Thursday 21 July 2011

Where is God in the midst of disasters?

Television stations reported recently that in the midst of almost concurrent disasters in Australia, New Zealand and Japan that they began to receive reports of ‘disaster fatigue’ from their viewers. How do we respond to disasters? Do we show concern for a while, and then lose interest? Do we respond with greater empathy to some disasters over others? Why? Are we more concerned for citizens of our own nation than for other? How much is a life worth? Surely, all lives equal. Do we act as if we believe this?

One of the marks of a Christian must surely be the response of sympathy, identification with others who suffer and, action to help and serve others. We are to be disturbed by suffering and the calamities that befall our fellow humanity. 

In Romans 9 Paul reminds his readers that the Christian is to hate evil and hold to what is good. We are to show genuine love, serve others and stand beside others, both in hope and in tribulation. We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 9:15).  Paul drew on the example of Christ to exhort and challenge the Philippian Church to consider whether their lives were characterised by a concern for the circumstances of others (Philippians 2:1-4).  We are to be of one mind with Paul on this, a mind that reflects the example of Jesus. We are to show love, sympathy and look to the interests of others.  The example that is to shape our response is seen in the incarnation; the Son of God came as a servant and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7-8)

In the next issue of Case magazine, which will come out within the next 2 weeks, we address some of the questions that disasters raise for us. In our lead article Mattheson Russell deals with the fundamental question, how do we reconcile a sovereign God with the problem of evil? Dani Scarratt looks at one significant event, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and considers how it had an impact on how Christians make sense of disasters.  We also consider the way the media portrays disasters and share the views expressed at a live debate hosted by Christians in the Media (CIM) titled 'Media Ethics in Disaster Zones'. The speakers were Paul Richards and Mark Hadley, with closing comments by Dominic Steele. Geologist David Cohen considers what man can do to prepare for, predict and deal with natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Finally, Andrew Errington reviews David Bentley Hart’s book 'The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?' that contrasts two rival ways of looking at “natural evil” and the sovereignty of God.

I have been challenged by this issue and, not surprisingly, have further questions that I want explore.  I was encouraged by Mattheson Russell's reminder that Christians are not immune to doubts, nor can we escape feelings of anger and sadness at the suffering of the world. Russell opens this edition of Case by encouraging us to think theologically about disasters. He reminds us that it is okay to ask questions of God.  God is responsible for the world, but he has made a world made of natural and moral independent agencies.  Russell helpfully teases out what it means to talk of God as sovereign in a world where bad things happen. He draws on the doctrine of providence and discusses how this affirms that God “acts in the world in specific and purposeful ways.”  Finally, he considers how we reconcile the presence of evil in our world with a sovereign God who is responsible and acts providentially? He concludes that “evil is not morally ‘consonant’ with the goodness of God” nor is it part of God’s good plan for those he created. Ultimately there will be no victory in evil and suffering, victory will only be seen in Christ. We are to fight against evil, empathise with those who suffer and look to the day of Christ’s return.

I suspect that how well we understand the nature of evil, suffering and the relationship of each to God matters profoundly in at least two ways. It affects the way we view God, and it affects how we view and relate to one another. It troubles me that in spite of their significance, we often throw our hands in the air and say, “these questions are too hard for me”.

We’ve tackled this topic, because while we know questions, doubts and even anger are understandable responses to disasters, but retreat from hard questions is not.  And notwithstanding our questions, there is one response that must be evident within the life of all Christians, and within the life of the church – empathy. There is no place in the heart of the Christian for indifference.  We are to weep with others who weep. As well, we are to respond to their needs. This should be grounded not in our own strength, skills or qualities, but in our overwhelming sense of wonder at the grace of God in forgiving us and sacrificing his own son as atonement for the sins of a broken world. 


Nils von Kalm said...

Thanks for this post Trevor. To add to the discussion, I recently reviewed a book by Terence Fretheim called 'Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters' in which he looks at the theology of why we might have disasters ni a world made by a loving God. My review of the book is on the Ethos website at



Timaahy said...


I am looking forward to this issue, as I am yet to see an intellectually satisfying explanation for the Problem of Evil. Hopefully your contributors provide some fresh insights.

In your blog post, you note that "God is responsible for the world, but he has made a world made of natural and moral independent agencies".

The implication is that we cannot blame god for the suffering caused by natural disasters, or the evil perpetrated by moral agents equipped with free-will. Each is apparently the result of man's rejection of god himself - an imperfect world born of The Fall, and the freely-chosen actions of his rebellious creation.

My issue is with the latter - evil perpetrated by man himself. Conventional theodicy seems to teach that, because we have free will, any evil actions are the fault of the perpetrator, not god. But here's the thing. God often (allegedly) speaks to people directly to change their actions. So it's not a simple case of "he chose to murder", but "he chose to murder, and god chose not to stop him".

Take the recent events in Norway. The killer was a Christian, and had planned the attack for two years. What possible reason is there for god to allow someone who believes in him to carry out this attack, when a simple "Don't do that" would have been enough to prevent the entire tragedy?


Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Tim. There are a number of common questions raised about how we can reconcile the evil acts of people with acceptance of an all powerful God. The argument you present reflects one of them. I think it assumes that if God is a powerful all knowing agent, that surely he could (indeed should!) intervene when his creation sets out to do evil things. While we might accept that God isn’t responsible for evil, we wonder why he wouldn’t just stop it. Is he indifferent to his creation?

The Bible says otherwise. God has made us as independent beings and is not responsible for our actions. The evil is the responsibility of those commit the evil acts. God is opposed to evil. Mattheson Russell in his excellent article reminds us that the Bible shows that “God is relentlessly and fiercely opposed to evil and will not be reconciled to it”.

It is understandable that we might wish that God would intervene each time there is an act which we see as grossly evil. Certainly, I wish that the tragedy in Norway never happened. But that event wasn’t caused by God; it was perpetrated by one of God’s creatures. To suggest that because God didn’t stop the madman in Norway, that he is indifferent to us, has no support in the Bible.

In the Bible, God’s opposition to sin is made clear, as is the method he uses to deal with it. God defeats sin and death in and through the sacrificial death of his son. In Christ we see that God is not happy about sin, he takes ultimate responsibility to deal with it at the cross and has not abandoned the world.

I would encourage you to get hold of a copy of Case #27 which will be out next week.