Jane Fulton Alt, Blue Cup (2005), archival inkjet print, 14 x 21 inches
How do we make sense of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile? It’s not easy. When tragedy strikes, we’re often tempted to blame the victims. (If they had only built better buildings!) We do the same with ourselves. Even if we know we’re not being punished for our sins, it sometimes feels that way. Others blithely shrug off such troublesome questions as, Why do bad things happen to good people? Or they find comfort in simplistic answers that assure us everything is as it should be and that God’s plan makes it necessary for some innocent people to suffer.
The French enlightenment thinker Voltaire wrote his irreverent and satirical novel Candide to poke fun at overly optimistic philosophers like Gottfried Leibniz, who claimed that everything happens for the best and that, even with all its problems, this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire recalled the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which between thirty and forty thousand died. The death toll was made worse by the fact that the earthquake struck on November 1, All Saints’ Day, when devout people were gathered in old church buildings for worship. We call earthquakes and other natural disasters “acts of God.” If they are indeed acts of God, then how do we explain why God would act in such a malevolent way? It’s not easy.
It’s not easy to explain because this discussion is part of one of the oldest and trickiest challenges to monotheism called “the problem of evil.” Simply put, If God is both all powerful and perfectly good, then why is there pain and suffering in the world? Job wrestled with the problem of evil. He even got an audience with the Most High. What he didn’t get was an answer to his question, Why? Maybe there is no good answer. Perhaps we’re not capable of understanding, so God sidesteps the issue, just as many parents do when small children ask, Where do babies come from?
In Luke 13:1-9, Jesus deals with the problem of evil, only he doesn’t answer the why question either. There’s no parallel passage in the other gospels. The other evangelists may have thought this lesson too difficult and decided to leave it out. In any case, Jesus used two examples to address the issue. One was a natural evil, a random accident, the other an intentional act of injustice caused by sinful human choices. I’ll let you read the passage to learn what happened. The point is that Jesus used well-known tragedies as an object lesson to call people to repentance. He turned a matter of speculative theology into a practical one.
Jesus wasn’t interested in explaining why bad things happen, though he clearly said they’re not punishments for the victims’ sins (3-4). He wanted to answer a different question, What do you do when tragedy strikes? He taught us to use these events as reminders that we need to align our lives more closely with God. So how do we do that?
Repent. That’s what Jesus says to do. According to an article by David R. Blumenthal, the rabbinic understanding of repentance (teshuvá in Hebrew)—and let’s not forget Jesus was a rabbi—requires five elements: recognition of one’s sins, remorse, desisting from sin, restitution where possible, and confession. Forgiveness is understood in levels. “Forgoing the other’s indebtedness” (mechilá) is the most basic, but it requires genuine repentance on the part of the offender. “Forgiveness” (selichá) is a further step, which requires understanding of and empathy for the guilty party. The highest order of forgiveness is “atonement” (kappará) or “purification” (tahorá), which involves “a total wiping away of all sinfullness.” This only God can do.
I don’t know why earthquakes hit Haiti and Chile. I can’t understand why Job had to suffer either. In fact, there’s so much pain and suffering in the world, it’s tempting to say there is no God. In this topsy-turvy world over which we have no control, perhaps the best we can do is to make things right with those we have hurt and to draw near to the God who suffers too.