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On the earthquake in Türkiye (Turkey) and Syria

In the face of the horrendous loss of life and devastation caused by the earthquake in Türkiye (Turkey) and Syria, theology matters: not abstract, academic theology, but the deep, personal theology that shapes how we personally and spiritually process such suffering, and ultimately how we act in the world. This type of event can trouble our spirits, not just from compassion, but from doubt. And given that this is one disaster in a long and constant stream of terrible things that happen in our world, that doubt can seem like a real challenge to our faith.

Let me unpack that doubt a little: We seem to have been taught somewhere along the way (whether by sermons or other church-talk, folk theology, Hollywood movies, etc.) that God is good AND that God is all-powerful. But when thousands of people die in an earthquake (or when one child dies of cancer) it seems that both those things can’t be true. If God were good AND all-powerful, then such evil shouldn’t happen. And that equation (God is good + God is all-powerful = bad things shouldn’t happen) can give us doubt. The classic name for this conundrum is “theodicy,” and perhaps the most common expression of the problem is captured in the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”

I want to dig into this question, mostly because I think it is often not addressed very well. In general, Christians have responded to the theodicy problem in one of two ways, neither of which actually ends up being very theologically or morally satisfying. The first group of answers can be summarized as follows:

1. “Well, actually, God doesn’t allow bad things to happen to good people, for ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ So there are really no perfectly good people, so whatever happens is actually, in some way beyond our understanding, God’s punishment for sin.”

Stated so bluntly, it may seem somewhat cruel, but that hasn’t stopped people of faith from holding fast to it for millennia. This is the central claim of the “friends” in the book of Job: “Job, you are an admirable man, devout even, but you must have done something to cause God to punish you.” It’s the central claim behind the most common response to the AIDS pandemic: “It’s sad, but gay men brought it upon themselves.” This is the central claim my father-in-law heard from his conservative church when he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer: “Well, I’m afraid his liberal theology is finally catching up with him.” There is no end to human uses of this blame game, for it logically explains why bad things happen to people. Even if we don’t understand why something bad happens, there has to be a reason, some reason, for God is good and all-powerful, and thus bad things can’t happen to good people (especially as there are no perfectly “good” people).

Hopefully, simply stating the argument clearly reveals how inadequate, and frankly, wrongheaded, it is. Of course, it is mostly used to explain the suffering of other people – not our own – for we are much happier to speculate about the way in which others deserve punishment than we are to consider our own failures. But self-deception aside, the whole idea fails, if for no other reason than that whatever punishment God is dishing out seems unrelated to level of human offence. For example, in an earthquake, buildings don’t fall on the corrupt official who turned a blind eye to building code violations in exchange for a payout. They fall on the (relatively innocent) people who don’t have the money or power to assert their rights or to live elsewhere. There is no proportionality between the sin and the punishment. So either the argument is just wrong, or God is a monster, punishing all out of proportion to the “sin.”

The other main category of answers to the problem of theodicy is this:

2. “Well, we don’t understand the ways of God, but we trust that there is some hidden plan here that ultimately is for the good. God’s ways are mysterious to human minds, but because God is good, this must somehow ultimately be for the best.”

I have been part of many, many conversations in which people try to take comfort from this thought. It’s the idea at play in a wide variety of popular expressions from, “I guess God needed another angel in heaven,” to “suffering makes you stronger,” to “God will not give us more than we can handle.” Although all these expressions and other variations on this theme are meant to comfort, the unstated but inevitable assumption is that God uses suffering and other forms of evil to accomplish God’s work in the world. That makes suffering and evil (“bad things”) an extension of God’s nature and activity.

By definition, however, suffering and evil are bad, so they cannot be part of the nature and activity of God. So this argument, too, either does not logically hold together, or turns God into a monster. In a way, this argument is just a denial that there is such a thing as “evil” or “bad things,” because if only we understood the mysterious ways of God, we would see that what appears as “evil” or “bad” is really just part of something good (“God’s plan”). Such a denial of evil makes a mockery of human experience. We have to deny our own human nature to hold fast to this argument. It just doesn’t work when you really think about it.

More simply, I can state the basic theological issue at stake in both groups of answers to the puzzle of theodicy:

It is essential that we not accept any form of faith that gives evil (“bad things”) a positive role to play in God’s working out of God’s purpose for humanity and all of creation.

To accept any form of Christian faith that gives evil a positive role to play in God’s working out of God’s loving will for us (that is, the reconciliation of all things to God in God’s eternal love) turns God into a being we should be loath to worship – an idol.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a need to recognize the reality of evil (in all its forms), but not give it any place in God’s nature or God’s action.

How can we meet such a need? You might not be surprised to hear that I think a faithful reading of the New Testament provides what we need. (I am drawing from the work of David Bentley Hart here.) Although it may be the kind of Biblical imagery we often shy away from (because we emphasize the goodness of creation and celebrate so much of the beauty of human life), still, the central theological vision of the New Testament pictures a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities and powers of this world, of the overthrow of hell. God’s work in Jesus, the one anointed for this task, is to close the divide between the glory of heaven and the pain of creation, for creation has been alienated from its true self, its ancient beauty – a beauty in which evil (and its main manifestations: sin, suffering, and death) had no place.

It is, after all, one of the distinctive characteristics of our Christian faith (which we share with the Judaism from which we sprung) that all things were created, not out of conflict or struggle, but as a free outpouring of the love of the Divine. If you will put up with a little theologically heavy language for a moment: All things, each according to its kind, were created to share in the relational love that we name as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mother of us all). And it is in sharing in perichoretic bliss (sorry, that’s God’s Trinitarian love) that we still now continue to have our true being – although that being and that bliss is now disrupted by evil, but evil specifically defined as nothingness.

And this is the key to the conundrum of theodicy. The way to recognize the reality of evil, but not give it any place in God’s nature or God’s action is to realize that evil is nothing, or better, nothingness. In academic language, evil has no ontological weight. Evil is a shadow, a vacuum, nothingness. Like a shadow, we know what it is, but it is quite literally nothing. A shadow is an absence, an absence of light. Evil is only “real” (as I have been referring to it, casually, and somewhat misleadingly) in something like the way a shadow is real. Even an earthquake is “only” a shadow – nothingness disfiguring the deep beauty of creation.

But I don’t want to underplay it, for as is clear in the New Testament, all that nothingness is pooled into pockets that are now in “rebellion” against our God: Sin, death, illness and every form of suffering, war, hatred (in all its many forms), apathy, injustice, fear, and more.

But here is the whole point of the New Testament – of Christianity: Jesus, the one anointed for this purpose, has filled the chasm of that nothingness with love. That nothingness is, admittedly, still fading away and still able to cause pain (like an army in retreat still firing rounds at whoever they can), but its rebellion has been put down – or better, “For in him (Jesus) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1). And also, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15).

We, however, are still haunted by the question of why death is allowed to be an enemy by a good and all-powerful God. But perhaps we have now come closer to being able to see that this conundrum is similar to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” If I have never beat my wife, then the premise of the question prevents me from answering it truthfully. Having never beat my wife, the only response is to reject the premise. Similarly, given the vision of the New Testament, we have to reject the premise of the question of theodicy. The question leaves no room for a response that does not make God responsible for evil, and we know that God cannot be responsible for evil (indeed God is the enemy of evil)  – so our only answer can be to reject the question.

Still, although we can’t answer the question, we do have a response. Our response is not an answer to what is asked (“How can a good, all-powerful God, let bad things happen to good people?”), but to the longing that lies behind it: a longing to know that evil is only as “real” as a shadow, that it has no “ontological weight,” and it has no place in God’s being or work. As David Bentley Hart says, “To me, evil, like the designated hitter rule, is just a mystery no one can penetrate.”

The use of humor in this way is telling. While the pain and anguish of suffering and evil are real, in the end they remain a “pastoral” concern, or better, a concern for friends, not philosophers. That is, pain and anguish remain something to get through, not something to understand, and certainly not something in which to find meaning. Theologically, evil and the pain and suffering it causes, can only be addressed with the humor of derision: something like in the Harry Potter books, where boggarts (something like a shapeshifting evil spirit/spell that, when appearing to an individual, takes the form of the thing that that person fears most in the world) can only be overcome by the ridikulus charm – that is, with humor/ridicule/laughter. This approach to evil is reflected in scripture when St. Paul mocks death, saying, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). We all know that death is a pastoral challenge (how do we help each other through it?), but on the theological level, Paul mocks it.

What really lies behind the question of theodicy is a longing to know that evil can be mocked, along with a longing to know that “God is love” and that God is at work to close the divide between the glory of heaven and the pain of creation. And perhaps it is best to use the words of scripture to make that affirmation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them and be their God;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

Okay, dear reader, I hope you are still with me. And if not, well, perhaps I have been writing this for myself anyway. The earthquake in Türkiye and Syria, the war in Ukraine, the murder of Tyre Nichols, the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school, the genocide in Rwanda, the pointless death of any child (from unavoidable disease or very avoidable poverty), the Holocaust, the European enslavement and pillaging of the people of Africa, and the devastation Europeans wrought upon the original people of this land, and on and on: it’s all just so much.

But it does not lead to a conundrum captured by the equation (God is good + God is all-powerful = bad things shouldn’t happen). It leads rather to a patient trust that these “poolings of nothingness” are in the process of being filled by the cross shaped (and perichoretic) love of God. The evil and suffering of the world don’t lead to crippling distrust of God, but to a commitment to care for each other (including by undoing every form of injustice), while we wait for God to reconcile all things, and to wipe every tear from human eyes, and for death to be no more. And it leads to gratitude that we get to sidle up alongside God and join in that good work as followers of Jesus.

Questions for reflection, or discussion with a group:

1. Have you ever asked, or perhaps even struggled with, the question of theodicy: “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” Have you known someone who has pretty much given up on the Christian faith (at least in somewhat traditional forms) due to a struggle with this question?

2. Do you ever find yourself thinking along the lines of, “Well, actually, God doesn’t allow bad things to happen to good people, for ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ So there are really no perfectly good people, so whatever happens is actually, in some way beyond our understanding, God’s punishment for sin.” If so, how does that line of thought play out in your thought? What’s the nuance? Is it satisfying? Do you really hold fast to it, or is it just something that comes to mind because you have heard it here or there, and don’t have a better way to address the question of theodicy?

3. Do you ever find yourself thinking along the lines of, “Well, we don’t understand the ways of God, but we trust that there is some hidden plan here that ultimately is for the good. God’s ways are mysterious to human minds, but because God is good, this must somehow ultimately be for the best.” If so, how does that line of thought play out in your thought? What’s the nuance? Is it satisfying? Do you really hold fast to it, or is it just something that comes to mind because you have heard it here or there, and don’t have a better way to address the question of theodicy?

4. How would you express what message you hear at church on this issue? If your answer to that question is, “Uh, I don’t know,” do you see that as a problem? That is, do you think the church should do a much better job of answering this question in a satisfying way that you can “take home” with you?

5. Did any part of Mike’s discussion of these matters surprise you? Or, what seemed most interesting to you? Or, what seemed convincing, and what seemed unconvincing?

6. Following David Bentley Hart, Mike points out that “we” (he means, generally, the type of people who are part of Union Church) often shy away from the central theological vision of the New Testament, which pictures a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities and powers of this world, of the overthrow of hell. Do you agree that “we” tend to shy away from this vision? Or does this vision resonant with you?

7. Does Mike’s discussion change the way you think about “the problem of theodicy”? If so, how?

8. Finally (dropping the third person voice), I, Mike, harbor a hope that my discussion of the problem of theodicy might actually lead you to deeper sorrow over disasters like the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Why? Because I believe that we sometimes hide ourselves emotionally from such tragedies, thinking that if we really faced them and experienced them in all their horror, our faith might not hold up. With some time for this discussion to settle in your heart, mind, and spirit, could this discussion lead you to be more willing/able to face such occasions of evil with the honesty and deep compassion/sorrow they deserve, confident that God is not responsible, and that in the end, “death will be no more”?