>The Suffering of Haiti and the Silence of God

Posted: 22/01/2010 in problem of evil

>Recent events in the news have finally forced me to blog again about the problem of evil. In addition to the dementia and influence of Pat Robertson, there was a tragic earthquake in Haiti. While in either situation we ask, “how could God let this happen?” I prefer to focus on Haiti.

Yes, I am opening this blog a little tongue and cheek, but in all seriousness I do want to talk about the problem of evil once again. Specifically, I want to talk about theodicies. A “theodicy” is an attempt by Christians to explain why God allows evil. Theodicies come in many shapes and sizes, and are vigorously argued. When it comes to Haiti, I will present two common theodicies, which will in turn open up for a bigger problem of theodicy in general.*

One type of theodicy might be called the “sovereignty theodicy.” In the sovereignty theodicy, nothing happens without at least God’s consent. God is never surprised by any event. God, who sees the entire picture, works everything out for his own good justice in the end. Evil is part of this process. This will even extends to humans, as our suffering (and reaction to other people’s suffering) will make us more holy or Christ-like. This theodicy might be summed up as saying, “God works out everything for his own good, and our good in the end.” The bitter medicine of evil and suffering will not compare to glories that await us and the world to come.

Of all theodicies, I like an idea of theodicy in which evil is part of a cycle of growth for Christians and for a future glorious new creation. Nonetheless, I think this theodicy faces a big problem. It makes God a utilitarian: a certain amount of evil, for a greater amount of good. Why would God need to do this? I recognize that utilitarian is something that human beings need to do. Jack Bauer must occasionally (frequently) torture someone in order to save many lives. Though he (hopefully) knows what he is doing is wrong, he understands that there will be a great good that will come of it. Jack Bauer does this trade-off because his power is limited. If he could save lives without having to torture someone he would, but as it is plastic bags and bamboo shoots are the only. God’s power is not limited. So why is evil necessary?

There is another problem with this kind of theodicy: God must make some people victims in order to make other people better. Consider the following, there is a great amount of “good” that has come out of the horrendous tragedy of the Haiti earthquake. Among other things, Christians are getting together to express Christian love in a very tangible way. Undoubtably, many will come back with a fresh perspective on poverty, suffering, and Christian service. Of course, for this kind of Christian growth to happen, many people had to die or at least endure terrible suffering. Why must some people die in order to deepen the spiritual lives of the living? It seems like the Haitians are getting the short end of stick. Again, this is a kind of utilitarian trade-off that doesn’t make sense to if God is omnipotent.

There is another theodicy that can be called the free-will theodicy. This is one of the most common ones heard in everyday evangelicalism. All evil comes from sin, and sin comes from our free choices. God could override our free-will, but wants Christian to love him willingly and “not be robots.” There is something so supremely good about free will, that it justifies the side effect of evil.

Those who know me well know that free will is a pretty big deal for me, but I still don’t think this justifies evil and suffering, especially in relation to Haiti. First, the tragedy of Haiti is not totally the result of human sin. We may have misused our free-will to create the economic and social conditions of Haiti, but human sin did not bring the earthquake. Furthermore, this still faces the same problem as the sovereignty theodicy: a utilitarian tradeoff. Why would an omnipotent God need to have some people suffer in order that others might exercise their free will? Couldn’t an omnipotent God have set up a universe in which free-will of one person did not involve causing others to suffer?

Any Answer at all?

Now I get to the big problem. There is a possibility that I think all Christian need to face: that we might not have access to a theodicy at all. Why would God allow the earthquake in Haiti? We simply do not know. For some, I think that this may threaten the Christian faith. I do not think so, because although we cannot know the answer it does not mean that the answer is not there. God’s reasons may simply be hidden from us. God may simply be silent on this matter.

But is strange for God to be silent on this matter. For Christians, God has obviously spoken on a great many things. So presumably, God could simply tell us why evil exists in the world. Yet we do not quite something so clear and unambigious, and are left to coming up with theodicies on our own. The best answer we ever get from God is same answer that we see at the end of the Book of Job, “who are you to ask these kinds of questions?”

Honestly, that seems to be the world that we live in, but what does that mean for Haiti?

*I credit Nicholas Wolterstorff for pretty much everything that I am saying in this blog. See his article, “Silence of the God who Speaks” for a more detailed discussion of what I am condensing here.

  1. Biomusician says:

    >One might make a distinction between disasters, disease and other harmful natural occurrences, and evil that comes as a result of human action. In the first case, one can hardly argue that God is being evil. The only way to protect us completely from the natural world is to eliminate it; there can be no weather, no mountains, and no animals – excepting they prove completely harmless to humans.One could argue further that mere discomfort is just lower on the scale of pain than injury or death, and is also, therefore, evil. This forces the removal of almost everything that makes the world an interesting place, and much of what makes us human. An earthquake by itself cannot be evil (though it creates much suffering and hardship) any more than a pool of water can be evil for having drowned someone.Humans may choose to treat their fellows unjustly. This is not what God desires of us.In both cases, God is not making "some people victims in order to make other people better." God is not a utilitarian, mixing in evil in a divine equation to produce good at the end. Rather, he teaches us to accept the hardship while helping our fellows, and to return evil with good. In all this, we should act in obedience, knowing that God is near us. Thus, in rendering to God what is God's – our life – we may alleviate the hardship and the evil that is now in the natural world, filled with human beings.To summarize: hardship is inherent in the natural world, and evil exists because people exercise their will outside of God’s will."Couldn’t an omnipotent God have set up a universe in which free-will of one person did not involve causing others to suffer?" Not without sacrificing relationships.

  2. Jaret says:

    >Although the question of why God allows these sorts of tragedies is thought provoking and, as you have written, somewhat unanswerable, I think it lets the actions of humans off the hook.If we look at why so many Haitians died and why the destruction is so rampant, it all stems back to human actions. The Europeans bring millions of slaves to the island, some get sent to other ports, others are stuck on Saint-Domingue to toil away. They revolt and fight off 3 European superpowers. The only other non-native independent nation in the western hemisphere(us) issues crippling trade embargos, and forces them to pay back to the French what they "stole" in the revolution in order to, as Jefferson put it "Confine the pest to the island." That pest being uppity slaves who thought they deserved freedom.This kind of mentality has continued throughout our foreign policy history with Haiti, we put Haitian dictators into power because they were anticommunist, and we backed a Dominican dictator who ethnically cleansed Haitians from the Dominican half of the island, because he was anticommunist.Although all this doesn't really answer why God would allow such atrocities, it explains why this is nothing really new, and widespread death due to an earthquake is almost expected by cause and effect reasoning, (cause-Haiti is incredibly poor and lacks sustainable infastructure, effect- Any natural disaster will cause widespread damage and chaos.) But leave it to my Roman Catholic, semi liberation theological inspired self to dirty up theology by bringing politics into the mix.

  3. Dan says:

    >I can't believe I'm saying this, good buddy, but I agree with you! That's the biggest thing I'm learning right now. It's not as devastating as Haiti, but it equals the same answer: I don't know why God is doing what he's doing.And that kind of stinks.

  4. Eric Gregory says:

    >For more on theodicy, check out David Bentley Hart's "The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?" (2005).I highly recommend it.(Also, blaming natural disasters on humanity isnt' good, but the fact that Haiti's economic conditions were so atrocious cannot be ignored and blamed on God. Earthquakes like this happen in "civilized" nations all the time without hundreds of thousands of people killed and injured. The only difference is the quality of construction, which Haiti didn't have.)

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Every time that more than 3 people get killed in some unusual tragic circumstance people ask this question.Billions of biological entities die every day.Every biological entity, including of course human meat-bodies, sooner or later begins to disintegrate and inevitably die.Which tells us in unequivocal terms, that the world,in and of itself is a vast death machine which IS totally indifferent to either the well-being or the survival of any apparent biological form, human or otherwise.So where is the hopeful "God" to be found in all of this moment to moment carnage.From another perspective, ALL of these birthings (of biological forms), their temporary livingness, and their inevitable death/disappearance, has being going on forever and day despite this unrelenting and inevitable carnage.Which means that there IS some vast unkillable Divine Intelligence in and as which all of these temporary forms appear and disappear.

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