Tsunamis, Suffering & Evil: How Can an All-Powerful, All-Knowing, Good God Allow It?

One of recent history's greatest natural disasters rocked south Asia and the Horn of Africa the day after Christmas, 2004. FoxNews.com reported, "Sunday's massive quake of 9.0 magnitude off the Indonesian island of Sumatra sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one that devastated the Portuguese capital of Lisbon in 1755 and killed an estimated 60,000 people" (Tsunami Death Toll Reaches 52,000, accessed 12-28-04). The official death toll has nearly tripled at this writing and promises to only rise further, perhaps precipitously. Death by water-borne disease is among the greatest calamities feared by officials. Did these people deserve this? Where is God? Is this His judgment?

Asian woman grieves tsunami destructionSurvivors dug mass graves by hand in Sri Lanka. One of the most grievous facts coming out of this tragic scene is that an estimated one-third or more of the victims are children. What kind of God—if indeed He exists—would allow children to be killed so wantonly?

Philosophers and everyday people muse over the implications of suffering and evil. The ultimate question remains: if God is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent) and good (benevolent), why is there evil and suffering in the world? And why so much? In fact, this line of reasoning, known as the problem of evil, has long been engaged to disprove God's existence. However, some believers counter that evil's existence, on the contrary, lends credibility to the claim of His existence.

Asian Tsunami--wave of evil and sufferingMost treatments of the topic of suffering by Christians, philosophical and otherwise, deal with "man's inhumanity to man"—evil perpetrated by another agent of free will. Serious discussion of natural calamities, usually known as natural evil, and the place God may play in it are harder to come by.

Questions, more than answers, abound:

We engage these issues deeply from a Christian worldview, give you an opportunity to contribute tangibly and offer ultimate hope in our Special Focus. To approach them in a more superficial way would do injustice to the extreme importance of the questions.

—Byron Barlowe, Editor/Webmaster, Leadership University



Photo at top courtesy of Fred Robarts, from his blog Extra Extra. Used by permission.
Other  photos courtesy of Gospel for Asia, Copyright 2004-05. Used by permission.

Featured Articles

Why Would a Loving God Allow Pain and Suffering?
Jay Lynch, M.D.
Pain and suffering are not abstract concepts to a cancer doctor who has seen them up close day-to-day. Professor of Oncology Jay Lynch, M.D. deals fully with the problem, its definition, various solutions to the problem, a biblical view of Job's sufferings and even the purpose of pain and suffering. He tells of new residents, dreading the treatment of depressed patients, coming away in awe of their strength and focus. Concludes Dr. Lynch, "There is a perfecting and purifying effect in our suffering...."

Failure to Render Aid
Professor Mitchell Land
Professor Land speaks from a place of deep personal pain in the loss of his own son: "Sometimes we can't identify a perpetrator, and we see the pain as senseless and without cause. Perhaps the pain is caused by disease or a natural disaster or a freak accident or inexplicable depression. Sometimes we blame ourselves and eventually self-destruct. But when we are out of options, or when we have vented our emotions on others, we finally turn our rage upon the real source of our anger: God."

Where is God in the Midst of Tragedy?
A very accessible article on the biblical basis for: the God who wants relationship with us and created us for that purpose, evil and suffering, the world we live in, personal response, the way God provided to know Him, the world to come and how to know Him.

Comfort Within the Boundaries: Finding One’s Voice Regarding Evil
Dr. Robert A. Pyne
Written in rapid response to the events of terrorism on 9-11, 2001 (terrorist attack on America), this outline to aid spiritual leaders in helping people process that disaster seems appropriate in the case of the Asian tsunami of 2004 (at least in part). Simply replace references to the "World Trade Center," for example, with "the tsunami and its aftermath." Particularly good for believers as a reminder to resist errors and extremes by asserting that such events indicate the Apocalypse (end of the world) or God's direct judgment. Pyne also warns against the natural response to seek resolution of tension by either redefining God to accommodate our experience or redefine our experience to accommodate our understanding of God.

Tsunami, Sovereignty, and Mercy
Dr. John Piper
A brilliantly succinct account of the biblical view of God's place in disaster. Does He cause calamities like the Asian tsunami? What is Satan's part? Where do judgment and mercy come in? And what about non-believers?

Tsunami Atheism
Gene Edward Veith
Regarding disaster, particularly large ones, one often hears phrases like, "My God would never allow such a thing." Perhaps that is true. But what if "my God" is actually a personal conception, as the turn of phrase unwittingly implies? If indeed "the God who really is" is out there and has revealed Himself as having His own reasons for "such a thing," perhaps the image of god that one brings to the table is less relevant than is often supposed. Bluntly put, could you be wrong?

On the Philosophical Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil
Rick Rood
The problem of how a good and powerful God could allow evil and suffering in His creation is discussed from both a philosophical and religious perspective.
Available in Español

A Biblical Theodicy
W. Gary Crampton
Crampton writes, "If, according to the Bible, God, who is omnipotent and benevolent, has eternally decreed all that ever comes to pass, and if He sovereignly and providentially controls all things in His created universe, how is He not the author of evil? How can evil exist in the world? How do we justify the actions of God in causing evil, suffering, and pain? This is the question of 'theodicy'." He concludes that the "supralapsarianism view of the purpose of creation" both reasonably establishes a "logically consistent universe...in which evil exists for God's purposes, but [also one in which] God's people will be far more blessed because of the incarnation and Christ than they could ever have been blessed by an obedient Adam."

Craig-Nielsen Debate: God, Morality and Evil
William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen
A classic debate between two of the most prominent defenders of their positions in the world, Craig the theist position, Nielsen the atheist. Craig draws distinctions between the logical and emotional problems of evil, and between the logical and probabilistic versions of the logical argument.

Nielsen, incredibly, says "For the atheist, there isn’t such a thing as the problem of evil. There is just evil in the world that we struggle against endlessly, and that’s it." He deals with "moral values without God" and "immortality," thus dealing with one of Craig's basic arguments, the moral argument for God's existence.

The Problem of Evil: Preliminaries
Dr. Robert C. Koons
The problem of evil concerns the question of whether it is possible to reconcile the existence of "evils" in the world (wickedness, death, suffering) with the existence of a perfectly good, omnipotent God. The argument from evil is an argument that purports to show that these cannot be reconciled, and, therefore, since evils do exist, there cannot exist a God who is both perfectly good and omnipotent. (Links available to all other lectures in this comprehensive series.)

The Argument from Natural Evil
Tim Holt, Philosophy of Religion.Info (outside Web site link)
Very succinct, straightforward treatment of the problem of natural evil (disaster which comes about from natural causes, such as earthquakes and tsunamis) and how to counter the argument. Limited book recommendations included.

Books In Review: Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy
Reviewed by Professor Walter Sundberg
For those who wish to go deeper into the philosophical project to answer the problem of evil, this book, reviewer Sundberg explains, traces the treatment of evil by Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and others on their own terms.

In recent decades, author Neiman argues, Western philosophy has been "beholden to an inbred academic culture obsessed either by a narrow construal of epistemology and methodology or the group–speak of left–wing ideology.... [Neiman] takes up the traditional canon of great modern thinkers, interpreting them in terms that they themselves considered crucial. The question of evil illuminates the thought of these figures in an original way, so much so that Neiman’s claim to have written an 'alternative history' is not an empty boast. Hers is a book for mature people who do not expect pat answers, who are willing to be disturbed by arguments instead of having their prejudices satisfied."

A Possible Perfect World: Examining the Anti-theistic Argument Based On the Problem of Evil
John Gay
"I do not believe in a God because there is so much evil and suffering in the world." This is an argument we commonly hear. The existence of evil and suffering, it is believed, refutes the possibility of God's existence.
Available in Español

Is There Meaning in Evil and Suffering?
Discussion Forum (ordering information)
[Editor's Note: Plans call for LeaderU.com to once again present this forum online as streaming video. Until that time, please see the linked page for ordering video and/or audio copies.] On February 11, 1999, a distinguished and diverse panel explored the question, "Is there meaning in evil and suffering?" Forum participants: Dr. Ravi Zacharias and Dr. William Lane Craig (both Christian theists), Dr. Bernard Leikind (naturalist scientist), and Dr. Jitendra Mohanty (scholar, Eastern religion).

Related Resources

The Glory of His Discontent: The Inconsolable Suffering of God
Don Hudson, Mars Hill Forum
"If the Christian life is a sojourn, which I believe it is, then the pilgrim on the way (Homo Viatoris) is moving from the innocence of Eden to the joy of heaven while trying to make sense of a tragic, suffering world.... I do not believe in a God who merely observes our tragedies with a cold reserve. I believe instead, that he is a God who participates in our sufferings while we participate in his suffering of the cross. Does heaven really cancel out the suffering of the moment? Should we use the future to remove us from the present, or should the future increase the yearning for the day of the Lord?"

Good God, Cruel World?
Krista Kay Bontrager
So-called natural evil--like the recent tsunami in Asia--as opposed to the evil perpetrated by people on people, is tougher to explain from a biblical worldview. However, Bontrager touches on scientific aspects of a greater good derived by a benevolent Creator from even such devastating disasters as hurricanes and similar natural phenomena. Compassion is surely warranted as a biblical response, but perspective on a global scale can help.

Evil: Back in Bad Company
Professor Graeme Hunter
Hunter calls into question our modern understanding of luck, evil, fate and tragedy. He writes, "Few people today see any purpose in universal history and fewer still expect it to disclose the meaning of their lives. Its former prestige has also vanished. It is this collapse of confidence in history that seems to be the radical cause both of the renewed consciousness of evil and of the pagan framework in which it is now so often discussed."

Hunter continues, "The upshot of this [Platonic allegory of the sun] for understanding the world is that we have not understood a thing until we have seen what is good about it. If Plato is right, then the Freudians, the Marxists, the long succession of fashionable theorists who traffic in suspicion, believing they have explained a thing when they have reduced it to something low, evil, or unsightly, will not ultimately be vindicated. Instead, creation is good, bearing in itself the marks of order and intelligence, and must finally be understood in those terms." This may be particularly difficult but yet important to do after a natural disaster of the scope of the recent Asian tsunami.

Making a Personal Response

Life@Large (outside link)
Alliant Studios
Life@Large (Life at Large) shares a way to find permanent security, meaning and comfort in tragedy and forever.

Would You Like to Know God Personally?
The following four principles have helped millions to know God personally and experience the abundant life He promises, based in biblical claims and promises.

Campus Crusade for Christ Relief Fund (outside link)
An opportunity to give tangibly to the relief efforts of national staff members on the ground in tsunami-stricken areas. From LeaderU's sponsoring organization's President, Steve Douglass:

"Within hours of the disaster, our staff in these nations began to mobilize to reach out to those around them and provide whatever help they could. Staff in India and Sri Lanka have determined that they can feed 10,000 people for 15 days for just $3 each per day, for a total of $450,000. They will work along with a small band of student disciples to make this happen.

Staff in other affected nations are pursuing similar efforts... Many are working through local churches and are not only sharing Christ's compassion, but also His message whenever possible....

This is an enormous disaster, but it is also a tremendous opportunity to show hundreds of thousands of people—many of whom live in areas usually closed to Christian outreach—the nature of Christ's love. Please prayerfully consider this opportunity to help the suffering, and act as the Lord leads."