Continued from The Mystery of Evil
Accepting the mystery of evil is one thing. But this is far from all the Bible has to say about our response to evil. There is something within us that reacts to evil in the way the body reacts to a “foreign body” – with rejection and protest. We want to expel the offending object. All our bodily systems protest and fight back, sometimes with convulsive regurgitation. So it is with evil. We struggle against it with lament, grief, anger, disgust, and protest. In the previous article we said that even if we cannot explain the ultimate origin of evil per se, there is something about moral and spiritual evil that can be explained – namely, that so much of it is related in some way (directly or indirectly, as we emphasized) to human wickedness and wrongdoing. But that recognition still falls far short of a satisfactory answer when we face other aspects of evil. We are often most baffled and troubled by so-called natural evil, precisely because it doesn’t seem to have any such moral or rational explanation.
For no reason that we seem able to explain, great human suffering is often caused by natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and the like. Some freak weather events that cause devastating floods, for example, may be the result of climate change – global warming that has been brought on, or aggravated, by human action. but there are events in the natural world that, as far as we can tell, unconnected to any human action or inaction, and yet often hundreds and thousands of people are killed and whole communities devastated, sometimes for generations.
The tectonic plates of the earth’s crust shift under the Indian Ocean floor and heave its surface over the shores for a few terrifying minutes, leaving thousands dead around the rim. The Himalayan and Andean mountain ranges groan and creak, and thousands again are left dead or homeless in Pakistan and Peru. Another earthquake wrecks a whole province of China. Hurricane Katrina drowns New Orleans. Excessive monsoon rain floods swathes of India and Bangladesh. A devastating cyclone rips into southern Myanmar and obliterates whole villages in the Irrawaddy delta and leaves millions uprooted. Such things fill us with awe and dread. They wreak suffering on such a mammoth scale that we find it hard even to contemplate them.
Or we might include that uniquely terrible pandemic of HIV-AIDS. We know that there are elements of human responsibility in the suffering of many, but there are vast numbers of people – from babies in the womb to youngsters sacrificially caring for dying relatives – who are infected or affected through no fault of their own. The scale of human suffering caused by HIV-AIDS seems to dwarf almost all the others put together. Africa suffers roughly the equivalent of the 2004 tsunami every month through HIV-AIDS related deaths.
One question surges up every time we confront evil on this scale: Why? How can such things happen in a world where God is supposed to be in charge? Once again, in our grief and pain, or our anger and bewilderment, we struggle to make sense of things that numb our senses, to find some explanation behind the inexplicable.
Curse or Judgment?
Some “explanations” that are offered are so old that they go back to the Bible, where they are questioned or denied, but that doesn’t stop them being trotted out again. At least two ways of “explaining” such things as the tsunami were heard in the wake of that terrible day in December 2004. Both have some element of truth (that is to say, they refer to things that are biblically affirmed), but both seem to me dangerously misleading when pressed into service as full explanations.
“It’s the Curse of God”
There are those who believe that natural disasters like the tsunami are all part of God’s curse on the earth as a result of the fall. This view has the effect of removing the category of “natural evil” altogether, since it puts all such things back into the box of “moral evil”. That is to say, if these things happen because of God’s curse, then that curse came about in response to human sin and rebellion, according to Genesis 3. So in some mysterious sense, even something as utterly beyond human causation or control as the tsunami ends up being our own fault, if you push back far enough. If that were so, only some unfortunate people suffer the effects in our fallen world because they happen to live in the “wrong” place, but all of us collectively as a human race bear the blame. We brought God’s curse on the earth by our sin, and this is part of the result.
But this is improbable, though it is a view held by many. Genesis 3:17 says that God cursed the ground because of human sin. The word, adamah most often refers to the ground or soil, or the earth in the sense of the place of human habitation, rather than the created planet (for which ,eres is more normally used – though this distinction is not absolute). So God’s words seem most naturally to describe the struggle that humans will have to wrench their bread from the earth in toil and sweat, and with constant frustration and opposition from “thorns and thistles”. Probably this does not mean that such plants had never existed before the fall, but that they now come to symbolize the tension and struggle of human existence. Whereas before, humans were commissioned to subdue the earth, now they will toil and sweat just to survive on soil that seems to fight back.
So I am inclined to view the curse on the earth as functional. That is, it consists in the breakdown in the relationship between humanity and the soil, in our lives as workers. Human life on earth stands under God’s curse in all that affects our engagement with the earth itself. This is a state of affairs from which early humans longed to be liberated (Gen. 5:29), which Paul described as creation being subjected to frustration until we humans are liberated from our bondage to sin (Rom. 8:20 – 21), and which will come to an end only in the new creation, when God will again dwell with us in the new earth and there will no longer be any curse (Rev. 21:1 – 4; 22:3).
I do not think that the curse on the ground refers to an intrinsic (or ontological, if you like such words) curse on the whole natural order, which, at a particular moment in human history (the fall), changed the way the planet actually “behaves”. Those who take such a view have to say that earthquakes and other such phenomena in creation that are dangerous or destructive (or even just apparently nasty from our point of view – like animals eating each other), only came into existence as a result of the fall. Before the historical fall of human beings, then, there would have been no such thing as earthquakes.
But there is no evidence that our planet has ever been geologically different from the way it is now, or that animals were ever nonpredatory, or that tectonic plates in the earth’s crust were somehow perfectly stationary before the human species emerged and sinned. On the contrary, the available evidence suggests that the early history of the planet included even more catastrophic events long before the emergence of human life. As Tom Wright said, “A tectonic plate’s got to do what a tectonic plate’s got to do.”
Of course, if one takes the view adopted within some forms of “young earth creationism”, that the whole universe had only been in existence for five literal earth days before Adam and Eve arrived, then there would not have been much time for earthquakes or tsunamis before the fall. But I am not persuaded by that position.
Rather, it would seem that the earth being the way it is, as a living, moving, incredibly complex planet, is an essential part of the very possibility of our living on it. God made the universe with a view to human creatures living on this small planet in one particular galaxy, at this stage of its natural history, when the conditions are such that biological life can be sustained at all. I don’t pretend to understand why the earth has to be like this, such that moving slabs of the earth’s crust can heave the ocean temporarily over the shore. I might like to wish that it could be otherwise. But I don’t think I can be presumptuous enough to tell the Creator, “You should have thought of some other way of making a home for us.”
So I find it unconvincing to put down all things in nature that are unpleasant at the best of times and cataclysmically disastrous at the worst of times as nothing other than the outworking of God’s curse in response to human sin.
“It’s the Judgment of God”
Another view that regularly surfaces among Christians when some natural disaster strikes is that such things are the judgment of God.
Now again, just as when we were thinking above about God’s curse on the earth, we have to affirm that there is a general sense in which there is a biblical truth operative in this perspective. The Bible leaves us no option but to accept the reality of God’s judgment. God acts within human history and through the created order. And the Bible likewise warns us that if human beings and whole societies ignore the basic moral structures that God has built into our life on earth – including our proper care for the earth itself – then the natural world suffers the effects of our wilful disregard. And sometimes it fights back. There may well be a sense in which some of the effects of global warming and the resultant climate change, to the extent that they are connected to human destructive greed and pollution, may be construed theologically as incorporating elements of God’s judgment, mediated within the natural order.
However, what we cannot and must not go on to assume or affirm is that the actual people who suffer the effects of natural events like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, floods, and so on (whether connected or totally unconnected with human activity) are worse sinners, and therefore stand more under God’s judgment, than those who are fortunate enough to live somewhere else than where the disaster struck. It is one thing to say that there may be elements of God’s judgment at work in the natural order as a result of prolonged human wickedness. It is another thing altogether to say that the people whose lives are snuffed out or devastated by a natural disaster are the ones deserving that judgment directly.
What words are there for the website of a church in America that asserted that it was a matter of thanksgiving that 1,900 Swedish people had been killed, as God’s judgment on the wickedness of Sweden’s sexually licentious culture and laws? How does that kind of callous nonsense differ from the Muslim cleric in Britain who said that it was Allah’s judgment on the sex tourists in Thailand (who were the ones most unlikely to be among those enjoying a day with their families at the beach when the waves struck, one imagines). The sheer crass arrogance of such responses staggers the imagination.
But the Bible itself teaches us otherwise. The trouble is, we so easily take some aspects of what the Bible teaches, then invert the logic, and apply it quite wrongly.
The Bible and “Natural” Disaster
The Bible does include examples of God’s using nature, or natural forces, as agents of his judgment or salvation (e.g., the flood; the parting and return of the sea at the exodus; the flooding of a river in Judges 4 – 5; hailstones destroying an enemy). But these narratives are given with clear and authoritative interpretation in the text that this is how those events were to be understood – at the time and by later readers. So the Bible does tell us that God used some (though actually not many) natural disasters as acts of divine judgment.
But we cannot invert the logic and assume that any or every natural disaster is therefore an act of divine judgment on somebody. And we certainly lack an authoritative scriptural interpretation that gives us the dogmatic right to explain contemporary events in that way. On the contrary, the Bible actually discourages us from jumping to the assumption that people who suffer some disaster are the victims of God’s judgment on their particular sins.
Jesus gives us the clearest examples of rejecting such perverted “logic”. In John 9:1 – 3 Jesus was asked if a man who had been born blind was the victim of God’s judgment on his own sin or his parents’ sin, and Jesus replied that neither was correct. The man’s blindness was not a matter of God’s judgment on sin at all.
In Luke 13:1 – 5, Jesus responded to two local incidents. One was a case of moral evil – an act of savagery by the Roman governor that had claimed the lives of some Galileans; the other was a case of natural or accidental evil – the collapse of a tower, possibly on a construction site, which killed eighteen people in Jerusalem. Jesus asked (or he may have been asked) if these events proved that those who were killed were greater sinners than others – that is, that their deaths were God’s specific judgment on them. Again, in both cases, Jesus says emphatically No. Jesus rejected jumping to the easy explanation that when disaster happens it must be the judgment of God on somebody’s sin.
The book of Job had already argued that point in great depth. Job’s friends insisted that the disasters that had come on him were God’s judgment on his wickedness. But God and the readers know that the friends were wrong. And Job, though he did not know what the readers know, refused to believe that the friends were right about him, no matter how right their theology was. His suffering was a testing, but it was definitely not judgment. The friends came up with a lot of true general theological affirmations about sin and judgment, but then made a false specific application to Job’s particular suffering. Job’s three friends were orthodox and scriptural in their theology, but totally mistaken in their diagnosis and disastrously callous in their pastoral application. Sadly many Christians follow their example, whether responding to disaster on a grand scale or to illness and suffering of individuals.
Now Jesus did say that the man’s blindness created an opportunity for the glory of God to be displayed (when Jesus healed him). And Jesus also used the two local disaster events as a warning that people need to repent. But again we must be careful not to invert what Jesus said about the results of these cases into a principle of causation. Jesus was not saying that God caused Pilate to slaughter people or caused the tower to collapse and kill people, with the purpose of issuing a warning to everybody else. He simply used the events, quite legitimately, as a pointer to the shortness of life, the possible suddenness of death, and the necessity therefore of repentance here and now.
In the same way, we can certainly agree that the tsunami gave us a most appalling reminder that all our lives are constantly vulnerable in this world and can be snuffed out in an instant – even in the most idyllic situations and unexpected moments. If that led some people to reflect on life and death and to come to Christ in repentance and faith, we can be thankful for that. But it would be horrendous to suggest that “God did it for that reason”. That 250,000 people were swept to their death in a few hours was an awful demonstration of the fragility of human life. That God somehow did it “on purpose”, just to give a warning to the rest of us, is grotesque.
So if these are the wrong explanations, what is the right one?
There just is not, as far as I can see or find in Scripture, any “right” explanation as to why such things happen. Science can tell us their natural causes, and they are awesome enough. That is the achievement, but also the limit, of scientific explanation of “what really happened”. But neither science nor faith can give a deeper or meaningful reason or a purpose for a disaster. Thus we are left with the agony of baffled grief and protest. “God, how can you allow such things? Why don’t you stop them?” I don’t think it is wrong to cry out such things, even if we know that no answer is going to come in a voice from heaven.
When we run out of explanations or reject the ones we try, what are we to do? We lament and protest. We shout that it simply isn’t fair. We cry out to God in anger. We tell him we cannot understand and demand to know why he did not prevent it. Is it wrong to do this? Is it something that real believers shouldn’t do, just like “real men don’t cry”? Is it sinful to be angry with God? Again I turn to my Bible and find that the answer simply has to be No. Or at least, I find that God allows a great deal of anger to be expressed even if, at times, he corrects it where it threatens to lead a person into sin or rebellion (as in the case of Jeremiah, 15:19 – 21).
The Bible’s Voice of Lament and Protest
In the Bible, which we believe is God’s Word, such that what we find in it is what God wished to be there, there is plenty of lament, protest, anger, and baffled questions. The point we should notice (possibly to our surprise) is that it is all hurled at God, not by his enemies but by those who loved and trusted him most. It seems, indeed, that it is precisely those who have the closest relationship with God who feel most at liberty to pour out their pain and protest to God – without fear of reproach. Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled for us in abundance. God seems to want to give us as many words with which to fill in our complaint forms as to write our thank-you notes. Perhaps this is because whatever amount of lament the world causes us to express is a drop in the ocean compared to the grief in the heart of God himself at the totality of suffering that only God can comprehend.
Job gives us a book full of such protest, and at the end, God declares that Job is more in the right than his friends, who so dogmatically gave their “explanation” (and solution) to his suffering. Job himself is outrageously bold in his complaints to God and about God:
. . . God has wronged me
and drawn his net around me.
Though I cry, “Violence!” I get no response;
though I call for help, there is no justice.
He has blocked my way so I cannot pass;
he has shrouded my paths in darkness.
— Job 19:6 – 8
Jeremiah (like Job) wishes he’d never been born, accuses God of cheating him, and pours out his pain to God (read especially Jer. 15:10 – 21; 17:14 – 18; 20:7 – 18).
Why is my pain unending
and my wound grievous and incurable?
You [God] are to me like a deceptive brook,
like a spring that fails.
— Jeremiah 15:18
There is even a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations! Mind you, it is written in the wake of calamity that is acknowledged to be the direct judgment of God, but even then the writer feels at liberty to pour out a mixture of protest and pleading to God. It is a powerfully pain-filled book constantly crying out to God against the terrible calamity that had befallen Jerusalem.
My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms.
— Lamentations 2:11 – 12
Psalm after psalm asks God questions like “How long, O Lord . . . ?” and remonstrate over the suffering of the innocent and the apparent ease of the wicked (e.g., Pss. 10; 12; 13; 28; 30; 38; 56; 69; 88).
But I cry to you for help, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me? . . .
You have taken from me friend and neighbor –
darkness is my closest friend.
— Psalm 88:13 – 14, 18
It surely cannot be accidental that in the divinely inspired book of Psalms there are more psalms of lament and anguish than of joy and thanksgiving. These are words that God has actually given us. God has allowed them a prominent place in his authorized songbook. We need both forms of worship in abundance as we live in this wonderful, terrible world.
I feel that the language of lament is seriously neglected in the church. Many Christians seem to feel that somehow it can’t be right to complain to God in the context of corporate worship when we should all feel happy. There is an implicit pressure to stifle our real feelings because we are urged, by pious merchants of emotional denial, that we ought to have “faith” (as if the moaning psalmists didn’t). So we end up giving external voice to pretended emotions we do not really feel, while hiding the real emotions we are struggling with deep inside. Going to worship can become an exercise in pretence and concealment, neither of which can possibly be conducive for a real encounter with God. So, in reaction to some appalling disaster or tragedy, rather than cry out our true feelings to God, we prefer other ways of responding to it.
It’s all part of God’s curse on the earth. It’s God’s judgment. It’s meant for a warning. It’s ultimately for our own good. God is sovereign so that must make it all OK in the end.
But our suffering friends in the Bible didn’t choose that way. They simply cry out in pain and protest against God – precisely because they know God. Their protest is born out of the jarring contrast between what they know and what they see. It is because they know God that they are so angry and upset. How can the God they know and love so much behave this way? They know that “the Lord . . . has compassion on all he has made” (Ps. 145:9). Why then does he allow things to happen that seem to indicate the opposite? They know the God who says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11). How then can he watch the deaths of hundreds of thousands whom Jesus would tell us are not necessarily any more sinful than the rest of us? They know the God whom Jesus says is there when even a sparrow falls to earth (Matt. 10:29 – 31); where is that God when the ocean swallows whole villages (and churches)?
Such radically inexplicable disasters fill biblical believers with desperate, passionate concern for the very nature of God. So they cry out in vertigo above the chasm that seems to gape between the God they know and the world they live in. If God is supposed to be like that, how can the world be like this?
For us who share the faith of these biblical believers, this is an agonizing emotion precisely because we too love God. In such moments we can even understand those who hate God, and our anger and pain could easily make us shake our fists with them. But we don’t, because our whole lifetime of trust and love for God and gratitude for his limitless goodness and mercy toward us in Christ cannot be overthrown in the day of disaster. But the pain remains, and the pain is acute.
Lament is the voice of that pain, whether for oneself, for one’s people, or simply for the mountain of suffering of humanity and creation itself. Lament is the voice of faith struggling to live with unanswered questions and unexplained suffering.
God not only understands and accepts such lament; God has even given us words in the Bible to express it! An overflowing abundance of such words. Why, then, are we so reluctant to give voice to what God allows in his Word, using the words of those who wrote them for us out of their own suffering faith?
Therefore, I join the psalmist in lament. I voice my suffering, naming it and owning it. I cry out. I cry out for deliverance: “Deliver me, O God, from this suffering. Restore me, and make me whole.” I cry out for explanation, for I no more know in general why things have gone awry with respect to God’s desire than did the psalmist. “Why is your desire, that each and every one of us should flourish here on earth until full of years, being frustrated? It makes no sense.” To lament is to risk living with one’s deepest questions unanswered.
In the wake of something like the tsunami, then, I am not ashamed to feel and express my anger and lament. I am not embarrassed to shed tears watching the news or worshiping in church after such terrible tragedies have struck again. I tell the God I know and love and trust, but don’t always understand, that I just can’t get my head around the pain of seeing such unspeakable destruction and death. I will cry out on behalf of the wretched of the earth, “Why those poor people, Lord, yet again? Haven’t they suffered enough of this world’s gross unfairness already?”
I am not waiting for an answer, but I will not spare God the question. For am I not also made in God’s image? Has God not planted a pale reflection of his own infinite compassion and mercy in the tiny finite cage of my heart too? If there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, are there not also tears in heaven over thousands swept to their death?
So for the moment, I grieve and lament, I weep and I feel intense anger, and I do not hesitate to tell God about it and to file my questions before his throne. The same is true when I hear news of some dear loved one who has been stricken with some inexplicable and incurable illness. Whether on a grand scale of massive loss of human life or the intensified intimacy of the suffering of somebody personally known and deeply loved, the response is often the same: you have to pour out your true feelings before God, feelings that include anger, disbelief, incomprehension, and the sheer pain of too many contradictions.
Only then can I come back to praise God with integrity. Praise does not eliminate or override all such emotions. Rather, it is the safe framework of total acknowledgment of God and utter dependence on him within which they can be given their full expression.
However, I express all this protest within the framework of a faith that has hope and a future built into it. For the present state of creation is not its final state, according to the Bible. And in the resurrection of Christ we have the first-fruits of a new creation in which the old things will have passed away. I cannot claim to understand this great biblical hope terribly well either, but I draw enormous comfort from the earthiness of the Bible’s vision of the ultimate destiny of creation – to which we will turn in the next chapter. So my cry against the disasters of the present is not just a candle in the dark or spitting into the wind. It is much more akin to that agonized longing of the psalmists: “How long, O Lord, how long?” They were certain that God would do something, but they were consumed with longing that he should do it, sooner rather than later.
The cry [of lament] occurs within the context of the yet of enduring faith and ongoing praise, for in raising Christ from the dead, we have God’s word and deed that he will be victorious in the struggle against all that frustrates his desire. Thus, divine sovereignty is not sacrificed but reconceived. If lament is indeed a legitimate component of the Christian life, then divine sovereignty is not to be understood as everything happening just as God wants it to happen, or happening in such a way that God regards what he does not like as an acceptable trade-off for the good thereby achieved. Divine sovereignty consists in God’s winning the battle against all that has gone awry with respect to God’s will.
The two biblical responses to suffering and evil that we have surveyed are
- The Bible compels us to accept that there is a mysteriousness about evil that we simply cannot understand (and it is good that we cannot).
- The Bible allows us to lament, protest, and be angry at the offensiveness of evil (and it is right that we should).
But if that were all, life would be bleak and depressing in the extreme, and faith would be nothing but gritting our teeth in the face of unexplained and unrelieved suffering. Thankfully the Bible has a lot more to say to lift our hearts with hope and certainty.
Next: The Defeat of Evil