“Can you raise your voice to the clouds
and cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?…
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
when the dust becomes hard
and the clods of earth stick together?
Job 38:34-35; 37-38
Over the past month, natural disasters have dominated the headlines. Three weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey dropped 27 trillion gallons of water onto the citizens of Houston. Hot on Harvey’s heels came Hurricane Irma, battering the west coast of Florida. Coverage of Maria, another Category 5 storm, had to be split-screened in light of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that leveled parts of Mexico City.
These are only the most recent catastrophes in a year marked by natural disasters. In February, an avalanche in Afghanistan claimed 156 lives. Shortly thereafter, a cyclone killed 117 in Zimbabwe and left many more homeless. 2017 has seen landslides in Colombia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo combine to end the lives of more than a thousand men, women, and children.
What are Christians to make of this apparently senseless suffering? If God is fully omniscient, after all, then surely he is aware of the devastation that natural disasters cause. If God is omnipotent, he must have the power to stop them from occurring. And if God is truly loving, he clearly desires people to be free of the misery that they can bring.
Skeptics going back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus have made much of this conundrum. Maybe, they say, God isn’t really all that good. Maybe God isn’t aware. Maybe God is actually too weak to do anything. Or maybe God isn’t there at all.
Believers through the ages have worked hard to offer reasoned responses to this “Problem of Evil.” These replies, called theodicies, have tried to account for sin, death, and pain in a way that acknowledges suffering in the world while at the same time holding to God’s perfect goodness and power.
One of history’s first theodicies is recorded in the Old Testament story of Job. The Bible says that Job was a successful Middle Eastern herdsman. He possessed thriving flocks and led a great family. Job was a righteous man, a lover of God and good to his neighbors.
But then his life took a sharp turn for the bad. In what Job 1 describes as a matter of minutes, a series of disasters tore down all that he had built. Raiders came and carried off his flocks. Fire from heaven fell on other fields, destroying other animals and the servants who cared for them.
It got worse. A violent windstorm destroyed the home where his children have gathered, killing them instantly. Finally, a terrible disease embedded itself in Job’s skin.
Job was in agony. And for the next 36 chapters of the book – nearly 900 verses – Job and his companions tried to understand the point of his suffering. Sitting together in dust and ashes, they reflected upon God, justice, and whether there was any meaning to it all.
Finally, at the end of the book, God joins the conversation. But, somewhat surprisingly, God doesn’t provide his reasons for permitting the calamities that have befallen Job. Instead, for four successive chapters, he monologues about his own cosmic majesty.
The verses above are a small slice of God’s “I’ll talk, you listen” lecture. In the speech, God reveals his sovereign role in the creation and upkeep of the world; everything, from the intricacies of the animal kingdom to the power of the weather to the flight of the stars is under his control. In no uncertain terms, Job is made to understand that his view of God’s master plan is finite and incomplete. It is Job’s place to assume a posture of humility and trust that God knows what he’s doing.
The Job Theodicy is instructive in a couple of ways. First, it offers believers a very legitimate answer to skeptics: Believers may reply that God has reasons for allowing suffering, even if we don’t (or can’t) know what they are. An all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God is under no compulsion to explain it all.
But more importantly, Job’s experience of God reminds us to assume a posture of humility even as we process the heartache caused by hurricanes and other natural disasters.
A couple of implications for the ways in which we think about natural evil come to mind:
First, in humility, let’s refrain from presuming natural disasters are God’s discipline for bad behavior. I’ve heard plenty of folks conclude that the recent storms and geological events must be God’s punishments for human sin. While it’s true that floods (Genesis 6:13) and earthquakes (Numbers 16:32) have been sent to rid the earth of wickedness, the Bible is equally clear that disasters (Luke 13:4) and suffering (John 9:1-3) aren’t always tied to sinful behavior. This is not to say that misguided human activity can’t make disasters worse (unjust economies and irresponsible administration can lead to unsafe infrastructure, poor creation-care can cause artificially high sea levels, etc.) but automatically reckoning the latest avalanche or tornado as God’s righteous judgement for sin is presumptuous.
Second, in humility, let’s acknowledge that the same natural processes mostly benefit us. God has made the world good, and the very physical forces (gravity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism) that lead to things like tidal waves and sickness also allow us to breathe, study, and take delight in our planet*. The same natural law that causes buildings to collapse keeps you anchored to earth. Volcanoes which erupt and block the sun for a month provide rich growing soil for centuries afterward. The gene-mutating mechanism that causes cancer for one person allows hundreds of others to enjoy their hot fudge Sundaes.
Finally, in humility, let’s acknowledge that God can accomplish beautiful ends through even the most violent of disasters. Natural calamities can and do bring about immediate crises. But God plays the long game.
An old Chinese tale is instructive. According to the story, a man one day discovered that his only horse had wandered away. His friends, in a show of sympathy, lamented his bad fortune. But the man was stoic. “We’ll see,” he said.
A week later, the horse returned with three fine mares following behind. His friends’ tone quickly changed. That’s great! they said. The man, however, remained reserved. “We’ll see,” he said.
The next week, the man’s son was out riding one of the new horses when the mare threw the boy off, breaking his leg. What bad luck! they moaned to the man. Once again, he replied with the same words, “We’ll see.”
Several days later, a regiment from the military came to town, drafting young men into the war. Only the broken leg prevented the man’s son from being taken off into the fray.
The story continues in the same vein with an obvious point – even the worst misfortune and suffering can bring about welcome change. As horrible and grievous as disasters and disease are, chapters remain to be written.
Christians claim this prospect, holding tightly to Romans 8:28: We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.
In the end, the Problem of Evil remains just that for believers. It’s a capital-P problem. We own it: There is no simple intellectual or theological accounting for plague, famine, landslides, or floods. We don’t know why God allows them to happen.
What we can say with certainty is that it’s not because God doesn’t care. At the nucleus of Christian faith is the astonishing fact that God identifies so much with those who suffer that he joined humanity and suffered himself. At the cross, as the earth quaked and the skies darkened, Jesus was plunged into a cataclysm of pain and grief. Fire rained down. Disaster struck at his heart.
Believers don’t have the answers to the whys of natural evil. Our theodicies are works in progress. But love compels us forward, through the philosophical dilemma to the human need. Like Jesus, we enter the places of pain. We share, rebuild, and encourage. We do cleanup, sandbag levees, and pray with the affected. We’re not quitters. When hurricanes and epidemics would drive us back, we walk on, our steps oriented to the coordinates of the cross.
Why? Because Jesus leads us there, and because the only real way to answer natural disaster is with supernatural love.
*In Belief in God in an Age of Science, Christian physicist John Polkinghorne says that God allows these forces to act as “free processes.” In other words, while God could micromanage everything – perhaps deploying angels to nudge low-pressure systems and avalanches away from populated areas – he instead acts in self-limiting love toward creation.