Why does God allow natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake? The best and worst responses to human suffering.
Of the enduring success of his book Catcher in the Rye the late J. D. Salinger said it was a living nightmare.
That sounds strange to me, a man who doesn’t have the success of a Salinger–and wouldn’t mind it.
But I think it would sound equally strange to a Haitian father who lost five children to a deadly earthquake.
Suffering Is Personal
I’ve never know devastation on the level of the Haiti earthquake.
I only know what it means to watch your father deteriorate rapidly from malignant, rapidly metastasizing lung cancer.
I only know what it means to watch a man fall 200 feet to his death in a climbing accident. [That man was my step father.]
My parents divorced when I was twelve. I’ve had my heart broken dozens of times before I married one of the most gracious person’s alive.
But I’ve never experienced devastation on the level of Haiti. And neither did Salinger.
But we can’t dismiss or minimize his pain. Or my pain. Or your pain–no matter what you’ve been through.
But neither does it really qualify us to answer the question of theodicy for other people–especially for those in Haiti.
The Worst Response to Suffering in the World
A recent BBC article asked, “Why Does God allow Natural Disasters to Occur?” Great question. Maybe.
The writer–a philosophy lecturer at the University of Glasgow–does an elegant job of covering the historical and modern arguments [and counter-arguments] for the problem of evil, but without landing on any one conviction.
Instead, he leaves you with the nagging impression that God is on trial–and things aren’t looking good for him.
Here are the facts: The universe doesn’t care about you or me. In fact, it doesn’t care about humans at all.
The universe and the earth that floats in it are nothing more than machines grinding away by impersonal forces. Sometimes those forces involve the destruction of humans.
Forces, mind you, set forth at some time by God. So we ask the question: If God is omnipotent and benevolent, why does he allow this to happen?
Why does he allow the mechanical operations of the world to destroy us? Naturally, when that question arises, it’s not God who is own trial–it’s us.
Now, I’m not big on defending more territory than I can manage, so in the long run I don’t feel obligated to answer this question.
Neither do I feel qualified.
Here’s why: outside of the aid my family has given to the survivors of the Haitian earthquake, in no way have I been involved in this tragedy.
I don’t know anyone in that country. I don’t have friends who know anyone in that country.
It’s peripheral to my existence, if you know what I mean.
In my mind, the best people to answer these questions are in Haiti. The worst, politicos and academics in America–like Lisa Miller or Pat Robertson or even me.
What We Do with Suffering
This has always intrigued me about the human race: When we see a tragedy like Haiti, we seem to absorb it all in and think this is the worst devastation WE’VE ever known.
It personally rocks our world. Is that the least bit fair–or even logical?
Sylvia Plath–a suburban mother and poet–equated her inner torment to that of the suffering of an Auschwitz Jew and thus buried her head in an oven.
She’s been criticized for co-opting Holocaust Jews’ trauma for her own.
And I think we are in danger of doing the same thing when we meditate on the meaning of a tragedy that doesn’t impact us personally–and then try to answer the so-called dilemma.
The real question is: What are people in Haiti saying? [Nod to Terry Mattingly for drawing my attention to this question.]
Haitians’ Religious Responses to the Earthquake
Emotions in Haiti range from steady faith to outright despair. One Haitian seminarian said, “You have to question your faith, but hopefully not lose it.”
Another woman cried: “This is what God did! See what God can do!”
Dudu Orelian, a Haitian man who lost a brother and nephew in the earthquake, stood outside the stone and metal rod wreckage that was once Notre Dame Cathedral of Port-au-Prince and said, ”God is angry at the world.”
Most Haitians are Christian–largely Catholic with a small but growing number of Protestants. But most also practice Voodoo–the official state religion [like Catholicism].
Regardless of their religious focus, though, they seem to say the same thing: in some measure the earthquake is the hand of God.
Rev. Eric Toussaint said, “We must recognize his power.”
Haitian-American musician Richard Morse–whose mother is a singer and Voodoo priestess–said, “If all of a sudden, in 15 seconds, 20 seconds, all the physical representations of corruption are destroyed, it gives you pause for thought.”
But what happens when you lose five children in the rubble? One man said, “How could He do this to us? There is no God.”
Another woman was seen tossing her Bible into a fire.
Each of these examples represents a personal response to the problem of suffering. Which brings me to my next point.
What We Can Know about God in Suffering
Pain is personal. Subjective. Non-quantifiable. Thus, immeasurable.
Does a person who lost five children in a school shooting experience any more emotional pain than a man who lost an adult son to cancer?
What about a writer tormented by the popularity his book brought him: Is that any less than a man who’s brother and nephew were killed?
No. It’s not fair to suggest that.
Neither do I think it’s entirely fair to adopt a stranger’s real tragedy to defend or object to some abstract argument.
Here’s what it all boils down to: God created man to relate to other men. To comfort them in desperate times. And in that relation, God is glorified.
That’s the pressing mandate in the wake of this horrific natural disaster.
And in the end, we know that God is neither indifferent nor ignorant of human suffering.
He put his son, Christ, on the cross to absorb the wrath of God we deserve and on the third day rose from the dead in a glorified body to announce that, indeed, it is okay to trust him and that death–the ultimate suffering–has been defeated…
And no matter the amount of pain we’ve personally experienced or torment we’ve endured, all that will one day be wiped away when we enter God’s everlasting presence.
That, ironically, is the ultimate answer to the problem of pain. And remember, I’m the worst person–the least qualified–in this case, to answer the question.
But it’s being asked. And I’m offering what little I have. Let me know what you think.