Why does God allow pain and suffering? No question about the Christian faith is asked more often than that question.
At exactly 4:53 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, the issue took on an even greater urgency.
“If God is love and if He can do anything, why didn’t He stop the earthquake in Haiti? Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haitians had almost nothing. Why would God crush them even further? Why would He leave people to die slow, unimaginably agonizing deaths beneath concrete slabs? Why would He allow vast numbers of little boys and girls to be orphaned and destitute? How can anyone believe that God is good when He acts this way?”
Well, first of all, we must be careful when categorizing the Haitian disaster as an “act of God.”
Certainly there is a sense in which the buck always stops with God. If God is sovereign, then it must not be altogether wrong to say that what happened in Haiti was in accord with his will. If not, how could it have happened? God himself says, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.” (Isaiah 45:7)
But there is another sense in which it seems that God’s will often, reluctantly, temporarily, accommodates itself to the sinfulness of man in a fallen world. For instance, did God will the Crucifixion of his son? There seems to be both an “ideally, no” but “ultimately, yes” answer to that question.
God has set certain laws in motion on our planet. A drunken 17-year-old careens wildly down a dark winding road at 93 mph. The speed of the car and the mass of the tree trunk will determine the force of impact. God does not cancel the laws of physics for teenagers.
Earthquakes themselves kill no one. But when the Earth shakes violently, shabbily built cement structures will crumble. God does not cancel the law of gravity for even the poorest of nations.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote: “On October 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. [On January 12] a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died. This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
Terms such as “act of God” and “natural disaster” unjustifiably ignore the human factor, identified or not, that is part of the story wherever people suffer and die. In this case, years of flawed policy by Haitian leaders (and perhaps even our own government) failed to stem the poverty that proved so significant here.
Beyond such limited observations, however, perhaps our best response to the question about why God allows terrible tragedy is: “I don’t know.” “I don’t yet know” also is a legitimate answer.
In Washington’s National Cathedral, just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist event, Billy Graham said: “I’ve been asked hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I really do not know the answer, totally, even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept by faith that God is sovereign and he’s a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.”
Elizabeth Elliot once wrote: “God knows what He is doing and He is not under any obligation to make us any explanation.”
The Old Testament sufferer Job struggled mightily to interpret God’s ways. He asked: “Isn’t calamity reserved for the wicked? Isn’t disaster supposed to strike those who do wrong?” Then, looking toward heaven, he really vented: “Let the Almighty One answer!” (Job 31, The Message)
The Almighty One did just that by firing a rhetorical question back at Job: “Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges?” “Who could confront me and get by with it? I’m in charge of all this — I run this universe!” (Job 40 and 41, The Message).
God is not the author of evil. God is good. He is omnipotent. He is love. He does all things right.
For now, we had better hold onto what we know. Perhaps some other day, we’ll be clued in on what we’d like to know.
The Rev. Daryl E. Witmer is founder and director of the AIIA Institute, a national apologetics ministry, and pastor emeritus at the Monson Community Church. He may be reached on the Web at AIIAInstitute.org or by e-mail at AIIAInstitute@aol.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.