How Natural Disasters Can Be Faith-Challenging Experiences

Sep 3, 2017
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The flood that left Houston and surrounding areas underwater is one of those events that many people can't help but describe as biblical. But for many people, an event like this can be a faith-challenging experience. They wonder why God allows such suffering. NPR's Tom Gjelten says it is a question that religious believers have always struggled to answer.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The problem of evil is so confounding, it drives many people to become atheists. It's just too hard to believe there's a God in command when so many truly awful things happen in the world.

MARK SCOTT: It's typically been called the rock of atheism.

GJELTEN: Mark Scott chairs the Department of Religious Studies at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ontario.

SCOTT: If God is all powerful and omnibenevolent, all good, then why would there be evil in the world? It seems like a logical contradiction.

GJELTEN: It's such an old problem that theologians actually have a term for efforts to explain why God and evil can both exist. It's called theodicy. Erwin Lutzer, the longtime pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, highlights one answer. It's not actually God who is responsible for human suffering.

ERWIN LUTZER: There are many Christians who want to get God off the hook, and so they say either God doesn't have the power to stop these things, or else they say that he was somehow a meaningful bystander.

GJELTEN: A bystander who simply stands back and watches. Lutzer, a prominent evangelical writer, does not agree. He thinks God has a hand in all that happens in the world. But what then is God's will where suffering is concerned? One answer is God's punishment for something. A whole city may be destroyed because of its sinful ways. New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina because it was known for orgies in the view of one conservative Christian.

ANTHONY PINN: Folks suffer because they are warped individuals. They are warped communities.

GJELTEN: Anthony Pinn is a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston.

PINN: So what we've ended up with is public announcements of gays and lesbians and others who conservative Christians point at as the reason this nastiness has happened. It's not because God isn't good, it's because people are screwed up.

GJELTEN: Not Pinn's view, nor is it Pastor Lutzer's at the Moody Church.

LUTZER: When disasters come, everyone is affected by it. Natural disasters do not separate the righteous from the wicked.

GJELTEN: Lutzer's view is that through suffering, God reminds us that life is short and full of uncertainty. Anthony Pinn at Rice says African-Americans could believe in God even while living under slavery not because they understood why God allowed slavery to exist, but because their faith in God enabled them to survive their oppression.

PINN: We know God is righteous. We know God is loving, kind, just and compassionate the argument goes. And what we ought to be doing is trying to live out those principles. We don't know why this is happening, but we know we can do something to alleviate it.

GJELTEN: Pinn doesn't himself buy any of these explanations. He left the church after 20 years as a minister because he finally concluded that the persistence of racism and other evils disproves the existence of a just and loving God. But people the world over do still believe in God. The flooding of Houston will not wipe out all religious belief there. Wendy Farley at the San Francisco Theological Seminary notes how Houstonians in the worst of moments were inspired to help each other.

WENDY FARLEY: That's where we see the grace of God. That's where we see God's message, God's activity in that good heart that disasters bring forth.

GJELTEN: God's will, Farley says, is evident not in allowing suffering to happen, but in the compassion that suffering brings out in people's resistance to it in their resilience. One helpful perspective on a problem that has long troubled religious believers. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.