Tuesday, March 15, 2011

God, Suffering, and the Earthquake

One skeptic, commenting on the recent earthquake and the tremendous suffering it caused in Japan, asked how anyone could seriously believe God had some reason for allowing that suffering. Are people supposed to believe that God sits around and does nothing because He has some grand plan to make it all work out? The skeptic continued that seeing such suffering was causing him to suffer a mental breakdown.

In spite of his conclusion in favor of skepticism, there was something almost Christian in this unbeliever’s reaction. The English Cardinal Newman once said that if he did not believe that the wrongs and sufferings of the present life would be made right by God in the next, that he would go mad. The skeptic was right to consider madness a logical conclusion, he was wrong to deny the afterlife. The skeptic was also right to think that there was something unsatisfactory in the idea that God sits on his hands doing nothing, simply watching evil happen as part of his grand plan to bring about a greater good. But he was wrong to think that God does nothing.

God does not do nothing. He does not merely sit on his hands watching human suffering as part of his grand plan. Rather, as part of his plan, He became man himself, entering into and sharing human suffering. He suffered rejection from his hometown and misunderstanding from his own family. He suffered from hunger and the temptations and attacks of devils. He suffered the evil of a corrupt religious hierarchy, a corrupt government, and a sham trial. Finally, He suffered the most cruel and humiliating death his society could devise, though He was wholly innocent. He suffered all the evils in the world and wondered where God was. Finally, He asked “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me. A moment, as Chesterton said, when God Himself seemed to be an atheist. A glorious moment for any rebel or sufferer forever; a moment when God Himself felt abandoned by God.

If the story ended here, for God or us, the story would be a tragedy, but it does not. In one of those ironic little twists that make for good stories and better history, the cross, a symbol of torture and shame, became a crown. Evil could not hold the one person who had never given in to it. Abandoned by all his friends “he stood up the bridge alone, and fire and shadow both defied” (1). And then He rose. The gates of hell were locked with a hatred and bitterness stronger than adamantine or steel; they were smashed open with something far stronger, a wooden cross and the sovereign love of God. And when He rose, he still had the wounds from which He had suffered, but neither they nor the memory of His suffering would ever torment Him again. They were the signs on an enemy, but of a defeated enemy, and became part of His glory.

And then he ascended into heaven, but not to twiddle His thumbs. Rather he said “I am going to prepare a place for you. A priest at my church says that he finds this one of the most hopeful passages in the Bible; I think that I can see why. St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the firstfruits, and of his Resurrection as the model for ours. This means that there is hope. The modern skeptic, like Newman, need not go mad. He need only believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection. There is a next world to right the wrongs and suffering of this one. I do not think (though I am not sure) that they will be forgotten, or made as if they had never happened, but they will be defeated enemies, and their scars will become the marks of our glory.

The story then, is not a tragedy. It is not one for God, and it need not be one for us. Rather, it is a heroic quest. It is so because there is a goal and a purpose, and at the end, a triumph. Fulton Sheen, quoting, I think, of all people, Nietzsche (2), said, “ ‘We can bear anything in this world, any kind of a how, as long as we know the why,’ and the why was given, on the road to Emmaus.”

This post makes no pretense at learning, completeness, or originality, it is simply some confused notes of a slightly overworked and very presumptuous graduate student. Take it as such.

Further Reading:

David Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005).

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

NT Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (2009).

1. Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring.


  1. Suffering is itself a great mystery in life. Much of this, I believe Thomas Aquinas mentioned, is related to the presence of sin in the world and the corruption that results. Jesus suffers because He becomes sin for us.

  2. ...A beautiful reminder that God is not God "up there" but very much among us and with us. Thank you for your thoughts.