Decide what you think before tragedy strikes

May 21, 2013

“When possible, don’t wait until something goes terribly, tragically wrong until you decide what you think about it.”

This sound advice comes from a Christian apologist and theologian from New Zealand named Glenn Peoples, who was writing at the time in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy. It applies to many issues. For example, some time last year I was arguing with a friend in the comments section of this blog about homosexuality—specifically, my support for the United Methodist Church’s traditional position on the subject. My friend said, “Yes, but what if you had a child who were gay?” Surely I would change my tune if that were the case.

I said, “Maybe I would, but I shouldn’t. If I changed my convictions because the thing about which I’m convicted suddenly affects me personally, how would I be a person of integrity?” Am I currently unaware that many parents’ children are gay—and that that reality can be deeply upsetting? And that many Christians would be understandably tempted to believe that there’s nothing wrong with homosexual behavior, especially in light of pressure from contemporary culture? Have I not considered these things when I agree with my church’s convictions about human sexuality? How shallow and unreflective do you think I am?

I didn’t quite put it so strongly in my response.

But I did say: “It’s like asking, ‘Would you still believe that God is good, loving, and just if your child died in a tragic car accident?'” I hope I would!” My understanding of God as good, loving, and just shouldn’t hinge on the health, safety, or welfare of my own children. Why? Because I’ve already accounted for the fact that we live in a world in which millions of children are unsafe, unhealthy, and in constant danger of dying tragic deaths at every moment—as, indeed, many of them do. To put it another way: If God weren’t good, loving, or just, I shouldn’t need the death of my child to convince of that! Because I’ve already thought it through.

So, when we hear about the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma, yesterday—91 deaths so far, many of them children—how can we think clearly and Christianly about this crisis?

Here are thoughts that help me:

1. Every moment of life is purely a gift from God. In other words, we are not entitled to a moment of life. That God enables us to enjoy even a single moment of it is gratuitous on God’s part and worthy of praise. I know we’re tempted to think, “These victims had so much of their lives in front of them!” No, they didn’t. None of us does. All we have—which, again, is pure gift—is this moment. Will we make the most of it?

2. The scale of suffering is irrelevant to the question of God’s justice. If we’re going to be indignant over the deaths of 91 people from a tornado, we need to be equally indignant over the death of just one. For all I know, there could be 91 tornadoes that strike the midwestern United States this year. If each one killed one person a piece, would that be any better than what happened yesterday? Would it be more just? Would it raise fewer questions about God’s justice? Of course not—although it certainly wouldn’t attract media attention. C.S. Lewis deals with this question in a sober-minded way in The Problem of Pain.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[†]

3. Natural disasters are the price we pay for living in a predictable universe. I’m writing this on a sunny, warm spring day. It’s “chamber-of-commerce” weather in Atlanta, one reason so many people from colder climes settle here. Regardless where we live, however, about 99.99 percent of the time our planet does an exemplary job sustaining life, human or otherwise. We can complain about the exceptions, but those exceptions do not result from a suspension of the laws of physics. In other words, the same physics that create this beautiful day that I’m currently enjoying also produce things that no one enjoys—like tornadoes.

Is it possible to have sunny, warm spring days without also having tornadoes? It’s hard to see how—unless God routinely suspended the laws of physics to prevent human suffering. As I’ve said before, gravity works out well for us when we get out of bed in the morning and put our feet on the floor; when we’re on the wrong side of a fast-approaching boulder, not so much. We may ask God to suspend the law of gravity in the latter case, and maybe God will. But… if he did this very often, suddenly we wouldn’t live in a predictable universe. And we could no longer count on gravity at all.

4. Death, no matter how tragic, does not have the last word. Without final judgment and resurrection—without heaven and hell—then our concerns about God’s justice will never be satisfied. Our hope for heaven, therefore, is at the heart of the Christian faith. Heaven isn’t the cherry on top of a live well-lived: it’s essential for the sake of justice. We can trust that on the other side of eternity, justice will be done and suffering will be redeemed.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

5 Responses to “Decide what you think before tragedy strikes”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    100% agree. Very good analysis.


  2. Regarding point number 3, what should be our view concerning pre-death, pre-fall humankind? How did things work so that not even, say, laws of physics could create suffering?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Who says the laws of physics didn’t apply? The relative harmony and safety that the first humans enjoyed before the Fall came from living in the Garden of Eden. Their punishment was expulsion from that garden, and, just as importantly, from access to the Tree of Life. As I read Genesis, I don’t see evidence that life outside the garden was anything other than life we know now. Moreover, it’s easy to imagine that, pre-Fall, in a perfectly trusting relationship with God, human beings might have been directed away from the devastating effects (to humans) of these natural disasters. But there’s no reason to imagine that these disasters didn’t also occur on earth.

      That’s my short answer. John Goldingay explores these ideas nicely in his “Genesis for Everyone” commentary from the publisher WJK.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Also, I think we should recognize that the “Fall” had consequences “across the board.” “Thorns and thistles,” “pain in childbirth,” etc. “The whole earth groans and travails,” Paul says. The laws of physics were not “suspended,” but I think the “atmospheric conditions” upon which the laws of physics operate did not have to be the same then as what they are now. God is ultimately the “director” of such events, without “violating” the laws.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Maybe. Thorns and thistles were, once again, a condition outside the garden, not inside. As for childbirth, what may also change is the way the woman experiences it. For example, if it were possible to face every experience in life without any fear whatsoever (which it would be, I think, if we didn’t know sin), think of how that might change the subjective experience of childhood. Who knows? We can’t even fathom it.

        I guess what I’m saying—and this is pure speculation—is that most of what changes after the Fall is humanity’s relationship with nature more than nature itself. Who knows?


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