30 Apr

In the midst of great suffering, it can appear God has shunned us

Survivors of the Nepal earthquake forced to sleep under tarpaulins appeal for assistance. Photo: LWF/C Kästner
Survivors of the Nepal earthquake forced to sleep under tarpaulins appeal for assistance. Photo: LWF/C Kästner
By Rev. Anne Burghardt

In the past five years, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives through earthquakes in different parts of the world. In 2010, a massive earthquake in Haiti killed more than 160,000. Four years ago the costal areas of northeastern Japan were hit by enormous tsunami waves up to 40m high. Two nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant exploded, spreading radioactive material over large swathes of eastern Japan. The recent earthquake in Nepal has killed several thousand people, leaving many more homeless. The number of victims is rising.

Why did it all have to happen? Why did innocent people, including small children, have to die? How can God who is at the same time almighty and merciful, allow so much suffering? God, have you forsaken us? Are you there at all, God? Such questions are often asked these days, especially by the ones who have been left behind or have lost loved ones.

Many theologians and philosophers have tried to offer answers. One among them was German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who coined the term theodicy, from the Greek "justifying God" around 300 years ago. It was his attempt to rationalise God’s existence in the light of evil and suffering in the world. According to him, evil and suffering has to do with the imperfect state of both the nature of the world and of human beings. However, Leibniz argued that this state of the world is actually the best possible among many options.

It is nonetheless easier to argue for the "best possible world" in reference to evil and suffering that is caused by the actions of humans. People are granted free will in their worldly decisions. It is much more difficult to argue so in the face of natural catastrophies. In fact, it was again an earthquake that made another philosopher, Voltaire, argue strongly against Leibniz, saying the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 which killed tens of thousands of people was proof this could not be the best possible world.

It is beyond human capability to give an objective answer to the theodicy question. All responses - from "the best possible of all worlds" to retributive justice - have their own deficiencies. But what we are free to do is to cry out to God. The Old Testament Psalms are full of cries to God, full of questions born out of anxiety, sorrow or suffering. Questions that ask for God’s role in the situation. These cries, these prayers full of cries may not be just kept to oneself. They need to be expressed. The pain needs to be healed and often the healing starts slowly, only after the cries are let out and God is asked the painful questions.

I remember the story an elderly lady who had gone through many hardships once told me. She had lost her husband and child, and had been driven far from her home due to political upheaval. She had struggled with God, not understanding why all this had to happen to her. But at one point she understood that God had been accompanying her in all her struggles. And when she was able to look beyond her pain she realized that she had always had people around her who were ready to support her. She had never been left alone.

Rev. Anne Burghardt is the Secretary for Ecumenical Relations in the LWF Department for Theology and Public Witness.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.