To place the current natural disasters in perspective, it might help to recall that the Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old. The vast majority of this time has seen cataclysmic changes in geology that make the current natural disasters we have experienced seem like a baby’s hiccup. Not to sound callous or unmoved by recent events, especially the horrific developments in Japan after their earthquake and tsunami… but what I hope to do is provide some perspective on natural events like this and thereby hopefully provide some sense of comfort as we all face them. I say “comfort” because natural disasters like the current one in Japan leaves a lot of us believers wondering why God, a loving God that cares about us, allows such things to happen.
This 4.6 billion year time frame is divided up into two periods: the Precambrian supereon and the Phanerozoic eon. The Precambrian supereon is made up of three eons and entails 90% of the age of the Earth and the Phanerozoic eon comprises three eras and takes up the remaining 10%. In the last billion of those years, rudimentary life in the form of simple multicelluar organisms began to appear in the oceans after billions of years of chemical evolution. 545 million years ago, plants and then animals began to appear on dry land, emerging from the ocean. This last 545 million is known as the “Phanerozoic” because that is when life began to emerge.
During most of this time, the Earth was literally moving and exploding and puking up it’s guts non-stop and any life on the planet was constantly getting wiped out. It wasn’t until all of this settled down somewhat that life really was able to gain a foothold and then evolve into the life forms we know today. Even then, life was constantly being wiped out by natural disasters, illness, famine, etc…
We human beings have only been here for a few seconds, on the geological time scale of the Earth. Individually, we only live about 100 years or so at the most, so we don’t really have any sense of the scale of things, geologically speaking. Even as a race, we have only recorded natural disasters for a fraction of a second on Earth’s timescale. Human beings only began to appear about 200,000 years ago and the first modern versions of humans appeared about 50,000 years ago.
For someone who believes in a loving God, this seems to be cold comfort. Knowing all this doesn’t seem to offer any insight into why God allows natural disasters to occur. Wouldn’t a loving God protect us from such horrendous events as the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan? Is Japan being punished? Are we all being punished? It seems like this is proof that either there is no such God or if there is a God, this God doesn’t care what happens to us, otherwise this God would prevent it somehow.
I will be frank here and simply say: It. Doesn’t. Make. Sense. The existence of a God who cares for us and loves us seems completely incompatible with the utter indifference natural disasters display towards life in general, let alone human life. Any theological solution I can come up with seems somehow inadequate. For instance, it could be that, in some sense, it’s true to say that God is real… but that God doesn’t yet exist. This would mean that God is still “coming into” existence in some sense. This would explain why God doesn’t act in a way that seems consistent with what we think God is… because God is not yet “here”. This hardly seems like a satisfying solution to the dilemma for most people.
Or you could take a more traditional, classical route and say that God doesn’t really exist at all… at least not in the sense that you or I or everything else in existence that is said to exist. In other words, God is on a different plane of being than everything else. God is the reason anything exists at all… but God is not one existing thing among other existing things. This leaves unresolved the question of how it is that God interacts with existence beyond being the cause or the reason for existence itself. Most people, outside of hardcore Thomists, don’t find this solution all that satisfying either. It’s a common criticism leveled against Thomists that this view of God is detached and cold… no interaction with the rest of creation. To be fair to Thomas, he did draw upon the platonic tradition to try and overcome this dilemma of divine interaction with the “creaturely” realm. This resulted, in my view, in an unresolved “ontological conflict” in Thomas’ understanding of God and the rest of existence… but there are plenty of people making a living arguing otherwise, so…
There are other solutions that I am not really drawn to at all, such as: “God is exacting justice on an evil people”. It doesn’t matter who is undergoing the suffering at the time… I just don’t buy the vengeful God thing. Even in the Old Testament, where we find language about a vengeful God, I read it metaphorically. I think it’s a way of saying actions have consequences and I agree with that. I don’t need to think God is really vengeful to affirm that. And I don’t see any actions from the Japanese that call out for divine retribution, even if I did believe in a vengeful God.
All this to say… there doesn’t seem to really be a reasonable answer to the question: If there is a just and loving God, then why all the suffering in the world? I just have to say that I don’t know… but I do still believe in a loving and just God. Why? Because faith in God, in the final analysis, is simply that: Faith. This doesn’t mean that I have no reasons for believing in God… I do. It just means that there is something about God… something about reality… something about the way things are that I don’t fully comprehend. What I do comprehend, however, leaves my faith intact. My faith gives me the hope that the true Face of God will be one I will embrace without hesitation once I see it face to Face.