundation.
“The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism birth,” he writes, “it is the energy source that makes it live and thrive; that makes believing Americans willing to prescribe freedom, equality, and democracy even for a place like Afghanistan, once regarded as perhaps the remotest region on the face of the globe.”
American history is rich in allusions to America as the New Eden, as if we are a chosen people fulfilling Biblical destiny in the New World. Presidential inaugural speeches abound with Biblical phrases and references that are not meant solely for inspiration, though they are that, but to embody the driving force for spreading American values of democracy. Abraham Lincoln called us God’s “almost chosen people.” In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy said our revolutionary beliefs “come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Abraham Lincoln never joined a church, but said he would if he could find one with a creed fulfilling “what our Lord said were the two great commandments, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength, and my neighbor as myself.”
Woodrow Wilson, the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, sounded in his inaugural like a Biblical prophet, albeit with more optimism than most: “The feelings with which we face this new age of right and opportunity sweep across our heartstrings, like some air out of God’s own presence, where justice and mercy are reconciled and the judge and the brother are one.”
Americans are firm in their belief in the separation of church and state, so that men and women of different faiths and of no faith are equal before the law. Anyone who talks to President Bush hears this echoed today. “The president’s job is not to pick a religion,” he told me this week in an interview in the Oval Office. “The president’s job is not to say you’ve got to be religious. The president’s job is to say you’re free to choose. It’s very important for that to be even clearer today, given the world in which we live. If you’re a Sikh or a Muslim you’re equally an American as if you’re a Methodist - or anyone else.”
Harry Truman, a plain-spoken Baptist, captured in his memoirs the firm belief of most of us: “What came about in 1776 really had its beginning in Hebrew times.”
Chuck Colson (archive)
On the evening of August 30, 1966, Nien Cheng sat alone in her Shanghai home, reading. Toward midnight, she heard a truck stop in front of her house. Moments later a gang of Red Guards burst through her front door. The leader stepped up. ‘We are the Red Guards. We have come to take revolutionary action against you!” he said.
The gang proceeded to ransack Cheng’s home. Cheng-a wealthy woman with ties to England-was thrown in prison; her daughter was also taken from her. She was accused by the Communist government of spying for the British. The charge was false-but powerful people were about to make her a sacrificial lamb, somebody who would discredit Chairman Mao’s opponents.
At a kangaroo court, the prosecutor demanded that Cheng confess. She was outraged. ‘I have never done anything against the Chinese people and governments,” she declared.
Cheng was taken back to prison. It was the beginning of seven years of torture, illness, and endless efforts to make her confess. But Cheng resolved never to make a false confession. Although raised Buddhist, she had become a Christian as a teenager. During her years behind bars, she later wrote, ‘I was not afraid. I believed in a just and merciful God, and I thought he would lead me out of the abyss.”
As I note in my new book, The Good Life, Cheng’s captors were astounded at her ability to resist. Here she was, the poster child of the decadent capitalists; they were certain that someone who enjoyed her privileges would crumble once the material props of her old life were removed.
But the measure of Cheng’s life was not found in what she owned. During her suffering, one thing kept her sane: her belief in the truth. Through committing herself to the truth, she never lost her humanity-and she remained unaffected by the appalling changes in her circumstances.
Cheng’s embrace of the truth also allowed her to envision that justice would eventually prevail, and that good could come out of this evil. In this, Cheng was fortified, of course, by her Christian faith. Alone among the world’s great religions, Christianity gives value and meaning to evil and suffering. British novelist Dorothy Sayers captured the essence of this. Christianity, she wrote ‘affirms . . . that perfection is attained through the active and positive effort to wrench a real good out of a real evil.” This is the essence of what Christians call redemption, and it underscores another truth: We have to understand the evil in ourselves before we can truly embrace the good in life.
In 1973, Cheng was finally released and later immigrated to America. I had the privilege of hosting a dinner that Prison Fellowship gave in her honor in 1987.
Cheng’s life perfectly illustrates the fact that the good life is not conferred by wealth or possessions. Just as important, it cannot be denied even in the midst of horrific adversity. In fact, as I discovered in my life, we often find true meaning and purpose in deprivation, when all the distractions of modern life are stripped away.
The good life, you see, is realized in our ability to hold fast to the truth-and the human dignity that rests upon it.
One of the world’s top New Testament scholars addressed “the dark forces of evil,” the Da Vinci Code, and the beauty of Christian Imagination, during a two-day symposium at the Seattle Pacific University last week.
Anglican Bishop Dr. N.T. Wright, a world renowned author and scholar from England, was greeted by hundreds of students at the private Christian university in Seattle, WA. for the annual President’s Symposia on May 18-19, according to the campus newspaper, the Falcon.
Due to limited space, however, many were turned away by the security on the first night and encouraged to arrive at least 30 minutes early for the next day’s lecture
Decoding the Da Vinci Code
Wright kicked off the symposium with the lecture titled “Decoding the Da Vinci Code: The Challenge of Historic Christianity to Post-Modern Fantasy,” focused on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, “The Da Vinci Code.”
“It’s not just a page-turner,” Wright said. “He has made several implausible elements seem like they might be true.”
He told the audience that the novel does not tell people anything new. It is just one in a long line of books about the Holy Grail, conspiracy theories within religion and hidden codes in medieval paintings, he said.
According to Wright, these types of stories often claim that the four Canonical gospels - the Biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - are inaccuarate, and that the Gnostic gospels - recently discovered books dating back to the first century that are not included in the Bible - are the most accurate descriptions of Christ.
“The texts quoted by people like Dan Brown are not going back to the truth,” Wright said. “They were written later [than the Canonical gospels] and are a step away from first-century Judaism.”
The ideas of Neo-Gnosticism apparent in “The Da Vinci Code” say to focus within yourself and be true to what you find, Wright said.
However, he urged the students to look away from themselves, submit to Jesus as Lord and submit all other things to that truth.
The Bible and Christian Imagination
Wright opened up the second day of the symposium with the talk titled “The Bible and Christian Imagination.”
“Why is the world beautiful?” he asked, “and how are we as Christians supposed to deal with that?”
Many Christian teachers have been scared of the imagination and denied some of the creativity that God has given us, Wright said.
“However, we are to be making new people on the basis of God making things new in Christ,” he said. “And the Bible is a framework where we can start.”
Christians are called not only to use their imagination when relating to people, but with all forms of art, Wright said. “Art makes you see and think things that you can’t see otherwise.”
Defining imagination as “a tool to reconcile the world to Christ,” Wright said “the reconciliation that is given to you is to be your task in the world.”
God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil
Wright finished the symposium with a talk titled “God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil” at the First Free Methodist Church adjacent to the university campus.
“The gospels have more to say about terrorism and tsunamis than we might imagine,” Wright said. The gospels tell the story of how the problem of evil reached the bottom in the crucifixion, Wright said, but they also tell the story of how Jesus conquers evil with the resurrection.
“The call of the church is to implement the victory won on the cross,” Wright said.
Wright went on to tackle the reasons why dealing with the issue of evil is such a difficult task in America. First, people tend to ignore evil when it is far away, he said. Secondly, they are surprised when it comes close to home, and third, they react in immature and dangerous ways.
Then what is the way to defeat the problem of evil? The use of some unconventional strategies is required, said Wright.
“Suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won. The suffering love of God, lived out ... in the lives of God’s people is the God-given answer to the evils of the world,” he said.
“God the Creator will not always save us from the dark forces of evil, but he will save us in them,” Wright said.
“Evil is still a four-letter word,” Wright said. “So, thank God, is love.”
At the close of symposium, SPU President Eaton spoke of Wright as a “model for SPU in engaging the culture from a Christian perspective.”
“This is a voice that needs to be heard,” Eaton said. “A voice based in the gospel.”
N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England is the author of more than 30 books, including The Original Jesus, The Challenge of Jesus, and Jesus and the Victory of God - regarded as one of the most significant studies within contemporary scholarly research on the historical Jesus. A frequent guest on radio and television, Wright taught for 20 years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford universities. He is also a former canon theologian at Westminster Abbey in London, England.
by Jeff Jacoby
“Where was God in those days?” asked Pope Benedict XVI as he stood in Auschwitz last week. “Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?”
It is the inevitable question in Auschwitz, that vast factory of death where the Nazis tortured, starved, shot, and gassed to death as many as a million and a half innocent human beings, most of them Jews. “In a place like this, words fail,” Benedict said. “In the end, there can be only a dread silence, a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did *you* remain silent?”
News reports emphasized the pope’s question. Every story noted that the man who voiced it was, as he put it, “a son of the German people.” No one missed the intense historical significance of a German pope, on a pilgrimage to Poland, beseeching God for answers at the slaughterhouse where just 60 years ago Germans broke every record for shedding Jewish blood.
And yet some commentators accused Benedict of skirting the issue of anti-Semitism. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League said that the pope had “uttered not one word about anti-Semitism; not one explicit acknowledgment of Jewish lives vanquished simply because they were Jews.” The National Catholic Register likewise reported that he “did not make any reference to modern anti-Semitism.”
In truth, the pope not only acknowledged the reality of Jew-hatred, he explained the pathology that underlies it. Anti-Semites are driven by hostility not just toward Jews, he said, but toward the message of God-based ethics they first brought to the world.
“Deep down, those vicious criminals” — he was speaking of Hitler and his followers — “by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone — to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world.”
The Nazis’ ultimate goal, Benedict argued, was to rip out Christian morality by its Jewish roots, replacing it with “a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.” Hitler knew that his will to power could triumph only if he first destroyed Judeo-Christian values. In the Thousand-Year Reich, God and his moral code would be wiped out. Man, unencumbered by conscience, would reign in his place. It is the oldest of temptations, and Auschwitz is what it leads to.
“Where was God in those days?” asked the pope. How could a just and loving Creator have allowed trainload after trainload of human beings to be murdered at Auschwitz? But why ask such a question only in Auschwitz? Where, after all, was God in the Gulag? Where was God when the Khmer Rouge slaughtered 1.7 million Cambodians? Where was God during the Armenian holocaust? Where was God in Rwanda? Where is God in Darfur?
For that matter, where is God when even one innocent victim is being murdered or raped or abused?
The answer, though the pope didn’t say so clearly, is that a world in which God always intervened to prevent cruelty and violence would be a world without freedom — and life without freedom would be meaningless. God endows human beings with the power to choose between good and evil. Some choose to help their neighbor; others choose to hurt him. There were those in Nazi Europe who herded Jews into gas chambers. And there were those who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Gestapo.
The God “who spoke on Sinai” was not addressing himself to angels or robots who could do no wrong even if they wanted to. He was speaking to real people with real choices to make, and real consequences that flow from those choices. Auschwitz wasn’t God’s fault. He didn’t build the place. And only by changing those who did build it from free moral agents into puppets could he have stopped them from committing their horrific crimes.
It was not God who failed during the Holocaust or in the Gulag, or on 9/11, or in Bosnia. It is not God who fails when human beings do barbaric things to other human beings. Auschwitz is not what happens when the God who says “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is silent. It is what happens when men and women refuse to listen.