That was a question I received on facebook recently from a student in our college ministry. I waited a week to answer, intimidated to answer, because I’m afraid that my answers isn’t going to make the listener says “Oh, I get it now.” There’s no silver bullet that I can give. Sorry.
Why does God allow thousands to die in an earthquake/tsunami? Heck, why does God allow one person to die in an earthquake? Frankly, the quantity makes the problem just more visible, not more real – If God is all-loving and all-powerful and all-knowing, why would it require a large number of people to die for Him to notice?
So then there are two questions you could ask: Why does God not intervene to stop people from dying? Or, why does God not intervene to stop people from experiencing pain?
To the second question (about pain), there are a few possible answers:
1. God values the free-will of people, and (in some cases) the free-will of various people (either the injured or the attacker) would be violated if God intervened.
2. God values more highly the character qualities that are created in response to pain: forgiveness, faith, mercy, grace, etc. If we did not experience pain at the hands of others, how would we learn to forgive?
3. Pain and conflict are a necessary part of any compelling story (this is somewhat overlapping with answer 2). While we think we would want a life free of all pain, in reality it would make life supremely dull. For us to experience adventure, there must be danger. This is explored in a brilliant way in the C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy books, especially the first book Out of the Silent Planet.
4. Biblically, there is kept open the possibility that God has a purpose that we neither know nor understand, as in the story of Job. He was tested for his faithfulness, but did not know why. It is possible that some suffering we experience is of the same variety, and the only response to it is to say “God, you are God and I am not, and I will trust you.” This is maybe the least popular option among people, but the most intimacy producing between us and God.
5. Finally, there is the possibility that suffering comes as a result of God’s judgment. I put this last because it is the least popular in our culture, and the least helpful to suggest to people in their pain (yeah, don’t do that). But, biblically it does happen, and intuitively we know that we want God to judge people at times, so it shouldn’t be ruled out that he has done just that (as long as it’s not us).
But pain is temporary. Why does God allow death?
According to Genesis, it was man and woman’s choice to die when Adam and Eve fell, and every time we sin we reiterate their desire to live out of proper relationship to God, who is the source of life. We brought death into the world through sin, and we live in their shadow. All of us, whether as a child or at a “ripe old age” will die as a result of sin. We are tempted to accept the latter as “normal,” because we don’t know better, that we are not made to die, but to live with God.
Now, that might not sound fulfilling to a skeptic, but it is central to the biblical understanding of death because, as Romans 5 says, just as death came through one man, life comes through one man, Jesus Christ. God invaded death, dying himself, that we might not continue to live under the curse of death. The skeptic says that he wants God to do something about suffering, about death. Jesus’ death on the cross is that “something.” He solved the problem of death, but it is not the problem we were looking to be solved. We wanted someone to make everyone live to 85 and die in their sleep. We are far too simply pleased. The cross solved death in its entirety.
Hope that helps/makes sense. I appreciate your heart in asking in it. Let me know if you’d like to talk about it.
So that’s how I responded. What would you have said that I didn’t?