Recent heartbreaking pictures and stories from Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the Sichuan earthquake in China are still fresh in our minds, as are memories of the dreadful Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Between them these natural disasters claimed over 500,000 lives and left many more people injured and grieving for loved ones.
For many people this huge loss of innocent human life and widespread suffering raises questions of why an all powerful and all loving God allows such things to happen. The truth of course is that when we speak of God we speak of mystery. We can say with Job in the Old Testament, “I have been speaking on matters I cannot understand; on marvels beyond me and my knowledge” (Job 42:2-6).
Trying to understand our infinite God with our limited human intelligence is like trying to mop up the ocean with a sponge. The Lord himself tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways” (Isa 55:8). The whole problem of evil, of natural disasters and human suffering must be considered in the context of eternity, of the larger picture, when God will set right the injustices which puzzle and anger us here and now.
To explain the problem of evil, Fr John Powell SJ once suggested the following example. A visitor from Mars, on his first contact with human beings, was taken into the operating room of a large hospital, where he was horrified by what he saw. A patient was stretched out on a table by a group of white gowned and masked humans. They forced a plastic cover over the victim’s mouth and when he became unconscious they cut into his body with sharp knives and took out some of his organs. Their gloved hands were covered with the poor man’s blood as he lay there motionless. Horrified by the cruel and revolting scene, the Martian fled back to the safety of his own planet, with visions of how merciless we humans are.
What the Martian saw was entirely outside his experience. He could see only cruelty and bloodshed, but could not see the broader picture of a surgeon and his team struggling to save the life of a seriously ill patient. Perhaps we are all Martians when we blame God for human suffering.
Of course the vast majority of suffering is caused by human beings themselves, through violence, exploitation, crime and warfare, carried out in the name of false gods such as nationalism, racism, tribalism, political ideologies and downright greed for power and wealth. We are all a part of this sad story by the way we judge and treat others in our workplace, community and families. Jesus calls on his followers to share, to give and forgive, to love, and by doing so to promote his kingdom among us here on earth.
At the beginning of human history our alienation from God through original sin saw the birth of suffering and evil. And though redeemed through the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus we still carry in us the effects of that sin, which also damaged creation itself. St Paul writes, “Up to now creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth. But it is not just creation which groans – we also groan within ourselves, as we wait for God to set our whole being free” (Rom 8:22-23). Both human beings and nature itself are undergoing a process of transformation, where pain and suffering remain but which, like the pains of childbirth, is the prelude to new life, as we are born into “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).
Bro Columba Gleeson