God and the Tsunami

By Rev. Robert Barron

On November 1st 1755, a terrible earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. The temblor, which lasted about ten minutes, destroyed most of the buildings in the city and buried thousands of people in rubble. As would be the case with the San Francisco earthquake a hundred and fifty years later, fires broke out in the wake of the Lisbon quake that claimed the lives of many more people and destroyed much of economic infrastructure of the city. Finally, a series of tidal waves ensued, which killed many who had gathered at the shore to escape the flames. 

This event, metaphorically speaking, sent shock waves all across Europe, for it called into question the still commonly held belief in a benevolent and providential God. Though they knew about the calamity of Pompei from their books of ancient history, 18th century Europeans had never directly experienced wanton destruction on the scale of the Lisbon earthquake. How could a gracious, personal God ever have presided over a calamity of that magnitude? Keep in mind that this philosophical and religious crisis occurred at a time when many European intellectuals were, for the first time, calling the narrative of classical Christianity into question. Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire, among many others, weighed in on the matter of the Lisbon earthquake, and they agreed that such a disaster was reconcilable only with a view of God as an impersonal cosmic force or ultimate cause—and not with the Biblical notion of God as a loving personal presence.

I immediately thought of the Lisbon earthquake and its cultural aftermath when I saw a CNN report the other day on the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in northeast Japan. It was an eerily similar scenario: temblor, fire, flood, massive destruction, terrible loss of life—and the same inevitable questions about God’s involvement or lack thereof. How indeed can religious people make sense of such a disaster? Well, I’m sure we’ll find some who will claim, with supreme confidence, that this event is a divine punishment for some offense committed by the people of Japan. (In fact, as I write these words, I am just hearing of a Japanese commentator who claims that it was retribution for the materialism of his country). Of course, the book of Job gives the lie to this kind of facile theologizing about God’s purposes when it exposes as frauds the “friends” of Job who endeavor to explain the poor man’s sufferings through just this kind of argument. On the other extreme, we will undoubtedly find atheists and agnostics maintaining that the evil unfolding in Japan positively proves that the personal God of the Bible is a childish superstition and a wish-fulfilling fantasy.

The truth of the matter lies beyond these easy options. A first observation to make is this: God can never be construed as the “cause” of evil. This is true for two reasons. First, the God who is nothing but love can never positively will something wicked and second, the God who is Being Itself can never be the ground of evil, which is always a lack of being or a type of non-being. Therefore, we have to say that God “permits” evil within his creation. But why would God ever grant such “permission?” The classical answer is that God allows evil so as to bring about a greater good. Thus we say that God permits the abuse of free will—even in radical cases such as Hitler or Stalin—as a regrettable but inevitable concomitant of the existence of free will itself. And in explaining physical evils such as the Japan tsunami, we might follow the lead of Anglican priest and particle physicist John Polkinghorne and say that the “free will” defense might be accompanied by a “free process” defense. In other words, the same God who allows free will to have its way, with both good and bad consequences, permits the processes of nature to unfold according to their own rhythms, even when this results in states of affairs that are, from our perspective, both good and evil. After all, the recent tsunami was but the natural consequence of an earthquake, which followed upon the shifting of tectonic plates, which followed from the basic structures of the earth, which are the result of the earth’s relation to the sun, etc., etc. God desires nature to have its own causal integrity, even though this will result in consequences both good and bad—as for example, evolution pushes forward according to the same dynamic—random genetic mutation—that gives rise to cancer.

Can we clarify any further the reasons for the divine “permission” of evil? I might draw upon an old story from the eastern spiritual tradition. A farmer’s horse ran away, and his friends commiserated with him over his loss; but the farmer responded, “we’ll see.” A week later, the horse returned with three others, and his friends rejoiced with him over his good fortune; and the farmer said, “we’ll see.” A week later, his son was riding one of the horses and fell and broke his leg. His friends sympathized with him over this tragedy, and the farmer said, “we’ll see.” The next week, recruiters for the emperors army came to draft the young man into the army but excused him because of his broken leg; the farmers friends congratulated him on his good luck and the farmer said, “we’ll see.” The story goes on in this vein, making the simple but significant point that we never ultimately see the good and evil that might come any set of circumstances. We say that God permits evil so as to bring about a greater good. What possible good could come from the Japanese tragedy? Believers in a provident God and in a life that stretches beyond this one might say, with a serenity born of faith, “we’ll see.”