On Tuesday, an earthquake of staggering magnitude 7.0 struck the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, decimating the island nation and leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead or in desperate need of medical attention. As relief organizations scramble this week to care for the victims, and as horrific images of carnage and human suffering continually flash across our television screens, the question begs to be asked: Where was God? Why did He allow this to happen?
By now most of you have read or heard Pat Robertson’s controversial assertion on CBN that he thinks Haiti experienced the devastating quake because the country was "cursed" by God because they allegedly made a "pact with the devil." My purpose in this post is not to refute Pat Robertson (you can read a well-thought response here), but to address the question behind it:
Where was God at 4:53 p.m. on Tuesday, January 12?
Since there are several deeper issues behind this question, let’s look at a few of them.
1. Was this earthquake a punishment from God?
Was this quake, as Robertson suggested, some kind of judgment from God upon the Haitian people? And more broadly, are all natural disasters a punishment from God for sin?
Rather than taking my word for it, let’s look at what God’s Word has to say on this subject. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus is told of a recent horrifying incident in which the Roman governor Pilate murdered Galilean worshippers while they were offering sacrifices in the temple. Jesus, sensing the deeper question they were asking (was God punishing those worshippers?), replies, “Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee? Is that why they suffered? Not at all!”
Jesus reinforced His point with another example: “And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?” Again, Jesus answers with an emphatic, “No!” (vv. 3-4 NLT).
Jesus’ point is clear: tragedies and natural disasters are not always punishments from God. As Jesus put it in Matthew 5:45, “[God] sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (see also John 9:1-5.) So we cannot draw from Scripture that the Haitian earthquake was necessarily a punishment from God.
2. Does God ever judge nations for wickedness?
Then again, we cannot say that God never judges nations for their wickedness. Amos 3:6 says, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” God has judged nations in the past (see, for example, His judgment on the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15:2-3), and He has promised to do it again in the coming Great Tribulation, a judgment so severe that “if those days had not been cut short, no one would survive” (Matthew 24:21–22).
But that is a far cry from saying that every natural disaster or accident is a specific punishment from God for individual or collective sin.
3. Are natural disasters part of God’s plan?
Realizing the heartache and grief behind this question, I gently ask you to look at the big picture.
God created a world that was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). In the Garden of Eden, there was no sin, no pain, no death—and no earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, or famines (Genesis 1-3). And there will be no natural disasters or death in the new heaven and earth when God puts an end to evil once and for all (Revelation 21:4)
The Bible tells us that these things are an aberration of God’s original creation that came about when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and therefore brought sin into the world (Genesis 3:6). God created mankind with the capacity to make choices and to freely love Him, but our first parents used that freedom to choose to disobey. After all, a free choice leaves the possibility of a wrong choice. Or as J. B. Phillips puts it, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.”
Because we live in a fallen world, we are subject to natural disasters that would not have occurred had mankind not rebelled against God. Not only do we “wait eagerly for . . . the redemption of our bodies” when Jesus comes again, but Scripture says even “the creation waits in eager anticipation” to be put right again at the end of time (Romans 8:19-22). In other words, we are living in the in-between time—between God’s original creation and God’s restored creation.
So is this in-between time part of God’s plan? Yes, it is part of God’s unfolding plan to redeem mankind and restore creation beyond its original state to its full, beatific glory. I don’t claim to understand this in the slightest, but I do know that the Bible says God is allowing sin to run its full course until the appointed time when He will return to judge the earth and restore His kingdom (Matthew 24: 36; 2 Peter 3:9-10). And as part of this unfolding process before the final judgment, Jesus says, “There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 22:7–8).
All of that to say, God was not surprised by the Haitian earthquake. I don’t know why it occurred, but it is somehow part of His sovereign, immutable, unfolding plan of redemption.
But, wait… that brings up an important question.
4. What kind of God would allow such suffering and evil?
If you’ve read this far, you are no doubt wondering why a good God would allow such suffering in the world as part of His unfolding plan. This is the age-old problem of evil, and it is the calling card of such prominent atheists as David Hume, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. The reasoning, in a much simplified form, goes something like this:
- There is evil in the world.
- God is inconsistent with evil.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
Hume put it succinctly when he wrote of God, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing: whence then is evil?” In other words, if there is a sovereign and benevolent God, as Christians believe, then there would be no suffering or evil in the world.
If we are honest with ourselves, even longtime Christians look at the horrific images on our televisions screens and wonder:
- If God is all-powerful, why didn’t He prevent the earthquake?
- If God is good, why did He allow thousands of innocent people to die?
- And God is neither omnipotent nor good, how can we trust Him?
Whether you’re looking at images of carnage and despair in Haiti—or into a freshly dug grave of a loved one, the face of your abuser seared into your memory, or any number of atrocities—the questions haunt us: “How can there be a God in the face of such suffering? If there is a God, why does He allow such evil to exist?”
Certainly the earthquake—and all natural disasters and atrocities in this world--is horrible and tragic. But, as many philosophers have noted, if we point to evil in the world as the basis for asserting that God does not exist, then we must ask how something is judged to be "evil" in the first place. If there were no God, how did we come up with the idea of “good” and “evil”?
Perhaps no one has explained this dilemma more eloquently than British professor, author, and atheist-turned-Christian C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. His explanation of how he used this very argument against God, only to realize it backfired in the face of logic, is worth a careful read:
If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong? And for many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to the question, because I kept on feeling, “whatever you say, and however clever your arguments are, isn’t it much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power? Aren’t all your arguments simply a complicated attempt to avoid the obvious?” But then that threw me back into another difficulty.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal; a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world really was unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning; just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
In other words, if God does not exist and this world is simply the happenstance of amino acids colliding in primordial soup, then there is no basis on which to judge suffering—such as the Haitian earthquake—as being “unfair” or “evil.” We find, then, that the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God rather than disproving it.
So why did God create a world in which suffering and evil were possible—much less part of His unfolding plan toward ultimate redemption? As Christian apologist Norman Geisler points out, “The theist does not have to claim that our present world is the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best way to the best possible world.”
In other words, just because God has not yet defeated evil in this world does not mean that He won’t.
Someday, Jesus Christ will return in all His glory and hold people accountable for what they did during their time on earth (Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:11-15). The wrongs in this world will finally be set right, and justice will ultimately prevail (Revelation 22:3-5).
* * *
All of this brings us back to our original question:
Where was God on Tuesday, January 12?
Answer: He was there.
And God is there now, in the midst of this tragedy, alongside each of those who are suffering. He “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 127:3). He “is close the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). He knows the hopes of the helpless. He hears their cries and comforts them (Psalm 10:17). He hears their worry and despair, and He cares (1 Peter 5:7).
And no matter where you are today—whether you’re helping the earthquake victims in Haiti, helping someone through a crisis of another kind, or just trying to make it through another day—God is there.
He is with you.
And He cares.
"For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever."
(Special thanks to Ronald Rhodes, “Tough Questions about Evil,” in Who Made God? Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler, gen. eds, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 33–40; and C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1943, 1945, 1952, 1980), 45–46.)