Questions from my students: How can we reconcile God’s goodness with the occurance of natural disasters?
“In your professional opinion…is the world ending?”
This is what my wife said to me one night when I was cutting tomatoes as we prepared dinner. She said this only half-joking as we had all witnessed in one week massive flooding in Nepal, deathly hurricanes in the south, and wildfires destroying the western half of the United States. This question came before two massive earthquakes hit Mexico and another hurricane came through Central America. It seems as though all of the climates have gone awry: political, spiritual, and physical. Is everything going haywire and is this the armageddon? Some have predicted it is.
My quick answer was, “no,” mainly based off of Jesus’ comments regarding the “surprise” of judgement, as my friend Josh Butler has put it (Matthew 24:36–51). There’s too much talk in Scripture of thieves in the night and unlit lamps for me to think we’ll actually see the world coming to an end. It won’t be this obvious. But after being asked this again by some students of mine, I feel led to process a more full response here.
How should Christians think through events that look a lot like the apocalypse? Two philosophical comments followed by two theological comments.
First, beware of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Christians and non-Christians alike love being able to explain the unexplainable. We are pattern-seekers, always desiring to be able to show everyone else why something is happening. This Latin phrase quoted above is a way of describing a logically fallacy that goes like this: “because event B followed event A, then event A caused event B.” The classic illustration involves a rooster believing the sun always rises because he crows each morning. He, of course, is wrong. I hate to spoil my superstitious friends, but the Bears didn’t win because you wore that special pair of underwear. Do your laundry, bro.
Some things cannot be explained. Everything from the game winning touchdown to the freak accident is much more complex than you and I would like to think. Some things happen for a reason, but some things just happen and we do not know why.
Secondly, we must be skeptical of “the retribution principle,” or things sounding similarly. Simply put by the scholar Tremper Longman III, the retribution principle states that “the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer” (Longman, How to Read Job, pg. 89). The Bible and philosophical logic would roundly reject such a simple reading of reality. Too many of us know innocent, kind, and generous people who have suffered greatly for no apparent reason. We also, everyday, see very terrible people get lots of money and be, for the most part, happy. As Jesus said, God “lets the rain fall of the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Christians would do well to look again at the Bible’s complex painting of life. The Bible does not teach that “everything happens for a reason,” nor does it perfectly categorize life in a myth of religious fulfillment: “so long as I follow God and do good, good things will happen to me.” The Old and New Testament writers see life way more complicated than trite phrases. Many of the things that happen in the Bible have no clear reason attached.
Take first, for example, Job’s friends. Each of Job’s friends offer their own insights in order to explain why the poor man is suffering. To one one friend, Job was not religious enough, to another, he must have had hidden sin, and still to another, poor Job was filled with pride. Each of them offer an explanation for his suffering and a path out of it, however, none of them are celebrated at the end of the story. In fact, as the story closes with God’s thunderous comments, we come to realize all of their philosophizing about suffering was not only unhelpful to Job, it was wrong. We see through this story that both the propter hoc and the retribution principle are way too easy of answers for them to be correct. The book of Job certainly poses the question, “why would such terrible things happen to an innocent person?” But it does not emphatically answer it. Instead, the book invites the reader into a life that trusts the wisdom of God in the peril of life.
Secondly, there are several moments where Jesus himself discusses the propter hoc fallacy and its relationship to the retribution principal. Take Luke 13 for example, when Jesus mentions his own local news report of a sudden tragic event:
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. — Luke 13:4–5
This rhetorical question infers Jesus saw the world as complex as it really is. In John 9, when Jesus encounters a man born blind, his disciples ask if the man is blind because he sinned or his parents sinned? Jesus’ reply reflects a similar, complex understanding of human suffering: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2).
Notice how Scripture does not shut down the questioning we have around natural disasters and unexplained suffering. Jesus does not say, “do not think about such things.” Instead, he gives us a new way to think about it.
Suffering is not to be explained, but comforted. Scripture does not approach those who suffer and offer answers. Instead, it offers God himself, his presence. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God’s presence amidst suffering is more important than any answer I could give. If you told me why my friends passed away or the reasons why I’ve children in our church have died, it would not bring me any more peace than I have — in fact, it may make me more upset. However, if you listen to me, comfort me, cry with me, I just may receive the healing I need. Scripture seems to be telling us that God knows that truth. He doesn’t explain suffering, he enters into it with us so that we might be humbled and healed.
We need not look further than Jesus himself, who did not explain the rough state of human affairs to us, but instead subjected himself to it unto death, showing us what has always been true: that while we may not know why terrible things happen, we know for certain that God understands what it’s like to suffer.
“If we again ask the question: “Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?” and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.” — Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
Are these terrible events happening because we have sinned? Maybe, but not most certainly. Are these things happening because the world is coming to an end? Maybe, but not most certainly. For all of the reasoning we can make of these terrible things, it does not change how we must live. We must remain humble and repentant before the Lord, trusting his wisdom no matter what may befall us. We do not need an explanation of why things happen to do that, we just need Him — and that’s what we have in Christ.