I know there is much being said in numerous places about God's role or non-role in the tsunami that has now claimed some 150,000 lives in Indonesia and southern Asia. So I hardly pretend that what I say will be original or earth shattering. But in reading this column by Jeff Jacoby, I was struck by one or two things.
Jacoby starts his column by giving his response to a Beliefnet.com poll, which asked what role God plays in natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami. The poll offers five options:
(1) God is punishing us.
(2) God is testing us.
(3) The earthquake and tsunami were sent by God, but we don't know what the purpose was.
(4) Although I believe in God, the supernatural had nothing to do with this tragedy.
(5) God doesn't exist; disasters like this are just forces of nature.
Jacoby, who is a professing Christian (an Evangelical, if I'm not mistaken) [update and correction: Jacoby is Jewish, as this column indicates.], chose #3, noting that the most popular choice is #4. I would have to probably choose "none of the above," however, because none of the answers are entirely satisfactory. Of course, I don't mean to make light of a complex matter and such questions/answers tend to be simplistic. But #3 is not acceptable, I think, because the word "sent" is problematic. This is especially the case because what occured was the result of a physical evil, and God cannot be the cause of evil, whether moral or physical. This is indeed a mystery, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges—while also offering some helpful clarifying comments:
But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world "in a state of journeying" towards its ultimate perfection. In God's plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection. (CCC 310l. Footnote refers readers to St. Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 71)
This quote also indicates, at least to some degree, why option #4 is not entirely agreeable. While God does not cause evil, He does allow evil. And since creation has been affected by man's sin—something that can be easily forgotten in an age of a highly individualistic, "God and me" mentality—there is certainly a supernatural element at work. St. Paul explains that "the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now" (Rom 8:21-22). This is not merely an exercise in poetic, metaphorical language, but the expression of vivid truth: man's sin has upset and corrupted the natural world in some way—and physical evil results because of it.
While I've not made it a point to read many articles on this topic of God and the tsunami, it's evident that some people are saying that such a tragic, horrific event readily indicates that there is no God. There are a couple of problems with such an approach. St. Thomas masterfully exposes one of these problems when he writes:
Now, with these considerations we dispose of the error of those who, because they noticed that evils occur in the world, said that there is no God. Boethius (De consolatione, Lib. I, prosa 4) introduces a philosopher asking the question: 'If there is a God, how comes evil?'. The argument should be turned the other way: 'If there is evil, there is a God.' For there would be no evil, if the order of goodness were taken away, the privation of which is evil; and this order would not be, if God were not. [SCG, III, 71, 10]
Or, to say it yet another way, if there is no God, there is no evil. You cannot posit that it is evil and horrible that 150,000 innocent people died and then turn around and remove the basis upon which "good" is established. If there is no God, then ultimately—once we cut through the sentimentality and irrationality—there is no reason to lament the death of innocents and the existence of evil.
It's strange, but understandable (though entirely faulty), that so many people today attempt to hold to two contradictory beliefs or impulses. One is the insistence that I must be "free" and have the liberty to do as I wish, unfettered from restrictions, rules, and (of course!) God. The other rages against a God who would allow bad things to happen and will not save people from every trial and difficulty. Our inclination is to remain adolescents: to be free to have fun, but also to be assured that I won't be hurt and won't have to take responsibility for my actions.
I'm not saying that those who died in the tsanami were responsible for what happened; of course they weren't. Rather, it is in an imperfect world that we have freedom. And this freedom's existence means that evil—both moral and physical—also exists and we have to deal with it, regardless of how unfair or senseless it seems to be. Or, as St. Thomas says, "Now, if no evils were present in things, much of man's good would be diminished, both in regard to knowledge and in regard to the desire or love of the good. In fact, the good is better known from its comparison with evil, and while we continue to suffer certain evils our desire for goods grows more ardent. [SCG, III, 71, 8]"
The deaths of the innocent and unprepared, whether due to moral or physical evil, is a reminder of our own mortality. All of us will die. Some young, some old, some violently, some peacefully. The question is: Will we have loved good and God enough? Will we have chosen love over pride and selfishness? Will we be in a state of grace? Yes, we should grapple with questions about God. We should also grapple with how we will answer to God.