A Theology of Horrible Things

Like the rest of you, I suspect, Nancy and I have remained glued to the TV the last twenty-four hours watching the horrific images coming out of Japan after the devastating earthquake hit yesterday afternoon. Not even one week’s vacation to rural NC will allow an entire escape from reality in our age of near instantaneous global communication.

In the interest of rest and ministering to Nan’s dear aging mother, I have kept blogging at arm’s length thus far. But catastrophic events like 8.9 magnitude earthquakes demand some kind of pastoral comment, particularly when one’s church hosts students from Japan at the same time their homeland gets rocked by creation groaning beneath the weight of the futility to which God has subjected it (see Romans passage below).

Rather than give my own take from the Scriptures for biblical perspective on the crisis and in the interest of preserving as much rest as we can summon from our week-long trip, I will turn to Dr. R. C. Sproul for his help. My mother-in-law happens to keep a copy of his book Now, That’s a Good Question! on one of her book shelves.

He answers the question Why does God let random shootings, fatal accidents, and other horrible things occur? this way:

Since we believe that God is the author of this planet and is sovereign over it, it’s inevitable that we ask where he is when these terrible things take place. I think the Bible answers that over and over again from different angles and in different ways. We find our first answer, of course, in the book of Genesis, in which we’re told of the fall of humanity. God’s immediate response to the transgression of the human race against his rule and authority was to curse the earth and human life. Death and suffering entered the world as a direct result of sin. We see the concrete manifestation of this in the realm of nature, where thorns become part of the garden and human life is now characterized by the sweat of the brow and the pain that attends even the birth of a baby. This illustrates the fact that the world in which we live is a place that is full of sorrows and tragedy. But we must never conclude that there’s a one-to-one correlation in this life between suffering and the guilt of the people on whom tragedies fall. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no suffering. There would be no fatal accidents, no random shootings. Because sin is present in the world, suffering is present in the world, but it doesn’t always work out that if you have five pounds of guilt, you’re going to get five pounds of suffering. That’s the perception that the book of Job labors to dispel, as does Jesus’ answer to the question about the man born blind ( John 9:1-11). On the other hand, the Bible makes it clear that God lets these things happen and in a certain sense ordains that they come to pass as part of the present situation that is under judgment. He has not removed death from this world. Whether it’s what we would consider an untimely death or a violent death, death is part of the nature of things. The only promise is that there will come a day when suffering will cease altogether. The disciples asked Jesus about similar instances—for example, the Galileans’ blood that was mingled with the sacrifices by Pilate or the eighteen people who were killed when a temple collapsed. The disciples asked how this could be. Jesus’ response was almost severe. He said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” again bringing the question back to the fact that moral wickedness makes it feasible for God to allow these kinds of dreadful things to take place in a fallen world.

As we engage various people about the situation in Japan, let’s watch for opportunities to bring, with sensitivity, a biblical worldview to bear on the conversation when the Lord opens the door for the same.

People may not like the answer, but the Word of God does speak to a theology of horrible things meant to lead ultimately to another theology, the good news of the gospel of Jesus, who will deliver creation from its groaning by making all things new, including us (Romans 8:19-24).

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