Contemplating Katrina

Contemplating Katrina

We Christians are caught in a dilemma: it is captured succinctly by Amos: "Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?" (Amos 3:6). It is simply not an option for us to remove God from the context of evil and then suddenly invoke him when the sun shines. This is true not just for Hurricanes like Katrina, but all kinds of evil: cancers, mutilating injuries, birth defects, cruelty to little children not to mention oppression, poverty, murder, rape and though some may baulk at its inclusion, the mindless cruelty to animals. Where is God in all of this?

Written at the outbreak of the Second World War, C. S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain states the problem pithily: "If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do as he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both." Actually, David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, had already expressed the problem of evil in the same way: "Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"

Over 3,000 lives were lost on September 11, 2001 in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington; In 1998, tropical storm Mitch killed more than 130 people and made half a million people homeless in Honduras and Nicaragua. Over 1,450 people died in 1999 during an earthquake in Taiwan. The death toll from the South Asian tsunami of 2004 is thought to exceed 200,000, a substantial percentage being children. And Katrina's death toll, predicted initially as 10,000, is likely to be considerably smaller, perhaps less than a thousand.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov describes a scene in which a five year old child is beaten senseless by her parents and then has one character (Ivan) asks another (Alyosha):

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

"No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.

What is the Christian position when it comes to events like Katrina? There are several options open to us:

We could adopt the option of the Open Theists: We could suggest that God is not in full control of the future. Bad things happen because, well, let me see. How does Dr. John Sanders put it?

God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God's will for their lives, and he enters into dynamic, give and take relationships with us....God takes risks in this give-and-take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in working toward his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. On other occasions, God works with human decisions, adapting his own plans to fit the changing situation.

In other words, God is always ready with Plan B when Plan A fails. He is infinitely resourceful, just not really sovereign in the conventional sense of the term.

Or, we could adopt the position of the so-called Process Theologians (theologians like Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne for example) that God affects history only by gentle persuasion and not by coercion.

God gently persuades all entities towards this perfection by providing each of them with a glimpse of the divine vision of a better future. And yet all entities retain the freedom to depart from that vision.

Then there's Rabbi Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Viewing God as all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful leads to too many difficulties when it comes to pain and evil. At least one attribute has to be abandoned. He suggests that we reject omnipotence. God has finite powers to influence people's actions, but remains all-knowing and all-loving. Kushner's God didn't prevent Katrina because he didn't have the power to do so. God can only cry with the victims.

None of these are options for us. We believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. That is clearly what the Bible tells us.

So what should be our response? Let me suggest four things to be going on with:

  1. First, and should be first, we must be filled with compassion for the victims. Archbishop Ramsey once said, in God there is no unChristlikeness at all. And the vision of Jesus looking down upon hardened and disbelieving Jerusalem and weeping is one that surely must control the way we view how God looks down on this event and the people caught up in it. God's compassion never fails.

  1. We need to be careful when suggesting that Katrina is a judgment of God. After all, those who suffered by Katrina were both Christians as well as sinners. We make the mistake to think that great sin will invoke the great judgment and miss the fact that great sin is itself the judgment of God--he abandons sinners to their own ways (something which Paul makes clear in Romans 1). There is a judgment here to be sure. Great judgment! But the same event can be a source of hardening to one and softening to another. Through these horrendous events, some will have fallen to their knees and found the Savior. Others will have used the occasion to further the intent of their evil hearts. We have heard (and seen) both.

  1. Good comes out of evil through the superintendence of a sovereign God. It is the message of Romans 8:28. If we deny that, the cross makes no sense at all. For out of the evil of injustice and hatred and judicial execution by a kangaroo court the greatest good of all emerges--our redemption. One good is the display of human kindness that is evidenced through acts of mercy that provides a cup of cold water to those who need it.

  1. In the end, no amount of theological reflection will surmount the problem of evil in a world which God has made. Whatever we say, we will have to admit an impenetrable deep, a mystery. Job was never given any answers to his questions. All he could do in the end was to lay his hand upon his mouth and worship a God who had overwhelmed him with a vision of his greatness. As Charles Spurgeon explained, when we cannot trace God's hand, we must simply trust His heart.