Monday, March 14, 2011

Natural Disasters and the Cosmic Blame Game

Once again the headlines are filled with mind-numbing statistics and heart-breaking images of the recent earthquake(s) and subsequent tsunami that laid waste to much of northern Japan. The scope and the impact of this tragedy is beyond words and beyond valuation, either in terms of lives or of economics. Surely the ramifications and future shockwaves of this destruction will be felt for years and even decades to come.

Unfortunately, in the midst of the discourse about rescue teams, international aid, and relief efforts, these types of natural disasters bring out another heartless and destructive wave, no, not of water, but a blast of accusations and challenges against people of faith, and ultimately against God Himself.

These outbursts are nothing new. The recent earthquake in Haiti flooded the internet, YouTube particularly, with short videos challenging Christians to defend the existence of God, and attacking the character of God. With minor variation, these assaults fall into the general form of:

"If there is a God, how could He allow such a tragedy as this?"

Often the skeptics will challenge Christianity in particular, saying that natural disasters don't necessarily disprove that there is some type of "god", but they say that it disproves the "Christian God".

We have all seen this time and time again on a much smaller scale, albeit on a more painful and personal level. We know of someone who has perhaps lost a baby, or lost a spouse due to cancer, or a friend that was killed in a tragic car accident. After the initial shock, often the "Why's" and "How's" will follow. "Why did God do this?" "Why did God allow this to happen?" "How could God do this to me?" It may be that we all have asked similar questions for even far lesser grief in our lives, maybe an illness, loss of job, financial stress, or a painful breakup.

Before we deal with some of these smaller issues, let's return to the horrifying reality of large natural disasters. They happen. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Volcanic eruptions. Tsunamis. They are very dangerous, they are very real, they have very real consequences. But in the emotional turmoil of trying to make sense of it all and often failing to do so, let me share an obvious fact that most overlook in their grasping:

Natural disasters do NOT increase the amount of death in the world.

I know,  I know-- it seems ridiculous and completely incorrect at face value. Many will say, but, "the Sumatran earthquake and tsunami just a few years ago killed over 250,000 people from Indonesia to Africa! What do  you mean natural disasters don't increase death?!"

I will repeat: Natural disasters do NOT increase the amount of death in the world.

Think about it. Since the beginning of time until now (with very few exceptions) DEATH HAS ALWAYS BEEN AT THE RATE OF ONE PER PERSON. Universally. Globally. Worldwide. Throughout all time.

So natural disasters, disease, accidents, and even terrorism do not actually increase the amount of death in the world--it will always be one per person. We also know that no one actually knows the exact moment or exact cause of their own inevitable death (with some exceptions for certain types of suicide). We may die of a disease, or an injury, or of "old age" or from a natural disaster. You don't know how, neither do I, and neither of us knows when.

The Bible makes it very clear that human life is very fragile. It says:

"What is your life? It is even like a vapour, that appears for a little while, then is gone."

Think about how transitory a puff of steam is as it rises off of a pot of boiling water. One moment it is definitely there, the next...gone. Vanished. Such is the time of our lives, the Bible says.  Just like it is clear about our life, God's word is also very clear about our death. It says:

"It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this, the judgment."

Now that's one verse that proves the Bible to be true thousands of times per day. Once born, we are all terminal, rushing towards our appointment with death.

But why does God share this? Is it just to be morbid, some attempt to be a divine killjoy-in-the-sky? Absolutely not. The psalmist said:

"So teach us to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."

The reality that (1) life is short, (2) death is certain, and (3) judgment and eternity follow death, leads a person to see life in the right perspective, it forces us to use wisdom in evaluating ourselves and our actions.

Someone once observed that "Death is the best teacher." Instead of being a dark joke, it conveys a sad truth. Many people will not truly face their own mortality, they will not face the inevitable and inescapable reality of their own death, until they lose someone close to them. It is hard to deny your own mortality when you are gazing down into a casket upon the face of someone that you were talking to just a few days before.

Returning to the original point, skeptics will seek to capitalize on these tragedies by attempting to cast God into the scrapheap of logic, or at least to deny that the God of the Bible could be the Creator. Their flawed analysis and reasoning stems from two basic issues:

(1) Natural disasters do not cause more death in the world (in fact, more people died of "natural causes" TODAY in the world, than died in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami)
(2) To claim that the "Christian God" is unjust or "evil" when He "causes" disasters, ignores the possibility that there could be justifiable reasons for Him allowing these disasters.

The famous apologist and philosopher, William Lane Craig, offered this in a debate with a notable atheist:
"...there is no way for us to know that God doesn't have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that occur. There are... reasons why (atheists) cannot prove that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil:...for's possible that God prevents animals from feeling pain even though they exhibit pain behavior, or...evils (in people's lives) could be justified through life after death. So as long as these are possible, (the atheist) cannot demonstrate that it is necessarily true that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil...Similarly, an evil in the world, say, a child's dying of cancer or a brutal murder of a man, could set a ripple effect in history going, such that God's morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later or maybe in another country."

William Alston, a philosopher at the University of Syracuse, summarizes the problem for atheists this way: "We are simply not in a position to justifiably assert that God would have no sufficient reason for permitting evil."

Remember, just because we don't understand why God would allow something, does not necessarily mean that God does not have a sufficient reason. The atheist confuses ignorance with  ideology. Just because they do not know/understand something about God or His character, does not imply that God does or does not exist.

For further reading about the topic of "How can a loving God allow suffering?" visit my blog page:

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