I don’t want to give you a news report, so suffice it to say, Dorian destroyed the Bahamas. Who didn’t ask where God was? Who dying underneath a pile of rubble didn’t cry out for God’s help? In those last bits of lucid consciousness, who didn’t feel the release of God’s clasp and the resignation of life to naught?
A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep.
Once the storm started moving again and it was determined that Alabama wasn’t ever going to hit Alabama, Angela and I started to do our storm-prep work. Buy water, buy can goods, get batteries, and an extra propane tank. With the unending aftermath of Florence still fresh on our minds, the cone of uncertainty felt fated to run railroad through our community, again. After all, we had just seen what it did to the Bahamas. Could we take it again?
Angela decided she would shelter-in-place at the hospital where she works. Storm or not, people need their medications. This would leave me home alone with three dogs, two of which start twitching at the sound of heavy rain. Add a little thunder and they are reduced to hounds bugling Billboard’s top ten dirges.
The storm wasn’t in a hurry to get here and it had managed to shrink away from the beast the Bahamas endured. The middle of the cone of uncertainty had Dorian running near parallel to the shore, twenty or thirty miles out. But again, even though we knew this storm wasn’t anything like Florence, many of us felt tremendous anxiety. We remembered the days of rain that were followed by a week without electricity. We worried that many of our neighbors would have to gut their houses and stack the roadside curb six-foot high with ruined possessions, again. The unease about running out of gas or water or food had lasted, maybe unconsciously, since Florence.
Storms and events like Dorian confront us with possibly the oldest but never answered question. Where is God? Why is God allowing this to happen? Questions like these have been answered with human sacrifice, substitution atonement theories, and countless other ways to appease the angry, wrathful God. Once freed, however, from the God who is a bitter, old man’s grimace delighted with lightening bolts and sarcastic merriment, gird up your loins like a man coward, we can follow wisdom literature, the Greeks and early Christians into better thoughts.
The Epicurean paradox goes something like this: If God is willing to prevent evil but can’t, how can we say God is omnipotent? If God is able to prevent evil, but doesn’t want to, how is God all loving? If God is truly all powerful and omnibenevolent, why do natural disasters erase so many lives? If God can’t do anything about evil and/or doesn’t really want to, in what way is God actually God?
All of these questions are fun for undergraduates to pretend they’ve answered. But really there is no answer. How can we claim that God’s creation is truly good, if occasionally a hurricane wipes out a nation, or a tsunami kills hundreds of thousands, or an earthquake, or volcano…? How can that make sense?
Well, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no answer if we decide natural evil really is a thing. But what if we said there’s no such thing as natural evil? That’s crazy, right. But give me a few paragraphs.
Augustine was fond of saying, “What is, is good.” What is must be good because God created it. And God created everything. Yet, a hurricane that destroys the Bahamas is clearly not a good thing. And it is a real thing. It actually happened. So how is it then that God didn’t create it?
The other day, I was unloading Beans (my truck) from a fishing trip. Everything had been exposed to days of salty ocean spray. Nothing will tear up fishing reels faster than ocean spray. So, I pulled the hose over and started splashing everything down with fresh water. But the hose stopped after two seconds. I went back to the spigot at least three times turning the knob this way and that way. Lefty loosy righty tighty. But whatever I did, the water pressure was pathetic. Then I found it. Underneath a bush, the hose had a kinked. I stretched the hose out and lickety-split, the water came gushing out.
Now put this in your noodle and bake it up. Is there really such a thing as a kink? You can look at the hose and say, “there’s a kink.” But there’s no such thing as a kink. What you are looking at is a part of the hose suffering from some sort of privation from its true nature. A hose does not have a kink. You merely call that part of the hose that is malfunctioning a kink. Just like a knot in a rope is only tangled rope, a kink in a hose is still just a hose, albeit a hose prevented from its true function. To use fancy talk, there’s no ontological reality to a kink or a knot, the same way darkness isn’t a real thing except the absence of light. A hurricane is some sort of kinked up, twisted element of God’s otherwise good creation, and a perfect God wouldn’t have kinked up creation. God is exonerated.
So, if the hurricane is nothing more than a kink in the hose or a knot in an otherwise good rope, what caused the kink or knot? This is where I come to the unsatisfactory part of my answer. Lots of folks will point to the fall and how the depravity of humanity not only kinked up our image of God but also knotted up the natural world. Others will say that evil comes about as a byproduct of free will. None of those explanations are satisfactory or even plausible. I mean, really, do we really believe a mythological story about eating forbidden fruit explains earthquakes? Or, because our free will allows us to choose moral evil, natural evil is a result? (I once had a parishioner claim that Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans because of all the casino boats! We then ended up hosting three families displaced by the storm who had nothing to do with casinos. I wonder if he told them his theory?)
(I like to think that natural disasters have no will, and because they have no will, they cannot be evil. That assumes we are predicating evil on choice. But labeling Hurricane Dorian as an unfortunate event doesn’t exactly have the devastating punching power equivalent to the loss of life.)
Others, reflecting a more Irenaean theodicy, have claimed that God allows for natural evil (that is, God permits natural evil passively) for the larger purpose of shaping humanity into the greatest possible version of humanity. We hear this sentiment expressed this way, “What won’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Yeah, yeah, but frequently it does kill. Natural evil kills huge, huge numbers. Throw in diseases and other natural things, and suddenly you’ve whipped out nearly all of humanity for the purpose of making us better. Is there evidence of this progress? I didn’t think so either.
Another short coming of Irenaean theodicy is a sort of deterministic caprice. Maybe the Lord chooses to visit with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire, or perhaps Jesus woke up all sleepy headed and rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Next thing you know you’re talking double predestination with some hardcore Calvinist.
Others, like Schleiermacher, asked how a perfectly created world could be corrupted? Think about it. If the world was created perfect, how can anything or anyone, save the creator, have the power to corrupt what God made perfect? That would be like Michelangelo’s marble David pulling its arms off. Finding no satisfactory answer to this, Schleiermacher concluded that God must have created natural evil so humanity could learn dependence on God. John Hick just comes out and says that not only were we not created perfect. We are also still in the process of being created.
The theories go on and on, like Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical, where God’s sovereignty supersedes ethical criteria in order to bring about a desired end or command. Which is to say, that child sacrifice story in the bible shouldn’t be scorned because social sensibilities are always usurped by God’s will, even if that will slaughters your child. Which, yeah, I guess. If God is God then surely God isn’t constrained by what we measure as moral or ethical standards, right? But would you acquit Abraham if he really did kill Isaac because the defense argued “God told me too?”
I still like my Augustinian answer to evil the best even if it does fall apart at the end. It takes either arrogance or ignorance to believe the question has been answered, and, even as pompous and know-it-all as I am, I have nothing to contribute to this 3,000 year old conversation.
What’s left to say to the suffering people in the Bahamas? What words of comfort are there to offer? I don’t know. There are no words. But what gives me comfort is knowing that Christ, the very one who was asleep in the boat, knew suffering. God may not be subject to suffering, for surely God isn’t subordinate to pain and anguish or docile to affliction and relief. But we do know that God joined the suffering. God entered anguish. The miracle of Christ is an immutable God harnessed by physical suffering and heartbreak. Abide in faith, hope, and love, wrote saint Paul. And no matter the storm, faith, hope, and love triumph. But thanks be to the God who suffers. Praise the God who enters our hopelessness, glory to the God who loses faith. And through it all, blessed are we who, no matter the storm, worship the God who is love.
The storm arrived on a Thursday. And true to the predictions, it stayed offshore. The wind blew, and rain thundered. Our doggies strayed around the house nervously until, finally exhausted, they plopped down. But most everyone’s roof did fine. Very few were flooded. With the exception of those few unlucky families whose houses were cracked open by tornados, the destruction here was minimal. Up the road a bit on the Outer Banks, things didn’t fare as well. The images from the Bahamas, though, they become the clot in the heart, not just because we thought it could have happened here, but because we know it happened there.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces… but the Lord was not in the wind. God was absence and God’s absence is the kink in the hose or the knot in the rope. God’s absence is the privation of all that is good and joyful. God’s absence is the nothingness of evil. The untouched chaos that leveled the Bahamas is the uncreated, those primordial waters God has not touched. Inexistence bubbling out of an abyss of nothingness, sailing the ocean, subtracting reality: that was Hurricane Dorian.
There is good news. As Christ shared in the silence of God’s voice and as Christ shared in the darkness of death, the absence of life and light, let us rejoice in our darkness. Let us know hope in God’s silence. The happy ending isn’t just in the sun rising with new blue skies. There is good news before the resurrection. Christ is in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome him.
**I'd love to hear about your theodicy. Leave a comment on the forum page. (I need to see if it working anyway. So if you don't have a personal theodicy say hello.) And as always, thanks for reading and sharing!!