Where is God When Tragedy Strikes?

Barb Wire

Another major disaster is leaving much of the world numb with disbelief and insoluble grief. The facts are slowly coming through, but it is still too early to know for certain all the fine details. But we do know that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine with a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people on board.

The majority of those whose lives were tragically cut short were from Holland, as flight MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. On board were 154 Dutch who died, as well as 27 Australians. Russian separatists are blaming Ukraine, while the Ukrainian government is blaming the Russian-backed rebels.

So those are some of the grim facts which we now know. Much more difficult to get a handle on is why these things in fact happen. Immediate answers have to do with geopolitical conflict, ethnic tensions, historical grievances, and so on. The various experts in these and related fields can of course discuss at length these sorts of causes.

But perhaps far more people will be asking the much bigger questions of why this happened, especially in the context of Christian beliefs. Friends and foes alike will ask at a time like this well known questions: Where was God? Why did he allow this to happen? Why did he not intervene?

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These sorts of questions have of course been asked millions of times over countless tragedies, disasters, and cases of evil and suffering. And they are hardly new questions, with the same sort of discussions taking place millennia ago. Perhaps as long as 3000 years ago Job was asking very similar sorts of questions.

For the theist, as well as the anti-theist, there is even a name for all this: it is called theodicy. Breaking down the Greek, we have the words for God and justification. A theodicy has to do with justifying the ways of God, especially in the light of so much evil and suffering in the world.

Basically, the issue is, if God is all-good, and all-powerful, then how can such a God be reconciled with so much terrible evil in the world? It was the German philosopher Leibniz who first coined the term in 1710. He argued that the suffering and evil in the world does not conflict with the notion of a good and omnipotent God.

As noted, for millennia now people have thought and written about all this. Entire libraries can be filled with the works on this. So it is always silly in the extreme to think one can today add anything new to the discussion. And we can barely begin to scratch the surface concerning it.

For what it is worth, I have written 186,000 words on this for a thesis (which may yet one day be turned into a book). And there are far better minds who have sought to tackle this, whether an Augustine, a Leibniz, a C. S. Lewis, or an Alvin Plantinga.

Philosophers, theologians and others have penned oceans full of ink on this, and will continue to do so. So why do I even bother to try to write about this? Well, we are all touched by suffering and tragedy – it is a common human condition which we all need to deal with and think about. And Christians especially are called to seek to think God’s thoughts after him.

So even though I have often written about these matters before, and will likely simply repeat myself here, a few thoughts can be offered, at least from the vantage point of the Judeo-Christian worldview. So here are just some general points that can be raised.

First, we live in a fallen world. Things are simply not the way they are supposed to be. God’s ideal for mankind was resisted early on by our first parents, and we have been doing the same ever since. Mankind lives in rebellion against God, so we resist and hinder his very good purposes for us.

We live in sin and in rebellion against an all-good God, and we simply bring great evil and suffering upon ourselves by living in such rebellion and selfishness. So why does evil happen? Because, in part, we are evil people who do evil things.

Much of the biblical worldview on this issue centres on the fact that human beings can decide either to cooperate with God and live in obedience and harmony with him, or to reject him and his loving and gracious purposes for us.

People are now living in active rebellion against the only source of what is good, right, just and kind. When we reject God, we reject and put ourselves outside of and against who he is. When we reject a loving, kind, righteous and merciful God, we reject those very qualities, and embrace their opposites.

That has been our condition from day one. God could have simply left us in this hell hole, both now and forever. But in his rich grace and mercy he offered us a way out. He actually took the step of becoming like us in the person of Jesus, living a perfect and sinless life, and taking our place and our deserved punishment on the cross.

Countless lives are and have been turned around because of what Christ has done on our behalf. The world would be a far more evil and wicked place had all these millions of changed lives not occurred. And in the biblical scheme of things, one day Christ will return, right all wrongs, and put an end to all evil and rebellion.

Things will then revert to how they were intended to be from the very beginning. Complete and total justice will be meted out; sin will be no more, and as a result, suffering and evil will be no more. That is the good news of the Christian gospel.

In sum: Sin is an intruder into this world, and with sin has come unmitigated evil and suffering. But God has not left us to our own devices; he has acted to deal with this perversion of his moral universe in the person and work of Christ. And one day these anomalies will be no more, and the good, righteous and loving rule and reign of God’s kingdom will fully take place.

So real steps have been taken to turn things around. Sadly, not everyone chooses to embrace this incredible offer of forgiveness and new life. Many people prefer living in their own selfish and sinful world, and have no intention of bowing the knee to the God who is there.

Because of this ongoing defiance and rebellion, much of the evil and suffering we find in the world can in good measure be explained and accounted for. So for the most part we can put down this airline tragedy to the actions of sinful and selfish human beings, who are at war with God, with one another, and even themselves.

Sure, a million more issues and questions arise here, but they have all been discussed, debated, and answered time and time again. As I said, it is not my intention to answer every question here, or even to try. But the biblical worldview goes a long way in explaining why evil exists, where it came from, how it has been dealt with, and what its final outcome will be.

I find no other worldview that answers as comprehensively, as coherently, and as satisfactorily the problem of evil. In this fallen world, all our explanations and theodicies will be less than perfect and complete. But despite plenty more questions and concerns, the biblical worldview offers us a tangible and satisfactory framework in which to think about suffering and evil.

And as to this most recent of tragedies, the Christian can of course, at the very least, pray persistently and diligently for all those involved. Even in these horrific situations, God is able to provide substantial comfort and healing. He grieves with us, and is not immune from our suffering.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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