Trials: Where Was God?

If God loves people, why does he wipe them out? We can’t help but ask that after a disaster such as the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan. What kind of God would kill so many thousands of people and ruin the lives of millions of others in a single stroke?

Where is God when thousands, tens of thousands, or sometimes hundreds of thousands are being crushed, maimed and trapped in a massive earthquake or drowned when huge waves swallow coastal towns and cities? If God is all-powerful, surely he could stop such things. So why doesn’t he?

Who’s to blame?

“God didn’t do it; he just allowed it,” some say. Maybe they think that’s a good defense. I don’t, and I doubt you do. Allowing something that you could stop is not much better than doing it yourself.

When something bad happens, we want someone to blame. When the bad thing is a natural disaster, there’s no one left to blame but God. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, lightning strikes. The insurance companies call them “acts of God.” Nobody is to blame — nobody except God, that is.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the wildfires and floods in Australia, the earthquake in Haiti, and the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that killed more than 200,000 are just recent examples in a long line of history’s mind-numbing natural disasters. Looking back, at least one million died in the North Korean floods and famine of 1995-98. More than 900,000 died in the Ethiopian famine of 1984. Two hundred forty-two thousand died in the Tangshan, China, earthquake of 1976. The Ethiopian famine of 1974 claimed 200,000.

The Bangladesh sea flood of 1970 took 200,000-500,000. China’s famine of 1960 took 20 million. One million died in the flu pandemic of 1957, and up to 100 million died in the flu pandemic of 1918. Earthquakes in Nansan, China, in 1927 and in Gansu, China, in 1933 killed 200,000 each. Up to one million died in Huayan Kou, China, in the Yangtse Kiang flooding of 1887.

The French smallpox epidemic in 1870-71 killed 500,000. One million died from the Irish famine of 1845. The Iran earthquake of 1780 killed 200,000. Ten million died in the Bengal, India, famine of 1769. The Shensi, China, earthquake of 1556 claimed 800,000. And the black plague of Europe and Asia in 1346-42 took 25 million lives.

People ask, why does a loving God let such astounding mayhem happen?

I have another question. Why does God let anyone die?

Not long ago, I attended the funeral of a woman who was celebrated for her many personal ministries of love. She died of cancer, and her suffering was nothing short of horrible. A friend’s teenage daughter died in a fiery car crash on slick winter roads. She was on break from a Christian college, and her suffering and the grief of her parents, relatives and friends was every bit as real as the suffering and grief of any individual who died in a tornado, a tsunami or an earthquake.

Why did God let Grandma die? “She was old,” someone might say. “It’s the natural way of things. We grow old and die.”

Yes, it is the natural way of things. Bodies wear out. Plaque builds up in arteries, and if enough builds up, it cuts off the blood flow and causes strokes or heart attacks. Sometimes cells get mixed up and go crazy, becoming cancer cells and disrupting the tissues and organs around them. Over time bones lose their density and an accidental fall can break a hip. Joints lose their elasticity. Eyes lose their sharpness.

The ground erodes too, and the earth’s crust shifts. Water evaporates. Rain falls. Rivers rise. Winds blow. Even healthy people and young people can get hit by falling rocks or flying debris. People get caught in flash floods, mudslides and collapsed mineshafts.

People fall off roofs, out of windows and off scaffoldings. Sometimes it happens when they are doing humanitarian work, trying to help or save someone else. And God, far, far more often than not, sits by and watches it happen without lifting a finger to stop it.

When someone we love grows old and dies of “natural causes” we accept it as the way God has designed the creation — there’s a time to be born and a time to die. But when someone we love dies before growing old, we ask, “Why would God allow this to happen?”

Not an automaton creation

No doubt, God could have made the universe in such a way that nothing ever went wrong. But he didn’t. He created a world that is free to be itself — and to express its identity in continually fresh and creative ways. For some reason, he thinks that is good.

Maybe that’s because it takes such a world, a wild and free world, to be the breeding ground for things God values in human beings — things like courage, devotion, loyalty, self-sacrifice, kindness, generosity, hope, trust. By anybody’s reckoning these are a few of the noblest features of humanity. Would such qualities exist in a world without risk, danger, calamity — and death?

And where would love be in such a world? Love isn’t just a matter of getting along. Love is made real in the crucible of suffering, of self-sacrifice, of loyalty and devotion against the odds.

“Oh really,” someone might say. “If God thinks that is so great, why doesn’t he just come down here and go through what we go through in his so-called good creation?” Well, that’s just what he did. And just like death happens to every one of us, he died. But Christians believe that his death changed death itself. He made death a pathway to resurrection, to new life, to a new creation in which “there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

As much as we hate to admit it and hate to talk about it and throw stones at those who do, we all die. We all die of something. Whether we die of “natural causes” or of “natural disasters” makes little difference in the end. Either way, we die, and nothing will stop it, regardless of how kind we are or how mean we are or how smart, careful or wise we are. But the good news is, regardless of how or when we die, Jesus resurrects the dead.

God could stop all natural movement of earth, air and water. He could stop humans from making mistakes, making unwise decisions, being selfish, or stubborn or rude. God could have made a creation in which everything worked automatically. But he didn’t. God created a world in which something far more valuable than long physical life could exist. He made a world in which love can exist and grow. In love, humans pull together and respond to suffering and calamity. In love, humans forgive one another, help one another, encourage one another and stand by one another.

God suffers with us

God is not a stranger to human suffering. Christians believe that God became a man, suffered as a human and died as a human, and because of that, humanity itself has been taken up into God’s own being. In Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, humanity’s cause is now God’s cause. When we suffer, God suffers with us.

God loved the world so much that he gave his Son that whoever believes in him would have new life. God sent his Son to save the world, not to condemn it (see John 3:16-17).

Death is part of life, and every person who lives will also die. Even you and even me. But death is not the end of the story of our lives.

God did not make human beings merely for this life of suffering and grief — he made us for his new creation of fulfillment and joy. The lives cut short now, deprived now, stifled now, cheated now, will find their fulfillment in the life of the new creation. This is the Christian hope, and Christians hold this hope in faith — faith that God who freely took up our human cause as his own, even to the point of dying like a criminal as one of us, is true to his word. Every person who dies will also live.

In this hope and in this love, we extend compassion and help to others. As we do, we experience the deepest riches of true life, riches that are unseen but more real than physical security or safety. Love truly does “make the world go ‘round.”

Author: J. Michael Feazell

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