by Loren Seibold |
I just read that the death toll of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria is estimated to have passed 46,000. It may be more.
46,000 people perished in a matter of minutes. Or maybe they wished it were minutes: for some, it was days of suffering, dying of thirst or slow blood loss, limbs crushed, while no one could reach them.
Most pastors I know are drawn to a sort of technical, philosophical theology. They love using Hebrew and Greek words. They love showing off their knowledge of stuff like covenants and using words like soteriology and exegesis and hermeneutics.
Can you believe that most sermons in Protestant history have been composed largely at this level of discourse? Perhaps we pastors have supposed that it was what we were meant to talk about, because that’s what they taught us in school.
The people I admire most are the long-suffering church attenders who have sat patiently and listened to such nonsense for hours of their lives, hoping they’d get some meaning out of it. Of course, we pastors have trained them, too, to think that these abstract concepts are terribly meaningful.
But I’m retired, and need no longer try to please you. I can say at last that I have a greatly diminished interest in philosophical theology.
And now I can also admit this: I’m having a hard time forgiving God for the endless suffering and death that’s happening on this earth, while God does nothing.
And nowhere in our current theological discourse am I hearing any honesty about this.
Making excuses for God
When we religionists approach this topic, we respond in one of three ways.
The first, and most pernicious, it seems to me, is that we make excuses for God. God couldn’t do anything about that earthquake. Or (worse) could have done something but chose not to.
There was a time when I thought that the great controversy motif was a good explanation for why people suffer and die. I don’t anymore. The story itself is largely mythological—it’s not in Scripture as such. (Prove me wrong. The passages used in Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 are clearly about human figures, not heavenly ones, and you have to indulge in some serious contortionism to say they describe a proud heavenly angel who went to war with an omnipotent God—and won, sort of.)
Now, all it seems to me is making another excuse for God. Why is it that we credit God with a whole range of infinite qualities, and yet we have to make excuses for why he’s constricted by our free will? Besides, what did my free will (or anyone’s) have to do with that earthquake?
Yes, there was plenty of horrible political stuff going on in Syria and Turkey that was caused by evil men. People were already suffering. But that earthquake? Not our fault.
Then there’s this excuse: some say that God set this whole complex machine—the whole universe, including conscious, feeling beings and tectonic plates—in motion, and then stepped back and let it run down. That explains why horrible suffering is happening, but it doesn’t say much for the goodness of this God to those God made in God’s own image, does it?
No, I’m through making excuses for God. God can make God’s own excuses. I hope to hear them someday.
A handful of miracles
Perhaps you saw the story of baby Aya, who was found under the rubble in a town in northeast Syria. Aya was almost dead, bruised and hypothermic, lying next to her dead mother who birthed her while buried under tons of concrete, then died. Aya’s survival was hailed as a “miracle.”
Here’s another of our usual responses: whenever a tragedy happens, human beings are programmed to find the few points of light and celebrate them as God’s intervention.
I’m sure this is a survival strategy for us: we can’t take on the massive grief of 40,000 suffering and dying people, but we can rejoice at one beautiful little life saved. (Stalin was credited with saying that “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” There’s truth about human nature in that line.)
But as an explanation for the earthquake, it falls short. Yes, I’m glad baby Aya lived and was found. But why just Aya? If God could do a miracle in Aya’s case, why not thousands of other babies and their parents?
This reminds me of a story I heard a church leader tell once, about how he was scheduled to get on a plane, but because a highway patrolman stopped him speeding to the airport, he was delayed and missed his flight—which flight, he learned hours later, went down, killing everyone on board. But God was so good and so kind that God saved him!
So what about all the rest of those passengers? They deserved to die? That’s not a theology I can live with.
Some years ago I had a conference leader who talked constantly about how God was answering every prayer he prayed. I always wondered what the people who had terminal cancer or had lost a child or spouse thought when they heard him going on and on about his endless miracles. Did they assume that he had a special “in” with God because he was in a denominational office? Was he so unusually righteous? (Having been on the receiving end of his vile temper, I was rather cynical about that theory.) I lost both my parents at a young age during the time he was bragging about how God had cleared up even minor medical problems for him and his wife. It made me furious. Why was God rewarding this sanctimonious pharisee?
No, God doesn’t get off the hook by letting a few minor “miracles” happen, while tens of thousands suffer and die.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the explanation that the earthquake happened because those people in Turkey and Syria weren’t Christians, which has already been floated by some evangelical preachers. Is there anything more evil, more exclusivist, more blasphemous you could say about God? I could never respect a god who thought like that.
Do it yourself
I’ve heard some instructive and even enjoyable sermons through the years. But I have never, ever heard a good, satisfying sermon explaining why 40,000 people can die in one fell swoop (whatever that is) while God appears not to give a damn. I don’t think there is a sermon that can explain that, much less bring anyone peace about it.
And we shouldn’t have peace. We should not be made satisfied and complacent by some preacher’s overprocessed theological junk food about God’s will or abilities or choices.
It is time to be angry with God. We are justified in that.
The only response that seems at all helpful (but still far from satisfyingly complete) is found in observing Jesus. Jesus didn’t complain or explain. He “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
And what did he get for his trouble? Death and abandonment. “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” he cried at last. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Note that Acts says he did it because “God was with him.” Doesn’t it almost sound like telling us to do mercy work is all God can do to help a suffering world?
That’s the only theology I can extract from all this: do the best you can to fix the world yourself. Do what God wishes God could do, but apparently can’t.
Of course, Jesus didn’t help every person in the world. Many didn’t have the privilege of meeting him. Millions suffered and died while he was on earth. He couldn’t stop it all. He just did what he could: he helped a few.
Being like Jesus
Here is the only sermon I can preach on this topic right now: that we should be like Jesus. So we must do something. Like him, we won’t be able to do enough. It will be merely something. We help a few. We relieve a bit of suffering here and there. Our reach is limited.
What about the promised universal answer? Scripture says it’s somewhere out on the horizon, but we’ve been waiting a long, long time. Too long to hold out any hope for help in any of the current tragedies or wars or pandemics.
Way too late for those 40,000 dead people in Turkey and Syria.
I have, through the years, come to the conclusion that the most sacred things that we Adventists do don’t happen in evangelistic meetings or church services or school classrooms or General Conference committees or even in people’s personal prayers and Bible study.
The most sacred thing we do is to help people. To set things a little bit more right than God left them.
And for our efforts? More trouble. More earthquakes. More plagues. More wars. Thus we will necessarily keep on doing the same things over and over and over.
We can’t rely on God to fix this. God didn’t stop it from happening in the first place. We must instead be like Jesus and just do something. Something that, for reasons we can’t explain and shouldn’t even try, God can’t or won’t do. We can’t bring 40,000 people back to life; for them there is no justice.
But we must do something. I can’t go over there and dig people out. I can’t even be sure if those I give money to to do those things do so. (Though I favor ADRA over every other office in Silver Spring, and Carmen and I do give through them.)
This is not the first time such a horrible natural disaster has happened. It has gone on since time began. But I think the time has come that we insignificant little preachers should quit making excuses for God. If we must, we will ignore that omnipotent but apparently very limited God and get on with the work of Jesus: helping who we can, as little as that is.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today and leader of the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar.