Hard on the heels of devastating tropical storms in 2008 which reaked havoc on the shores of Haiti comes now a 7.0 earthquake followed by a 5.9 aftershock leaving huge swaths of the poorest nation in the western hemisphere in rubble, and untold thousands either dead or badly in need of emergency medical attention And for those of us who care about such things, not far behind the question of Why is the question– Where was God in all this? Doesn’t the Bible say that God has especial concern for the poor? Why would God allow or cause this to happen? Is this as the insurance companies have often called it— ‘an act of God’? If not, was God on vacation when this happened?
It is easier in some ways to explain what is not the case than to say what is the case when it comes to God and natural disasters like this earthquake, despite fundamentalist preachers who are apt to glibbly say things like— “Haiti is the center of voodoo in the Western hemisphere therefore God judged them.” This hardly explains why all the Christian relief agencies, and various orthodox Christians in Haiti are also reeling from the blow just now. Were they just in the wrong line of fire, or is God’s aim that bad???
Let us start with something Jesus says about a natural disaster in Luke 13.8 Jesus asks his disciples “were those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them worse sinners than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” Jesus’ answer is no. No indeed. What he is warning against is some sort of automatic correlation between disaster and one’s moral condition or beliefs. Jesus is equally clear that one cannot make a one to one correlation between sickness and sin or disability and sin (see John 9.1-5). In other words, the world is a complex place, and there are many reasons bad things happen to all sorts of people including good people and God’s people. And unless one is a fatalist and believes that everything that happens is God’s will, one way or another, then one has to allow that all sorts of causation answers are possible in the case of a natural disaster.
Natural disasters, or events of nature, are of course not called by us disasters if they happen on some remote uninhabited atoll in the south pacific and affect no human lives. It is rather when human beings, accidentally or intentionally get in the way of nature, or cannot get out of the way of natural occurences that we call them disasters and start asking sticky questions about God and how the universe runs. Here are a few considerations to take into account.
1) God is not the only source of causation in the world. There are many actors in the world, human and supernatural, and God is only the most important and powerful one. Even the Bible does not suggest God is the only source of all that happens in the world.
For example, Biblical writers are pretty adamant that God is not the cause of human sin. Were that the case, God would in no sense be a good God. It follows from this conclusion that there are things that happen in this world that are the fault not of God but of human beings. It does not further this discussion to add that God allowed this to happen. But then God allows all kinds of things to happen, good, bad, and ugly and it is no reflection on God’s character nor is it an indication that God does not care.
2) We live in an interactive world, a world where human behavior affects nature and vice versa. Its no good blaming the drinking water near Three Mile Island for being poisonous when it was human beings who caused the pollution of the water. Human responsibility for human ills is again and again insisted on in the Bible. Indeed, the primeval stories in Gen. 1-2 tell us that the Fall, which led to disease, decay, death, suffering, sin and sorrow in the world can be traced back to human causation, human sin. According to Genesis, it did not have to be that way, but we screwed up. In other words the primeval story is about prime evil, and we, and not just the snake, are responsible.
3) Compassion Fatigue. Haiti has been a disaster happening and waiting to happen for ever. Had most of the buildings in Port au Prince been strengthened or rebuilt to withstand such disasters, literally millions of people would have been less likely to be harmed in that city by what has just happened. And we have known about these problems in our own backyard for decades. For decades now the U.S. would rather throw good money after bad on military adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere when in fact with a fraction of what we have spent in the last decade on war the entire country of Haiti could have been rebuilt and given decent housing!! Yes its true. And these are our backdoor neighbors. But of course they do not have oil and other commodities to offer us, so we as a nation have largely ignored them and their cries for help, hoping that the piecemeal efforts of small U.N. and Christian agencies would pick up the slack—- which they have been unable to do, so overwhelmed have they been by the grinding indigenous poverty and needs of that whole country, not to mention governmental corruption over many decades.
So where can God be found in all of this? I would remind you of a famous passage from the story of Elijah. Elijah made a spiritual pilgrimage to Mt. Horeb to get some answers as to why all manner of things were going wrong in Israel, including the Queen wanting his head on a platter. God’s answer is interesting and suggestive— ”
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”
Hmmm… the Lord was not in the earthquake, the fire, or the wind— the natural disasters Elijah saw. His will could only be seen and understood in listening to God’s Word. And what God says to Elijah is precisely what he says to us— “I will give you aid, but I want you to go back and minister to those people, mourning with those that mourning, rejoicing with those that rejoice, suffering with those that suffer. Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me. Where is God in all this— he is in his arms and legs called his followers who are rushing to aid these people, and we must support them. He is standing right there in the rubble suffering with those who suffer, and weeping with those who weep and binding up the hearts of the broken hearted. And more than this we do not know, and cannot rightly say.
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About Ben Witherington on The Bible and Cultutre
Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies.
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