The Theology of Tragedy
Through the wonders of modern technology, our living rooms are connected to the rest of the world in a way undreamt of in the millennia past. In the proverbial twinkling of an eye, events on the other side of the globe are visible in full color video within moments of their happening. Recent months have seen the forces of nature unleashed, it would seem, to wreak havoc on scales to rival nuclear disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados have inundated our video screens with images of total destruction. Hundreds have died. Even more have been so thoroughly devastated that one can only marvel at the resilience of the human spirit to be willing to continue in the face of what many would call “evil.” Certainly the fact that humans have suffered so calls to mind the suffering of Job at the hands of an evil adversary and allowed by God for His greater glory.
But in the midst of all this, how can a Christian cling to the concept of an almighty and benevolent God? Where is He in all this? Is He powerless to stop such tragedy, in which case He is hardly omnipotent? Or does He cause or allow such suffering, in which case He can hardly be considered good?
A careful reading of the Bible gives us the answers, but two quotes from men commenting on this topic are particularly useful in framing our understanding of this problem of evil (which has been debated, by the way, for centuries – there is nothing new under the sun). First, from J. O. Buswell’s Systematic Theology (Vol. 1, page 63, Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), where he observes (emphasis added):
To show that the fact of evil is inconsistent with the omnipotence of God, one would have to show that a world in which evil could not come into actuality would be richer in moral and spiritual values than a world in which moral freedom may actually be exercised and the exceeding sinfulness of sin may be known in the concrete.
Underlying much of the controversy is the fallen human tendency to abhor any labor and pain for which we have no explanation. As the center of our own universe, we want to know all the answers, and when they are not forthcoming, we will first blame someone or something else rather than admit that we are not in control and don’t know everything. In other words, we assume in our pride that there can be no good in bad things. This is a blatant fallacy, for biblical theology, not to mention our own experience if we were honest, repeatedly tells us both didactically (e.g., Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4) and experientially (1 Corinthians 10:11) that God uses the trials and suffering in our lives to burn out the dross and conform us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). Those who brandish this argument like some kind of talisman against God must prove the proposition Dr. Buswell sets before us above, or else they should remain in humble silence.
The second quotation is more for the Christian who has endured such a trial.
Did we believe that so potent and fearful a thing as sin had broken into the original holy order of the universe in defiance of God’s purpose, and is rioting in defiance of His power, we might well surrender ourselves to terror and despair. Unspeakably comforting and strengthening is the Scriptural assurance of our Standards (Westminster Confession V:4) that beneath all this wild tossing and lashing of evil purposes and agencies there lies, in mighty and controlling embrace, a Divine purpose that governs them all. Over sin as over all else, God reigns supreme. His sovereign Providence ‘extendeth to the first fall and all other sins of angels and men,’ so that these are as truly parts and developments of His Providence as are the movements of the stars or the activities of unfallen spirits in heaven itself. Having chosen, for reasons most wise and holy though unrevealed to us, to admit sin, He hath joined to this bare permission a ‘most wise and powerful bounding’ of all sin, so that it can never overleap the lines which He has prescribed for its imprisonment, and such an ‘ordering and governing’ of it, as will secure ‘His own holy ends,’ and manifest in the final consummation not only His ‘almighty Power,’ but His ‘unsearchable Wisdom’ and His ‘infinite Goodness.’
This is by E. W. Smith, The Creed of Presbyterians (page 177) quoted by Loraine Boettner in his book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, (1965, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Philadelphia, pages 240-241). Here we find eloquently pointed out that even though we are not in control, the One who created the universe is, and still has, in His wisdom and providence, His hand on the shuttle weaving the tapestry of our lives.
Can God really deal with all the seemingly infinite threads of existence on this planet, let alone in the universe? Remember, Scripture also asserts that His understanding is infinite (Psalm 147:5). Thus, an infinite God can, by definition, handle infinite detail.
Let us rest assured that an honest student of the Bible will find there all the knowledge he needs to answer life’s questions, even those of skeptics seeking only to destroy the faith, whose destruction is sure.