Tag Archives: theodicy

Natural Disasters: Lament, community and the death of theodicy

Last week, I came across an article by Rev Dr Andrew Dutney, President-elect of the Uniting Church in Australia, with the provocative title: Does God hate Queensland? This was before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power disasters of Japan.

We had a bad summer with floods and cyclones; the photo at the top of the page was taken across the road from our house to show how high the water came during the flood. Japan is faring far worse than us.

How do Christians respond?

Theologians have classically gone for theodicy, the justification of God in the face of evil and disaster. Why does God let these things happen?

There are two broad kinds of theodicy: one which says with Augustine that the creation fell from perfection with Adam; the others says with Irenaeus that the world began in an immature state, and that suffering is necessary for us to mature.

Dutney points out that

theodicy works for some but not all cases. There are far too many examples of suffering which are so grotesque or so excessive that they make it impossible to devise an explanation that is both rational and morally tolerable. In any case, it would be offensive even to try to explain such suffering away.

He also makes the very important point that ordinary Christians haven’t gone all the way with the theologians in trying to justify God’s ways. Rather for them,

the experience of suffering does not challenge belief in God as such, but rather forces the question, Where in this suffering is the God in whom I believe?

Theodicy has a limited place. The scriptures allow far more lament than we have allowed for ourselves in our services until recently. Thumb through the Psalms for example upon example, or read Lamentations; Uniting in Worship 2 has put lament into the ‘mainstream’ of the Church’s worship. For Dutney it is simply that:

There is suffering which will not be explained into quietness by church leaders, philosophers or theologians.

In the floods in Brisbane, people were bowled over by the number of people who came to help. And community is another discovery in disaster:

It turns out that our possessions are less important than our family, friends and neighbours. It turns out that we can trust strangers to enter our (shattered) homes and deal gently with our treasures – in fact we rely on them to do so. It turns out that my neighbours need does matter more to me than my own in this situation. It turns out that sitting in the rubble of the lives that we’d worked so hard to create we can laugh and experience genuine joy in the inexplicable gift of being alive – together. It turns out that when we look up and see what natural disaster means in Haiti and Pakistan we do recognize in a new way the responsibilities – the opportunities to help – that go with the advantages enjoyed by Australians and New Zealanders even in times of devastation. Who knew?

None of this justifies or minimises human suffering. But we survive—and we survive together.

Read Andrew’s article for yourself.

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Friday fragments—29.01.10

Vindaloo against Violence

Melbourne has been the scene of violence (sometimes fatal) against Indian people in recent times; it seems that some of these attacks have been racially motivated. Understandably, the Indian community and the Indian nation are very concerned indeed. Mia Northrop has suggested Vindaloo against Violence as a way to show support to the Indian community; simply eat at your local Indian restaurant. It is now spreading to other Australian cities and to other parts of the world. Sounds like a great reason to get a group together!

It’s good to read Peter Cosgrove’s Australia Day address in conjunction with this story. He speaks of the ‘sunshine and shade’ of this nation.


Haiti continues to suffer; Collin Hansen looks at the question of theodicy. And have a read of what Debra Dean Murphy says about the suffering God.

Episcopal Cafe outlines the three ‘Rs’ of disasters: Rescue, Recovery, Relief. Very helpful.

I am in awe of the ethic of sharing that exists among the hungry of Haiti.

The scale of the disaster in in Haiti has been due to crippling levels of debt which have inhibited the infrastructure of that country. The World Council of Churches is calling for the debt to be cancelled.

The Colbert Report

I for one am very happy that The Colbert Report has come to ABC 2. If you don’t know anything about Stephen Colbert, have a look here at his best Apple moments, in the light of the iPad release.

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Friday fragments—22.01.10

Euthanasia, Antitheism, Homodoxy, Multitasking and killing in Jesus’ name

A thought-provoking series of cartoons from ASBO Jesus on euthanasia.

Bosco Peters gives a helpful word on the difference between atheism and ‘antitheism’. It fits my experience.

It’s Bosco’s week to draw helpful distinctions. He also compares true orthodoxy, which allows for diversity, with ‘homodoxy’, which desires uniformity of opinion. Being homodox doesn’t make you orthodox.

For ages, I’ve been told I can’t multitask because my second X chromosome is a Y. But multitasking is inefficient and dangerous. Yes, walking and chewing gum is bad for you.

The US military have been using rifles stamped with Bible verses in the Middle East. Could it get much worse? It’s crusading! Update: The firm involved has said it will stop the practice.

‘Shit happens’—a reminder that the ‘god’ of the philosophers is not the God of Christian faith…

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Chickening out from judgement

Andrew Hamilton has another good piece in Eureka St on whether God sends disaster in response to human wrongdoing. It seems to me that this is one of a number of areas in which there is a discussion within scripture, a discussion that consistently tends towards seeing God in a relationship of love towards the whole creation.


On blaming God for swine flu


Danny NalliahIt was reported last week that an American priest had told a Canberra Church that swine flu was God’s punishment for sin. The report seems to have been a beat-up. The reporter’s ‘usually reliable source’ proved to be the usual tendentious and unchecked source.

But stories about preachers who attribute disaster to divine punishment for sin have been in the news lately. And they have a long history.

Danny Nalliah (pictured), of Catch the Fire Ministries, attributed the Victorian bushfires to God withdrawing protection after the passing of abortion laws. In Austria, Gerhard Wagner withdrew after being nominated Auxiliary Bishop of Linz. He had claimed in a newsletter that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for sexual permissiveness.

This line of preaching has drawn fire since Jesuit missionary Gabriel Malagrida was exiled from Portugal in the 18th century for preaching that the Lisbon earthquake was God’s punishment for sin. Voltaire famously ridiculed the argument.

For Christians the issue is complex. The idea that God might use natural disasters to punish people for general sinfulness or particular sins is repugnant. But at first glance the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, do seem to represent God as doing just that. This tension bears reflection.

On examination the Scriptures are more equivocal about attributing disasters to a punishing God than might appear. They certainly represent the popular view that God uses natural events as rewards and punishments for individuals and nations. But in their representation of God they also stand at an angle to this view.

In stories like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the great flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah, God threatens annihilation but relents and spares humanity. When it comes to bargaining, God is a soft touch.

The prophets display the same complexity. They attribute disasters like military defeat to sin and the abandonment of God. But this sin has to do with misrule that crushes and impoverishes ordinary people. The disasters suffered by the nation are not simply inflicted from without but result naturally from a corrupted polity. And within this bleak picture, God is still presented as wanting to restore the people to prosperity and happiness

Two Old Testament books, in particular, subvert the popular nexus between sin, God’s punishment and disaster. In the Book of Job, Job’s comforters press him to acknowledge that his sins caused his calamities. The reader knows that Job is correct in refusing this connection. In the book of Jonah, too, the grumpy prophet finishes up furious that yet again God has chickened out of delivering on threats of destruction.

The New Testament also subverts the popular account of a judicial God. Its central message is that God loves sinners, that in Jesus God joins and dies for sinners. This view certainly insists on the catastrophic character of human sin. But God’s response to it is anything but punitive. Jesus, too, refuses to blame the death of people in a building collapse either on their own sin or that of past generations.

The Scriptures then represent a prevailing view of a God who uses natural and military disasters to sanction bad behaviour. But they also undermine this view by describing God as concerned above all with relationships and as acting more as lover than judge. It is this image of God as lover that should control the way we speak of God’s response to sin and involvement in disasters.

By these criteria it is not only unreasonable but also doubtfully Christian to attribute disasters to sinfulness in general. It is even more questionable to attribute them to particular sins.

The principal difficulty arises from the consistent movement in Scripture to define God in terms of relationship and not in terms of abstract theories of retribution. A God whose abiding disposition is one of love, and whose consistent focus is on the individual person and on their good, could not consider disasters an appropriate recompense for evil doing. Disasters are impersonal and indiscriminate. They kill the innocent whom God loves.

This becomes clear if we imagine a God sending the plague on a nation whose parliament has legalised same sex unions. It would be impossible to believe this God had the personal and special love for the poor, sinners and excluded of the world, as does the God we know in Jesus Christ. For the plague would generally spare the wealthy legislators who were well-nourished, could buy medicines and lived in hygienic surroundings. It would target precisely the poor people for whom Jesus had a special concern and who had no say in the legislation.

Another difficulty in attributing disasters to God’s intention to punish sinners is that it assumes that you know the mind of God. The Old Testament prophets could claim this knowledge. But Christians have no warrant for making such a claim. Dreams and apparitions simply underline the point.

The more precise the knowledge claimed, the less credible becomes the claim. If a meteor struck the Sydney CBD, for example, how would you know whether it was to punish the practice of contraception, the pressure to legalise same sex marriages and abortions, galloping secularism, disregard of the environment, discrimination against asylum seekers, crass consumerism or the greed of banks?

The idea that we might know the mind of a God who sends disasters as punishment for particular sins is sub-Christian and sub-rational.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

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