Where is God When Bad Things Happen? – Part 1
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg with Dr. Erwin Lutzer; ©2011|
|What do we do, how do we think about God when we suffer, when we feel pain? What is pain and suffering doing in God’s good world? What about natural disasters, not manmade: hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis? When these events happen, is God in charge of nature? Can you say that God is responsible? [Note: This series was taped prior to the recent hurricane.)|
[Note: This series was taped prior to the recent hurricane. This transcript has been edited for publication.]
Dr. John Ankerberg: We are talking about a very crucial topic today that affects you and me, and that is, what do we do, how do we think about God when we suffer, when we feel pain? What is pain and suffering doing in God’s good world? In fact, let’s take it to even a higher level. What about natural disasters, not manmade: Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes that take place, the tsunami? When these events happen, is God in charge of nature? Can you say that God is responsible? And what we are talking about today is all of these problems; and in the midst of these problems the key question, can we trust God in such a world?
Erwin, you have written a fantastic new book, Where Was God: Answers to Tough Questions about God and Natural Disasters. As you know, Erwin Lutzer is the pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, Illinois. This book, folks, has so many key insights. And I think the information that you are going to hear him explain today is stuff you won’t hear anyplace else, and that is why we wanted to do this program.
Let’s start off. Some people, Erwin, say that when we talk about natural disasters and God that we shouldn’t even be asking these questions, because the magnitude of suffering that takes place in the world is so great that there really are no answers that we can give. There is no hidden meaning behind these things. Explain where we are going here.
Dr. Erwin Lutzer: Well, you see there are some people who indeed say that the suffering is so great, what do you have to say? And yet at the same time when you look into the Bible, the Bible is not silent about these matters. It very clearly talks about natural disasters all throughout the Scriptures, all the way from the first earthquake when the law was given at Sinai to the very end. And I am sure that in this series of programs we are even going to be talking about the biggest natural disasters which are yet in the future. And all of them ultimately, as we shall show, are under the control of God. So, you see, when you look at a tsunami, and you see the suffering of Katrina, obviously you have to ask the question, is what I am seeing on television, is that in harmony with the God in whom I have come to believe in Jesus Christ? And I am sure that we are going to be discussing that in detail as this series goes on.
Ankerberg: In the first part of the book you said the thing that spurred you even thinking about this and writing about it was a real event that you were watching on television.
Lutzer: Yes. CNN had a special regarding an earthquake. And it was talking about the suffering of the children; and you saw them there. And you saw parents that were dead and children that were orphans. And, of course, all of us remember the tsunami. I mean, we were riveted by that television special and all of the news reports on it. And one of the things that we forget is that it is now off the headlines, obviously, but at the same time the people still live with the devastation. So I think any intelligent Christian has to ask the question, what is God’s relationship to all of this? And what does that Bible have to say about this? And, John, what we are going to discover is that the Bible does not back away from this question. We do, some Christians do; but the Bible is very plain, it is very realistic and it does not expect us to believe fantasies at this point.
Ankerberg: The atheist says, “I can’t believe, Erwin, because I can’t believe that a loving God who is all powerful and all loving would permit 200,000 people in the tsunami to die almost immediately, and then all of the others that were attached to that to suffer after that. How could God be loving? What would be the purpose of a God who is loving to allow that to happen?”
Lutzer: You know, John, that is a huge question. But since you raised the issue of the atheist, let me be very clear. If there is an atheist who is listening to this program and watching, we want you to continue to watch. But I do need to tell you that your point of view is irrational and illogical. And the reason for that is that if atheism were right we couldn’t even ask the question, “Why is there evil in the world?” If you have a group of molecules who all get together in complicated ways and we came from that and it was haphazard – which, of course, atheists have to believe – what possible way can those molecules arrange themselves so that one way is better than the other? Atheists have a moral compass just like the rest of humanity, but they have that because they are created in the image of God. And that is why they talk about good and evil and what God should do and what He shouldn’t do. They talk about that and they therefore belie the fact that they are created in God’s image.
Ankerberg: Yes, Francis Schaeffer used to say that you can’t get there from here if you have chance plus time plus just the impersonal, that is all there is in the universe.
Ankerberg: What you need is a personal someone who brought all this into existence; then it makes sense. Your personality makes sense, the design of the world. But we still have to talk about, then, what is the hidden meaning here? Why has God allowed the suffering? And you keep saying the Bible has a lot to say. Let’s start with some of the things that the Bible hints at. And maybe we need to define that when we all get done we are not going to have a complete answer for the people. And those that are actually suffering – have lost a person in a tornado, maybe lost a child in a flood, lost somebody in Hurricane Katrina – that on one side intellectual answers, even if you gave it to them, is not going to soothe their suffering. Talk to them as a pastor first.
Lutzer: Well, I would simply say this to them, John, that indeed a biblical answer, even if it is an honest answer, is not going to help the grieving mother necessarily who has just lost her children. Now, at some point it might, but certainly not immediately. But I would want to say to them that in Jesus Christ God has revealed Himself. And even though we cannot understand the mysteries of God, as a matter of fact, one of the conclusions I come to in my book is that God is much more mysterious than we have ever believed Him to be; there is much that we do not know. If you ask the specific question, why does this child die and this child live, we can’t answer that.
What we can do, though, is to say that even though nature has both its positive aspects and its negative aspects – and that, by the way, reflects in some sense the attributes of God – we can be assured that God who revealed Himself in Jesus cares, and that He is a loving God.
As I say at the end of the book, when God becomes too mysterious, what you do is you flee to Christ, because in Jesus Christ we have seen the Father, Jesus said. And there is much that is mysterious, but do we have a faith that we can hang onto during those difficult times? The answer is yes. God is trustworthy even though many of His purposes are hidden from us.
Ankerberg: One of the key verses that you cite is in Romans 8. Tell us why this is so important?
Lutzer: This helps us explain natural disasters, but also the glories of us as believers. The apostle Paul said in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the present suffering is not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.” And now we get the important understanding of natural disasters, “the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed, for the creation was subject to frustration not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it.”
Now think about that. God says to the earth, “I am cursing the earth, it is going to grow weeds.” Well, you almost have to feel sorry for the earth: “Excuse me, what did I do?” The answer is, nature did nothing; but yet it was impossible for a fallen man to live in the pristine kind of environment of paradise. So because man was cursed, nature now follows the curse.
But this even gets better as the text proceeds. It says, “in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” What that means is this, that God considers us first. Nature fell with man obviously and when mankind is fully redeemed, when the children of God are redeemed, nature follows. Nature now follows and now there will be another environment that will be conducive to the perfection and the glories of the new created order and God’s redeemed humanity. No wonder it says that the creation is groaning as the pains of childbirth, right up to this present time.
“Not only so but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” So the creation itself, the apostle Paul says, is on tiptoe waiting for us to be redeemed so that it can be redeemed.
So, a couple of points. First of all, this is not the way in which the original creation was to go. It was not God’s intention. It was a perfect creation. But sin is so serious, so very serious, that when men sinned creation was effected.
And, John, when we look at Katrina, when we look at the devastation of the tsunami, what we should be saying is, “That’s what sin looks like when it is out of control.” Because you see, there is a connection in the Bible between the fallenness of the cursed world, the cursed order of nature, and the curse of humanity. And therefore we should say, that is the terribleness of sin. That is God’s judgment on how bad sin is.
And later on we are going to be talking about the lessons that natural disasters can teach us and what we can learn from Katrina and so forth. And then let’s keep this in mind, that actually a natural disaster is not an unusual occurrence. A natural disaster is just what is happening every single day in our hospitals throughout the country as people die. In fact, I think it is about 6,000 people who die every hour on this cursed planet, many of them in situations that are as bad as Katrina, as bad as natural disasters. And what natural disasters do is they are simply an intensification of what is happening all the time. “The soul that sins it shall die.” Death is all around us. Natural disasters only emphasize that point.
Ankerberg: Alright, when you have a natural disaster that takes place, such as the Lisbon earthquake back in the 1700s, or even the tsunami of our time and the Hurricane Katrina, people have different opinions about what happened, what this natural disaster means. Illustrate that via the earthquake in Lisbon.
Lutzer: Well, here it is, you know, the first of November 1775 and Lisbon has a tsunami. Thirty to sixty thousand people die. People ran into the churches. It was All Saints’ Day, so they expected to be kept from death because they were crying up to God in the church. And the churches collapsed. And so people began to wonder, “Is God on our side or not?” You have all kinds of interpretations.
By the way, that earthquake split Europe in two. On the one hand you had this push toward naturalism, a disbelief in God – Voltaire, etc. On the other hand, you had people seeking God. And as you shall see in a moment, natural disasters always do that. But, of course, there was a variety of interpretations. The Jesuits said, “It is the judgment of God, All Saints’ Day, because the city is too corrupt. The Protestants said, “It is because of the Inquisition.” The Jesuits replied, “No, it is because the Inquisition has become too lax.”
And so you always have different interpretations. Katrina: oh, the Muslims said it is because of the war in Iraq God is judging them. Over at the tsunami you have some people say, “Well, the reason that we were spared is because we left a church that didn’t have a certain kind of ambiance; there was no statute to Joseph. But we went to one that was and we were saved.”
John, one of the things that I stress in the book is that natural disasters do not give us the ability to discern what religion is right. I can prove that. And we are too quick to read into it exactly what we want to see: our conception of God; what we think God should have done; and so forth. Now, if people who are watching this are asking another question, are natural disasters a judgment of God?, that is a critical question that needs careful thought.
Ankerberg: Oh, yes! On the opinion of how you judge a natural disaster, Jesus Christ Himself weighed in on this. And we, as Christians, and those that are non-Christians need to understand what Christ is teaching.
Lutzer: Exactly. The seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus talks about a man who build his house upon the sand and a man who built his house upon a rock. What distinguished the two was a natural disaster. The winds came, the floods came and beat upon that house. And, of course, the house that was built upon the sand collapsed; the house that was built upon the rock was spared.
Now, the point is that natural disasters, even as I pointed out, the great Lisbon quake divided Europe, in the very same way that it divides humanity. There are some people who watch that and who say, “I can’t trust God; I can’t believe in Him.” There are others that look at the very same event and say that, “If God is the kind of God who can allow or even cause these events, I had better run to His refuge that is found in Jesus Christ.”
And, John, that might be a good place for us to end at this point, is that we have people who are listening who don’t understand that God is a consuming fire. He is terrifying. The Bible talks about the terror of the Lord. But, thankfully, in Jesus Christ refuge is found. And I would like to say to those who are listening today, if you have never trusted Christ as Savior, when you trust Him you are saved from the wrath of God. Jesus then bore your wrath, the wrath of God, so that you could be forgiven and so that you could be free.
Ankerberg: Let’s pick up on the fact that you flee from the God who is scary and you flee and you turn to the one we can see, namely Jesus who came in the flesh. They are the same God. But Martin Luther actually said that; he wasn’t saying that God is split, it is simply saying that God is revealed more fully in Jesus Christ. And we can know Him, we can get to understand Him and there are promises that He makes. And I love the fact that you illustrated in the book that when a person comes into a relationship with Jesus Christ and gets to know Him that when the natural disasters come, because you know Him, the fact is you have trust that even though you don’t understand the hand of God and how it is affecting you and your family, the fact is that there is this connection with Jesus. Touch on that briefly.
Lutzer: You know, the Bible says, in John 14, Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” By the way, what a claim to make. So when we want to know what God is like, it is true that Luther said, “Let us flee the mysterious God, the mystery of His ways.” Because there is so much mystery when it comes to God, and so much that we don’t understand. There is no use pretending that we can read the fine print of His diary so to speak. We don’t know sometimes what God is up to.
But isn’t it wonderful to know that “God loved the world and gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”? And so we come to the Christ who can be trusted. And once we come to Him we can say, “Now that I have come to know You and trust You for the forgiveness of my sins, which I have experienced, I can now trust You even when I do not understand.” After all, the Bible does say that God’s ways are past finding out.
Ankerberg: Yes. The Bible also says that God is sovereign over nature. He is in charge, He is not a deist God where He made it and walked away and either the devil is doing things or nature itself is doing things and God is not connected.