This post was written following the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in three Sri Lankan churches and several hotels in which 269 people were killed. However, the topic is relevant to any more recent disaster.
Millions of us had just finished celebrating Easter – Jesus had risen, death was defeated. But it was not so for the hundreds of Christians in Sri Lanka who had their precious sons, daughters and parents snatched from them in a moment of terror. Just a few weeks before that we had learnt of the barbaric shooting of adults and children at a New Zealand mosque. And before that there was Cyclone Idai in Mozambique which killed hundreds, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. It’s easy to forget, and we can add to this list any more recent disaster, natural or man-made.
Why does God allow so much suffering? … is a question that often rears its head in our age of civil wars, extreme weather, and terrorist acts. Ultimately it’s not a question we can answer satisfactorily, but there are things we can say about this question that might help.
It’s a recent question
It may seem surprising but “why does God allow bad things to happen?” is a recent question.
It’s not new of course, but it is asked much more today than in any previous age. That makes sense when we understand that today, especially in developed economies, we are shielded from much of the suffering that occurred in the past. For example, up to the 18th century, people expected one in three of their children to die before they reached 5, and mothers regularly died in childbirth. Pestilence, hunger and plague came around often, and, if you made it through all that, life expectancy was about 40. Bad things just happened, a lot, so asking “why did this happen?” was pointless.
Today, medical technology has brought benefit to millions, reducing pain and extending life. But it has also brought an expectation – especially to us in the west — that we shouldn’t have to suffer, at all. So, when things go wrong, we end up asking “why?”.
Bad things just happened – asking “why?” was pointless
It’s a theological question
There is a lot of theology around the problem of suffering, but it’s enough to note just three things.
As Christians we believe that disaster, sickness, even accidents, were never part of God’s original creation. The created world of Genesis 1 was perfect and included man’s ability to exercise free will. But all this became subject to degeneration once rebellion and corruption entered the world. By Genesis 4 there has already been a murder and the world is in trauma.
In addition, suffering has no part in God’s final creation. At the crucifixion God defeated evil, suffering, even death itself, and began a new age open to anyone: At the fulfilment of this age “there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Right now, however, we live between the ages, between Genesis and Revelation, in a disfigured world, which is not as it should be. But we are not left to face it alone. God will not leave us alone…
Christianity is the only faith that has at its core the suffering and death of its own God. We sometimes imagine God to be distant and disconnected, and if only he would wave his magic wand to make the bad things go away. But it’s not like that. God is neither distant, nor unconcerned about suffering. On the contrary, God accompanies us and even has an intense, personal knowledge of suffering and loss. In our struggles it can help us to know that God has been there before us.
If only God would wave his magic wand to make the bad things go away
It’s a pastoral question
Early Christians sought to develop faith communities in which suffering could be spread and somehow absorbed by the whole community. When calamity came, as it often did, the individuals affected were not left alone, they were borne up by all. The community made themselves vulnerable and were prepared to suffer alongside the individual.
Similarly, as 21st century Christian communities, when people around us suffer loss, most often the best thing we can do is to share their sadness. Sharing their sense of loss, literally sharing the pain, with no “words of wisdom”, and allowing the ones most affected to grieve. Living faithfully in this age means living with some questions unanswered, but the power of community to resist hurt, sorrow, and grief is real. Let’s pray that the communities affected by any disaster in the past months can experience this community for themselves.
And here’s a different question
Lastly, at least for those of us not facing sadness or loss today it’s important to remind ourselves of a different question, the question we usually forget:
Why does God allow good things to happen?
That is also a question. Why should there be mountain views, days at the seaside, job satisfaction, a welcoming smile, or a sunny morning? The universe doesn’t owe us that – God doesn’t owe us that. And why do many, many bad things not happen? – that car collision you avoided, that bug you didn’t catch, the accident that didn’t happen – why was that? There is no guaranteed ticket to a life free from harm. It’s tempting to think that if we only pray, and pursue good works and give away our money, we shouldn’t have to face the disasters of life. But there is no “deal” like that. However, a well-developed attitude of wonder at creation and gratefulness for all that is right can underpin our lives. And it can provide us with some balance when we enter those hardest of times.
Why does God allow good things to happen?