As the dust settles on the recent horrors in Haiti, secular man has begun to think of the sacred. Frantically searching for the key to unlock the mystery of why this earthquake happened, 21st-Century America wonders what lies beyond the door of the unseen. Exactly what does all of this mean, and what does this tragedy teach about God?
With the probability that more than 100,000 people lie dead in the streets and under the rubble, David Hume’s famous series of questions originally written in his work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) have resurfaced in light of this tragedy. Hume actually brought forward the thought of the philosopher, Epicurus, when he stated, “Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Theodicy (the attempt to reconcile belief in God with the existence of evil) remains, in the words of Newsweek religion columnist, Lisa Miller, “the most powerful tool in the atheist’s kit.” She is quite correct when she states, “many a believer has turned away from God over the suffering of innocents.”
Sadly, evil and tragedy is as old as the Fall, and early Christians understood and even anticipated its reality in their lives. In 1677, a group of Baptists boldly confessed in the Second London Confession, “God hath decreed in Himself from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever comes to pass.” Believing that God is never the author of sin, they carefully stated that the “contingency of second causes” could never thwart God’s wise and holy (albeit often unknown) purposes.
Unlike those early Baptists, modern theologians of all stripes are scrambling to defend God’s good name. Many are quick to point out that God in no way caused this to happen, and was, to hear them talk, taken by surprise. Various theologians are also boldly stating that God is unable to control evil. He reacts as humans do—with shock and disbelief.
C.S. Lewis always cautioned that everyone should “follow their thoughts home.” To believe in a God who shares power with evil in a co-equal or, in many cases, subservient manner, is to have no God at all. More than one Supreme Being means there is no supreme being. God—to be God—must stand above and over evil in some way if God is to exist at all. To fashion a God capable of emotion, but not power, is simply to concoct a fantasy and call it God. And such a “God” is not worthy of worship. Here, then, are the theological options: God is evil; God is impotent; or evil is a real and present mystery that we cannot fully understand.
When faced with a similar situation, Jesus Christ minced no words. A vicious act of terrorism is recorded in Luke’s Gospel (chapter 13). The despotic ruler Pilate murdered a group of innocent Galileans. (It seems that Pilate was a forerunner to Haiti’s Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier who murdered more than 30,000 Haitians in the 1960s). Not content with their dead bodies, Pilate sought to defile their souls. He took some of their blood and mingled it with that of the animals brought for their sacrifices.
The reply of Jesus is shocking, to say the least. Rather than run down the perpetrator, He talked about the victims. He ignored their question of “why?” and resorted to a question of “when?” Challenging their ideas about tragedy and sin, Jesus called on his hearers to repent or face the same end—death. Jesus went on to speak of 18 other people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Again, He spoke not of why—but when. Faced with the reality of death, He called on His hearers to repent.
How this could be comforting to anyone suffering is only possible when viewed in light of the cross of Christ. At that place, and at that time, Jesus received the full force of God’s wrath as an innocent and perfect being who stood in the place of sinners as One able to receive unjust punishment at the hands of a just God. The cross is the place where suffering finds its meaning and evil finds its end. As a result of His obedience to the point of death, Jesus’ resurrection secured ultimate justice for all who, by faith, cling to the reality of the cross in the face of what seems to be (from a limited human perspective) unjust suffering.
The window on the unseen world is opened by Jesus. The path to the defeat of death is—of all things—repentance. These dreadful days bring yet another opportunity to call a world in peril to repentance—the ultimate, and only, answer to the sorrows of this life. God is never the author of sin, but He is never surprised by it. In a world promised to bring pain and hardship, Jesus brings a word of refuge—repentance toward God and faith in the Christ.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.