Thursday, April 21, 2011

Understanding God’s Role in Disasters

Understanding God’s Role in Disasters

How can we ever understand why God allows disasters like the horrible earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan? To the survivors, there is no answer that will lessen their suffering and grief. Silence at such a time should be our only response. But, we seldom deal with tragedy in this way. We long for these events to have some meaning. But, more often than not, there is none. That is because catastrophe, destruction and death are not the creation of God. They are in fact the enemies of God.

We do not live in a museum. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes are the result of forces created by God to sustain and nourish life. God has not created a dead planet, but a free, vibrant and dynamic world. With that freedom, at times, come disaster and death. But, God has made a mockery of death and destroyed its power over us. In the midst of tragedy, it is easy to lose sight of God’s true purpose — to heal the world and unite all humanity to himself.

As David Bentley Hart writes in The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? “For after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.” So, when we see the death of a child, Hart later reminds us, “we do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy.”

We must understand there is a distinct difference between that which God permits and that which is his will. As described by Hart, “God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills.” In other words, what God permits to be is not necessarily what he wills or desires.

There is nothing inconsistent, Hart writes, between an all-knowing and all-powerful God that creates a world of complete autonomy and freedom but who also can “assure at the same time that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things.” God heals and redeems all things, even the greatest tragedies of human existence. This is how the Eastern Orthodox tradition understands God and his interaction in and with our world. God is love and light, and in him is no darkness or evil at all. So, everything that comes from God, even that which is awesome, powerful and destructive, “must be good and true and beautiful.” “It is this love and goodness of God,” Hart continues,”that the Christian is bidden to find in the entirety of the created order.” In the end, the Christian is called to labor to see a deeper truth than the mere harsh and brutal nature of the world — “a truth that gives rise not to optimism but to joy.”

A more thorough discussion of this topic from an Eastern Orthodox perspective can be found in: The Doors of the Sea, Where was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart; published in 2005 by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.

by John Choate and Jon Mark Hogg, members of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church


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