I preached a sermon recently about why God allows disaster, and that sermon is the basis for this article. I present this to my Sharper Iron brothers and sisters knowing that many of you are far more learned than I, particularly in the realms of philosophy and apologetics. I do not claim to be in the same league as C.S. Lewis or other great thinkers. So I encourage you to enjoy this article for what it is, a relatively simple (but practical) explanation of disaster, tragedy, and evil in the world based upon key Scriptures.
As a pastor, one of my most challenging responsibilities is to comfort the grieving. People can suffer in horrific ways. But one need not be a pastor to observe or experience these sad realities: life has a way of educating us all.
The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan killed thousands and left multitudes in utter despair. Many of us are praying for the survivors and contributing toward relief to this once great nation now in shambles.
This tragedy resurrects a question we have all heard time and time again, “How can a good God allow such things?” Locally, nearby tragedies involving our families or people we know bring direct grief into our lives. For example, some friends recently lost a nine-year-old child to an auto accident; a teen was diagnosed with cancer and died two months later; a recent newspaper headline documented that a child in our community died from abuse.
Some sufferings result from human choices. Others are considered “acts of God.” But we return to that well-worn refrain: “If God is good, if God is all-powerful, and God knows all things, why do seemingly random disasters take place?” Do they take God by surprise, as some assert? Has God created the universe and then taken leave, as some of our nation’s founding fathers believed? Or does He not exist, as the modern atheistic movement avers? Or is He not good? Or do we humans not understand the definition of “good” as it applies to God?
Who among us has not agonized with these questions? Although some people bury their heads in the sand and quickly dismiss anything requiring intellectual exercise, the question eventually catches up to even the most denying of people. Sadly, I have seen persons in their seventies or eighties wrestling with this question for the first time.
Ultimately, our choice is to go through calamities and trials with God or without Him—but go through them we must. Still, it helps to understand what we can of the “whys and wherefores” of God’s relationship to tragedies.
First, please note that God takes responsibility for tragedies.
Although some teachers of the Word disagree with my perspective, I believe this is clear in Romans 1:18-20. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
This verse is part of Paul’s argument that natural revelation is enough to convince men of their lost condition and of the existence of a powerful God. I believe this verse is a Midrash based on passages like Psalm 29. In my view, God allows disasters and tragedies partly to make it clear that His wrath is still burning. God is angry. An honest person trying to learn about God from nature would rightly conclude that the Creator is filled with rage. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, thunder storms, plagues, famines—all these natural disasters reveal God’s wrath.
If we isolate one of God’s attributes, such as love, we can be puzzled why a loving God allows these things. But if we consider some of His other attributes (such as His holiness and justice, which are connected to His wrath), we could equally be puzzled by this question: “If God is holy and demands justice, why does He allow sinners to enjoy life at all?”
From this perspective, what we call “normal life”—or the periods of life when we are healthy, well fed, and get along with our family members—is the result of God’s grace. We are not entitled to this; we have no right to it. Thus disasters and wrath are what should be. The pleasures and joys of life are gravy. They flow from God’s grace and His lovingkindness.
In His Word, God takes the blame for both disaster and handicap. Isaiah 45:7 reads, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things…”
In Exodus 4:11 we read, “The LORD said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD?’” Our sinful nature is the reason we struggle with this issue. Before our new birth, we are naturally hostile to the true God (Rom. 3:11, Rom. 8:7, Col. 1:21).
Colossians 1:21 makes the case: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior” (emphasis added). The words that described us before we were born-again (and the words that define most of mankind, whether part of “Christendom” or not) are “alienated” and “enemies.” The natural man hates God in a passive-aggressive way. The religious, in particular, feign love for God, but when His distasteful attributes surface, they prefer to deny them. It takes regeneration (the new birth, “circumcision of the heart”) to love the true God as He has revealed Himself. He is not naturally appealing to the sons of Adam, which is why most people have replaced Him with a modified version. The masses demand a kinder, nicer God. Such is not Yahweh our God. As C.S. Lewis’ described his allegorized Christ (Aslan, the lion), He is kind but far from tame. Redefining Him in an attempt to tame Him is futile.
Have you ever noticed that people who rarely give thanks are often first in line to express their disgust at God when disaster strikes? Again, the passive-aggressive hatred leaks out through the cracks in the façade.
Jesus predicted there would be many wars and earthquakes throughout the age, and that they would worsen in the end times. Revelation talks about the horrible plagues that will make life on earth miserable during the Great Tribulation. Biblical Christianity has always been married to a God who brings disaster; and, as long as this marriage is presented in general terms, most people accept it. But when reality hits, it is tough to take.
Second, note that disasters are among the consequences of the curse.
Romans 8:18-23 reads:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
God created man knowing that man would fall into sin and that the physical universe would be cursed as a result. When a Christian is confronted with evil and disaster in the world, the word “curse” should jump into His mind. Many Christians somehow completely forget about the curse. Consciousness of the curse is important if we want to embrace a genuinely Christian worldview.
Understanding the curse is central to understanding life under the sun. As our bodies age or deteriorate, we need to remember that this is because of the curse, not just because of basking in the sun too long or eating too many preservatives. Disease, pain, injustice, and natural disasters—all these things testify that our planet is cursed by God.
As Phillip Yancey points out in Disappointment With God, we know God loves us not because of how well our lives go but because of Calvary. Romans 5:8 states it clearly: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In the world we see God’s wrath and God’s curse as well as His common grace and goodness. But in the cross we see His amazing love and special grace.
Third, consider that we do not know what we do not know.
This may sound like an evasion, but it is actually a humble approach. Being cognizant of our ignorance is a virtue, not a vice. The apostle writes in I Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Ancient mirrors were quite different from their modern counterparts. The distortion in these mirrors made the clear and sharp cloudy and tenuous. This is how we now see eternity and the dealings of God. There is so much we do not know; so much of our understanding is partial.
Consider that God has all power. That does not mean He can do anything. He cannot contradict His nature. He cannot sin nor lie, for example. In addition, His complex plans may make it unwise to do what seems like an obvious no-brainer to us. Whatever God is accomplishing might require this cursed universe we inhabit to run its course with God altering that course only as suits His purpose. Ultimately, Psalm 115:3 comes into play: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”
When we cannot understand, we should not deny our feelings or live in a dream world. Take the example of Job, a man who could not understand God’s ways. He lost 10 children and all his wealth at once. Yet Job responded in Job 1:20, “ ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.’” He faced the reality of loss, did not pretend to like it, but trusted God nevertheless.
David haggles out his grief in the Psalms, and one of the Psalms of the Sons of Korah (Psalm 88) is called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Notice its bleak conclusion, “darkness is my closest friend.” I hope neither you nor I have to go through such a time, but I cannot guarantee that we will not.
Fourth, consider that God allows evil for a greater good.
Romans 8:28 communicates this thought: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
This promise only applies to those who know God, who are called according to His purpose, and yet we know, in another sense, God is good to all (Psalm 145:9, “The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made”). Here we will focus on God’s plan for His elect.
We can take the fall of Adam and Eve as a case in point. God created them, knowing they would sin. This was all part of God’s plan. We must remember that creation was planned around Jesus’ identity as the Lamb of God (Rev. 13:8). Thus, the whole plan of salvation brings glory to God. Yet we need to face the obvious: people cannot be saved unless they are first lost. Thus if the Lamb is to be slain for sinners, we must have sinners.
In Christ, we believers have more than Adam and Eve ever had. Not only will we rule over the earth, we will judge angels. We need never fear losing our status through sin. Thus, by God’s allowing of evil, we experience a greater good, and God is glorified in a greater way (which is perhaps the ultimate good).
Again, we know God loves us, not because of how our lives go, but because of Calvary. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Fifth, consider that the best perspective is the eternal perspective.
2 Corinthians 4:17 states the case: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
For the believer, temporal life is presented as a struggle populated with troubles. In contrast, eternal life is one of glory beyond imagination. We should view tragedies as wake-up calls to the human race in general and the individual in particular. Tragedies remind us of our vulnerability and our need to be right with God, to look at the eternal perspective.
In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus suggests that God sends tragedies to wake us, to shake us:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Rather than apologize for God or hide from view, Christians need to follow the Master’s example and use tragedies as a brutal reminder for all that (as a song puts it) life is short, death is sure, sin is the curse, but Christ is the cure. Tragedies hound us to prepare for eternity and remind us that our eternal destiny is more important than our earthly lives—a truth that eludes us like a loose helium balloon. We know it is so, but we struggle to hang onto this reality.
We know God loves us, not because of how our lives go, but because of Calvary. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Comprehending this framework does not mean we ignore this life. Obviously we should try to avoid unnecessary suffering by being wise (Prov. 10:8). We should be eager to comfort and help the suffering. When major tragedies occur, we should consider giving to a relief agency that will help in Jesus’ name.
We must recognize that we all are, or will be, fellow sufferers and that showing practical love to those is distress is a clear mandate from our Lord. We cannot help but wonder when our turn will come, for such is life in a fallen world.
In Disappointment with God, Yancey makes a point we would do well to contemplate: when we go through trials, we can either go through them with God or without God. But go through them, we will. Let us chose to take God’s hand—not bite it—during our worst moments.