For me, 2014 wasn’t a very good year. In fact, it was probably one of the worst I’ve had, but, when it comes to tragedy across the world, the last couple years were not very good at all.
In 2013 the United States had 5 major tragedies: The Boston Marathon bombing (264+ injured, 3 killed), the Moore, OK tornado (24 killed), the West, TX fertilizer plant explosion (160+ injured, 15 killed), the Washington Navy Yard Shooting (13 killed, 11 injured), and the Arizona Wildfire (19 fire fighters killed). These follow on the heels of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Nov 2012.
If we step outside of the United States, in 2013, we have the tragic collapse of a low-cost garment factory in Savar, India which killed at least 1129 workers, the Haiyan Typhoon which caused 6,149 deaths with 1779 people missing and millions left homeless, and the Asiana plane crash which killed 214 and injured 181.
The United States did better in 2014, but last year saw some striking tragedies across the globe. On March 8th, Malaysia Airlines lost 2 flights. Flight MH370 was lost at sea with 239 people presumed dead and, as of this writing, still not found. A few months later Fligh MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine killing 298 passengers including 2 infants. At least one family lost family relatives on both flights! (Woman loses relatives in both Malaysia Airline Tragedies) AirAsia lost Flight 222 killing 47 as it attempted to land in bad weather on 23 July. They then lost flight 8501 over the Karimata Strait on 28 Dec with 162 people aboard. Then we have the sinking of MV Sewol as it attempted to cross from Inchean to Jeju on 16 April, killing 304 mostly high school students. In religious conflicts we have the rise of ISIS and Boko Haram, the later of which kidnaped 234 girls from a Nigerian School. I can’t even imagine the heart break those parents feel (The group that kidnapped 234 Nigerian school girls). Lastly, but certainly not least, we have the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia that has a 2014 estimated death total of over 7000 with more than 19,000 recorded cases. (AF West Africa Ebola)
We can add to this a large number of Natural Disasters and their death toll (see Natural Disaster listing), not to mention the death toll from traffic accidents (estimated 35200 in US for 2013), cancer (estimated 585,720 US cancer deaths in 2014), wars and conflicts and religious zeal. Not to mention the natural deaths that occur every day that disrupt families everywhere (see CDC).
Tragedies, such as these present a particularly vexing problem for those that believe in a sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god. In trying to make sense of these tragedies while keeping intact the notion of a loving and caring god, three basic strategies are used: blame, prayer and defense.
The blame game is almost never directed against god. We are to blame for these tragedies. In 6 other calamities blamed on divine retribution Dan Giloff writes:
Blaming human sinfulness for natural and man-made disasters is nothing new. “This kind of thinking is actually typical rather than atypical in world history,” says Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion professor.
He then goes on to list 6 disasters (The Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, The September 11 attacks, The Civil War, The Holocaust, & The fictional Biblical Flood) where both religious and civil leaders blamed the sinful actions of man on the event in question.
For Dr. Mohler, the answer can be summarized in one word: Sin. Moral evil, he says, is the direct result of man’s revolt against God’s authority and the responsibility for tragedy lies squarely on human shoulders. (Why? An Evangelical Answer, Dr. Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky)
In this scheme, man and not god is the ultimate cause of tragedy. If he could only be better (faster, stronger) then god wouldn’t have to punish him. Those that take this position have probably forgotten about the book of Job where a righteous, blameless man was put through unimaginable pain and suffering so god (who supposedly knows all things) could win a bet with Satan. It seems like even righteousness can’t prevent god from playing with man!
How many times have we listened to the prayers of people asking god for comfort and aid to those victims of a tragedy? How many times have we seen survivors of such events thanking god for his mercy and lovingkindness in sparing them? It’s a given. After the Moore, OK tornado, CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer simply assumed Rebecca Vitsmun would be thanking the Lord that she survived. Her reply was refreshing: “I’m actually an atheist!” (The Washington Free Beacon).
If you think about it, prayer really can’t be reconciled with the notion of a sovereign god that ordains everything than comes to past. Of course you can do a lot of “hand-waving” and you can always play the mystery card. What is worst, if this god is sovereign then he allowed, if not planned and ordained, every tragedy that takes place. If this is true, and it has to be for a sovereign entity, a person ends up praying for comfort to the deity that ultimately allowed if not caused the tragedy! This is just crazy. In the human world it would be like thanking the owner of the garment factory in Savar for allowing it to collapse! No sane person would do something like that, but with god, all things are possible and we find millions praying to the author of tragedy and disaster without even blinking an eye. Lest you think this is just an atheist overstatement or misunderstanding about the nature of “gods” sovereignty, consider what Dr. Tom Copeland wrote:
“The question is not simply how can a good God allow evil things to happen, but is He in fact the one who causes them? It is tempting to believe that a compassionate, merciful, and perfect God would not or could not actually bring about a calamity like Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 or the Boston bombing, so therefore He must simply allow Satan to have his way. But Piper points out that this view is contrary to Scripture. “From the smallest thing to the greatest thing, good and evil, happy and sad, pagan and Christian, pain and pleasure – God governs them all for his wise and just and good purposes (Isaiah 46:10).” Noting how Job understood that his trials came from God, Piper also cites Amos: “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?” (Amos 3:6). In fact, God could have restrained such evil (Genesis 20:6). It is one of those inscrutable mysteries of God that His sovereign will includes calamities that serve His glory yet appear to be products of evil.” (God’s Sovereignty and Our Fear of Terrorism)
So, in this view, the all powerful god that loves and cares for us is glorified when he visits death, destruction and calamity upon his creatures! What kind of nonsense is this? What if a father went out and set fire to the homes of his sons, daughters and grandkids and watched as many of them died or were horribly burned. Would anyone in their right mind call that “father” a loving, compassionate person whose actions show how much he loves his children? Would anyone say: “We don’t know the reason but a good reason must exist since he is their father and loves and cares for them”? Of course not, yet if we substitute god for father, suddenly the absurd becomes reasonable and people line up to pray to this malicious entity. They seek comfort in the “arms” of a psychopathic killer they call god.
When it comes to god, many people will go out of their way to defend Him in the midst of tragedy: He isn’t to blame. He has something greater in mind. His purpose is unknown but He will do great things through it. I’m sure this is all very comforting to those who lost their loved ones. Take for instance:
It’s perfectly normal to grieve and mourn, and even rail against God. Jeremiah does so for much of the book of Lamentations. But then, right in the middle of the book, sandwiched between tales of woe and tribulation and feelings that God must have deserted us, comes a reminder. It’s the reminder that, even in the middle of terror, and even when it seems God himself would be held responsible for that terror, we can trust his goodness: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (God’s Wrath and Natural Disasters: Whom Do We Blame?)
We can trust His goodness? Is it good to cause massive damage, tragedy and death? If a man did this, no one would call such a person good. But God gets a pass – over and over again.
God suffers with the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters and helps them cope with the pain and grief, the Archbishop of Wales said in his Easter message. Preaching today at Llandaff Cathedral, Dr Barry Morgan said that God does not send disasters to punish people. He said that God also does not intervene to prevent them from happening. (Don’t blame God for natural disasters, says Archbishop
Kevin Clarkson, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Moore, Oklahoma, said it’s important to remember that “this isn’t the final story” and that “God’s not done.”
Clarkson said he’ll tell those who are struggling that “God loves them and God understands. He’s not punishing them…God is with them in their suffering, [and] we’re with them.”
Cliff Mansley, the pastor of New Creation Church in Joplin, added: ”Hang in there, God is going to do great things.” (How Can God Let Tragedies Like Okla. Tornado Exist? Pastors Weigh In.)
He doesn’t punish them? Right. He just plays games with them like with Job. He destroys and kills for some unknown purpose that is somehow good! Or maybe he just wants to see, like with Job, if he can be praised when he causes destruction! If this is how god shows love, he has a perverted view of what it means to love. Would you love your wife, kids, parents or friends in such a manner? Once again, if we substitute a person doing the same things as god, one can quickly see the emptiness of this defense.
What can one say about how a person should live in the light of such a malevolent being?
Dr. Tom Copeland : How should we then live? All I can do – perhaps all any of us can do – is wonder in awe at God’s power and wisdom and glory; and until we are reunited with Him and can know all things, do not fear, but rest in the assurance of Psalm 91:1-2:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty, I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” (God’s Sovereignty and Our Fear of Terrorism)
I guess this is all you can do when confronted with a belief in a god that is capacious and for all intents and purposes, just plain evil.
How should we live in the face of such tragedies with no belief in god? First it helps to realize that natural disasters have no innate purpose. A tornado, earthquake, hurricane or other disaster has no mind, no purpose and no intent. You aren’t being punished or tested. In this world, natural tragedies just happen. If you build in a flood plain, you will be flooded. If your live near a volcano, eventually it will erupt. Tornados and hurricanes happen. Nature is not out to get you. Nature is not tame but it’s not malcious either.
Natural disasters will occur even when all precautions have been taken. These events happen based on known but sometimes poorly understood principles that can make prediction very difficult. However as scientific understanding and computing power increases, prediction will become more and more reliable. It may even be possible, one day, to prevent such natural tragedies – probably not in our lifetime and maybe never but that won’t stop us from increasing our knowledge and understanding of natural events. This knowledge will be put to use to help prevent property loss and the loss of life, something that the supposed loving, sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god seems unwilling to do for the creatures he supposedly cares for. So who, really, is the loving one here? God or man?
What of man made tragedies due to greed, war, power or just plain malice? First, in the religious sense, there is no sin, no devil, no forces of evil or good. These are constructs we use to explain our world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some people who do things the vast majority of people consider “evil”. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, is it really that surprising that some people are just messed up and are capable of committing horrendous acts? Is it surprising, given our evolutionary history as mainly tribal people, that people can be led to believe that their “tribe” (country, political affiliation, religion, state, group, race, ethnicity, etc.) is better than all other tribes? Such a mentality has led to war, genocide, persecution, slavery and other mistreatments. Given this, we shouldn’t be so easily led by those in power over us. Our tribe isn’t better, just different. In general, people, all over this planet are basically like us, with many of the same hopes, dreams and desires. We are all connected as human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens. It also means that there is no ultimate reward or punishment in some other life (spiritual or physical). What reward or justice there is, is here in this world, in this life. As such, we need to get it right.
What of personal tragedies? How do we respond to them? First, it really does help to realize that you aren’t being punished by some god or karma for something you did or didn’t do. It doesn’t make it any easier but it removes the agony of trying to figure out why. I would have a hard time explaining it better than Penn Jillette when talking about the suffering experienced by his mom and her death:
Understanding that suffering as random was hard for me, but I could never have understood suffering as part of an all-powerful god’s “plan.” If a god had planned that for my mom, I would have turned to Satan. There’s no plan I’ll get behind that includes that much suffering for anyone. Random suffering is at least comprehensible. (God No)
“Random suffering is at least comprehensible,” is about as good as it gets as unsatisfying as that may be.