‘As a community on a planet spinning through space at thousands of miles per hour, I am sure we are all grateful for the earth’s gravity that enables us to live, work and play without fear that one day we will…

…jump too high and be carried off into outer space. We are probably also grateful for the way it benefits us in other ways, allowing us to collect fruit from trees, ski and abseil down mountains, canoe in whitewater, freewheel down hills etc – actually, the list is endless.  Indeed, gravity is part of the hydrological cycle that facilitates evaporated moisture returning to earth as droplets of rain rather than disappearing upwards into our atmosphere.

However, there is another aspect to gravity that we sometimes fail to consider. In the same way that gravity facilitates fruit falling from trees, it is also responsible for the roof tile that may fall  and kill the person below because of the gravitational pull acting upon it. Likewise, just as gravity draws water downstream to the watermill, it may on another occasion result in a flash flood which washes away the mill. Indeed, just as gravity keeps people firmly drawn to the earth and allows us to do many things, it may also result in rock slides, avalanches, fallen trees, excessive flooding and other incidents that are detrimental to human existence. But does the occurrence of these events mean that gravity is a bad thing? Or put another way:

‘Would we forfeit gravity rather than run the risk that it might one day cause something detrimental to happen to us?’

Now I am sure that most of us would say that we would not want to do away with gravity (even if that were possible) because we appreciate the benefits far outweigh any disadvantage we may encounter. But what of God in all of this – why doesn’t the Divine intervene and save the man who is standing in the spot in which a boulder will crash and kill him? Well, yes, God could do that. God could intervene whenever a tragedy of gravity was about to occur and save people from a falling object or flash flood. However, in order to achieve this, God would have to intervene in our world at other times and ways that we might not like.

For example, God could intervene and stop people working in a stone quarry because (with foreknowledge) The Divine might know that the excavation will loosen a boulder that will, at a later date, fall and kill someone. However, closing the quarry will cause hardship for the people who are no longer able to make a living because God’s intervention brought a stop to their work and livelihood. Or perhaps God intervenes and stops someone from getting up on the roof of their house to make a repair because He knows the person will fall and injure themselves. But without the accident occuring, the uninjured person might feel aggrieved about the intervention, especially if they are left with a leaky roof and uncertain that events would have turned out that way. Moreover, a strong case might be made that most people do not want to be mollycoddled but would rather take their chances in life. From these examples, what we see is that gravity is basically good though accidents happen. As such, God does not intervene and thwart accidents for to do so would remove from each of us the capacity to grow, learn and be free in our decision making.’

 

On 1st November 1755, the city of Lisbon was rocked by an earthquake. It was All Souls Day and many Christians were at church. The earthquake lasted 4-6 minutes and caused total… 

…devastation, demolishing virtually all of the buildings in the city. Unsurprisingly, it killed between 60,000 and 90,000 people and destroyed valuable works of art. As the majority of people around that day were Christian believers, this group suffered large in the death toll. Those who managed to escape the earthquake and resulting fire took refuge in Lisbon’s less developed sea front area. Here, they did not run the risk of being struck by falling debris or inhaling smoke, but the choice was not a good one. A short time later, several giant tsunamis swept in from the Atlantic killing the majority of those who had escaped the earthquake.

This event, more than any other, shook the foundations of religious faith within Europe because it challenged the conventional understanding about God in the post-Enlightenment era – an understanding that suggested God was best understood through Nature and events in the natural world. If this was the case, then it seemed God was angry and violent towards creation – moreover, God appeared aggressive towards people and their environments, particularly those who believed and worshipped the Divine.

The indiscriminate destruction caused people to question whether God was the great orchestrator of natural disasters. Many questioned why the Divine would carry out His judgement in such a haphazard and unreliable way. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, many sceptics heaped ridicule on the Church for its unchallenged beliefs about God. French philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire wrote a poem about the tragedy in which he ridiculed why Lisbon should be singled out by God when other cities in Europe, more notoriously decadent,  were allowed to survive.’ (The God of the Cruel World, sic B. Eckhard)

Today, most people have dismissed the idea that natural disasters come about as a result of God wreaking havoc upon humanity. That said, in some parts of the world, some believers still do hold to the idea of an avenging God. Indeed, our own use of the term ‘Acts of God’ (still on many insurance forms) to explain natural disasters, just shows how deeply ingrained this idea can be. More on this in next post as we work through this series towards a surprising answer about God and natural disasters….

 

Picture – 1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami striking ships in the harbor. (No copyright on picture as this work is in public domain in country of origin)

 

How many times have you heard someone explain a disaster away by attributing it as an ‘Act of God?’ Or a person explain to a grieving relative or friend that the bewildering loss of their loved one is a ‘holy mystery’ that only God can understand? Or maybe the idea that when bad things happen, God is somehow at work behind the scenes, bringing just enough stress into our lives so that He can manoeuvre us into a position to fulfil His purpose.

Now, well-intended as these statements are, each is problematic in their concept and understanding of a loving God. Let’s take them in turn…

A disaster attributed as an ‘Act of God?’ Well, aside from those times when the root cause of a natural disaster might be human (as in the flooding of Bangladesh caused by deforestation), the idea that God causes a volcano to erupt or a landslide to happen, rankles with the very idea of a loving Creator. Either God is loving or he is not. Reason tells us God cannot occupy both positions in the same way as a rock can’t be a snake and vice versa. In future posts, we’ll consider this argument in greater depth.

The idea that a loved one’s death is somehow a ‘holy mystery?’ It seems to me that people who offer this sort of explanation have never thought about the consequence of their words on grieving people – relatives, friends and complete strangers left with the idea that God has the answer but He is keeping it from them.  Answers that might help the bereaved to understand why their child was still born? Or a vivacious teenager diagnosed with motor neurone disease? Or a pregnant mother with a brain tumour? Behind the statement is an attempt to explain away the hardship of life without understanding the consequence of freedom for ourselves and other things in this world. An environment that God does not rigidly control so as to enable all life to flourish. A world that is a little less safe as people are exposed to viruses or make decisions that results in their own or other people’s injury. Likewise, consider gravity which facilitates life-giving water on one day through rain but results in a flood the next day in which human life is lost.  Consequences that are not a mystery but a reality of life in a broken world where God does not control everything that happens.

God brings hardship on people so they will fulfil God’s purpose for their lives? Rather like the statement above, this idea also centres on the notion that God has complete control. So, if you break a toe while walking upstairs, then God must have caused it to happen. Why? Because if God controls everything then He must of let this happen to the person to facilitate a greater good. – like, in going to the hospital, the person meets their future spouse or have the chance to save someone’s life, in which the hardship of the throbbing toe becomes make bearable. Of course a more rational person might posit that when ‘stuff happens’, God has nothing to do with it. Rather, the only lesson to be learnt is a human one in which walking around the house in bare feet has its consequences? Indeed, we might even question if it is fair for us to even consider God responsible for our clumsiness or lack of foot-eye coordination?

Okay, just a taste of some of the things we will be considering in future posts. We hope you like the content and that it may go some way to addressing any tough questions you have.