Wednesday, November 16, 2005

People Asked, "Where was God?"

Where was God when the recent hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast? Did He “evacuate?”

The photographs alone told the story. Boats jackstrawed like bathtub toys. Buildings ripped from their foundations. Corpses mingled with debris, bobbing in the tide. A little boy, head pulled low in sorrow, teddy bear at his feet. Katrina. “Our tsunami,” as one person put it.

Time will pass on this tragedy, as it has since 9/11, and since the events of April 20, 1999, when the lives of fourteen teenagers were extinguished at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. But in one sense these things will never be old news. The question on the lips of so many is an age old query:

“Where was God?”


One answer is not going to work: The picture of a broken-hearted God, victimized, agonizing over events out of His control.

This “finite God” view is Rabbi Harold Kushner’s answer in Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Evil is bigger than God whose hands are tied by the laws of nature and the will of man. Limited in power and perfection, He weeps with us at a world out of control.

According to Kushner, this should bring us comfort. “God, who neither causes nor prevents tragedies, helps by inspiring people to help,” he writes.1

Clearly, the God Kushner has in mind is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who brought the universe into existence with a single thought. This is not the God of the Exodus and the empty tomb. A God equally victimized by the march of evil may commiserate with other victims, but He cannot inspire or rescue. He is not worthy of praise, prayer, or trust. Nor is there any real comfort to be gained from one so impotent.


But what alternative is there? How can anyone believe in God in the wake of the kind of devastation and suffering wrought by Katrina and Rita? The great 20th Century British philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell wondered how anyone could talk of God while kneeling at the bed of a dying child. It is a powerful image. Like the three-word sound byte “Where was God?” it strikes many Christians dumb. How can anyone cling to the hope of a benevolent, powerful sovereign in the face of such tragedy?

They might consider Christian philosopher William Lane Craig’s response:

What is the atheist Bertrand Russell going to say to that dying child – or to thousands of dead or homeless in Katrina’s wake, or to the parents of 14 murdered highschoolers in Colorado, for that matter? Too bad? Tough luck? That’s the way it goes? No happy ending, no silver lining, nothing but devastating, tragic, senseless evil?

No, that also won’t work for a very important reason. In a world bereft of God, there are many ways to characterize hurricane Katrina, the devastation of 9/11, or the killings at Columbine High: unpleasant, sad, painful, even ghastly.

Yet if God doesn’t exist, the one thing we can never do is call such human destruction tragic, or wanton murder wicked. If in virtue of these tragedies one concludes God doesn’t exist, then the carnage ceases to be tragic at all, if by that word we mean a genuine breach of goodness.

Judgments like these require some transcendent reference point, some way of keeping score. Words like “evil” or “tragic” are parasitic on a standard of moral perfection. C.S. Lewis pointed out that a portrait is a good or bad likeness depending on how it compares with the “perfect” original. But if there is no standard, then there is no “good” or “bad.”

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust,” Lewis reasoned. “But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call something crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?....”2

Evil is spoiled goodness. That’s Lewis’s point. We already know this. Note the words we use to describe it: unrighteousness, immorality, impurity. Evil depends on the good. Where does such goodness come from, though?

This point was explored in the movie, “The Quarrel.”3 The main characters, Hersh and Chiam, were boyhood friends who separated in a dispute over God and evil. Then came the Holocaust; each thought the other had perished. After the war, they reunite by chance and immediately become embroiled once again in their boyhood quarrel.

Hersh, now a rabbi, offers this challenge to the secularist Chiam:

If there's nothing in the universe that's higher than human beings, then what's morality? Well, it’s a matter of opinion. I like milk; you like meat. Hitler likes to kill people; I like to save them. Who’s to say which is better?

Do you begin to see the horror of this? If there is no Master of the universe, then who’s to say that Hitler did anything wrong? If there is no God, then the people that murdered your wife and kids did nothing wrong.

If there is no God, it’s hard to even begin making sense of the notions of evil or moral tragedy. The events that trouble us are reduced to mere “stuff ” that happens. There are different kinds of “stuff,” to be sure, some we like (Mother Teresa), and some we don’t (Katrina & Rita), but in a universe bereft of God it’s all reduced to “stuff ” in the end.

But we know better. Words like “wicked,” “tragic,” and “evil” are on the lips of everyone constantly. We cannot describe the events in New Orleans in August, 2005 without them.

But the questions remain: Why didn’t God intervene? Why is He inactive – apparently impotent – when He could restrain both the winds and the wicked? This protest rings hollow, though, because we don’t really want God to end evil, not all of it.


Why does this question come up only with magnum tragedies – like hurricane Katrina or the Littleton massacre – or when we are personally stunned by deadly disease or financial ruin? What about the enormous mass of evil that slips by us every day unnoticed and unlamented because we are the perpetrators of the evil, not its victims?

On August 30, 2005 – the same day that the failure of the first two levees submerged some New Orleans neighborhoods under 20 feet water – I wonder how many Americans were committing adultery around the country? What of the cumulative effect of the personal pain and destruction that resulted from all those individual acts of sin?

What of the unplanned pregnancies (and subsequent abortions), the sexually transmitted diseases, the shame and embarrassment?

On August 30, a day that left so many homeless in the Gulf states, what of the children whose homes were broken through marriages destroyed by infidelity? What of the severed trust, the emotional wounding, the sting of betrayal, the shattered families? What of the traumatized children cast emotionally adrift, destined as adults to act out the anguish of this disloyalty?

One careless act of unfaithfulness leaves in its wake decades of pain and destruction and often generations of brokenness. And – to be sure – this evil was multiplied thousands of times over on the same day the levees broke in Louisiana.

I saw no outcry, though, no moral indignation in the local papers or national news because God permitted this evil. Why not? Because we don’t complain when evil makes us feel better, only when it makes us feel bad.

If the truth were known, we do not judge disasters based on unprejudiced moral assessment, but rather on what is painful, awkward, or inconvenient to us. We don’t ask, “Where is God?” when another’s pain brings us profit instead of loss.

We don’t want God sniffing around the dark recesses of our own evil conduct. Instead, we fight intervention. We don’t really want Him stopping us from hurting others. We only cry “foul” when He doesn’t stop others from hurting us.

The problem of evil is much bigger than hundreds of drowned people or thousands of homeless. It includes all the ordinary corruptions that please us, the hundreds of small vices you and I approve of every day. It entails not only what offends us, but what offends God.

The answer to the question “Why doesn’t God stop the evil?” is the same answer to the question, “Why doesn’t God stop me every time I do wrong?” There is a virtuous quality to human moral choice that both dignifies us and makes serious evil possible.

The rules God applies to a serial killer are the same rules He applies to you. If you want God to clean up evil, He might just say, “Okay, let’s start with you.” If you want Him to stop murderers, then you have to be just as willing to let Him stop you every time you do what is evil by His standards. And that covers a lot of ground. Most people won’t sit still for that.

Sometimes the consequences of our evil actions are longlived. It’s hard to know how much has been spoiled by man’s initial rebellion. However, the prophecy that Adam would now encounter thorns and thistles is suggestive (Genesis 3:18). Ever since man has ventured forth from Eden, the world has been a dangerous place. All the forces of nature are wonderful things in their right place, but ominous foes in a world twisted by sin.


When people ask “Where was God?” I ask “What precisely do you expect God to do? If you were in His place, what would you do?” If you would use your power to stop evil, would you punish it or prevent it? Either choice presents you with problems.

One reason God doesn’t wipe out all evil immediately is that the alternative would be worse for us. This becomes evident by asking a simple question: If God heard your prayer to eliminate evil and destroyed it all at midnight tonight, where would you be at 12:01?

The discomfiting reality is that evil deeds can never be isolated from the evil doer. Our prints are on the smoking gun. Each one of us is guilty in some capacity, and we know it. That’s the problem.

While reading on the Littleton shooting several years ago, I stumbled upon a refreshing bit of honesty and moral clarity by John Hewitt in a piece entitled “Seeking to Make Sense Where There Is None.” Hewitt wrote:

"We would rather think of bad acts as the unfortunate consequences of discoverable and remedial social and personal conditions. Yet it is precisely the account we do not wish to believe that may best capture what happened in Littleton. The two dead members of the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” together with their fellows, may simply have chosen evil in circumstances where others choose to play football or to crave membership in the National Honor Society."4 [emphasis added]

Any judicial action God would take today would pin us all under the gavel. When God wipes out evil, He’s going to do a complete job. C. S. Lewis soberly observed, “I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does....When the author walks on the stage the play is over.”5

No, God hasn’t banished evil from His kingdom – yet. The Bible describes a time when God will wipe away every tear and repair the effects of evil on the world. Men will no longer endure the ravages of wickedness or be victimized by bouts with nature. And no one will ever ask the question, “Where was God?”

Until then, God has chosen a different strategy, a better plan, one that’s moral on a higher level. It’s a plan that ultimately deals with evil, but allows room for mercy as well. It’s called forgiveness.


God is waiting. Patience, not lack of goodness or lack of ability, stays God’s hand from writing the last chapter of human history. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness,” Peter reminds us, “but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God is patiently waiting for us to turn to Him.

Suffering, tragedy, and profligate evil now function as warning signals. Like the ache of a limb out of joint, the pain of living in a broken world tells us that something is amiss. If God took away the pain, we’d never deal with the disease. And the disease will kill us, sooner or later.

Why doesn’t God do something about evil? God has done something, the most profound thing imaginable. He has sent His Son to die for evil men. Because we are ultimately the source of evil, God would be entirely justified in punishing us. Yet He chose instead to exercise mercy. He took the punishment due you and I and poured it out on His Son, Jesus, so He could offer forgiveness to anyone who asks.

God is not the author of evil. Neither is He incapable of responding nor unwilling to act. But His remedy for evil is not impulsive. He doesn’t obliterate us, the offenders, with one angry blow. Instead He waits.

Bertrand Russell had nothing to say while kneeling at the bed of a dying child. He could have spoken of the patience and mercy of God. He ought to have mentioned the future perfection that awaits all who trust in Christ.

He might have remembered that a redemptive God “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). He should have considered the Gospel, the only source of hope for a broken world.

But Russell could not. As an atheist he had surrendered those resources. We can do better.

Our dilemma should not be why God allows evil. Instead, our wonder should be why He would pay such an incredible price to rescue us at all when we have rebelled so completely against Him.

When this reality grabs our hearts, we will get down on our knees and ask forgiveness instead of criticizing God for not doing enough.

Your partner for the truth,

Gregory Koukl
President, Stand to Reason

1 Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken, 1981), 140, quoted in Norman Geisler and William
Watkins, Worlds Apart (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 203.

2 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 31.

3 “The Quarrel,” directed by Eli Cohen, released 1992.

4 John P. Hewitt, “Seeking to Make Sense Where There Is None,”
Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1999, sec. B, 7.

5 Lewis, 66.

Solid Ground © Gregory Koukl Stand to Reason 1438 East 33rd St. Signal Hill, CA 90755 1-800-2-REASON
solid ground solid ground from Stand to Reason
November/December 2005

This letter may be reproduced or forwarded via e-mail without change and in its entirety for non-commercial purposes without prior permission from Stand to Reason. ©2005 Gregory Koukl


Christinewjc said...

Greg Koukl shared some profound insights in his newsletter. It really makes it difficult for anyone to argue with it. However, I'm sure that adversaries to God and the Bible will try!

Greg also included a "quick summary" called "Moments of Truth" in his newsletter:

• When tragedy strikes it’s
understandable to ask,
“Where was God?”
This question deserves
an answer, but some
responses are not helpful.

• An impotent God victimized
as we are by evil is
not the God of the Bible.

• Atheism is no better.
A world without God
reduces wickedness and
tragedy to tough luck.
Real evil requires there
must be a real God, not
a universe without Him.

• Most of us do not want
God to deal with all evil
because we are its perpetrators,
not just its victims.
Our prints are on the
smoking gun.

• God has done something
about evil. He’s sent His
Son to die for evil men.
Patience and mercy stay
His hand, not lack of
goodness or ability.

Boo said...

The question also presupposes that pain is the greatest evil and avoiding pain the highest good.