Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Earthquakes, Evangelists and Evil

What would be a proper Christian response to the recent events in Haiti?

That's not just idle speculation, it's actually pretty important. After a US General has suggested that the death toll may top 200,000 (that's considerably higher than the population of Newcastle, in case you were wondering), the world is in shock at what seems like a completely senseless tragedy. At emotionally fraught times like this, the church has traditionally been one of those places that tries to bring "meaning" (in so far as that's possible) to those situations which seems meaningless, in the hopes that people will be comforted.

That's not always a good thing, of course — it's entirely possible that what people really want from the church is an assurance that this kind of thing won't happen to them, that there was something different about those "others". Sadly, some people are all too eager to give such false assurances; Pat Robertson, an American televangelist, has blamed the earthquake on a pact with the devil that Haitians allegedly made in order to gain their independence.

I don't mind admitting that when I first read Robertson's words, my immediate reaction to them was decidedly un-Christian, and I'm certainly not going to repeat it here. (Not without a long disclaimer and a video of a kitten, anyway.) How someone so influential, who commands a large audience of Christians, and who is apparently well thought of by his audience, could spit out such poisonous rubbish is beyond me. Needless to say, that is not the right way to approach the topic.

So what can we say? Well, it makes sense to start with what we know and have always known — that God loves the world and the people in it. This is a theme that runs right through the Bible, from the world's creation (when God looks at all he has made, and sees that it is very good), through to its salvation, in which we find that God loves the world so much that he will send his Son to save it. This is a love so great that literally nothing can separate us from it. So whatever happens, we can be sure that God hasn't left us, and that he cares for us.

But if God loves the world, why do things like earthquakes happen? Although I'm going to have a stab at this, it's really far too large a topic to cover in a single blog post, even if I thought that I had a handle on it (and I really don't). People far more intelligent and wise than I am have spent years trying to solve this. Some people have even used the problem of evil as an argument against God's existence, often phrased in the form of The Riddle of Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Personally, the point where I would take issue with this is at the second line, in which it is claimed that not consistently preventing evil is logically equivalent to malice. This doesn't logically follow, to my mind at least. There are situations in which permitting evil to happen is not necessarily an evil act in itself, if it allows a greater good. Take imprisonment, for example. Is it evil to deprive someone of their liberty? In a vacuum, you'd have to say yes. (Particularly if by that you meant imprisoning people inside a huge vacuum. That's definitely evil.) But if, by imprisoning someone, you prevent him from killing someone else, then you've done more good than evil.

"But wait!" I hear you cry. "That doesn't work, quite apart from the whole 'ends justify the means' thing which you appear to have completely ignored, even if it was for the purposes of avoiding long digressions like this one. If you're carrying out little evil acts to prevent big evil acts, you're presupposing the existence of big evil acts! That doesn't explain evil at all!"

And you'd be right, annoyingly perceptive voice in my head. What it does let me do, though, is lead up to what Wikipedia tells me is Plantinga's Free Will Defence (the whole Wikipedia article on the problem of evil is well worth a read, by the way). Plantinga argues, in a nutshell, that if God wishes us to have free will, we can choose either good or evil. Now, the fact that free will pops up in the Bible so very early (Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree) indicates that it's part of the original plan, the one that God calls "very good". So, if evil can occur, this is only because a much, much greater good — the ability to choose to serve God, or not to — is its result.

Right, so we've reached the stage at which we can say that God who is both all-powerful and completely loving isn't necessarily incompatible with a world where terrible things happen. That doesn't go far enough as an explanation, though. Sure, we can say that murders and violence may happen, but that's because people exercise their free will and do bad things. It doesn't cover earthquakes, landslides, typhoons, or any of the other million and one horrible things that the Earth periodically does. How does this square with the image of a world that God made, and with which he was very pleased?

I think the key to understanding this is that we always like to remember the first half of the verse I linked to above ("God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.") and we forget the second half ("And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.") Each part of the story of Genesis is linked to a particular and very specific time; just because the world was perfect then doesn't necessarily mean that it's still perfect now.

(I'm going to take a moment here to digress, and say that I'm not going to put forward any opinion, one way or another, on the extent to which I consider Genesis to be a literal, historical account of creation. That's a topic just as large as the problem of evil, and far too much ink and vitriol has been spent on it for me to try to wade in here. What I will say is that even if one takes the most metaphorical view possible — and I'm not saying that I necessarily do — there are still many, many important themes and valid bits of theology that we can draw from the book. In other words, Six Day Creationism isn't the only game in town, and it's possible to take just as active a part of the conversation if you're on one end of the spectrum as if you're on the other. Right now, I'd prefer to focus on the stuff on which we stand the slightest chance of reaching some kind of agreement. Sound good?)

What Genesis makes very clear is that although the world was perfect, there was a Fall. After Adam takes the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, God says the following to him:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
From that point on, everything goes wrong. Adam and Eve get clothed in animal skins rather than the leaves they were wearing before, highlighting the fact that death is now a part of their lives. Adam has to work the ground before it will give him any food, which implies that before this it was working with him. Again and again the point is hammered home that just as humanity is no longer living in the type of relationship with God that he originally planned, so their relationship with the Earth itself has gone sour.

For the record, I should note that Pat Robertson (and those of his ilk) probably wouldn't disagree with any of this. Where we part company is the assumption that because the Earth's brokenness is because of sin, therefore any manifestation of that brokenness — for example, an earthquake — is in response to a very specific sin, such as the one Robertson attributes to the inhabitants of Haiti. I think this seems like a very odd idea. Should we assume that if we get weather we want, for example, that God is particularly pleased with us? No, of course not. After all, Jesus makes it very plain that the rain falls both on the righteous and the unrighteous. Although the Bible reports that God has used natural disasters as a form of judgement (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind), it doesn't remotely follow that any natural disaster is therefore part of such a judgement.

What's more, it's daft to assume that any particular sin you see is going to receive a visible punishment. Take the Roman Empire, for example. This was a society that far outstripped our own in terms of capacity for evil (bad though Big Brother may be, we haven't yet reached the stage of having people raped and murdered in public for our entertainment), and yet it never received so much as an errant asteroid.

Of course, all this ignores the number one reason not to blame particularly sinful Haitians for the earthquake: Jesus tells us not to. You can't get much plainer, really — Jesus is told about specific tragedies, and states in no uncertain terms that these were not due to their victims being unusually bad. He does add the very ominous warning "But unless you repent, you too will all perish", but he's not backtracking on his own words. He's not suggesting, for example, that even though people who have towers fall on them aren't necessarily sinful, if we don't repent we will also have a bunch of towers fall on us. No, he's pointing out that sin is a big deal to God. What we might think of as something inconsequential is something that has completely broken our world. It didn't cause a tower to fall, it caused our relationship with God to be completely twisted out of alignment, and that matters a lot more.

I've clearly gone on at some length here (hello, all two of you who made it down this far!) so let's draw things to a close. What is our response to the earthquake?

Well, first, don't blame the victims. I'm looking at you, Robertson. What the victims of this need to hear from us is not that God is not chuckling away at the carnage that he has caused, but that he loves them and cares for them.

Secondly, we need to back up that expression of love by actually helping them. If you possibly can, donate to the aid effort. If you're in the UK, I'd recommend donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation of several charities working together to get help out there. The Red Cross, or Médecins Sans Frontières, would be good choices too. Anything you can do to help is a good thing.

Thirdly, and most importantly, pray. We're living in a broken world, one which periodically does terrible things to its inhabitants, just as they do terrible things to each other. And we can't fix that, but we believe in a God who can. When we've done all we can on our own terms, the only thing left to do is to ask God to do all he can on his.

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