Is God Responsible?

the tsunami & other evils

The real horrors usually elude us. Most of our life is spent in a kind of daze. We are distracted by the nice taste of the sandwich we had for lunch, the pleasant conversation, the thriller we relax with in the evening; and then something reminds us that tragedy is built into being: the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004, or the destruction visited on the Unites States on September 11, 2001; the news that we have an inoperable tumor; the death of a child, husband, wife, or friend.

How should we take this in? Can we? In the wake of the horror visited upon the people who live around the Indian Ocean, several newspaper articles and Internet blogs took up the theme of how difficult this must be for those who proclaim belief in a benevolent, loving God. The general tone was, “They have some explaining to do.”

They do indeed, but they always do. A few things must be said first: the tsunami impresses us because of its scale, the heartbreaking photographs of dead children and weeping parents, the terrible extent of the destruction-described, frequently, as being “of biblical proportions.”

But when a child you know or anyone you love dies, it also strikes you as infinitely terrible, even if it is only one child. The death of a child by flood is no more horrible than the death of a child by random gunshot in a drug-infested neighborhood, or by cancer. It is crushing for the parents, and they will never be the same. Years ago the son of a couple I am related to through marriage was struck on the head by a falling limb as he played in his grandparents’ backyard; since then, he has lived in a semicomatose state. My baby sister died at the age of eighteen months when her fever went up to 106. All these things pose a problem for people who believe in a benevolent God.

It is surprising that this comes into sudden focus only with events like the tsunami. The ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata includes a riddle: How is it that, although people see others dying around them every day, it comes as a shock to them to know that they must die? Why should it take a tsunami to raise the question about God’s goodness? Why isn’t everyday life, the horror of ordinary daily suffering, enough? Every day babies are born without brains and beloved parents fade into Alzheimer’s disease and kind men and women are diagnosed with ALS. Every day children drown, buildings collapse on construction workers, grandmothers suffer paralyzing strokes. Life is horrible enough without tsunamis; historic catastrophes provide a sharp reminder of something that is always with us. They rip the mask off and bring us up sharply against the way life is all the time for millions of people every day.

Part of our reaction to cataclysmic horror is a residue of the idea that God uses these enormous tragedies to punish us. Wars and earthquakes and floods are God’s scourges, signs of his displeasure, his way of punishing us for our disobedience. Most of us rightly find repellent the idea that the children washed out to sea were being punished for my sins, or yours, or the sins of their parents.

The argument that the tsunami poses a new challenge to those who believe in God’s goodness is hardly new. It was raised after the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, when Voltaire asked if the people of Lisbon were really that much more wicked than the people of Paris. For those who believe in the God of the Bible (even as they resist “biblical proportion” metaphors), the problem at one level is quite obvious: we profess to believe in a God who created the world as a good thing, who loves the world, and who is all-powerful. Such horrors as the genocides that marked the twentieth century are mysterious enough, but they incline some of us to lose faith in humanity rather than in God. When the evils we suffer come from nature itself, not from evil human beings, what does this say about creation-it was supposed to be good, after all-and the God responsible for it, who is supposed to be good and all-powerful?

Paul writes in Romans that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” In both the Old and New Testaments even natural evils were often seen as somehow connected with sin, with a primordial catastrophe that has wounded all creation. We sense that it is not meant to be this way. If one thing can be said to unite all religious perception at its base it may be here: Things are not the way we know they should be. That sense of a catastrophe is central: the sense that the world, or our understanding of it, or both, are seriously clouded or distorted or blighted. And the responses are varied. Buddhism says that existence is suffering and builds from that point. Gnosticism says that there is a good God, but that God is not responsible for the mess we endure, which is the creation of a demiurge or evil god. Liberation means escaping the bonds of the evil of matter. Judaism and Christianity say that the world is good-but that sin has somehow torn it away from what it was meant to be by introducing death and all the suffering that attends death.

The Book of Job, in which a good man is afflicted by a seemingly capricious God, provides us with the best answer to the problem of evil, and it isn’t an answer. “And he said, ‘Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this, Job did not sin and charge God with wrong” (Job 1: 21-22). Job’s comforters all have theories, explanations, ways of understanding-and Job’s anguished answer is, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!” (Job 19: 21). In Job’s own search for answers there is only emptiness: he believes that if he were able to lay his case directly before God he would find an answer, but he finds no satisfaction. “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on my left I seek him, but I cannot behold him; I turn to the right hand, and I cannot see him” (Job 23: 8-9).

God finally responds to Job’s anguished questions from the whirlwind. God could be seen here as answering a suffering man with sarcasm, which does seem to befit a God who allows such horrible things to happen, every day, to those whom he allegedly loves. But the fact that there is a reply can also be seen as an act of the most profound sympathy and compassion. The god of the deists would be incapable of such an answer, and it is the god of the deists who is the god that controls things the way we would if we were gods; it is the understandable god, one suitable to the age of the Encyclopedists, one pulled in to explain things. The God who addresses Job makes it clear that Job will never and can never understand the depths of the mystery of suffering and evil: “Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the Earth? Declare, if you know all this” (Job 38: 17-18).

There is nothing that can justify what human beings have been made to suffer. It is impossible to imagine a point at which we would say, having had it all explained, “So that’s what makes it all right that a child was tormented to death or raped, or that a father lost his wife and children to the sea.” Nothing makes it all right, or can. It may be healed in the end, but it will not and cannot be all right, or explained.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity emphasizes apophatic theology-the Western equivalent is sometimes called “negative” theology. At its center is the fact that God’s nature is completely unknowable. If we speak of God as good or all-powerful, this has to do with our needs and the limitations of our language; “good” means something different from the sort of thing we mean when we speak of good pizza or even a good deed. Orthodox theology says that while God may not be understood and is unknowable, we participate in God’s being through sharing in God’s divine energies. But God is finally unknowable, and, because of his infinite otherness we can only approach-but never fully arrive at-God. (This dynamic sense of approaching God, and of being continuously transformed as we do, is the heart of Gregory of Nyssa’s sense of eternal life.)

God has revealed himself in Christ, and here we begin to see how far we are from God’s idea of what God’s power means. Our idea of power is represented by enormity and by force: we think of kings, armies-and tidal waves. If we were God we would have placed our almighty hand on the floor of the ocean and prevented that shift of tectonic plates; we would have sent armies of angels to fly people to safe ground. This assumes an unwounded universe, one in which death and sin are not the main powers, a place that is good in precisely the way God wanted it to be good, and in which God’s inaction is therefore seen as perversity or coldness. It also assumes a universe in which we presume to know what God should do, which means a universe in which God is imaginable, someone of whom we can conceive.

This is not the universe about which the Bible speaks, or the one where the God of the Bible reveals what can be revealed to our very limited understanding. When God approaches us, he comes as a baby who needs to be taken care of, who grows into a man who thirsts, is frustrated with the ignorance of his followers and friends, upsets kings, is capable of knowing fear and sorrow, and finally feels utterly abandoned-but because of his obedience to the Father’s will he destroys the power of death, the power that rules this world, and this leads us to resurrection. This is not power as we understand it, not at all, but we have been given no other sign that death can be overcome, and that the God we have is a God who weeps and can weep until the end of time with the mother holding her dead child. 

Published in the 2005-01-28 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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