Whenever there is a natural disaster like that of hurricane Harvey which is currently plaguing the southern Texas area, many will wonder where God is in all of this seemingly senseless loss of life. For the believer this can be a trying time to maintain faith based on the impact this type of tragedy can have on someone personally as well as beloved family and friends. For the skeptic these times are used as a defeater to the idea that there exists an all-knowing, all powerful and loving God. The accusation raised is that God, if He does exists, either He does not know of the evil His human creations are facing, does not care about their suffering or is powerless to intervene in the matter. If any of these options are true then God, in the Christian sense and definition, does not exist.

This problem of evil and suffering has been a challenge to Christianity from the early centuries of the spread of the gospel. Early church father Augustine would wrestle with the understanding of evil and its relation to a holy and righteous God. So troubling was his toil of evil and its related themes that it became a large factor into his hesitation to convert to Christianity.[1]

When responding to these issues it is important to point out that they fall into two major categories. The logical/evidential category which concludes that because of evil and suffering God does not or likely does not exist. The second category is the religious category where persons struggle with their faith given the experience of evil and human tragedy.

Taking up first the logical/evidential contentions it is important to point out that the recognition of evil and suffering assumes an objective standard of good. It also assumes that there is purpose and worth to human life. These assumptions can only be valid if there is a transcendent, personal being by which morality, purpose and worth are grounded. So here we see that our recognition of the tragedy logically leads us to the existence of God. Furthermore the evil and suffering caused by humans can be attributed to their free will which is given to each individual by God. The possibility of evil is inherent to a world of beings with free will. When specifically considering suffering like weather disasters it is clear that no one’s free will causes a hurricane. Here it is possible that God has some greater plan in mind, which will end in His glorious purposes. The problem here is that we as humans often cannot point to the greater good God brings about as a result of these disasters. However pointing out that we don’t see a reason for a tragic event doesn’t logically lead to Gods nonexistence, nor does our inability to understand His plan logically mean He does not have one.

These logical responses in the case of people’s religious contentions often aren’t the best approach. Someone whose faith is shaken because of tragedy probably isn’t interested in philosophical argumentation. Instead I offer the Christian message as the best solace to the human experience of evil and suffering. For Christianity, the origins of human evil are grounded in the free choice of man. It teaches that every man is drawn away by their own evil desires (James 1:14). This coheres with much of the evil that is part of the human experience. Our God is familiar with human suffering. Jesus, God in flesh, is able to sympathize with human weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus suffered and understood grief (Isaiah 53:3). His promise is that He will always be with us (Matthew 28:20) and that one day all evil and suffering will end and all things will be made new (Revelation 21:4-5). Norman Geisler summarizes that, “while this present world is not the best of all possible worlds, nonetheless, it must be the best means to the best world. Thus a world in which evil is permitted is the best kind of world to permit as a means to produce the best kind of world – one that has no evil in it. That world is our promised destiny.”[2]

I am reminded of a poem from William Cowper that offers encouragement in tragic times;

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.[3]

__________

[1] Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr., eds., God and Evil: the Case for God in a World Filled with Pain (IL: IVP Books, 2013), 65

[2] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: in One Volume, One ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2011), 796.

[3] William Cowper, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, 1774

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