Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Problem of Natural Disasters and Hope For the Evangelical

For the evangelical who employs the free will theodicy (theology of evil), explaining natural disasters is a most difficult theological challenge. The free will theodicy explains evil's existence through the Fall of humanity described in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This event symbolises human rebellion and the point at which evil began to corrupt God's good earth, and humanity began to die.

The free will answer to the problem of evil generally argues that death, chaos and destruction affected God's good creation at the Fall. Before the Fall, there is evil present in creation in the form of the snake (Satan symbolically); however, the snake could not directly affect the creation unless humanity sinned and allowed evil's release.

There are two main ways they argue. First, that there were no natural disasters before the Fall which affected humanity. For the old-earth Christian who holds to an old earth and universe in line with contemporary science, there were likely natural events such as earthquakes, eruptions etc, which God used to help form his world. By the time of the creation of animals the world was in perfect equilibrium without such catastrophic events or with them contained. At the Fall these resumed or were amplified/released and death and destruction ensued. For a young earther, there was no need for these events as God created the world in equilibrium and death, and all destruction, decay, chaos and death resulted from the Fall.

Secondly, you can argue that there were natural disasters before the Fall and these continue until today. There are two main variants here. One is that there were natural events but no death as God preserved his creation. The alternative is that there were natural events which caused animal and other death, but God preserved humanity through them. Another alternative is that the OT accounts should not be taken literally and that natural disasters are part of life and that we cannot be sure of the origin of evil. What matters is not the origin of evil, but that Christ has come into his world to bring hope and to overcome evil ultimately redeeming creation and ending suffering. This new creation can be this world restored – which of course implies that the world did previously exist in equilibrium and will again when Christ returns and all things are sorted. Or, the new creation will be an alternative existence and free of such problems. This implies of course that such a world is possible and so one can then argue, why not this one before evil's chaos took hold?

Contemporary scientifically minded people outside of Christianity and other faith's who rely on the same creation story (Islam, Judaism) struggle to accept any perspective that does not accept that natural catastrophic events have occurred from the inception of the world. They see them as 'normal', part of the world as it is. They argue that the amazing geography of the world and fossil record relies on such events e.g. floods, eruptions, and earthquakes.

Because of this, for us evangelicals this is a point of great challenge in our theological construct no matter how we argue it. I tend to opt for the idea that God created his world with a process that climaxed at a point of equilibrium, something that took a long time (old earth). I am a little torn as to whether death in the animal world was normative but that humans were preserved, or whether death in the animal world did not exist at all before the fall. The latter seems to fit better with the thinking of Paul in Rom 5:12; 8:19-23; the former with what appears evident in scientific enquiry. Currently, I hold the latter in line with what Paul appears to be saying, but am not completely confident of this position. There seem problems with either.

The ancients tended to explain natural disasters in terms of curse and blessing and the peace of the God/gods. If the deity was happy, then there was a cessation of such events. If the deity was displeased for one reason or another, these events would happen. Events such as the Christchurch or Japanese earthquakes were necessarily a message from God, a warning, and some form of repentance or penitence was expected. The Jews thought this of events in the OT period and especially exile, which all pointed to their failure to uphold the covenant and law. Their exile was the ultimate judgment of God, although restoration was also promised. In the Roman world, the same problem occurred, with Romans blaming Christians for natural events, and persecuting them. They destabilised the context and upset the gods (peace of the gods).

Such thinking is common in the Christian world with people interpreting events as God's judgment for sin; often for such things as sexual sins etc (cf. Sodom and Gomorrah). Those Christians who hold to a view that such events happen and that is life in a fallen world, do not blame them directly on sin. Rather, they reflect the problem of a fallen world in general, not direct judgment, but the result of a world fractured and broken. Taking them in this way frees such Christians from having to speak 'prophetically', assuming that they need to find out why something happened, and call for repentance. Rather, they get alongside those suffering knowing that 'sh...t happens' and they grieve with those who grieve and mourn with those who mourn. They do not seek to judge, and blame; rather, they seek to comfort. Hope comes from the presence of the Spirit expressed through love, compassion, care and support. Hope future comes from the return of Christ when the world will be renewed or a new world is created, and never again will the people of God's world suffer from such events. Of course, there is still a call for repentance in the gospel, but the natural events are not directly related to specific sins; rather, it is the general problem of sin from which all humans, Christian alike, must repent.

I strongly prefer the latter point of view. Jesus predicted that such events would occur across his world (esp. Rom 13; cf. Revelation), and does not necessarily link these to direct sin from the nations involved. Rather, it is part of the story of a broken world. Jesus is the key to all this. He came into his fallen world and lived the full experience of being human, frail, weak, and subject to the forces of the world. He was persecuted, suffered, was beaten, and killed, and died. In so doing, he experienced the full brunt of human malice and violence. He also experienced the struggle of living in a broken world, experiencing the forces of the natural world like hurricanes on the lake etc. Whatever the cause of natural events, he is our point of hope, the God who suffered on our behalf for us. He rose from the dead and his Spirit is now released to fill us, not so we can escape into some holy ether above suffering; but to live in it, experiencing it, and yet finding our hope and strength in Jesus and the Spirit, and ultimately in his return. It is about comfort in the midst of suffering, not release from it. This does not rule out miracles where God for his own good purposes intervenes and does something counter-natural. However, the power of death continues to weave its web and the healed fall sick again and eventually die. Death is at work powerfully in God's world. As we live in Christ we experience hope from Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and by his Spirit. Suffering then is real. Suffering is to be expected. We will see more of these events, and no doubt even worse. Some interpret Mark 13 and its parallels in Matt 24; Luke 21 to suggest there will be an increase in intensity in such natural events leading to Christ's return, although others dispute this interpretation. Whatever, hope is greater, dwarfing suffering no matter how horrendous.

The greatest passage in the Bible without question is Rom 8:17-39 which speaks of the glory of hope in the midst of the horror of suffering. In this passage Paul gives reason after reason for believers to never give up hope because of the work of the Triune God in creation.

As we live in the midst of horror such as Christchurch and Japan we must not fall into the trap of seeking simple theological answers, of standing as prophets in judgment condemning the victims as if it is direct judgment from God on sin, of trotting out trite answers. Rather, we must walk with those who suffer, grieving with them, comforting, supporting, helping, and praying. What should dominate are compassion and hope, not judgment and harsh calls for repentance. We must allow others to minister to us when we are weak, walking with our fellow human pilgrims in frailty and weakness, but never giving up on the hope of a new world and Jesus' love for us. We must serve, feed, love, comfort, and care.

Neither should we panic as if all this means Jesus is about to return. Perhaps he is, but that should not bring fear but hope, for the redemption of the world is near. Whether he is about to return, or it is a 1000 years away, we need to live full on for him, ready for these events in every moment, for you never know when they will hit.



Anonymous said...

Nice to read Mark and will need to re-read but first two random thoughts.

That evil was empowered by the 'fall' of man, and that we see such disasters (will come back to that word) as evil, implies that 'man' is much more intertwined with creation, all creation than I had considered - are we really that important. Did Jesus not redeem all creation and not just man, or is it thru the redemption of man that creation is then 'redeemed'?

Disaster? If this natural event had occurred somewhere where there was no loss of life or property would it be reported as a disaster or just a big earthquake? We tag it as a disaster from 'our' perspective, and maybe we exalt ourselves in doing so?

ps this is not in anyway intended to diminish the suffering of all those involved.

Anonymous said...

We cling to this life . . . why is that if our hope is in the next?

Sean said...

I'm with Polkinghorne on this one:

*There is a great mystery in suffering, and I do not want to suggest that there is any facile way to understand its incidence. Yet I do not think we have to choose between a God who is inactive or arbitrary or (worst of all) a cruel manipulator. There is only one broad strategy possible for any theodicy. It is to suggest that the worlds suffering is not gratuitous but a necessary contribution to some greater good which could only be realised in this mysterious way. In relation to moral evil (the chosen cruelties of humanity), this leads me to embrace the free-will defence: that despite the many disastrous choices, a world of freely choosing beings is better than a world of perfectly programmed automata. I have gone on to suggest that in relation to physical evil (disease and disaster) there is a parallel “free-process defence”: that in his great act of creation, God allows the whole universe to be itself. Each created entity is allowed to behave in accordance with its nature, including the due regularities which may be part of that nature.

God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not the puppet master of either men or matter.*

CaroleMcDonnell said...

It's also possible that natural disasters turn people to God and in some strange way create a desire to know God. If people would've died and gone to hell and a disaster comes and seriously turns their minds to the creator, is it a disaster?

In the book of Job, God shows himself inscrutable. He sends rain in the desert where no one needs it, for example. An earthquake in and of itself is not a problem. The Bible declares that this world is prepared for fire. So the world as we know it is created to be temporary.

Amos begins his prophecy by saying, "Two years before the earthquake." The way I see it an earthquake per se is not meant to kill people. People can always escape it or not. people can be led into a city or out of it, led to one part of a street or to another part. And we don't know why. God is involved in everyone's life to a very very very very intimate degree. -C

Dr Mark K said...

I am with Polkinghorne but wonder how we deal with the creation narrative, Paul's perspectives, the idea of Eden-New Eden, Fall, etc, in terms of natural disasters. Am not quite happy to just use the word 'mystery', want to think through more to say.

I agree with you Carole that disasters can lead people to God. They also drive some away, as they despise a God who did not intervene when he could have.

If it does lead people to God, it still remains a disaster. The whole story of God is anti-death. Death is a horrendous thing, as is suffering and pain. It is here as a consequence of a universe with 'free' will and not a good. It has positive functions as you say, but it is still horrible, and it will be ended when Jesus returns. So, yes, every death for me is a disaster, and I yearn for the day that death and destruction end, Maranatha. God uses all things, good and bad, working the universe and its parts toward its goal. But, I won't trivialise disasters.

George, I do think that humanity lies at the centre of God's purposes and the fate of the world. We must not overplay this and deify ourselves. We are image bearers. In the ancient world, the king bore the image of god. We are granted sovereignty as image bearers. The apex of created beings are humans (the seventh day can be seen as a climax). It is for us that he created such a glorious world.

I think Paul sees the fall of the world as coterminus with the fall of Adam and Eve (Rom 5:12; 8:19-23) and its redemption will coincide with the revelation of the sons and daughters of God.

So, in a theological sense the state of the world is linked to us. We are stewards of the world.

Redemption is cosmic. God's purpose is to restore the whole lot. But our redemption is central. When redeemed we are called to join in the great redemption project, calling people to submit to God's kingship, and working with God to bring what is theologically actual (the redemption of the world in Christ), to be. This involves us working in all parts and places.

Every death is a disaster to me. It is the last enemy to be destroyed. I watched my 23 year old sister fade into death many years ago and my abhorrence for death and destruction has grown since that day when I felt defiled and disgusted by it. We are created for eternal relationship with God in freedom and peace and joy. Shalom is the word. Anything short of that is not ideal and we are to work in the present for the end of such things, and hope for that day when Jesus comes and makes all things right. For me, it is horrible when thousands die as in Japan, I join Jesus in weeping.

Stuart said...

Not mentioned here is a theodicy William Dembski has developed, which suggests that, in-line with evangelical thinking and the free will defense, natural evil is the result of moral evil (i.e. Adam and Eve's rebellion), but also that the effects of the fall are retroactive in history just as the salvific effects of the cross of Christ are. On this scheme, God foreknew the human response to temptation and created a world that would reveal to humanity the gravity of the consequences of their sin in the natural world after the expulsion from Eden.

See The End of Christianity; Finding a Good God in an Evil World, (Nashville, TE.; B&E Publishing, 2009).

Dr Mark K said...

Thanks Stuart, so this argues that death, corruption and decay were integral to a 'very good' creation from the first? Were humans placed in a dangerous world and preserved from this by God? (Tree of Life)?

Sean said...

Polkinghorn's not just relegating suffering to mystery, but suggesting that no one answer explains everything.

I'm not at all sure how Paul's perspectives in Roman 5 can be applied to the natural world. The problem is "death" for humans, not "death" in general. Death is only spoken of in human terms in Romans 5 and 1 Cor 15 makes it clear that death is an enemy for people, not the rest of creation.

I'm quite sure that death and decay existed "pre-fall" although I find the notion of "pre-fall" deeply problematic, since where did the snake come from? (assuming the snake was not doing God's bidding in testing their loyalty). Greg Boyd has argued for a non-human "fall" before the human "fall", See God at War, and Satan and the Problem of Evil.

Dr Mark K said...

Would agree with Polkinghorn on that.

Rom 5 and 8 are an inclusio with a range of common themes. Indeed, it could be a chiasm with common threads of Spirit, suffering, hope, sin, fall, death, corruption, love etc. In between are two chapters on freedom from death and freedom from law.

In Rom 5:12-13 sin caused death to enter the world and so death came to all people. On its own in isolation from Rom 8 you could come to the conclusion that the this implies only human death.

However, Rom 8:19-22 clearly speaks not of human sin alone, but a whole creation invaded with sin and corrupted, yearning under sin and hoping for redemption at the culmination. The 'whole of creation' clearly implies more than merely human death, and speaks of decay and death through God's created order as a restul of Adam's sin.

1 Cor 15 is interesting too with Paul quoting prophets Isaiah and Hosea both speaking of cosmic redemption and release from bondage to sin, in terms of the end of the final enemy, death.

I find it hard to accept that argument on that basis.

Stuart said...

so this argues that death, corruption and decay were integral to a 'very good' creation from the first?

Dembski advocates what he calls a kairological interpretation as opposed to a chronological interpretation of Genesis' open chapters, so on that basis I would say "No" since on this understanding God's purpose "from the first" was to create a creation without death, suffering, etc. But if we are stuck in a chronological frame of mind, I suppose I could say, "Yes" and qualify that "very good" is a value-laden word and we therefore need to ask "with respect to what?" Dembski would answer that the creation was very good with respect to revealing the gravity of the consequences of human rebellion (he knew would occur) and bringing about the possibility of redemption.

Were humans placed in a dangerous world and preserved from this by God? (Tree of Life)?

Chronologically, Yes. Dembski states (using my own words) that the minimal requirements of his theodicy include a "garden" for primal humanity that was an area of relative safety and provision. When the earliest humans (his theodicy does not require Adam and Eve) rebelled against God they were expelled from this "garden" (or it ceased to be a "garden") and they became aware of the dangerous world that God had prepared to reveal the gravity of the consequences of their sin.

Dr Mark K said...

I think the idea is problematic. Yes, it does satisfy the data, but I think it is questionable. Would need to read it to know what he is driving at properly to judge however. Still, it is another view.

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