GOD AND TSUNAMIS
by Dr. Vladimir Moss
“There were some present at that very time who told Him of the Galilaeans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered then, ‘Do you think that these Galilaeans were worse sinners than all the other Galilaeans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13.1-5).
This Gospel tells us three things. First, those who suffer in disasters such as the recent South Asian tsunami are not necessarily worse people than those who escape them. Secondly, however, such disasters do come upon those who do not repent of their sins; they are the instruments of God’s wrath against sinners. And so, thirdly, we who remain among the living must fear lest we perish like they did because of our sins.
The western press, both atheist and Christian, will have none of this. God does not cause disasters like this, says the atheist: rather, the very presence of such disasters is proof that God does not exist. For if He did exist, and was able to stop them but did not, this proves that He is immoral. And if He was not able to stop them, this proves that He is impotent, or at any rate not omnipotent. But since religion says that God is both moral and omnipotent, this proves that God does not exist.
The arguments of Christian leaders to defend their faith against such attacks have been feeble in the extreme. Or rather, they have joined the atheists in attacking it. Thus the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, shocked British listeners by declaring: “Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers. Faced with the paralysing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged.”
But there are no “random, accidental” deaths, and Orthodox Christian piety most definitely does not feel “outrage” before the judgements of God, but only reverence: “The judgements of God are a great abyss…”
The archbishop’s statement is on a par with the remark made by the Bishop of Durham, Dr. David Jenkins, some years ago that if God allowed Auschwitz, He is the devil! Presuming that the Bishop of Durham is not joking, and that he does believe in the devil, we must conclude either that he believes that the devil rules the universe and allowed Auschwitz or that he does not believe in the omnipotence of God. The latter opinion appears to be much more likely…
A similar, if less crudely expressed, argument has been made by Professor Keith Ward of Oxford University in his recently published debate with the atheist A.C. Grayling. God, he says, is not as omnipotent as some traditional concepts of the deity presume: although God is the Creator of the universe, the laws of nature produce some unpleasant consequences, such as tsunamis, over which He has no control. And so He is not responsible for them.
Grayling replies: “If he is the creator, he is not like the builder of an aeroplane, which everyone hopes will never crash; he is rather like the builder of an aeroplane which is actually designed to crash – this being the necessity of a world with moving tectonic plates, viruses, and all the other vectors of disaster; and for this, therefore, he is responsible”.
Not so, responds Ward. “There is a big difference between the statements ‘The universe is designed to inflict pain’ and ‘The universe is designed to produce intelligent life, but a foreseen, regretted yet inevitable consequence is the existence of pain’; also between ‘suffering for some good purpose’ and ‘suffering as an unwelcome consequence of the pursuit of a good purpose’. A personal cause might have to accept the latter pair, but never the former.”
To which Grayling retorts: “When believers recite their version of the creed – every version of which bar the Chalcedonian places ‘almighty God’ at the head – they literally mean a God capable of anything, and therefore capable of preventing innocent suffering if he chose; which, if he exists and is omnipotent in the literal sense, he does not do, and that impugns his morals. Your vaguely drawn alternative deity is not to blame for humanity’s sufferings because he is powerless to prevent them, but since this is far from what the body of the faithful believe of him, and furthermore, since diminished potency entails diminished wisdom, benevolence, and the rest of the traditional attributes, it is hard to see why anyone should be impressed by the residue you offer.”
It is hard to disagree with Grayling’s objection to the professor of theology – but without, of course, accepting his atheist conclusions. Diminishing the omnipotence of God in order to free Him from responsibility for human suffering is a false solution, which only plays into the atheists’ hands. God is almighty, but at the same time perfectly good and just: that is the belief of the Orthodox Church.
How, then, do we answer the atheists, and those “Christians” who concede far more to the atheists than is compatible with the Christian Faith?
The Purpose of Suffering and Death
Let us begin by pointing out that God is not only capable of creating a world without suffering – He did so, right at the beginning, in Paradise. Suffering and death came into the world, not by the will of God, but through the envy of the devil, who caused Adam and Eve to fall away from God, and therefore from Life itself. If man had not sinned, there is no reason why this blissful life in Paradise, free of all suffering and death, should not have continued forever, both for Adam and Eve and for their descendants.
But why, somebody may object, should sin result in death? Could not God have devised a better way of correcting the sinner? Could He not simply have explained to Adam and Eve the error of their ways, and then, upon their repentance, allowed them to continue their former blissful life?
But God did call Adam and Eve to repentance – and they did not repent. Moreover, it must be remembered that sin, being the opposite of holiness, drove away that holiness that was integral to man at the beginning, who was made “after the likeness of God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4.24). And having lost holiness, or the Holy Spirit, man began to disintegrate, like an organism out of which the central, controlling organ has been removed. When the Spirit departed from the soul, it began to fall apart into warring passions. And then the body, too, began to break up, resulting in death.
There could therefore be no question of restoring man to his former beauty and holiness just like that – he was dying, and destined for the grave, the moment he stubbornly refused to repent. Only a thorough recreation of man could restore him. And that recreation was effected in Christ, the New Adam.
In any case, for sinners like ourselves, as St. Ambrose of Milan points out, death is a good. Suffering helps to correct sin by humbling the soul, preparing it to receive the forgiveness and new life that is in Christ. And death cuts off sin together with the sinner. Moreover, death is the necessary precondition of resurrection; for just as a statue that is flawed can be corrected only by melting it down and starting again, so is it with man. Through death he is “melted down”, as it were, making it possible for him to be rebuilt, without the flaws introduced by sin, at the general resurrection from the dead…
“Faith”, writes St. Macarius of Optina, “does not consist of merely believing in the existence of God, but also in His all-wise Providence which guides His creatures and arranges everything for the good; the times and the seasons are put in His power (Acts 1.7), and for each of us the limits of our life were determined before our existence, and without His will a bird does not fall nor does a hair of our head perish! (Matthew 10.29; Luke 21.28)… The works of God are wondrous and unfathomable for our darkened minds, but as much as possible, we see from Scripture and our personal experiences that the Lord sends sicknesses, sorrows, deprivation, droughts, wars, and revolutions, either as punishment for our sins, or in anticipation, so that we do not fall into sins, or sometimes to test our faith. And so, we must bow in reverence before His all-wise Providence and give thanks for His ineffable mercy towards us.”
Does God Play with Dice?
“But this is all nonsense”, say the atheists and our modern theologians. Being Darwinists to a man, they do not believe in Paradise or in Adam and Eve; they believe that death was there from the beginning, as the engine of evolution. God just couldn’t help it, they say: the world He created came into being through death and destruction – mutation and natural selection.
It is a paradox, of course, that life should come into being through death – but science has proved it! God wasn’t capable of getting it right first time: He had gradually to perfect the species through an incredibly costly process of trial and error involving the suffering and deaths of millions and millions of creatures over millions and millions of years. And even now He hasn’t got it right: “foreseen, regretted yet inevitable” disasters keep interfering with the world He supposedly created. God is really in the dock before our contemporary theistic evolutionists. However, they are generously prepared to acquit Him - on the grounds of “diminished responsibility”…
According to this “enlightened” thinking, man is in the privileged position of being able, through science and reason, to correct the mistakes God made in creation. God gets things wrong, sending thousands of innocent creatures to their deaths, but man puts things right - through earth science (how clever we are!) and tsunami appeals (how generous we are!), through the American Fleet and the United Nations and the Kyoto Protocols, etc., etc., etc. Eventually, perhaps, man will even be able to help God out in recreating man himself – through stem cell research and gene therapy, through social engineering, free trade and democracy. No need, then, for a New Adam: the old Adam can put himself right, thank you! In truth, then, the real god of creation is not God – but man!
All this rests on the premise that God is as limited by the laws of nature as we are. At best, the picture that the modern theologians present us with is the Deist-Masonic one of the eighteenth-century philosophers. The Deists’ “god” may have created the universe in the beginning, but he certainly has no control over it now; he is like the child who winds up a toy and then cannot keep up with it as it jumps all over the room. He is allowed to perform a miracle occasionally, but only as a special exception – for those who believe in such things. But there can be no question of God having any real control over nature as a whole or in detail – after all, that would leave no room for the creativity of man, whose “calling” is to alter the workings of the bouncing toy and return it, like a benevolent father, to the distraught child!
The Orthodox Christian philosophy argues quite differently. He who believes in chance, says St. Basil the Great, is an atheist – he does not really believe in God at all. There is no such thing as chance, says St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. Nothing is impossible for God, because He controls the workings of the universe down to the last detail, down to the tiniest wave-function. When we say that A causes B, what we mean is that God causes A and then causes B. As David Hume pointed out already in the eighteenth century, nobody has actually seen a cause: the only thing we ever see is events of class A being followed by events of class B, a regular sequence; we never see a third entity, C, causing A to be followed by B. The only true Cause of every single event in the history of the universe – except, as we shall see, the free decisions of men and angels – is God.
The only limitations God allows to be placed on his sovereign will are the workings of the wills of men and angels – and that only for a time, and only within severe limits. Everything that is not willed by men or angels is willed by God. And so, the South Asian tsunami, if it was not caused by men, was caused by God or the devil. Actually, it could have been caused by God and the devil, in that God sometimes uses the evil will of demons as an instrument to the fulfilling of His own good and perfect will. And so all things are either actively willed by God, or, if it not actively willed, are allowed by Him.
Who is Innocent?
The arrogance of the “Christian theologians” is most clearly revealed in their attitude to the victims of the tsunami: all of them, they agree, are “innocent”. This “truth” is reeled out by almost every commentator as if it were a dogma. As if they could see and weigh up the thoughts of all of the 150,000 victims, and declare them all: “not guilty!”
But on what basis can they acquit the pagans and Muslims who died? And on what basis can they acquit the Christian victims, most of whom were sunning themselves on the day after Western Christmas far from a Christian church? It was left to some Muslims who know the region better than the Christian theologians, and who also appear to believe more in the justice of God than they, to point out that immoral practices such as child kidnapping and paedophilia are rife in the region…
“Are you then saying that all the victims were killed as God’s punishment for their sins?” No, we are not. We do not know the victims, and would not have the right to judge them, even if we knew them. Only God can judge, because only He knows the hearts and the reins of every man. We know neither the heart of each man, nor the reason why God sends this or that man this or that form of suffering.
For there are many possible reasons why a man should die or be injured in a disaster such as the South Asian tsunami. It may be the final punishment of a sinner who will not repent. Or the timely chastisement of a sinner who will repent. It may be the deliverance of a good but vulnerable soul from mortal sin in the future (“while living among sinners he was taken up, lest evil should change his understanding or guile deceive his soul” (Wisdom 4.10-11)). Or the crown, paradoxically, of a just life (St. Athanasius of Mount Athos was killed by a falling bell).
Herod and Ahab and Judas died as a punishment of their sins, of which they did not repent; and their punishment continued after their deaths. But David and Peter and Paul suffered as a chastisement for their sins, repented and were forgiven. The children who mocked the Prophet Elisha died because of their mockery. But Job did not suffer because of his sins, but in order to serve as an example of long-suffering, and even as a type of Christ. And the 14,000 innocents of Bethlehem suffered in order to receive a crown of glory in the heavens…
It is important to realize that when speaking of fallen human beings, - that is, all human beings except Christ the Lord, - we use the term “innocent” only relatively speaking. The sentence of death falls on all the sons of Adam. “For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23).
Nor are children and even new-born babies exempt from this rule; for “even from the womb, sinners are estranged” (Psalm 57.3). As Job says: “Who shall be pure from uncleanness? Not even one, even if his life should be but one day upon the earth” (Job 14.4 (LXX)). That is why we baptise children “unto the remission of sins”.
Modern theologians try to “absolve” God of responsibility for the suffering and deaths of millions whom they – the theologians – in their infinite wisdom declare to be “innocent”. And yet God does not deny that He sends death upon these millions – and says that we are to blame! Consider His verdict on the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar: “The Lord, the God of their fathers, constantly sent to them by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising His words, and scoffing at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against His people, until there was no remedy. Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged: He gave them all into his hand” (II Chronicles 36.15-16).
There is no question about it: the disaster was willed by God, as a just punishment for sin. And even if the instruments of His wrath, the Chaldeans, were themselves evil, God used the evil as an instrument for His good ends. In the same way, the ten plagues of Egypt – which killed many “innocent” babes – were willed by the good God, but carried out by evil demons: “And He sent forth against them the wrath of His anger, anger and wrath and affliction, a mission performed by evil angels” (Psalm 77.53). Not that the evil executioners of God’s wrath are justified for that; “for shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?” (Isaiah 10.15).
Of course, God’s primary or active will is that we should do good, and should be rewarded for it. But if we frustrate his primary will, then He allows evil to be punished: this is His secondary will, as it were. For He is just as well as merciful; He is the God of justice as well as the God of love.
Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky) of New York writes: “The Lord sometimes waits for evil to reveal itself utterly, so that, having exposed its real nature, it might by itself be rejected by the hearts of men; and He subjects the righteous man to a sevenfold trial, so as to reveal his spiritual beauty before the whole world and increase his reward. Thus, for a time, He allows things to remain as they are: ‘He that is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still’ (Revelation 22.11).
“If, with a righteous man, the least sinful obstacles characteristic of fallen human nature are burned up in the fire of trials, so also does God allow the ungodly one to enjoy prosperity for a time, so that he might receive his ‘reward’ for those crumbs of good which he might at any time do during his life. The just Judge does not wish to remain in debt either to the righteous or to the sinful. The latter, of course, do not realize that He is dealing with them in this instance as a physician does with the hopelessly ill, deciding at the last moment to let them have anything they want, only because they have no hope for a future. With great eloquence and persuasiveness the blessed Augustine reveals this latter idea in his famous work On the City of God, which is, as is well known, the first attempt at a philosophy of history, when he speaks of the fall of Rome. The very prosperity of those condemned to destruction is no more than a phantom, like smoke, and therefore it should elicit no sense of envy in anyone, but only a sad pity for their lot, for the divine Word is immutable: ‘Vengeance is Mine; I will repay’ (Romans 9.13; Deuteronomy 32.35). ‘When I am given the appointed time, I will judge uprightly’ (Psalm 74.3); ‘I will begin, and I will make an end’ (I Kings 3.12).
“’Fret not thyself because of evil-doers,’ King David the prophet urges us, ‘nor envy them that work iniquity. For like grass quickly shall they be withered, and like green herbs quickly shall they fall away’ (Psalm 36.1-2).
“’Weep for the sinner who succeeds at everything’, one of the Fathers of the Church teaches us, ‘for the sword of divine justice is hanging over him’.
“When the Lord deems it necessary, He reveals His judgement over ungodliness even here on earth, answering, as it were, the entreaty of mankind: ‘Let me see Thy vengeance taken upon them, for to Thee I have declared my cause’ (Jeremiah 11.2).”
The Apostle Paul writes: “All things happen for the best for those who love God, and who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8.28). So even the most terrible disasters are for the best – for those who love God, and for those who, though they do not love God now, are called to love Him in the future and enjoy His eternal good things. For those who do not love God, however, they express the righteous wrath of God in punishing evil.
The love and justice of Divine Providence is based on the omnipotence of God: if God were not the pantocrator, the almighty, the words of the apostle would make no sense. It is therefore the height of impiety, exhibiting clear disbelief in the truth of the Holy Scriptures, to attempt to limit His omnipotence. For as the Lord said to Abraham: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18.14). For “I form light and create darkness, I make prosperity and create woe. I am the Lord, Who does all these things” (Isaiah 45.7).
And if it is the height of impiety – equivalent, as St. Basil says, to atheism – to attempt to limit the omnipotence of God, and make Him helpless before chance or the supposed iron laws of nature, what are we to say of those who impugn His justice, and who take it upon themselves to declare all the victims of His judgements innocent?
God is justified in His words and prevails when He is judged by those evil men who accuse Him of injustice. As He says through the Prophet Ezekiel: “Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not My ways equal? Are not your ways unequal? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways” (Ezekiel 18.29-30.). Again, the Prophet Malachi says: “Ye have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied Him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgement?” (Malachi 2.17). But God is not unequal in His ways, and He is always the God of judgement.
“For who will say, ‘What hast Thou done? Or who will resist Thy judgement? Who will accuse Thee for the destruction of the nations which Thou didst make? Or who will come before Thee to plead as an advocate for unrighteous men? For neither is there any god besides Thee, Whose care is for all men, to whom Thou shouldest prove that Thou hast not judged unjustly; nor can any king or monarch confront Thee about those whom Thou hast punished.” (Wisdom 12.12-14).
January 21 / February 3, 2005.
St. Maximus the Confessor