"Where was God when Haiti Happened?"
Jan.24, 2010 1Cor.15:20-28
NIGHTMARISH POST-QUAKE CLEANUP
Any worldview worth its salt has to be ready to answer the question, "Why do bad things happen?" Certainly the Haitian earthquake would rank right up there as one of the worst 'bad things' of all time. The images we see from there are a peculiar mix of miracle and nightmare: an Israeli soldier glances heavenward and says somebody up there must have been looking after the person that was just rescued after being buried a full week in the rubble. But that clashes with other images of boots and legs protruding from pancaked buildings. Or the story about the bulldozer operator whose job it is to bury the dead in mass graves as dump trucks keep bringing more and more, thousands upon thousands. He admits he can't sleep at night, or when he does there are nightmares. During the day he's crying continually while bulldozing dirt over the deceased - bothered especially by the sight of so many children that have died.
The slowness of getting medical aid to survivors could also be a reason for moral outrage. A CBC reporter at a medical clinic 200 metres from the airport, where all kinds of surgical supplies await delivery, tells us of a boy and girl being sewn up without the aid of anesthetic.
At mass outside the ruins of the cathedral last Sunday, Fr.Eric Toussaint preached of thanksgiving to a small congregation, saying, "Why give thanks to God? Because we are here.What happened is the will of God.We are in the hands of God now."
But others would find that hard to agree with; their faith has been shattered. Remi Polevard's 5 children lay dead beneath the rubble of their home near the university. This father asked, "How could He do this to us? There is no God."
United Nations officials are calling this the largest humanitarian disaster they've had to deal with. Of bad things that can happen, this must be one of the worst in terms of its toll on human lives. It naturally begs the question, "How could a good and loving God let such a thing happen?"
TOOLS FOR THE JOURNEY
How can Christians respond to that from a Biblical perspective? To tackle such a big important question, we should pack our best tools for the project. Preparing well means checking our assumptions, what we're going to work from as authoritative (a steady scaffold if you will); the question of epistemology is vital, how we can we know what we know.
Our main tool is definitely going to have to be the Word of God, His special revelation through the prophets, apostles, and Jesus, recorded for us in the Bible. Scripture as a tool could be likened to a powerful flashlight: it shows clearly truth in the area where it shines, although some areas are not disclosed and remain mysterious. 1Cor 15 contains a brief summary of what Paul passed on to his audiences 'as of first importance': the gospel of Jesus has to be our starting-point in any thinking about life as a whole. Yet even here where there is direct oral tradition, Paul underscores the authority of Scripture: vv3-4, "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, ...He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures..." Any interpretation of events we make needs to be in reference to God's truth revealed in the Bible. Jesus said His words would never pass away, even though heaven and earth would pass away (Mt 24:35). God's word is our primary fact, everything else is shifting sand. He spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, "Is not my word like fire...and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?" (Jer 23:29) A fire gives light; so God's word as a tool is sort of a combination of flashlight and hammer.
Another tool we bring is reason; though the 'Wesley Quadrilateral' folks tended to exalt reason to the level of Scripture, reason is far secondary. But God commands us to love Him with all our mind (Mt 22:37); so when it comes to big questions of life, it's OK to use our reason - as long as you don't start contradicting Scripture and try to be smarter than God. As a tool, reason is kind of like a 6' measuring tape - it has its limits, but it's very useful in the range for which it was designed. You can't use it to measure volume or Angstroms or microns, so don't push reason beyond its scope.
A third tool is conscience. Jesus also commanded us to love God with all our heart and all our soul; conscience is included there somewhere. In Romans 2(15) Paul describes how Gentiles "show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." The Creator designed us with conscience, hard-wired to point us to an ultimate moral reference point. As a tool, conscience is sort of like a bubble-level, showing whether things 'square' with absolutes of right and wrong; or you could think of it as a stud-finder, sounding an alarm when something's up.
We mustn't forget to bring along the collective witness of other believers (this can be called 'tradition' in the context of the church). Paul 'passed on' to the church in Corinth what he had 'received' from other believers as a summary of the Good News (15:3). And the appearances of the Risen Christ to the apostles and others plays a big role in bolstering the believability of the gospel: vv5-8 record that Jesus appeared to Peter, the Twelve, more than 500 at once, James, all the apostles, and finally Paul. So there's this whole cluster of Christians witnessing in unison to the fact of the Risen Lord in their experience. In tool terms, that's maybe like the gathered set of collected tools in the toolbox.
And guiding our application of all these various tools - Scripture, reason, conscience, tradition - is the redemptive victory of Jesus Himself. What's the basic kernel of the gospel? Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to many. It's all about what Jesus has done for us. And vv24-26 look forward to what He still has to do: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." Jesus is the One who brings it all about. So we need Him, definitely, as a Master Carpenter coaching us through this big project.
WHICH OF THESE THREE DOES NOT BELONG?
So, those are our epistemological tools, informing how we can know and think. Can we boil down the question? Dr Ronald Rhodes in the book Who Made God? And answers to over 100 other tough questions of faith breaks it down this way: "The problem of evil may be viewed in simple form as a conflict involving three concepts: God's power, God's goodness, and the presence of evil in the world.Common sense tells us that all three cannot be true at the same time."
The problem of evil is not new. On the basis of their observations, well-known thinkers like David Hume, HG Wells, and Bertrand Russell have concluded that the God of the Bible does not exist. Hume wrote of God: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.Is he both able and willing: whence then is evil?" You can see the 3 factors there: if there is a God, and He is all-good and all-powerful, then evil atrocities should never happen. But they do.
Solutions to the problem of evil typically involve modifying one or more of those 3 things: limit God's power, limit God's goodness, or factor out evil, such as by calling it an illusion or rolling it into something else.
But our Scriptural and conscience tools won't let us modify any of those three. God is good: the Bible repeatedly declares, "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good..." (1Chron 16:34; Ps 118:29, 136:1) Psalm 145(9) says "The Lord is good to all." What kind of words does God use to describe Himself to Moses in Exodus 34(6)? "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin..." Wouldn't you say that is 'good'?
The Bible is equally clear that God is almighty - 56 times. (eg Rev 19:6; As in the Apostles' Creed - "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth..." etc.) God is abundant in strength, has incomparably great power, no-one can hold back God's hand, nothing is impossible with God or too difficult for Him (Ps 147:5; 2Chron 20:6; Dan 4:35; Lk 1:37; Gen 18:14). So by quite a few different ways of expressing it, Scripture affirms God's omnipotence.
God is not limited in His ability. Rabbi Harold Kushner's book When Bad Things Happen to Good People promoted the idea that God is good, but not powerful enough to bring about all the good things He desires; that He's finite, not infinite. Kushner lamented, "even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check and limiting the damage that evil can do." But such a finite God would be contingent, dependent, Himself needing a cause; such a God would be worthy neither of our worship nor our trust, for there would be no guarantee that he'd be able to defeat evil in the future. So much for 'finite godism'.
God is good; God is almighty - like the table grace we learned as children, "God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for our food." The third part of the puzzle concerns evil: it IS real. Ronald Rhodes notes that evil doesn't have an essence by itself, it only exists by corrupting other entities. Christian Science would make evil out to be an illusion - all in your head - but Jesus in the Lord's Prayer taught us to pray, "Deliver us from evil," not, "Deliver us from the ILLUSION of evil." Neither is evil to be dismissed or rolled into 'all that is' the way New Age, monistic pantheism, or Hinduism would do. A former guru became a Christian after a period of ethical dissatisfaction with the problem of evil, and the Hindu concept that the Creator and the Creation were one and the same. In his words, "If there was only One Reality, [then] God was evil as well as good, death as well as life, hatred as well as love.That made everything meaningless, life an absurdity."
Evil is real, and it is distinct. We are hard-wired with a conscience to know innately that some things are just plain WRONG, such as the alarm I feel when reading a pamphlet from ChildSafeNation about child sexual abuse. This sense of moral outrage, far from disproving that God exists, is itself a witness to the existence of God. Categorizing something as evil implies there must be criteria by which something is judged to be evil; to assert that something is evil requires there to be some moral measuring stick. In fact, it's impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point that is absolutely good. (So, if someone comes up and starts spouting off about how can God exist when there's so much evil in the world, ask them to define 'evil' - relative to 'what?'!)
NOT JUST CHATTY DOLLS
So, if God IS good and almighty, where does evil come from? It's an unfortunate but necessary corollary of freedom. When God planted the garden of Eden, He made the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and commanded Adam and Eve NOT to eat from it. They, in their innocence, had a free choice: by obeying God they could demonstrate their uncoerced love for Him. By contrast, God COULD have made us without such freedom - like a pull-string Chatty Cathy doll, or robot, but that wouldn't be love. As JB Phillips put it, "Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will." Norman Geisler and Jeff Amanu note, "Whereas God created the FACT of freedom, humans perform the ACTS of freedom. God made evil possible; creatures make it actual." 1Cor 15:21-22 begin, "For since death came through a man...For as in Adam all die..." Adam and Eve made evil actual on that first occasion; ever since then, a sin nature has been passed on to every man and woman. Even natural evil - earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, brain tumours - is rooted in our wrong use of free choice. Living in a fallen world, we are subject to disasters in the world of nature that would not have occurred had man not rebelled against God in the beginning. Paul wrote about this to the Romans (8:20ff), "For the creation was subjected to frustration...in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay...the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."
The question, "How can a good God allow suffering?" subtly implies we deserve better - but that's not the case. All we sinners deserve is God's wrath. We labour under the error of what RC Sproul once called a 'misplaced locus of amazement': commenting on Luke 13:1-5, Sproul said, "Man-centred humans are amazed that God should withhold life and joy from His creatures.But the God-centred Bible is amazed that God should withhold judgment from sinners."
In that very passage, Luke 13:4, Jesus mentioned a natural disaster - a tower in Siloam falling and killing 18 people. What He took from that event was this: not that those 18 were more guilty than anybody else, but - "Unless you repent, you too will all perish!" Stop assuming you are ENTITLED to a long and happy life. Accept that life is fragile. "Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Mt 6:34) The Haitians, who've been struggling for years, know that much better than we do.
VICTORY OF THE VICTIM
So, how can our 3-pointed problem be solved? The existence of God as Trinity provides a wonderful non-linear solution to the problem of evil and theodicy (the justice of God). By means of the holy innocent Son becoming incarnate and bearing our sins on the cross, God reconciled the world to Himself. V21, Death came through a man, BUT the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. If Christ had not been raised, our faith would be futile, and we would still be in our sins, as v17 pointed out; but that's not the case!
Millard Erickson writes, "That God took sin and its evil effects upon himself is a unique contribution by Christian doctrine to the solution of the problem of evil.It is remarkable that, while knowing that he himself was to become a victim (indeed, the major victim) of the evil resulting from sin, God allowed sin to occur anyway...God is a fellow sufferer with us of the evil in the world, and consequently is able to deliver us from evil.What a measure of love this is!...the teaching of Scripture [is] that God himself became the victim of evil so that he and we might be victors over evil."
When Christ comes, according to vv24ff, He will destroy all enemy dominion, authority, and power - and the last enemy to be destroyed is death. We mustn't overlook the significance of time in the equation: God hasn't finished yet! Rhodes summarizes it this way: "(1) If God is all-good, He will defeat evil. (2) If God is all-powerful, He can defeat evil. (3) Evil is not yet defeated. (4) Therefore, God can and will one day defeat evil." He adds, "One day in the future, Christ will return, strip away power from the wicked, and hold all men and women accountable for the things they did during their time on earth. Justice will ultimately prevail."
REDEMPTIVELY BRINGING GOOD OUT OF EVIL
A classic verse in the Bible, Romans 8:28, maintains that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him; the next verse suggests that 'good' primarily has to do with us becoming conformed to the likeness of His Son. Good is not defined as wealth or health, but whatever sculpting weathering factors will groom us to share Jesus' character and outlook. We can trust God to use even the bad things that happen to transform us so we more closely resemble Christ in His patience, sympathetic mercy, and longsuffering. Paul considered that our present sufferings are 'not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.' (Rom 8:18) The apostle Peter saw troubles as the way we develop faith that's more valuable in the long run than gold: "...now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith-- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1Pe 1:6-7)
Joni Eareckson Tada broke her neck in a swimming accident and became quadriplegic. She's said her tragedy drew her much closer to God. She's even said she'd rather be in a wheelchair with God than be able to walk without God. Think about it!
KEEP TRUSTING THE BOSS - WHILE WAITING
Bad things do happen in the world. It's not APPARENT that God is good and almighty - that's a conviction of faith. Faith entails trusting God for what we don't see now - that He's working out His purposes in our midst, despite and even through the trials we face on this deeply broken, stressed planet.
On Tuesday, one week after the first quake hit, Ena Zizi, age 69, was pulled out of the rubble of the residence of the Roman Catholic archbishop, where she'd been attending a meeting when the quake hit. For days, Ena was alone, after another person trapped in the rubble went silent. She passed the time by praying. "I talked only to my boss, God," she said, "and I didn't need any more humans."
Such faith! May the Lord help us to keep trusting His final outcome for victory over evil, and right-wising so much that is wrong in our world. The judge of all the earth will do right (Gen 18:25). In the meantime, let's keep 'talking to the Boss' - and honouring Him! Let's pray.