Tsunami, Japan, March 2011: Why the suffering?

Grant Swart

The past week’s catastrophic events in Japan, brought about by the massive earthquake and resultant tsunami, has no doubt once again caused many unbelievers to pose the question as to why, if God exists and is an all loving God, He would allow suffering on such an enormous scale. It is a popular question which is often posed to apologists and to those who contend Biblically for true Christian faith.

This question has received some wonderful answers through the years, as the subject of numerous good books, articles and discussions. I certainly do not wish to emulate these great intellectual works by offering a new way of answering the question, but merely to address the subject in the light of recent events of global interest.

On a foremost TV channel, an American commentator asked of an unbelieving world, while reporting on the tsunami in Japan: “Now, where is Godzilla in all of this?” It seemed quite obvious that his derogatory manner was not referring to the atomically enhanced, super-sized amphibious lizard of Hollywood fame, but rather to the Creator God.

Typically, the believer hears many similar reckless comments, often in testing times such as these. Testing times such as these which tend to emphasize to the unbeliever how insignificant they are, and they don’t like being reminded of that. Wild accusations are made by the undiscerning secular and unbelieving world against the true God. Unashamedly, self-important men and women, who have been blinded and deafened by a hopeless over-estimation of their own importance in God’s plan, continue to pilot themselves under their own control down wide worldly money strewn roads, tarred with success, vanity and fame.

Many of these sad cases are individuals who have been overcome by personal worldly success and pride. To the world, being fortunate enough to having been ‘overcome’ by success and prosperity must be a great thing, surely? But alas, the eternal reality thereof is somewhat different. Unaware of the terrifying outcome of their own misguided efforts, the members of this deceived community lurch, claw and thoughtlessly plunder their own spiritual lives, while they force their way to eternal secluded suffering.

That is the classic atheistic view that says there is no God, therefore He is not responsible for the suffering we see. How can you blame someone who doesn’t exist? This also the view of those who profess to being Christians, but wish to limit God in His sovereignty.

It is a tragic reality that much of this attitude and false doctrine is acquired by these lost individuals, from institutions and influential personalities who attempt and sometimes succeed in passing themselves off as Christians. Some of these institutions are of more recent Charismatic origin with their prosperity preaching and ‘kingdom now’ theology. Even more alarmingly, many of them are virtually as old as the true Christian church and therefore seem, to the undiscerning, to be representative of the Truth. Virtually, because very soon after Pentecost, Satan would have started instituting these types of deceptive schemes within the church.

This type of reality was again evidenced by a short newspaper article I read recently which was written by an obviously, although unstated, Roman Catholic author. In that article the author publicized the idea that all of the Christian churches prior to the year 1500, had conformed with the rituals and traditions which constituted the season of Lent. This absurdity insinuates that, prior to the year 1500 the Christian church did not exist, as the Christian church would not have been adhering to pagan rituals during that period of time.

Now, irrespective of the importance which must be given to determining the authenticity of Lent as a Biblical prescriptive, the mere referral to the spiritual Church (the body of true believers which constitute the Church) as being a possible conglomerate of many diverse physical organizations, is an additional anti-Biblical absurdity. But then, one must bear in mind, that the institutions which hold to a form of Christian faith which includes a conglomeration of pagan religious influences, cannot and do not regard the Bible as the final authority.

Jesus did (does) not build His churches on the rock (Matt 16:18), but rather He did (does) build His (singular) church on the rock. Physical churches which lay claim to being that specific church which Jesus built, obviously misrepresent the Truth and are certainly not the Church which Jesus spoke about, although they certainly could contain individuals which do constitute the Body of Christ, the true believers. They are surely there for the same purpose as there are parts of that Body throughout the rest of the world (Mark 16:15). Whether those true believers can remain within those churches indefinitely, is problematic, as we are instructed to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14).

The true church cannot be confined solely to within any physically defined denomination, population group or other man-made boundary. Any church organization which proposes that it is denominationally exclusive and therefore authentic; non-denominational yet remains doctrinally extra-Biblical; pre-denominational yet denies Biblical authority, evades the truth and unity which Jesus spoke of.

The Church is not defined or identified by, and does not exist exclusively within, the physical parameters set by any man-made organization. The Church exists within the centuries old, worldwide, body constituting all spirit-led true believers. If it were not so, the instructions to the Apostles would have been different to what is clear in Mark 16:15:  And He said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”

If the intention was to create a physical church from where true Christianity would be controlled, Mark 16:15 would certainly have read differently. It would have to indicate that unbelievers should seek salvation by approaching a certain man-made institution through which the Holy Spirit would have been made available on behalf of God. Furthermore, that would include following the teachings of men, and adherence to rituals and traditions against which we are clearly warned.

The same would then be true for Mark 13:10  “And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations”, and others such as Matthew 24:14. That would have the further effect of a very specific group of extra-biblical individuals forging our understanding of God’s Sovereignty and perfect love, beyond that which is contained in the completed canon of the Bible.

It is my contention that this has been, in part, the cause of the inability of so many to grasp the fact that suffering can be a clear indicator of the existence of a loving God. Man’s insistence through pride to refuse to accept God’s complete Sovereignty in all things, man’s unwillingness to concede total ownership of all creation to God, man’s inability to humble himself completely in accordance with his fallen position before the Almighty God, has given rise to much of this confusion.

Typically, again, deceived or natural men and women believe that the extent of their current lives in the here and now, are all that matters. To them, that which can be experienced due it being tangible or otherwise physically perceivable, pleasurable and profitable to the flesh, is the only true reality. By that they are utterly convinced that their lives will end amicably and luxuriously due to their own remarkable efforts, at a point which they would preferably not give too much thought to, in the mirage of what they see as their ripe and deserved old age. Many of these worldly deceived give very little, or no consideration to their eternal spiritual state, as the reality of that state has been removed from their thoughts by the cunning deceptions of Satan.

Furthermore, because they love the world and their sin so much, God has allowed them to be blinded and even causes them to be blinded to the Truth. 2 Cor 4:3  And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. And further to this: Joh 12:40  “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”

 

Typically, yet again, when one brings to the attention of these men and women, the fact that they are truly deserving of absolutely nothing; that most of what they perceive as good, positive, profitable and pleasurable is in actual fact sinful and abominable before God; that sin is their unavoidable death sentence and that such sentence was imposed on them before they were conceived; it is dismissed by them as being an utterly ludicrous, illogical and scientific impossibility.  In the light of this system of thought imposed on the unbelieving world by the father of lies, the reason for these spiritually dead men and women being unable to comprehend an Almighty and loving God, who would cause some to suffer to bring glory to Himself and His creation, becomes clear.

This, from Dr Wayne Mack on this subject:

So what is God’s role when seemingly unjust events occur? Where is He in all of this? Is He a benevolent grand-father, who looks on from above, not daring to lift a hand to change things? Is He saddened by our plight , but powerless to do anything about it? Does He throw these things at us just to make us miserable? As in the old time western [movies], is He maliciously shooting at our feet to make us dance?

I have news for you. If God were like that, he would be no God at all and everything in the Bible would be false. If that were true of Him there would be no need for prayer- what good would it do after all? There would be no need to study the Bible- how could we trust it after all? But praise be to God! he is not an impotent God, powerless to lift His hand to help us. He does not sit on His throne, wringing His hands in sorrow and despair. He does not capriciously throw trouble our way just to watch us squirm. No! the God of the Bible is who He says He is!

Notwithstanding the tragic and terribly sad circumstances of those who have suffered great loss, those whose lives have been traumatized in ways few of us can fully comprehend, events such as the tsunami in Japan do provide comforting proof to the believer of God’s Almighty Sovereignty.

Natural disasters such as this and even other major destructive events caused by human fallibility and oversight, such as the impending nuclear disaster in Japan subsequent to the tsunami, should lead a doubting countenance before the world to accept the Sovereignty of our Creator. Events such as these should lead us to humble ourselves before the Creator who caused them, and they should lead us to understand that we cannot worship the creation, but that we must worship the Creator.

Popular worldview says that nothing caused nature, and that “nothing”  is nothing, as in “There’s nothing in the refrigerator.” Meaning that there is something there, but nothing desirable.

So easily man applies his own perception of reality and truth to such momentous events, in an attempt to give the world the impression that man is actually in control. Man attempts to disguise his helplessly inadequate position, by portraying and that he simply forgot for a moment to apply that control, thus the message is that the suffering could have been avoided if man had simply followed his own logical advice.

It is a blind person who does not see that God uses massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis and other natural events to enable the earth to sustain life. The constantly moving continental plates are shifted by massive earthquakes that lift the earth, changing and recycling the old. The new earth which the shifts produce will enable the formation of soil, waterfalls, flowers, lakes, fertile lands, nourishing minerals, forests and replenishing rain.

Through these enormous geological events, which cause the loss of our material goods, cities, human, animal and plant life, the unbeliever assumes that God is causing suffering and being unloving. Rather, when we understand that, in the greater scheme of things, God is acting in the most loving way possible, and that if it were not for these great geological events, life would not be sustainable, we can see the true glory in creation. We will then not be blinded by the very limited and affected wisdom of certain men and their restrictive theories, who are absolutely determined to hold on to or claim some part of that glory, by portraying God the Creator and the Creation as faulty.

Isn’t it a further irony, that most of those who believe that God is unloving in His causing these massive disasters, either continually try to refute His absolute control, or even to deny His existence in favour of evolution? It is also quite amusing that most of those unbelievers also maintain that the human lives which are lost in these “unloving” acts of God, believe that those same human lives are soulless evolving apes who once lived as amphibians and single-celled organisms.

Contrary to a comment which I received a while ago, which stated that, to say that God is in control is simply piousness; that to say that God is in control is tantamount to intimidating the unbeliever; events such as these underline the fact that God is certainly and undeniably in control of all things.

To deny that which is a precisely revealed truth and to deny that God is Sovereign in the hope of not offending unbelievers, is a position and attitude which no true believer would adopt. It denotes an attitude which is akin to that which is employed by the world against Christianity, whereby an attitude of tolerance toward unbelief, political correctness and false religions takes preference over Biblical instruction.

Included in this worldly deception, is a complete overemphasis on showing an undue respect to unbelievers and their perceived rights, which overrides the clear Biblical instruction to respect God’s Word. If proclaiming the Gospel and proffering Biblical teaching causes the unbeliever to develop an aversion to the truth, it is clear evidence that the unbeliever has not been convicted of his/her sinfulness by the Holy Spirit. Any conversion to a belief system which excludes the Holy Spirit, is a conversion to a false god, through an evil spirit and an unbiblical doctrine.

No sinful and fallible man could cause an unbeliever to accept, or to reject, the truth of God’s Word and saving Grace. If that were possible, it would indicate that the fallen sinner had commanding control over the Holy Spirit, for it is He who convicts and conveys to us the Truth, and it is He who quickens our faith (1 Cor 2:13,14).

It is accepted that Faith comes from hearing God’s Word through His Holy Spirit and that Faith is accomplished by actions of obedience with patience and perseverance. If proclaiming the truth that God is in control causes the unbeliever to shun the Gospel, would it also be true that, should the unbeliever never come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, the blame for that tragedy is to be laid at the door of the Gospel, or at the hand of an ineffective or unconvincing evangelist?

Furthermore, to deny that God is in control; to deny that our salvation is solely by the grace of God and entirely according to His will alone, is to deny what is clearly the sole source of the true believer’s faith and the sole object of true Christian worship. Rejection of the truth that a Sovereign God is in absolute control, explains clearly the reason for not being able to understand why a loving God allows or even causes suffering.

Let me offer this from Psalm 46, to those who choose to obscure the truth that God is in control from the unbeliever. Evangelists cannot withhold the Truth from unbelievers in the hope that obscuring God’s Sovereignty will “draw” the unbeliever to salvation.

Psa 46:2  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3  though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah. 4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5  God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. 6  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah 8  Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. 9  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. 10  “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” 11  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

So, why would anyone want to adopt a false view of what God’s role is in disasters such as the tsunami of March, 2011 in Japan? Why would anyone want to adopt the belief that God is not in control of all of His creation and proclaim such blatantly incorrect reasoning, misconception and false Biblical doctrine?

If nothing but hopelessness lies at the bottom of their thinking, brought about by a synergistic belief in the ability of man to save himself and to ultimately control that which happens in the world, the reason becomes clearer. Sometimes they adopt the “limited God” concept because of ignorance or misinformation. For certain, they have never been taught or have never truly understood the Bible’s teaching on the sovereignty of God, their origins or spiritual eternity.

I urge anyone who reads this to allow God’s Word alone to transform your way of thinking and with it your emotions and behaviour. I urge you to conform with God’s Word and the result will be that the way you think about things like the Japan tsunami will change. You will be more able to dismiss the confusing understanding of why man is hopeless in his quest for control over the world and his eternal spiritual security. Submit to God’s authority over all things, including your life.

I have attached an article by Bob Passantino below, which includes much sound teaching regarding this subject.

 

Robert Passantino

If God Is Good, Why Is There So Much Suffering in the World?

 

Each of us has watched a loved one die, been the victim of a crime, lived among the poverty-stricken, or in some way been confronted with the reality of suffering. Human history sometimes seems like one long chronicle of suffering and despair. In the midst of suffering we cry out,

Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of the soul, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure. . . . For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil. [Job 3:20-21, 24-26]

Why is there suffering? Why are the innocent victimized? Is there purpose in pain? Is there any escape? For the Christian, who believes that God is all-good and all-powerful, answers to these questions are especially important.

Skeptics frequently challenge Christians with the problem of a good God allowing suffering. Usually their argument says, “If God is all-powerful, he could prevent or eliminate suffering. If God is all-good, he would not want his creation to suffer. Since you say God is both, suffering should not exist. In fact, however, we see suffering all around us and experience it ourselves. Therefore, God doesn’t exist, or he’s not all-powerful, or he’s not all-good.”

First, we need to distinguish between philosophical and personal engagement with suffering. When someone is in the midst of anguish, all the logic and truth in the world is incomplete without a demonstration of compassionate love. Answers are not merely conclusions of mental exercises, they should have consequences in our lives.

Second, we need to consider the consequences of accepting the skeptic’s alternatives: Suffering proves that God does not exist, or He is not all-powerful, or He is not all-good. If God does not exist, then all of existence, including our suffering, has no enduring value, purpose, or goal. If God is not all-powerful, then we have no hope that suffering will ever be eliminated. If God is not all-good, then to pain and despair we must add the threat of immanent divine sadism. Each of these alternatives is at least as problematic as the Christian alternative, so the skeptic has merely exchanged one answer he doesn’t like for others equally unpleasant. The skeptic has not solved the problem of suffering merely by refusing to solve it. We should judge answers by truth, not emotion.

Third, we need to understand that many problems with theology come from problems with personal world views and values. For example, the pleasure of helping someone who is needy has absolutely no value to the person to whom self-indulgence is the highest good. Many people struggle with the problem of God and suffering because they reject a Christian world view. Avoiding suffering has become preferable to learning patience; immediate gratification means more than self-discipline; self-gratification is more important than sharing; and physical pleasure is superior to spiritual joy.

Fourth, the skeptic assumes parts of the Christian world view in order to indict the Christian God, but he is unwilling to acknowledge the other parts of the Christian world view that answer his indictments. He assumes a standard of “good” that is absolute and eternal (and, therefore, cannot have its source in changing, finite humans), but denies the existence of the absolute and eternal.

In a non-theistic world where values are social conventions, survival mechanisms, majority opinions, or assertions of the most powerful, there can be no absolute, eternal values. “Good” as a social convention is merely what a society declares to be good; in one society it might be eating one’s enemies, in another it may be loving one’s enemies. “Good” as a survival mechanism could include killing off imperfect, non-productive members of the species, such those with less than average intelligence or poor eyesight, or restricting reproduction to the physical and mental elite; etc. If the skeptic wants to borrow the Christian definition of values as absolute and eternal, then he can’t reject the Christian explanation of suffering which is consistent with such values.

If the Christian world view is considered, there are a variety of approaches to the question of God and suffering. Biblical convictions include (1) suffering does not originate with God and will be eliminated at some point; (2) God works good in the midst of suffering; (3) not all pain is suffering in the moral sense; (4) and physical, transient suffering and death are relatively inconsequential compared to spiritual, eternal suffering and death.

God is all-powerful, meaning He can accomplish anything that can be accomplished with power. He cannot use power to do “non-power” kinds of things, such as the logically impossible. He cannot make two plus two equal five, violate His unchangeable nature, make Himself go out of existence and come back into existence, and He cannot make morally responsible persons without allowing for the possibility of those persons making wrong choices. The Bible says that suffering is the consequence of the wrong choice (sin) of morally responsible persons. If God always prevented people from sinning, or always prevented the consequences of sin, then human goodness would be mere programming, not true goodness. We do not pat a computer on its head when it executes its program — it is a determined function, not an exercise of moral responsibility. Suffering, the consequence of human sin, is not caused by God, but by the sin of persons with moral responsibility. Also, God has not abandoned the world to eternally suffer the consequences of sin. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to provide ultimate freedom from the consequences of sin. It is wrong to indict God because suffering is not yet eliminated, just as it would be wrong to indict a doctor who treats a gunshot wound he didn’t cause, simply because the wound is not healed instantly.

Our assurance that God will eliminate suffering is not the only comfort God gives us. While God did not cause suffering, he has given it purpose. It became the vehicle for our salvation when “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Complete avoidance of suffering is not an option for any of us. Our option is to waste our experience or realize God’s purposes in the midst of suffering. Through suffering we can learn patience, self-discipline, trust, and many other “virtues.” When we suffer we can experience the love, compassion, and self-denial of those who help us. When we help someone who is suffering, we find significance in our own lives as well.

Not all pain is “bad” in the moral sense. God created us with nerve endings that use pain to protect us. Pain keeps us from burning our hands in a campfire, bending our legs back until the joint breaks, neglecting nourishment until we starve, etc. Suffering can also be a direct, just consequence of our own actions. Our sense of justice says that it is “good” when an exploiter loses his friends, even though loneliness is “painful.” It is good when a mugger is locked up, even though he “suffers” the loss of his freedom.

All humans have a moral conscience, even corrupted by sin and often ignored. Our conscience should not rejoice in sin, suffering, and death. When we see innocents suffering, we should experience moral outrage and seek to rescue the sufferer. When we see someone suffer death, we should experience loss and sorrow. Sin, suffering, and death are not the destinies for which God created us. He created us to enjoy perfect, good, loving fellowship with Him for eternity. Despite our moral betrayal, he continues to offer eternal life.

The skeptic has it partly right — suffering should offend our sense of goodness and justice. Sadly, he misses the rest of the argument: Because suffering violates goodness and justice, there must be an all-good, all-powerful God whose remedy restores the perfection he created. This is the hope that the Christian offers in the midst of suffering:

I consider the that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. [Romans 8:8]

Suffering and death in this sinful world are not without remedy. The only reasonable response to the existence of suffering is confidence in God’s promises for eternity:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matt. 5:3-10]

Bob and Gretchen Passantino, ©Copyright 1997
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