One of the most knotty questions that Christianity has to wrestle with is that of the problem of pain and suffering. Perhaps more academic and apologetic ink has been spilled in pursuit of an answer to this challenge, that theologians and philosophers have termed theodicy, than many other apologetic conundrums. Simply put – can a good, all powerful God allow pain and suffering to be inflicted on humanity? The lack of a convincing answer is one of the main reasons why believers have actually walked away from their faith in recent times, it is something we must all face head on at some point in our life.
I am not intending to add much to this more philosophical question, as more erudite, wise and pastoral minds have applied themselves to this task and I encourage you to read works such as Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering or even C.S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain. However I do want to take a brief scriptural exploration of this question in relation to natural disasters, outbreaks of disease or famine and see if this Bible has any answers in times such as these. Not simply in general terms of how Christians should always posture their hearts in the midst of trouble, and let’s face it, life has enough trouble, but to wrestle with the conundrum of where God is and what is He saying in the midst of troubling times.
Writing from a Western perspective, I have seen a few approaches in answering the ‘why’ question pertaining to natural disasters from the church repeated continuously in recent years. On the one side there are always a few “crazy prophetic” voices finding a direct correlation between a specific national sin and the specific disaster. These voices are always met with disdain not only from unbelievers who find such pronouncements unfeeling and tasteless, especially to those who are suffering loss, but also from more mainstream religious leaders from most religious traditions. Especially from many church leaders who take a “more humane” approach, believing that as Christian believers we are called to weep with those who weep and lament in such situations. If I were to play it safe, I would simply say amen to this second group, as I agree generally with the call to weep and I often find the pronouncements of “crazy” prophetic people deficient in many ways. The trouble is I don’t find this answer fully satisfying and a true representation of the God I find throughout scripture and so, like a scab I continue to worry this problem to see if I can discover something more.
Does God cause Disasters?
The first question I come to is to ask whether God actually causes such things as disease or disaster. Many religions both past and present serve Gods that have a malevolent side and the infliction of pain on humanity even for the God’s pleasure is not outside the bounds of possibility. The God shown in the Bible is never portrayed as malevolent. He is portrayed as good all the time – the very essence of goodness. However there is a side of this goodness, a part of His personality that many times humanity would like to overlook and that is God’s character as a judge.
People don’t like to consider this picture of God as a judge. When they think of this aspect of God’s character they think of phrases like the “Final Judgement” and become scared about how God will judge their private life and their sins, conversely there can be a type of flippancy and presumption. Because Christian’s receive the death of Jesus in their place they may consider Jesus’ blood a type of “Hall Pass” to any type of judgment. Jesus’ blood covers me therefore I don’t have to think about it. There are two biblical responses to these thoughts.
Firstly not all judgment, in fact the majority of judgment found in scripture is not “eternal” in nature. The majority of judgments are physical and temporary in nature. The fact is that famines and plagues are considered throughout the Bible as from the hand of God. This is an inconvenient fact that most moderns want to avoid.
Secondly not all judgment is bad. When you have been wronged and you go to court, you hope for a good outcome. Sometimes you will receive justice and sometimes you won’t. The reason you often don’t receive justice is because of lack of knowledge and sometimes because the system, process or the judge himself is faulty. You can be sure when God judges that His judgments are pure and right (see Ps 19:9). Therefore it is not surprising that we find prophetic voices in the Bible longing for the judgments of God. Isaiah says “My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.” (Isaiah 26:9)
So does this mean that God causes disasters? This is where it gets a little more tricky to answer. Two stories are instructive in scripture. In 1 Chronicles 21 there is story about Satan rising up to incite David to conduct a census against the Lord’s will and as a result 70,000 died from plague as a judgment from God. In 2 Samuel 24 the same story says that it was the Lord who caused David to take the census. A similar conundrum happens when we investigate the life of Job, this ancient account alternates between Satan and the Lord afflicting Job when referencing the same affliction.
This means there are three actors present in the affliction of humanity. Firstly, the choices and actions of humanity itself reaps consequences, secondly the actions of Satan and evil spirits and thirdly the actions of God himself or at least His permission of events taking place as a result of actions from humanity or Satan. We may not like this answer, and the truth is, like Job, we will probably not understand the complexity of this answer in this age. But God is present in all of our afflictions and is always looking for a response.
The Old and the New Testaments are filled with prophets responding to events such as warfare, famine and plague and there is a simple message that resounds through the pages of scripture that message can be summed up by the phrase “Return to Me” (Joel 2:12, Zech. 1:3). No matter what the multi dimensional reasons for the crisis were, God’s sovereignty means that “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). This is seen in Jesus response to two disasters that occurred in his day. It was the perfect occasion for Jesus to say he didn’t have an answer and we must weep with those who weep, maybe his empathetic nature wasn’t firing on all cylinders that day – but his explanation (if you can call it an explanation) was “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5)
So we have consistency from the Old Testament Prophets through to Jesus during his earthly ministry and finally Jesus as seen in Revelation. However disasters occur, God is looking for a response from humanity and that response is that we would turn to him in repentance and love. The world is in shock at the moment as we go through the COVID-19 Pandemic, daily we are staring at new death figures from around the world. I have wondered during this time if we had full transparency of all deaths on an ongoing basis how it would affect our behavior? The truth is we are so insulated from death especially in our Western culture, and yet our sojourn in this present earthly body is fleeting at best. In comparison to eternity whether we live 70, 80 or 90 years – how we prepare for this eternity where we are promised that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4) is far more important. It is true that now we only see in part, but one thing is clear that Jesus is beckoning us into a relationship with Him forever and we can trust Him completely.