People regularly ask that question when a massive catastrophe like the Japanese earthquake happens, but also in cases of individual tragedy, such as the young Mum dying of cancer and leaving her children motherless.
The Christian says in response to that question: believing in a good God does not mean that we believe in a God who shields us from all evil; it does mean believing in a God who loves us and is with us in our sufferings, even through the valley of the shadow of death.
Christians are not surprised by earthquakes, famines or wars; on the contrary Jesus, the one who revealed the goodness of God more than anyone else, said that we should expect them. And Jesus warned his hearers that life would often be tough for them. He was right.
Explaining suffering ……or not?
But still how can suffering be explained? Much human suffering is explicable in terms of human sinfulness. God has made us free to choose good and evil, not robots; and we often mess up terribly. Wars happen, road accidents are caused by human selfishness, nuclear reactors are built in earthquake zones without sufficient precautions, and it is plausibly argued that climate change, bringing extreme weather including floods, is caused by our human profligacy.
But everything cannot be explained that way, and Christians have to admit that we do not know all the answers about why God made the universe as it is. That is hardly surprising: scientists like Professor Brian Cox in his TV series ‘Wonders of the Universe’ remind us often of how vast and amazing our world is, and so it is no surprise if we do not understand everything about the Creator’s plan and purposes. Serious scientists tell us that the movement of the tectonic plates which produces earthquakes is one ingredient in the amazingly complex ‘coincidence’ of different factors that make human life on planet earth possible, just as rain which can produce floods is essentially something good, as we all know.
Is it divine judgement?
But whatever the scientific explanation, the question remains about God, since Christians do not believe that the world is ever outside God’s control. So are events like earthquakes divine judgment? The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, said just that about the triple whammy of earthquake/tsunami,nuclear disaster in Japan, seeing it as divine punishment for excessive consumerism. He later retracted his remarks. But the Bible suggests that that can sometimes be the case: God’s judgment on sin can be expressed through natural catastrophe, and through the tragedies of war, and in individual suffering.
However, the Bible makes it extremely clear indeed that not all suffering is because of the sins of the people concerned; look at Job in the Old Testament, or Jesus’ warnings to his disciples that they would suffer for their righteousness. Jesus himself warned against pointing the finger at others in such situations: he said about some people who got killed by a collapsing tower in his day; ‘Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’. (Luke 13:4) We should not point the finger, e.g. at the Japanese or anyone else, but we should take warning to ourselves, and repent of our own consumerism and other sins. The tragedies remind us of our mortality and of divine judgment.
It is true that God allows suffering, but that does not mean that he likes it or is indifferent to it. On the contrary, Jesus wept with his friends Mary and Martha as they mourned the death of their brother Lazarus, and he wept when he reflected on the sufferings coming to Jerusalem. A word that the Bible uses of Jesus is splangknizo, and it means something like ‘to feel compassion in one’s guts’, to be emotionally moved. Jesus showed us a God who cares, who brought healing to many, and who actually entered into our sufferings in the person of Jesus. He experienced first hand the sense of being abandoned by God, as his famous cry from the cross revealed ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. Christians believe that after dying a fearful death, Jesus then rose from the dead.
All of this means that suffering, though often excruciating, is transformed. Christians believe that we are never beyond the love of God, that God understands our suffering, and that God will finally conquer. Those convictions have sustained Christians in suffering. It is one of the paradoxes of life that in the middle of suffering and evil we often see the most wonderful courage, love and self-sacrifice demonstrated. That is not only true of Christians, but Christians have the example of Jesus to inspire and the resurrection of Jesus to give hope.
Hope in suffering
And the hope is not just on an individual level, but also on a cosmic level. St Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks of the whole universe ‘groaning together’ now, and he probably has in mind things like earthquakes and famines. But he looks forward to the day when the universe as well as those who live in it will experience God’s ‘freedom’ from evil. He sees God’s world at present as infected and spoiled by evil and sin, but he is confident that the God who brought life out of death in Jesus will finally bring healing to the whole of creation. It’s a great hope, of no more mourning, crying or pain, and of joy in God’s presence. It’s a very different picture from that given by Brian Cox, whose scientific prediction is the ultimate extinction of all life and of the running down of the universe.
The newspaper columnist Christina Patterson writing in an article about the events in Japan (16 March) refers to Brian Cox’s perspective that we are ‘made of the stars’, but she says: ‘he didn’t tell us if stars weep’. Christian faith tells us of a God who weeps, who calls us to care for those who suffer (as Jesus did), and who gives us hope. St Paul can say: ‘who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?….No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ (Rom 8:35-37). That is very good news.
Tutor in New Testament, Trinity College, Bristol and Speaker at RZIM’s Summer School