Posts tagged ‘Theodicy’

In and After the Storm

File:Hurricane Dorian (peak intensity), September 1, 1240Z.png

Credit: Wikipedia

The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.  When God appears to Moses on Mount Sinai’s summit to give him the Ten Commandments, the mountaintop is covered in “darkness, gloom, and storm” (Hebrews 12:18).  When Job endures great suffering, he complains: “God would crush me with a storm” (Job 9:17).  When God speaks to Job after his trials, it says, “The LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  When God calls Jonah to preach to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but the prophet instead hops a ship heading the opposite direction, the Lord sends “a great wind on the sea, and a violent storm” (Jonah 1:4).  When Jesus is sailing with His disciples across the Sea of Galilee one day, out of nowhere comes “a furious storm” (Matthew 8:24).  The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.

These days, our headlines have been plastered with stories of a storm.  The pictures that have come out of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian are horrible.  Halves of islands are underwater.  Debris fields stretch for miles.  And the death toll has yet to be fully counted.  And, of course, Dorian’s destruction did not end with these islands.  The storm carved a path up our nation’s eastern seaboard, dumping rain, flooding communities, and disrupting and endangering countless lives.

Whenever we face a storm like this, a common question arises: Where is God?  Though there is no complete answer to this question, here are a couple of thoughts Scripture invites us to consider.

First, God is in the storm.  When God speaks to Job after all his trials, he speaks to him “out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  This means that in all of Job’s trials, God was right there, even though Job did not know it.  When Jesus’ disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus does not avoid the storm they sail into, but is there with them in the storm.  And when Jesus dies on a cross, He does so in the midst of storm clouds so dark that they black out the sun: “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).  God, then, does not avoid our storms even if He does not still every storm.  He is with us in the storms.

Second, God is after the storm.  When the prophet Elijah, at God’s behest, goes to meet with God on a mountain, instead of finding God, he experiences a storm:

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. (1 Kings 19:11-12) 

Elijah goes to meet with God.  But he finds only hurricane force winds, an earthquake, and fiery lighting.  It seems like God is nowhere to be found in these storms.  But then:

After the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  (1 Kings 19:12-13)

It turns out that God was there for Elijah after the storms.

Dorian’s destructive path has now been cut.  The damage has been done.  People’s lives and livelihoods have been uprooted.  But God did not run from this storm.  He was in the storm with those who suffered from it.  But, perhaps even more importantly, now, He is still standing tall after the storm with those who have come out of the storm.  The question is: as God’s people, will we also be there for those who need us after the storm?  There are multiple ways to help the victims of Dorian.  I pray that you will.  After all, God is there after the storm.  So, we should be, too.

The Psalmist famously writes:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. (Psalm 46:1-4)

The Psalmist reminds us that God is in the storm.  He is “an ever-present help in trouble.”  But he also reminds us that God is after the storm.  For He has prepared for us and now dwells in a celestial city, not with waters that are destructive like a storm surge, but with waters that bubble and babble with gladness.  In other words, God is not only in the storm, nor is He even only after the storm, He is there even after this life, waiting to welcome those who have lost their lives – including those believers who have lost their lives in storms like Dorian – into His eternal city.  A storm may end this life – but it cannot drown out eternal life.

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September 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Pain, Suffering, and Morality

AuschwitzI’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking lately on suffering and its effect on faith.  In one way, I can’t help but believe and even assert that there is every reason to question God in the face of great suffering.  Elie Wiesel’s gut-wrenching account of his time in a Nazi concentration camp comes to mind not only as a natural response to pain and suffering, but as a needed one:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget these flames that consumed my faith forever.[1]

Elie’s description of his first night in a concentration camp should arouse in us nothing other than horror, grief, and sympathy.  Although I don’t know precisely how I would react to such an experience, I would be naïve to think that Elie’s reaction could never be my reaction.  The scene is just too jarring.  The brutality is just too disgusting.  The deaths are just too agonizing.  I too could question God.

And yet…

Some did not respond to the concentration camps the way Elie Wiesel did.  One survivor of the camps, Alex Seidenfeld, in an interview with the Associated Press, said simply, “We stayed alive.  We survived.  How could this have happened without the almighty?”[2]

Elie looked at all those who died and asked, “How can God be?”  Alex looked at all those who survived and asked, “How can God not be?”  Elie looked at all those who died and angrily shouted, “God didn’t stop this!”  Alex looked at all those who survived and declared, “But God did save some of us from this!”

The question of where God is in the face of suffering is really a question of God’s role in the midst of suffering.  Is God’s role to stop us from suffering or to save us through suffering?  In one sense, it is both.  But the first role, at least according to Scripture, doesn’t find its full expression until later, at the end of days.

Ultimately, I would argue that, even if God does not stop all suffering, it is difficult to surmise from the existence of suffering that God does not exist.  C.S. Lewis famously explains why:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.[3]

C.S. Lewis puts his finger on the reality that the problem we have with suffering is that we believe and perceive that it is, in some sense, wrong.  It is unjust.  But if we reject God, we lose the privilege of saying that anything is wrong or unjust because, without God and His ordering of the universe, standards of organized morality disappear into the ether of a universe that coalesced around the free-for-all of chance.  This world and all that is in it, to borrow a phrase from the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, is nothing more than “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”[4]  In this view, suffering exists in the same way that a ball that lands on black 22 on a roulette wheel exists.  It just happens to happen sometimes.  There is nothing more to be said about it, at least not morally.

Arguing against a moral God in light of what is perceived to be immoral suffering, then, is an argument that collapses on itself.  You can’t argue against God using a framework that has its basis in God.  Either suffering just is, or it is somehow just wrong.  To question how there can be a good God who allows bad things assumes that, even if implicitly, there is a God and that, in some regard, He is not playing by His own rules, or at least by what we perceive to be His rules.  If this is the case, it may be fair to ask Him, “Why?”   But, as a Christian, I would propose that it might be even better to ask Him for help.  From what I hear, even if God doesn’t always stop suffering, He is quite adept at blessing people in suffering.

_____________________

[1] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York:  Hill and Wang, 2006), 33.

[2] Aron Heller, “Observant survivors keep the faith after Holocaust,” The World Post (1.26.2016).

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  Harper Collins Publishers, 1980), 38

[4] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985).

March 14, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Tornadoes and Satan

Moore TornadoCrises have a strange way of calling people to faith.  In a day and age where many are bemoaning that our nation is becoming increasingly secular, the devastating EF 5 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 gave rise to an abundance of prayers and cries to God.  Ed Stetzer paints the scene well in his article for USA Today, which is worth quoting at length:

Times of grief reaffirm our identity as a religious nation. Shortly after the horrific news of the tornado devastation in Oklahoma, “#PrayforOklahoma” quickly rose to the top of Twitter’s trending list as millions shared their prayers for the people who lost loved ones and had their homes destroyed.

In times of prosperity, far removed from tragedies, many people in our culture reject expressions of faith. In the moments of hopelessness, however, the desire to reach out to a higher power is an instinctive reflex.

Some may say, “But that’s Oklahoma – it’s the Bible Belt.” Yet, after the Sandy Hook tragedy, I was struck by the comment made by Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy referencing our collective religious heritage:

“In the coming days, we will rely upon that which we have been taught and that which we inherently believe: that there is faith for a reason, and that faith is God’s gift to all of us.”

Many are embarrassed by this national identity – until it is time to grieve.  Then, politicians, celebrities and reporters can unashamedly say they are praying for those affected.  News networks will show church bells ringing in memory of those lost.  Nightly news shows feel the need to broadcast excerpts from sermons delivered by pastors in the area.  Journalists interview religious leaders about how God can help us through.

And yes, that is where the discussion often begins. We consider why this would happen. Some people representing faith groups may speak quickly (and unwisely), assuming they can connect the dots between something in our culture and the most recent tragedy.

Others simply ask the question, “How could God allow this to happen?”[1]

Tragedies of the sort that struck Moore, no matter how supposedly “secularized” our nation has become, call forth faith.  And, as Stetzer duly notes, they also call forth questions.  Most often, tragedies like the one in Moore call forth the question that Stetzer poses:  “How could God allow this to happen?”  But in the wake of the tragedy at Moore, I received another question that, though less common, is certainly worthy of a moment of our reflection:  “Can Satan cause a tornado?”  When a tragedy strikes, most people wonder about God’s power to prevent tragedies and His ultimate purpose in allowing them.  But it is also worth asking what kind of prerogative Satan has to wreak havoc in our world.

Satan does seem to have some power to cause trouble in our world.  One needs to look no farther than the story of Job.  In nearly an instant, Job’s life goes from riches to rags.  A quick sequence of four calamities, instigated by Satan himself, robs Job of nearly everything he has.  The fourth of these calamities is especially instructive for our purposes:  “Yet another messenger came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house.  It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you’” (Job 1:18-19)!  Notice that it is a windstorm that Satan sends to destroy Job’s family.  Satan, it seems, does seem to have limited power to incite natural disasters.

It is important to note that, as the story of Job clearly delineates, Satan incites calamities on a person not because a person is somehow particularly sinful or deserving of such calamities, for Job was “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1).  No, Satan incites calamities out of depraved delight – he enjoys watching people suffer.

Certainly we cannot know, nor should we speculate on, the transcendental cause of Moore’s devastating tornado.  The most we can say is that natural disasters are part of living in a sinful, fallen world and Satan takes cynical delight in the effects of sin on our world.

But there is hope.  For even if Satan can incite calamities, his ability to do so is severely – and blessedly – limited.  Jesus describes Satan as a “strong man” whose fate is sealed:  “How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man” (Matthew 12:29)?  Satan may be a strong man.  But Jesus is the stronger man.  And He came to tie up Satan by defeating his favorite calamity – death – on the cross.

Ultimately, then, no matter what the spiritual causes of the natural disasters that plague our world may be, in this we can take consolation:  no matter how much strength sin and Satan may have for ill, Jesus is stronger.  He’s so strong, in fact, that “even the wind and the waves obey Him” (Matthew 8:27).  He has things under control.  And He holds Moore’s victims in His heart and hands.  May we hold them in our prayers.


[1] Ed Stetzer, “We still cry out to God when tragedy strikes: Column,” USA Today (5.22.2013).

June 3, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Week of Tragedies

Boston West TexasWhat a week it’s been.  Monday the headline was carnage at the Boston Marathon as a pair of terrorists planted and detonated two bombs, though they planted more, at the race’s finish line.  Three lost their lives.  More than 170 were injured.  I awoke Wednesday morning to the news that the tiny town of West, Texas, north of Waco, erupted in a fireball in an explosion in a fertilizer plant.  Dozens lost their lives because of this tragic accident.

On the heels of so much tragedy and loss of life, two questions inevitably arise, both consisting of just one word:  “How?” and “Why?”

“How did these two terrorists manage to plant numerous bombs at the finish line of a major race in seemingly plain sight with so many law enforcement officials standing by for any sign of trouble?”  “How did a small blaze at a fertilizer plant get so out of control in a literal split second?”  Investigators specialize in answering these “How?” questions.  Already, expansive and detailed investigations have been launched to try to figure out how these tragedies happened.

The “Why?” questions are a little tougher to answer.  “Why would someone premeditatedly work to cause so much pain and anguish in the bodies, hearts, and lives of so many?”  “Why would God allow any of this to happen?”

Though we have partial answers to our perennial “Why?” questions, our answers are inevitably incomplete because of our finite perspective.  But there are some things we can know and say in tragic times like these nonetheless.

First, we must say that tragedies like these are spawned because of sin.  The attacks in Boston are an example of the darkest corners of human depravity on display.  Two individuals took it upon themselves to actively break God’s law and our nation’s laws in order to coldly calculate a catastrophe.  The fertilizer plant explosion in West is an example of creation’s sinful brokenness.  Because we live in a world that has gone wrong (cf. Genesis 3:17-19, Luke 13:1-5), wrong things happen.

Second, we can also say that tragedies like these testify to God’s patience, albeit in a strange and backwards way.  After all, God is under no particular compulsion to allow this sinful world to continue on.  But He does.  Why?  Because He loves the people He has made and wants to give them as much time as possible to repent of their sinful state and turn toward Him.  As the apostle Peter reminds us, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Peter 3:15).

In the days ahead, steps will no doubt be taken to try to assure that the tragedies of this week will not be repeated.  This is good!  We ought to learn from tragedies like these for the sake of everyone’s safety and wellbeing.  But no matter how many steps we might take to try to guard against similar situations in the future, no human being can root out the underlying cause of all such situations:  sin.  Though we might be able to prevent a particular tragedy from happening again, we cannot take out tragedy’s foundation of sin. Only Jesus can do this.  Only Jesus can conquer the wickedness of this world and restore His creation and His people back to the way He originally dreamed and designed them:  perfect.

April 22, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why Didn’t God Do A Better Job?

Thomas Aquinas

“If…then why?”  I have been asked many a question about God which involved these three words.  “If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to eat the forbidden fruit, then why did God put the tree there in the first place?”  “If God knew some people were going to reject Him, then why did He even create them?”  “If God is so good and loving, then why do so many bad things happen?”

Truth be told, there are no easy or complete answers to these questions.  Indeed, all of these questions have behind them the problem of “theodicy,” a term borrowed from Greek meaning, “the justice of God.”  Theodicy describes the struggle to reconcile the perfect justice of God’s character with the sinful injustice in the world He created.

I have blogged about the problem of theodicy before.  And yet, it is impossible to address this troubling issue exhaustively, for no human understands it completely.  So, there is always more to say.  Thus, I thought it might be helpful to interact with this problem once again from yet another angle.  This time, Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth century theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, gives us some keen insight into theodicy.

Aquinas, in his seminal work Summa Theologica, makes a distinction between God’s absolute power and God’s ordained power.  God’s absolute power refers to the nearly infinite number of possibilities which God could conceivably bring to pass while His ordained power describes what God actually does.  Aquinas writes of God’s absolute power:

Now God cannot be said to be omnipotent through being able to do all things that are possible to created nature; for the divine power extends farther than that. If, however, we were to say that God is omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible to His power, there would be a vicious circle in explaining the nature of His power. For this would be saying nothing else but that God is omnipotent, because He can do all that He is able to do. It remains therefore, that God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely; which is the second way of saying a thing is possible. For a thing is said to be possible or impossible absolutely, according to the relation in which the very terms stand to one another, possible if the predicate is not incompatible with the subject…and absolutely impossible when the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject.[1]

Interestingly, even within the realm of God’s absolute power, Aquinas allows that there are certain things which are “absolutely impossible.”  That is, there are certain things not even God is able to do – not because they fall outside of the purview of His power, but because to demand them is utterly nonsensical.  For instance, the old cliché question “Can God make a rock so big He can’t move it?” is impossible to answer not because it exposes some hidden limit to God’s power, but because it doesn’t make any sense.  To answer this question with either a “yes” or a “no” is to compromise God’s omnipotence in some way.  In this sense, then, this question is not “possible” of God.  It is not possible at all.

Aquinas then goes on to speak of God’s ordained power:

We must say that God can do other things by His absolute power than those He has foreknown and pre-ordained He would do. But it could not happen that He should do anything which He had not foreknown, and had not pre-ordained that He would do, because His actual doing is subject to His foreknowledge and pre-ordination, though His power, which is His nature, is not so. For God does things because He wills so to do; yet the power to do them does not come from His will, but from His nature.[2]

This is heady stuff, but it is nevertheless important.  Aquinas explains that though there are many things God could do according to the omnipotence of His nature, there are many things God does not desire to do according to the foreknowledge of His will.  If God were to do these “other” things, these would be in contradiction to His perfect foreknowledge, thus compromising the integrity of one attribute of God – His foreknowledge – for another – His omnipotence.  And if God’s foreknowledge is compromised, ultimately, so is His omnipotence.  For then God is not powerful enough to figure out even what He Himself is doing!

Thus, the only way we can understand the power of God is in what God actually does, not in what we wish He would do.  This means, much to our chagrin, our many “If…then why” questions and accusations of God are futile.  For we cannot deal with God theoretically and abstractly in His absolute power, we can only deal with Him realistically and concretely in His ordained power.

We are not the first generation to speculate concerning the possibilities of God’s absolute power over and against the realities of His ordained power.  The fifteenth century Roman Catholic Desiderius Erasmus found many of the speculative questions the armchair theologians of his day were asking to be deplorable:

  • Can God undo the past, such as making a harlot into a virgin?
  • Could God have become a beetle or a cucumber, instead of a human?[3]

And you thought we had tough questions of God!  Although the questions we ask concerning God’s absolute power may strike us as slightly less silly, they are nevertheless of the same ilk as the questions of Erasmus’ day.  For they are conjectures based on nothing more than the supercilious speculations of our fertile imaginations.

So what does all this mean?  On the one hand, it means that questions concerning why God created human beings if He knew they were going to sin and make a mess out of His world are not only unanswerable, they’re foolish.  Alternate scenarios of the way God could have done things can be multiplied ad infinatum.  The problem with these scenarios is that just when someone imagines one scenario that is better than the one we currently have, someone else imagines yet another scenario better than the already imagined one.  Thus, even if we had another scenario, we would likely be imagining still other scenarios and asking God why we did not have those!  To speculate about other scenarios that ask God “Why didn’t You do things this way?” is only to lead us down a careening path of theoretical improvement that ultimately leads and ends nowhere.  On the other hand, we can also rest assured that, according to God’s ordained power, it’s not as if God doesn’t know what He’s doing.  After all, everything is here and is the way it is according to God’s foreknowledge.  In other words, He knew things were going to turn out this way all along.  The question is:  Do we trust that God knows what He’s doing in His ordained power, or do we belligerently complain to God, explaining how we could have done a better job than He?

Finally, speculation about the way things could be or the way we think things should be leads only to frustration.  We have what is; not what is not.  But we also hope for what will be.  Though there is sin and despair in this world right now, it will not be this way forever.  God has promised to us perfection at the Parousia.  And His foreknowledge is immutable.  This assures us that this perfection will come to pass.  Thus, when we are content with what is while also looking forward to what is to come, we find true fulfillment.

So, frustration over what isn’t or fulfillment from trusting in a God who has created what is and will ultimately bring righteousness to reign – which would you rather have?


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.25.3.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.25.5.

[3] Erasmus, Opera Omnia, 6.927 B-C.

June 11, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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