Precinct 333

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A Reflection On The Indian Ocean Catastrophe

I’ve spent the last few days watching with horror the developments following the Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunamis. Reports now put the dead at over 100,000, and I personally expect that number to double, or even triple, by the time the injured die and those effected by disease and the deprivation of food, clean water, medication, and shelter are factored in. I cannot comprehend such loss of life, and have been searching for an answer to the question, “Why?”

I don’t have one.

That’s not to say I have none. Rather, I have several.

I could accept the notion that many have proposed, namely that God made it happen. There are certainly biblical precedents for such events, most notably the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Noah and the ark. Yet God promised never to turn loose a flood of such destructive power again, and surely the many nations touched by this tragedy had at least five good and holy people. Is God really the vengeful deity from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” dangling us over the flames of Hell and waiting for us to fall if we do not repent our sins? This simply does not mesh with the understanding I have of God.

And yet I cannot accept the other side of that coin, either. I do not believe that some malign power, call him Satan if you will, did this either. For even if one accepts the notion that Satan has controlled the world since the Fall of Adam, there is randomness to this event that strikes me as unexplained. Why these people? Why this place? Why now? Satan is a tempter. Where is the temptation in this?

What of the naturalist theory, which denies a role for God in this event (or even his existence)? That is certainly easier, in that the forces at play here are impersonal. Unfortunately, that leaves us with nothing, a cosmic “Sh*t happens.” Is life just random chance? Are all our choices meaningless? That seems to contradict the knowledge of the divine that we have within our hearts.

For better or for worse, I am thrown back to a dichotomy I first heard many years ago. It explains to me how bad things can happen if God is a good God who loves us. It also helps deal with the issue raised by death – especially massive death on an unfathomable scale – without labeling God a murderer. It is the distinction between God’s sovereign will and God’s permissive will.

The idea here is that God actively ordains relatively little in this world. He instead permits the consequences of human choice – dating all the way back to Adam’s Fall – to play out. Mankind broke Creation, and continues to deform it, with every sinful act of disobedience to God and his law. In the first act of disobedience, mankind turned a peaceful order in which there was no pain and death into one in which those physical evils are reality. In an unbroken world, there would be no earthquakes, no tsunamis, and no death, disease, or hunger.

God could choose to stop all death, all tragedy, but he does not. He hopes that our choices and actions will draw us closer to him, but his gift of Free Will means that this is not always the case. Rather than preventing the earthquake and the wave, God permits us to respond to it in ways that may draw us to him or draw us away.

We can therefore align ourselves with God’s will in response to his call to act in a compassionate manner when confronted with suffering and misery, or we can reject that calling. We can, in our personal capacity, offer help to our brothers and sisters in response to that divine call, or we can sit back and let government do it for us, showing that our spoken faith has no works to back it up.

And those who died? What of them? I believe it was the German theologian Karl Rahner who proposed that in the instant of death God supernaturally allows us to be aware of the Gospel message one final time and offer our assent or rejection. I hope that is so, and that many of those who died knew or accepted Christ in those last moments of their lives. And I pray that this tragic event may become a means by which God’s love is communicated to many more throughout the world.

Places To Donate:
Lutheran World Relief
Baptist World Aid
Catholic Relief Services
Church World Service
Christian Reformed World Relief Committee
United Methodist Committee On Relief
Salvation Army
Operation Blessing
American Red Cross


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