The morning of Saturday, November 1, 1755 dawned as another beautiful day in the seaside town of Lisbon, Portugal. It was All Saints Day, and most of the population was in church that morning, reflecting the fact that Lisbon was one of Europe’s most religious countries in the 18th century. Of its 250,000 residents, at least 10% were priests or nuns. The church of the city’s most prominent saint, Saint Vincent, was packed to capacity, as were the other basilicas and places of worship in a city so devout that penitents were often seen in its streets whipping themselves as atonement for their sins.
At 9:30 that morning, just sixty miles out in the North Atlantic, a massive earthquake heaved up the ocean floor and sent tremors rippling toward the unsuspecting worshippers. A 9:40, the first tremors hit the city and the walls of Saint Vincent’s began to shake violently. The bell towers swayed, sending the bells clanging, candles fell to the floor, shards from stained glass windows showered the congregation. Terrified priests fled the altar while some parishioners stayed in their seats to pray as the church fell down around them, and on them. Others fled into the streets, only to experience the next wave of tremors, which some seismologists estimate at 8.5 to 9.0 on the Richter scale, that destroyed the most of the rest of the city. Amidst the rubble, fires started to rage, most likely sparked by the fallen candles in the many churches.
Panicked by the earthquake and the fires, people began to flee toward the Targus River and the harbor, which seemed like the only safe place to go. When they got there, thousands waited on the docks hoping to board ships that would take them away from the burning city. Suddenly and mysteriously, all the water in the harbor was sucked out to sea, dragging the ships with it and revealing old shipwrecks on the now waterless harbor floor. Stunned by this development, the people then looked up only to see a massive wall of water coming toward them. Before they could even run, the wall of water obliterated those standing on the shore and killed thousands more in the resulting inland surge.
Estimates are that up to 60,000 people died that morning. Bodies floated in the harbor for weeks. This event was the 18th century’s version of the Holocaust, Nagasaki, and September 11—an event that literally and figuratively shocked the world in more ways than one.
Certainly, there had been other disasters before this one. The Black Plague had ravaged Europe for two centuries—a vicious epidemic that wiped out a third of the population, taking people from health to death in a matter of hours. But Lisbon was different somehow. As Professor Tom Long puts it, Lisbon “was a catastrophe that not only destroyed a city but also symbolized the destruction of a worldview.”
Prior to Lisbon, almost everyone in Christian Europe believed that every disaster—earthquakes, famines, floods, epidemics, accidents—came directly from the hand of God. God was the first cause of every human ill, which God used as punishment for some sin. For years before the earthquake, religious prophets had predicted that Lisbon was ripe for some kind of divine judgment. It had, after all, been the headquarters of the Inquisition and the place where many so-called heretics received their sentences to burn at the stake or lose their heads. The question of who was responsible for human suffering was never in doubt—it was always God. Doctors would prescribe acts of penitence along with leeches to try and cure a person’s disease. Can you imagine going to the doctor today and having him say, “I’m writing you a prescription, but you also need to say your prayers of confession since God is punishing you for some sin?” That’s how it was in the medieval period. Actually, our insurance companies maintain the medieval worldview, where every disaster is “an act of God.”
But the Lisbon disaster happened in the midst of a world undergoing a major cultural shift. This was the time of the Enlightenment, the period of history when science and reason were gaining traction. For the first time, human cells could be seen under the microscope, telescopes observed the movements of planets, the mercury thermometer was invented, Benjamin Franklin experimented with electricity. The early scientists were known as “natural philosophers” and what they discovered caused a radical shift in thought—that the world seemed to operate on its own steam. Rather than waiting on God to put the sun in the sky every day, the universe and nature seemed to be self-regulating according to a set of universal natural laws—like gravity, for instance, or the orbit of the planets or the behavior of human cells. Isaac Newton, who was one of the early pioneers in science, was a Christian who believed that God was the creator, the “first cause” of all things, but that God designed the universe to run according to these natural laws. For the first time in history, people began to believe that disasters like Lisbon were caused not by God’s arbitrary wrath, but by the natural shifting of tectonic plates—a law God set at the creation of the world.
We might call advancements of the Enlightenment the “disenchantment of the world.”
An enchanted world is one in which God is in everything—from a baby’s smile to the rain falling. A disenchanted world is one where everything happens according to natural law—a baby’s smile means he has gas and rain falls because of meteorological constants in the atmosphere.
Interestingly, we in the 21st century have learned to live in both of those worlds. We pray for rain or snow, and when it happens we say, “God has blessed us with rain.” At the same time, we will also watch the Weather Channel and know the scientific reason that clouds form and move and we’ll track the radar to our particular location. We know that certain conditions are necessary for rain to form. The result of this way of thinking is that we can now choose to see the world and God as two separate realities—a worldview we call theism—or we can choose to see the natural world without God—a worldview we call atheism.
It’s this choice that confronts us whenever we encounter disaster either in the news or in our personal lives. It seems like every time we open the newspaper or turn on the TV there is another Lisbon happening: an earthquake, a flood, a tsunami, a deranged man walking into a school and shooting innocent children. We might receive that unexpected call about the death of a loved one, that diagnosis of a devastating illness. In some sense we know the scientific causes of earthquakes and floods, even the cause of mental illness that leads to heinous acts. But when these things happen we tend to first cry out to God. Why? Why did this happen, God? Why didn’t you stop it? Why were my prayers unanswered? Where were you, God?
These are not new questions, of course. The psalmist in today’s text cries out to God in anguish: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” Psalm 22 is even more poignant – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Scriptures are full of such laments and crying out to God for answers.
To ask these questions, of course, means that we still believe in God—a God who is good and who is all-powerful. But we ask, if that’s the case, then why is there innocent suffering?
Nearly fifty years before Lisbon, the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” to describe the problem of evil and suffering and the presence of a good and powerful God. The word is a mash-up of two Greek works: theo (God) and dike (judgment). In a world where terrible tragedies happen and where people suffer in ways that are out of proportion to any sense of deserving, Leibniz believed that God had some explaining to do. The ways of God need to be justified and understood. God needed a good defense, and theodicy was the mean of coming up with one.
Many others, of course, have taken a completely different tack. Rather than wrestling with the question of theodicy, many have taken the option of atheism—believing that there can be no God in a world that is full of suffering. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who was around when Lisbon happened, posited a theory that is still used today by many who have examined the problem of evil and suffering and have determined as a result that there is no God. His argument goes like this:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
Indeed, we might parse this argument out into four truth claims that, taken together, have often left philosophers and theologians with the equivalent of an impossible chess match, where moving any piece leads to a stalemate:
- There is a God
- God is all-powerful.
- God is good and loving.
- There is innocent suffering.
Hume argued, for example, that claims 2-4 are incongruent, therefore number 1 must be false. A whole parade of atheists have followed him, all the way up to Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens in our own time (Hitchens wrote “God is Not Great”—a title that fits Humes’ logical problem, while Dawkins wrote the bestseller, “The God Delusion.”)
Believers like us certainly object, but parsing out the problem is still not easy. Many have tried to solve the theodicy problem by taking out one of the truth claims. Rabbi Harold Kushner, for example, wrote the mega-bestselling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People in 1981, which brought the theodicy problem to the popular imagination. Kushner wrote the book in response to the death of his son. Kushner could not believe, as many of us do not believe, that God would visit such suffering on anyone, so the solution he found was that while God is loving and just, God is simply not powerful enough to banish all evil and suffering. Rather, there is another force called Fate that does these things to us—this is a view that is difficult to defend biblically and theologically.
Indeed, the idea of “good” and “bad” people creates its own set of issues. Some people would eliminate claim #4-that there is such a thing as innocent suffering. We’re all sinners, and we all got it coming. But it’s hard to imagine a roomful of kindergartners building up enough sinfulness to deserve a horrific death at the hands of a madman and see that as the punishing hand of God. Such a God would be capricious and loathsome—certainly not the God we see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Take out piece number 4 and you might as well take out number 3 as well!
No, somehow all of these claims are true even if they are in tension with one another. How do we reconcile them? More importantly, how do we deal with the specter of tragedy in our world and in our lives and do so with faith? These are the questions that we want to look at in this series, but we do so knowing that there’s no magic five-point plan, no easy explanation that we can use as a platitude. Neither are we trying to mount a legal defense for God against the atheists. What we want to do in this series is to simply offer you some new ways of thinking about and framing the questions in a way that holds true to our understanding of Scripture and our understanding of God.
I wanted to do this series because I know that many of us need to talk about these questions—indeed, I have thought about them a long time myself. Ever since my mom died, when I was just 14, I have thought about these questions. She got cancer, and we prayed. I was taught that if you prayed, God would answer your prayer. I prayed with confidence that she would be healed. She wasn’t, and she died at home on a day when my sisters and I were at school. It was a shock, a surprise. Why, God, did she not get better? Did I not have enough faith? I remember hearing people trying to do theodicy at the funeral home. “It was God’s will,” said one person. What kind of God wills the death of a woman as devout as my mom? “God needed her in heaven,” said another. You mean the all-powerful God can’t make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into hearts for his lunch? “She’s in a better place,” said someone else. Better than home with us, better than being with the kids she adopted and loved with her whole heart? “Everything happens for a reason,” said a few of the visitors standing around the casket. What possible reason could there be for her to lie in agonizing pain and die, leaving her beloved children without a mother?
I never found those answers satisfying, and when I grew up and went to seminary, I realized that many of them were simply distorted caricatures of the way God works and the way he deals with evil and suffering. While we don’t know all the answers, I do believe that we can begin to move toward a better and more helpful way of framing the problem of theodicy—a way that moves past the platitudes and on to a more hopeful view of God and his purposes.
Next week we will look at what is perhaps the most recognized theodicy text in the Bible, the story of Job. Job’s friends muse about his suffering and their wrong answers can help us frame where a lot of theology goes wrong when it comes to theodicy.
Then we’ll look at another text that provides an alternative way of understanding the problem: Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds. There is much here that can teach us about the presence of God and the presence of evil in the world.
We’ll then turn to the cross as God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil—the paradoxical understanding of Christian faith in a God who suffers and dies. What does that mean for our own suffering?
Of course, we also believe that Jesus rose from the dead. In week 5 we’ll look at what that means for suffering and evil in the present and how we can begin to live with a different imagination.
Lastly, we’ll talk about how we walk in faith in the midst of suffering. In the end, we can’t fully think our way through it. We have to walk in it and through it.
So, I want to encourage you to dig in here over the next six weeks. We’re offering several classes that will provide an opportunity to learn and discuss these big questions. I invite you to join one of them, to pick up one of the books that we’re using, to start diving into the daily devotional. But most importantly, I invite you to take a journey into the pain you may be feeling in your own life because of tragedy and loss. I don’t believe God causes our pain, but I do believe that God meets us there, and it is there that we can begin walk with him, even when we don’t know all the answers.
This week will no doubt bring us another Lisbon. What shall we say when we experience it? Let’s talk about it together.
Long, Thomas G. What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith. Eerdman's: 2011. (This book was tremendously helpful in framing this introduction to the series. I highly recommend it to anyone, especially pastors, who want to go deeper into understanding theodicy.