Friday, February 05, 2010

Suffering in Haiti

How could an all powerful, all loving God allow 150,000 people in Haiti to die in an earthquake? Pat Robinson thinks that it’s because of their sinful involvement with voodoo. That, of course, is nonsense. Even if they were the most terrible sinners around, God doesn’t act like that and in any case, despite the influence of voodoo, Haiti is one of the most Christian countries in the world. And, Pat Robinson, it is estimated by the publication ‘Operation World’ that 30% of the population are evangelical Christians, just like you are supposed to be.

Remember how Jesus was confronted by questioners who asked about some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices?

Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Luke 13:1-5)

Bad things happen to good people, and it is nothing to do with how sinful they have been. It’s not that they have secret undeclared sins. Of course, there are natural consequences of sin. If you sleep around you are more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease, but the child with congenital syphilis is not to blame for his sickness. Many very sinful people prosper in this world – their criminal behaviour allows them to escape just punishment.

But consider this. An earthquake of similar magnitude happened in California. Fewer than 70 people died. Why the difference? California has buildings that don’t fall down when the earth quivers. California has sophisticated medical services. California has helicopters and trained rescue teams. Haiti has none of these. California is rich; Haiti is poor. If you read my previous article on Haiti you will see some of the reasons why this is so.

Nobody likes talking about death; it’s called the last enemy. Some deaths we accept as natural and necessary. When an old lady of 109 passes, we are likely to murmur some platitude like, “She had a good innings,” or, “It was a happy release.” A few weeks ago, in one of those violent Muslim countries, a security guard was killed stopping a suicide bomber gaining access to a crowded area. His death was heroic and although tragic, we thought that his death had a purpose. But all those pointless deaths: the child dying of leukemia, the boy crushed by a truck, the freak accident at work, the teenager with meningitis, the golfer struck by lightning, the helicopter crash, encephalitis following vaccination, the operation that went wrong, the guy whose motor cycle struck a pothole, the young woman trapped in the snow, the policemen who drowned when the bridge collapsed, the baby in the house that caught fire, the mother with breast cancer…

150,000 deaths in Haiti is more newsworthy but not more painful for the person bereaved. I have gripped the arm of the father whose son succumbed to leukemia 20 years ago. I have locked eyes with the woman whose brother died of lymphoma. I have prayed with the man whose wife of 30 years Cheyne-Stoked towards her end. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” wrote John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s and poet.

We thrash around looking for someone to blame. “I’ll have that doctor struck off.” “I’ll sue the Council.” “They’ll pay for this.” Whoever ‘They’ are. And when we find no-one to hold responsible, we blame God.

If only You had done something this would never have happened.

It is a question as old as the hills. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, put it this way:
God perhaps wishes to take away evil and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing but unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God. If he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God. If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable for God, from what source then is evil? Or why does he not remove it? (According to Lactantius in A Treatise on the Anger of God, cited by W Wiersbe in Why Us? Fleming H Revell; 1984)

This is only a problem for those who believe in a personal and loving God. The Hindu says Karma, the Muslim inshallah; the Buddhist would regard you as unenlightened for asking the question, while the atheist would say with Richard Dawkins:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replications some people are going to get lucky and some people are going to get hurt and we won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is and we dance to its music. (River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. London:Phoenix 1995; p133)

Cold comfort indeed! Dr Dawkins, I suggest you try that out on the next bereaved mother you see. Roger Carswell tells us that he sometimes asks atheists what God they don’t believe in, and when they tell him he replies, “If God were like that, I’d be an atheist too.” (Where is God in a messed up world? IVP 2006; p 30)

If you want a philosophical answer to the question, one has been available for thousands of years. It is in the Book of Job (Chapter 38 and following). When Job asks the reason for his suffering God replies, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” Then he follows up with a series of answerable questions – unanswerable by anyone who wasn’t there from the beginning. “Would you discredit my justice?” asks God. “Would you condemn me to justify yourself?”

Tim Keller points out that there is a major flaw in the reasoning of philosophers from Epicurus to David Hume, such that no serious philosopher now employs this argument against the Christian God.

Tucked away with the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is the hidden premise that if evil is pointless to me then it must be pointless. (The Reason for God. Hodder and Stoughton. 2008; p23)

As Job found out, just because we can’t see or imagine why God may allow something to happen doesn’t mean that there can’t be one. We have numerous examples where something bad happens to someone yet it was necessary that good might follow. The story of Joseph in Genesis is a good example. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. It was a wicked and cruel act. While a slave he was unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife and was thrown into prison. In prison he gained a reputation as an interpreter of dreams and despite spending many years in confinement he was eventually sent for to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Such was his success that he was appointed Prime Minister in Egypt from which position he was able to save thousands of lives from starvation, including his own family.

As a more recent example consider Corrie Ten Boom who with her sister, Betsie, was thrown into the Ravensbrük Nazi concentration camp for sheltering Jews. In Ravensbrük, she and Betsie were confined in a hut beset with fleas and bed bugs. They began holding Bible studies but were surprised that the guards never disturbed them. Eventually they worked out that the reason that the guards stayed away was the presence of the very fleas and bed bugs that disgusted them.

Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that most clouds don’t have obvious silver linings. The puzzle remains, but if I understood the mind of God, I would have to be his equal. I watched The Longest Day last week. I doubt that any other film has had so many stars acting in it. The future James Bond played a common soldier. Even though he would one day be the central character in movie blockbusters, Sean Connery’s character in this had very little idea of what was going on around him. He just had to get up that beach. All around him private soldiers were being mown down by machine gun bullets. General Eisenhower had planned it. No doubt Patton and Montgomery knew the strategy. But for most it was simply a matter of following orders. God has a plan for us. We know the general outline. We have been given a manual. But as for the details – well it’s not our concern.

There is a logical answer to the puzzle too. Nobody would deny that human beings have a great sense of justice. If you have ever been to a soccer match you will have experienced the great sense of indignation that goes up when a handball goes unpunished. Even worse is the baying for blood when a murdering pedophile is caught. Why should this be? The evolutionary mechanism depends on death, destruction and violence of the strong against the weak. Recently, on one of those nature programs that TV does so well, I witnessed a water buffalo attacked by Kimono Dragons. After poisoning it with a bite to its heel, the lizards stalked it for several days until it collapsed. They then proceeded to eat it while it was still living. Even the cameraman broke down before the spectacle. Why was it so horrific? It was just nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Without it, according to evolutionary theory, none of us would be here.

If there is no God, what right do we have to be outraged by injustice and cruelty?

“If you were God and you wanted to rid the world of suffering and pain, where would you start?” asks Michael Ots (What kind of God? IVP; 2008 p44).

Most people begin with terrorists, rapists, pedophiles, and serial killers. If these were all taken out of the world would it then be a perfect place? Who would be next to be thrown out? Bank robbers, burglars, confidence tricksters, common or garden murderers and wife beaters? Would that make things perfect? Bankers and their bonuses? Politicians and their fraudulent expenses claims? Real Estate agents? Traffic cops? Used-car salesmen? The realization dawns that sooner or later down the line, we fit in too.

Who will be left? Is there anyone without sin? I disqualify myself and I can’t believe that everyone would not do the same. There is a corruption there at the very heart. The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Rome, said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “The wages of sin is death.”

I suppose another Flood might be the answer, but He did promise not to do that again.

Why would a god make a world like this, where so many things go wrong? Actually He didn’t. The Bible tells us that the world he made was perfect. It has been corrupted since. Many people dismiss the early chapters of Genesis as myth and fairy tale, but they are crucial to the Bible’s message. Without the Fall, without Adam’s rebellion, without this explanation of what has gone wrong, the whole Christian story is meaningless. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, “For if by the trespass of the one man (ie Adam) death reigned through that one man, how much more will those that receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17). To the church in Corinth he wrote, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

And it wasn’t just humankind that has been suffering. To the church at Rome, Paul wrote, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23).

Since I have had cancer, I have had a fellow-feeling with those undergoing chemotherapy. Before, I knew the side effects and could list them for you, but I had never experienced the absolute exhaustion, never known the numb fingers and toes and never been breathless at the slightest exertion. Now I have an empathy with anyone who has been through what I went through.

There are some things that I can’t imagine. Free-fall parachuting, bungee-jumping, base-jumping, marathon running and taking a trip on the Space Shuttle are all beyond my experience. Imagine me trying to quell the fears of someone about to jump out of an airplane for the first time. My whole being cries out, “Don’t do it!” But if you have to have chemotherapy I can empathize with you. I know what it’s like to feel sick, to feel exhausted, and to have mouth ulcers and all those things that the doctors consider trivial.

Can we really expect a God with supernatural powers, invulnerable to heat or cold or even machine gun bullets, unlimited by ignorance or fear, and impervious to temptation to understand the human condition?

Christmas is past. We have put away the tinsel and the tree lights for another year. Today the shops were empty and we dine on egg and fries rather than turkey and mince pies. For all its frippery, Christmas is about the incarnation. God became man and dwelt among us. When he fell over and grazed his knee, it hurt at the time and was sore afterwards. He could have been caught and slaughtered by King Herod. At the end of the day, he was tired and longed for his bed. He knew hunger and thirst. He knew poverty. He was tempted by Satan himself. He was let down by his pupils, abused by the authorities, betrayed by his friend, deserted by his followers, mocked by bystanders, abused and tortured by soldiers, cheated by the lawyers, and murdered by those in charge. He was no stranger to the human condition.

Far from standing idly by as we suffer, God came and joined us and shared in our suffering.

The crucifixion was a very nasty way of killing people, but Jesus was not the only one to suffer it. The Romans crucified tens of thousands. Since then men have invented even worse forms of torture and murder. A recent television program portrayed the procedure of ‘necklacing’ practised in South Africa. An old car tire is placed around the neck of the victim and filled with petrol. The whole think is then set on fire. On television, the victim was a 15-year old girl who had tried to escape from her forced prostitution.

Why do Christians make so much of the Crucifixion? If it were that alone, Jesus would qualify as a minor martyr. Others have died more terrible deaths – many of them among His followers. The answer is that his death had a spiritual dimension that we cannot appreciate. The clue is in his cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

We don’t like to talk about Hell. Medieval images conjured up by Dante’s poem are embarrassing to us now. But if we see Hell for what it is – total and complete separation from God – it becomes both less embarrassing and more logical. Common grace, the benefits of God’s presence in the world and His residual image in Man, diminish the evil of our lives. This world is not as bad as it could be. Imagine Haiti happened and nobody went to help. Imagine only looters and no rescuers. These dytopias have been imagined in post-apocalyptic movies. Hell indeed! But life is not like this. People who don’t know God still show kindness and concern. There is a sense of justice. If, as philosophers like Nietzsche suggest, God is dead, where does this leavening of love come from? Nietzsche thought that seeking after power was the driving force for mankind and that the ‘Superman’ would prevail over the worthless hoards of weaklings. Instead we see true humanity in acts of sacrifice for the weaker brethren.

What would life be like without it? Brutish and short.

From eternity past Jesus had been in sweet communion with his Father. On the cross that constant union was wrenched apart, the godhead torn asunder. In a very real sense Jesus experienced Hell for us.

How could an all powerful God of love stand by and do nothing while watching the suffering of Haiti? He has not. He has come and has remedied the underlying fault. Not for him a cosmetic clearance of the symptoms of the problem. He shared in our suffering and endured Hell so that we need not.

Jesus’ resurrection is just about the most well attested event in Roman history. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul; Pliny the Younger’s view of the eruption of Vesuvius; Mark Anthony’s romance with Cleopatra; all have less documentary evidence than Jesus rising from the dead. Was it Julius Caesar who crossed the Channel or some underling who was told to give Caesar the credit? We know that Pompeii was smothered in lava, but was Pliny’s account of it imaginative fiction; a hagiography of his uncle (Pliny the Elder who supposedly died rescuing survivors from the Bay of Naples)? Were Anthony and Cleopatra anything more than a Mills and Boon style reconstruction of a political alliance?

Paul says about the resurrection “If Christ has not be raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” It is the central event in history. The resurrection is what holds out promise that we shall all be raised. But Paul continues, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man (ie Adam), the resurrection from the dead comes also through a man (ie Jesus) (1 Corinthians 15: 20-21).

One of Jesus’ disciples, John, escaped martyrdom. Instead he was exiled to the Aegean island of Patmos. Here he had a vision of the risen Lord Jesus. His apocalyptic view of the future is reported in the book of Revelation. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,” writes John, reporting on his vision. He goes on, “I heard a loud voice from the throne (Jesus’) saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!’” (Revelation 21:1-5)

When we see what the future is we can say with the Apostle that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory to come. We can only ask why he delays. We have a saying that justice delayed is justice denied. But that saying assumes that our lives are finite. They are not. He delays because he doesn’t want anyone to perish. There are millions waiting to be told the good news. That’s why Haiti, tragedy that it is, presents us with an opportunity. There may yet be some who will see our good works and praise our Father in heaven. We have the opportunity to demonstrate that

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches deep where sinners dwell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall;
When men who hear refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call;
God's love, so pure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam's race—
The saints' and angels' song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God, above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.


Deb Light said...

Very well thought out and written.Thank you so much for taking the time to write these very thought provoking blog entries.

I know you touch many people for God and also help us with our CLL.God Bless you for all you do!

Love In Christ,

Andy Ward said...

You have an amazing ability to put into words what many are thinking.The people of Haiti are yet more victims of nature,in the wrong part of the planet at the wrong time,it is nothing to do with God or the lack of his love.We live,we die,It is what we do in bit in between that is most important.

Great blog my friend.Keep up the good work.

Marcia said...

Thank you for this commentary. I have had a lot in my life that makes people marvel how I carry on, but to me it is really no hardship because I have always been blessed with Christian friends who are the body (hands, voice, eyes, feet, etc.) of Christ to me.
This is the humblest and holiest act of a child of God -- to be Christ's body to someone else (who is also Christ, were we to recognize Him). We have much to do in the world. God help us to go out and do it!