Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen?
Natural disasters are scientific phenomena that are a part of life. From fires to floods to earthquakes, science tries to give an explanation of how they happen and how they can be predicted next time. The recent disaster in South Asia, however, shows us that many times science does not have the all the answers. Tragedies like this create deeper questions in us. After the waves of the Tsunami caused record-breaking devastation around the shores of the Indian Ocean, many people turned not to science but to God to ask, “Why?” “Why would God permit this to happen?” In this lesson we will examine the tsunami and its effects, look at the problem of suffering in the world with the perspective of faith , and discover what we can do to help.
On the morning of December 26, an earthquake rumbled deep below the Indian Ocean along a fault line the length of California. It was the largest quake on earth in over forty years, registering nearly 9.0 on the Richter scale . Shock waves from the quake shook the ocean above it and sent a violent tsunami rushing toward land.
A tsunami (Japanese for “harbor wave”) is a series of enormous waves caused by underwater earthquakes or landslides. At sea, these waves can move at 500 miles per hour. As they approach land they lose speed but gain enormous height and crushing force, as did the 33-foot wave that hit on December 26th. The recent tsunami traveled up to three thousand miles and slammed into the shores of at least a dozen countries.
With no warning system, the people had no time to flee. Water came through the streets like bulldozers, full of debris that crushed everything in its way. The tsunami rushed into the land, stopped, and then flowed back out to sea with such a force that people were imprisoned in its currents and were thrown into the ocean.
The immediate effects of the tsunami were swift and severe. Entire towns were swept away by water. Thousands of people, many of them children, were crushed and drowned within minutes. Raging floodwaters wreaked havoc as far as two miles inland. The number of dead, still growing, is estimated at 170,000. Doctors warn that just as many people may die from diseases caused by indirect effects of the tsunami as have died from the initial waves.
The Problem of Suffering
How could God allow something like this to happen? If he is a good God, why does he allow so much suffering? Just as bad as the number of deaths is the number of people who are still suffering now and facing possible death. With the loss of the infrastructure to provide clean water and medical care, millions of people are in danger of deadly diseases. After the waves swept away homes, fishing boats, and businesses, the survivors have nowhere to go and absolutely no way to earn more money. Children lived through a nightmare as their parents were swept away from them, and then they woke up to find out that the nightmare was really true. Imagining ourselves in their shoes helps us empathize with their suffering. Being aware of the suffering of others is good, even though it can cause us to ask, “Why did it have to happen?”
Keys to the mystery
The Bible reminds us that God created the world as a good thing.
“God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” (Genesis 1:31). He had a plan for human persons to enjoy the earth while being happy with him. However, as we read in the Genesis story (3:1-24), when man chose to sin against God the consequences became a part of life: suffering, work that is sometimes fruitless, pain, conflict, death. When man turned against God, it was like a domino effect that changed the rest of the world: the earth often fought against him, and the ocean “turned” against human life. Thus we know that suffering is a sad part of this fallen world that we have to accept, that we have chosen by our sins.
But suffering and sin are not the last word. God is able to bring good out of evil. He can even make tragedy become transformed into something else. He never lets go of our hand. Think about the story of Joseph in the Old Testament (Genesis 41-45), when God used the wicked act of jealous brothers to save Egypt and Joseph’s own family from famine.
God with us
The most spectacular moment in which God brought good out of evil is when he sent his Son to save the world from the sins we had committed. Even as Adam and Eve were breaking up God’s plan, he was thinking of a way to not only fix the problem, but make our destiny even better than before. At the end of the story in Genesis, God had a solution, that he would give the most precious offering, his only Son, to fix the problem of sin and suffering and to give man an even greater destiny.
When Jesus came to the earth in the Incarnation , he changed suffering. Mysteriously, our God is a God who lets evil happen to himself. He shows us that even there he holds our hand and makes suffering and death into a path of life.
One of the most dramatic moments when we see this is in Christ’s response on the cross to the “good thief”, ” Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) This is why Jesus is called Emanuel, a name which means “God with us.” Christ is God with us. Christ shows us that even in suffering he and his Father are with us and hold onto us.
Our pain, his pain
In this example of the tsunami, it is hard to understand how a good God can allow a bad thing to happen if he really loves all people. However, he loved his Son more than anything, and he allowed Jesus to suffer a painful death. He knew that it was necessary for the salvation of the each of us, for a larger plan.
Christ trusted that his Father would bring tremendous good out of his cruel death, even though the human part of him was terrified at what was going to happen to him. We know that God the Father was not just coldly watching, because when Jesus died the sky grew dark and the earth shook with emotion. Yet he knew that the suffering would not be very long compared to the joy of bringing us heaven.
Hope amidst tears
Christians look at suffering and death with a different perspective, because we hope for great things after death. Although it pains us deeply to leave the joys of earth, and to have other people leave us to go to heaven ahead of us, it is not so bad when we think of the great joys that are waiting for us. The tsunami can remind us that death can come quickly, without warning, and that all of us will die someday. This is not a cause to be sad, but to live like people who are going to heaven.
This hope gives us a reason to build a friendship with God now, and to make sure all our friends will be joining us there. It gives us a reason to offer small as well as big sacrifices and prayers now, because in heaven we will see even better how these sacrifices have born fruit. It is a motivation to practice virtue. We can plant seeds of eternity right now and also help show others the way to heaven.
A call to greater good
In times where there is great evil, there is an opportunity for heroic virtue. Pope John Paul II is finishing a book about the history of the 20 th century which will be published soon. He talks about how through the many evil events of the past century God was calling men and women to do more good.
Many of us feel a strong sense of compassion , a sense of sympathy for the suffering of those affected by the tsunami, and want to help. Individuals have been moved to generosity and action to donate time and money to help. There is a sense of solidarity and the brotherhood of man, which has helped to break down barriers of race and class in order to guard the loss of human life. Nations have responded with mercy, setting aside the payment of debts of the afflicted countries in order to help them get back on their feet. In the face of disaster, there is hope of rebuilding homes and businesses.
The disaster has also been an opportunity for people of different religions to work together, showing the value and dignity of human life which true religion helps to promote.
A deeper answer
Science only gives us a very partial answer to tragedy, because it reaches only part of us. The deeper answer can only come from the heart, in a renewed commitment to trust in God. He is God. He is a good and loving God. He did not abandon those who died. He will bring good things out of the bad things that happen. All of the people that commit themselves to help will be part of the good that can come from this situation.
Charity made flesh
From the day of the disaster, aid groups began mobilizing and providing assistance. Catholic World Mission is rushing donations from all over the world to give food, water, survival kits, shelter and consolation to the survivors. Catholic Relief Services is distributing 5000 family kits (with soap, cooking utensils, plastic sheeting, water cans and sleeping mats) in Indonesia, and more aid in the other countries. Caritas International (another Catholic world-wide charitable organization) is distributing $63 million not only for the physical health, but also the mental well-being of the people. Many other groups are providing food and temporary shelter, and in the process expressing a true sense of solidarity with the victims, letting them know that many people around the world are one with them and care about their plight.
A WWII veteran from Colorado decided to donate some money he had set aside for new hearing aid, saying that he could get around with the old one for awhile in order to help those more needy than him. Two children gave an envelope to the tsunami aid fund with all of their Christmas money. In one afflicted village where there is not enough food, a man recorded that 22% of the homes have taken in one or more orphans.
God calls each one of us to respond to the evil we see, and it is up to us to choose to lend a hand to help. When we live this charity on earth, we are not only hoping for a heavenly reward, but we will also bring heaven to earth; we will help others to discover God’s faithful love. Christ did that. He shows us how.
Saints and Heroes
Dr. Thomas A. Dooley was born in 1927 in St. Louis, Missouri. Handsome, talented and lively, he was beloved by his family and in college was known to be the life of a party. He decided to study medicine at the University of Notre Dame, but left to enlist in the Navy as a medic during WWII. He eventually returned to school and finished medical school in time to be sent to Vietnam with the Navy on a mission. He gained fame there by his generous devotion to the thousands of refugees that were fleeing Communism. After his daily Mass routine, he would attend the sick so selflessly that he was given medals by the Vietnamese and American governments. The Naval mission ended, but Dooley resigned from the Navy in order to follow his own mission. He founded a group called MEDICO in which he recruited other doctors and nurses to care for people in the world where medical help was scarce. After establishing 17 projects in 12 countries, cancer was discovered in his body. Yet he would not stop working, calmly but insistently saying, “I must go on. I simply must.” He died in New York, one day after his 34th birthday.
Mother Marianne Cope was born in Germany in 1838, but moved with her family to Utica, New York only two years later. The immigrant family had to work hard, and she left school after eighth grade in order to work 12 hours a day in a factory. In 1862, she entered a new order, of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse. A few years later she was assigned to be superior of the convent, and the head of the only hospital in Syracuse. Mother Marianne received a letter from a missionary priest who was working with Fr. Damien of Molokai, the famous leper colony in Hawaii. Although she was already serving the needy, she made a decision to go to a place that would be less comfortable and harder work. In 1888 she arrived to Molokai with two other sisters, and began to work to improve the lives of the girls and women there. They educated the girls, taught music and sports, made dresses of the latest fashions, and planted trees to make the area more beautiful. “Life was to be lived, even in the face of death. And when death came, it was the gateway to eternal life.” Mother Marianne died at the age of 80 in 1918 without having left her mission field. She will soon be beatified by the Holy Father.
Brotherhood of man: Awareness that every human is part of one family: the family of mankind, the family of God. The equal dignity of every person
Supernatural charity: Love for God. Love of others from God’s point of view.
Human charity: Kindness, respect, and generosity towards others.
Compassion: Sympathy for the distress of others, with the desire to help them
Empathy: Entering into the feeling or spirit of others and imagining yourself in another person’s situation.
Generosity: Giving freely of our own possessions, time and or talent to someone else
Supernatural hope: Confidence in God’s gift of heaven. Confidence in God’s mercy.
Human hope: Confidence that good will happen. Confidence that things will work out well
Humility: Virtue that reminds us we do not know everything and that God can be trusted to guide us as a good Father.
Incarnation: The Supernatural mystery of God becoming man in Jesus Christ. The word “incarnation” comes from Latin, meaning “to become flesh”.
Mercy: Virtue that reminds us of the absolute dignity of each human being as a son or daughter of God no matter what their circumstances and spurs us to help them.
Richter Scale: Scientific devise used to measure the intensity of earthquakes; invented by Charles Richter in 1935.
Solidarity: Joining our hearts and actions in a common challenge. Awareness that we all have equal dignity before God and that we all share a responsibility for each other.
Vatican Council II: The series of meetings held in the Vatican from 1962-1964 that gathered all the bishops of the Catholic Church to discuss the challenges of the Church in the modern world. The official documents written by the bishops during these meetings.
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” John 14:1-3
“Then Job answered the Lord and said: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.'” Job 42:1-3
“Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany… But when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.'” John 11: 1,4
“For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, now that it is past, or as a watch of the night.” Psalm 90:4
In the book of Revelation (11:17-12:10), “We are thus involved in the grandiose representation of the divine court where God and the Lamb, that is Christ, surrounded by the “crown’s council,” are judging human history according to good and evil, also showing the ultimate goal of salvation and glory. The songs that are scattered in the Book of Revelation have the function of illustrating the topic of the divine lordship which rules the flow, often disconcerting, of human affairs.” Wednesday audience, January 12, 2005