I originally wrote this post shortly after bushfires near Sydney destroyed 200 homes and took 2 lives. But since then, Typhoon Haiyan has caused much havoc, hardship and loss of life in the Philippines, totally dwarfing the bushfires.
But whether it is the fires or the typhoon, their ferocity and the apparent randomness of the destruction lead us to ask questions about God …..
Joel Hollier lost his family home in the Blue Mountains fires. He is a christian, attending Bible College, and he wrote a reflection on the loss, and asked some uncomfortable questions:
we prayed that life and property would be spared, but they weren’t – did God not have the strength to calm the flames? ….. How can I reconcile my loss with an all powerful, all loving father who seeks the best for his people?”
In a disaster such as Haiyan, the same question could be asked over and over again – many of those who perished undoubtedly prayed, so why didn’t God save them? Why did God create a world where such enormous loss of life can occur so easily?
Answers vs comfort
These are questions of philosophy and theology for all of us, but very personal questions for those who have suffered loss. I don’t pretend to have any useful advice to those suffering – all I can do is pray and offer material support – but I think the philosophical/theological questions are worth examining.
Does suffering mean God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care?
These events shouldn’t really change our perception of the world – beautiful and wonderful as it is, we know it is a sometimes dangerous and hurtful place. Suffering is the strongest argument against the existence of God.
Those of us who believe in God must do so while recognising the suffering around the world. Why do christians keep on believing?
I have always thought that there are reasons to believe and to disbelieve; the question is, which reasons are the stronger? Each person will assess that differently, but I find the bunch of arguments from the universe and human experience to, collectively, have far more weight than the problem of evil and suffering.
So I believe, not because I have no difficulties and doubts, but because the reasons to believe are stronger than the difficulties.
So why doesn’t God answer prayers to preserve?
Joel concluded that God is ‘bigger’ and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine, and that he has a plan through all this. Many christians believe God is so powerful (“sovereign”) that everything that happens “comes from his hand”. He causes all things, even destructive bushfires, and doesn’t answer some prayers because he has a ‘higher’ purpose.
But while this view has merit, it makes a loving God the cause of some very unloving things – like the rape or murder of a child – and our minds recoil at that thought. I cannot see how we can believe that God causes or controls everything.
God, physical laws and human freedom
Perhaps God is sovereign, but he has chosen to not always exercise his sovereignty. Many things happen not because he purposes them to happen, but because he allows our choices and the physical laws to determine outcomes.
But why such a dangerous world?
God set up a universe that allows bushfires, just as it allows beauty and ugliness, love and hatred, good and evil. It is a dangerous and beautiful world. God must have planned it that way and we can only speculate why.
- We can see that much of the evil we see and experience is the inevitable outcome of human freedom, which is a wonderful gift.
- We can also see that a physical world provides many wonderful things – physical love, adventure and thrills, natural beauty in many forms, etc – which, for most people, more than compensate for the dangers.
- And it seems that God has chosen to give us, and the entire universe, a measure of autonomy – we and the universe develop gradually and in accordance with choices and apparently random events which God doesn’t always control.
But despite all these goods, I can’t help feeling that it could have been a little less dangerous. But since I believe the evidence points quite strongly to God’s existence and love for us, I can only trust that somehow it needed to be this way.
So why pray?
While we cannot predict what God will do, it seems that he has often answered prayers and ‘saved’ people from situations and sickness.
We make choices about how we live within this universe, whether we care for his creation or not, whether we live in risky ways or not. We can choose to seek his advice and direction, or not. We can ask him to preserve us, or not. He may choose to, or not. We can hope he will act, but cannot always be sure that he will.
We cannot even be sure sometimes whether he intervened or events turned out favourably naturally. But it does no harm to assume a favourable outcome is a result of God’s action, and to thank him for it.
God is still often a mystery to us, but resolving the mystery by making God the author of evil doesn’t seem right to me.
So where was God in the bushfires and the typhoon?
Same as he always is – close but easily ignored, giving us space and freedom, but sometimes intervening. It can take a lot of faith to believe in that sort of God at times, but that is where the evidence points (for me at least).
Postscript: climate change and disasters
The Sydney bushfires and the Philippines typhoon are extreme weather conditions, arguably on an unprecedented scale or at an unusual time. This is all in accordance with the predictions of climate change models, that we will experience more extreme weather events in the future.
How much climate change has contributed to these disasters, I don’t know, but we should be careful not to blame God for what some governments and citizens refuse to recognise and act upon, despite the evidence.