Update: Here’s the recording of the talk: “Where was God in Haiti when the Earthquakes Struck Haiti?”
On January 12th, 2010 at 4:53pm, an earthquake measured at a magnitude of 7.0 struck the nation of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, the epicenter some 15 miles west of Port-Au-Prince, the capital city and largest city in Haiti. The earthquake struck some 8 miles down into the earth’s crust. The death toll is now estimated to be over 200,000 with perhaps another 200,000 injured and somewhere around a million people displaced in and around the Port-au-Prince area.
A description of the tectonic phenomenon: “The January 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake occurred in the boundary region separating the Caribbean plate and the North America plate. This plate boundary is dominated by left-lateral strike slip motion and compression, and accommodates about 20 mm/y slip, with the Caribbean plate moving eastward with respect to the North America plate.
At the longitude of the January 12 earthquake, motion between the Caribbean and North American plates is partitioned between two major east-west trending, strike-slip fault systems — the Septentrional fault system in northern Haiti and the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system in southern Haiti.
The location and focal mechanism of the earthquake are consistent with the event having occurred as left-lateral strike slip faulting on the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system. This fault system accommodates about 7 mm/y, nearly half the overall motion between the Caribbean plate and North American plate.”
Over 54 aftershocks over a magnitude of 4.5 have been recorded, the two largest were 5.9, one 7 minutes after the original main shock, and the second on January 20th.
Where was God in Haiti when the Earthquakes struck?
But when we ask this question, it is understood that we’re not just asking about this catastrophe. We’re really asking about ALL catastrophes. Where was God when the tsunami struck Myanmar? Where was God when Hurricane Katrina blasted the Southeast? But why limit ourselves to natural disasters? Where was God when George W. Bush was elected? Or Obama? Where was God when the economy tanked? Where was God when Pat Robertson said the earthquake was sent by God because the Haitian’s pact with the devil?
But really, to be fair, we have to expand this even further: Where was God when that brilliant sunrise broke over the Palouse hills one morning I remember a number of years ago when I had stayed up all night with some friends? Where was God when Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos or when Handel composed his Messiah? Where was God when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet? Where was God when my daughter was born 9 and half weeks premature, so beautiful, so small, and so awful?
There’s no sense in only choosing the bad things, the hard things. What we mean is: where was God? Where was God when it was awful and where was God when it was wonderful? Where was God when it was ugly and horrendous and where was God when it was heart-achingly beautiful?
The Atheist Response
One possible answer is to say that God wasn’t there. God wasn’t in any of those situations because there is no God. If the atheists are right, it’s pointless to answer this question, and it’s even more pointless for all of us to be gathered here to ask this question. But if there is no God, then there’s reasonable way to distinguish between the great variety of things we experience. There’s no reason why something should really be considered beautiful or ugly, harsh or lovely, evil or good. There’s no meaning to the words “suffering” or “justice.” Pain and ecstasy are just a biological phenomena, chemical reactions, atoms colliding in one way and not another. It’s all just “left-lateral strike-slip motion and compression.” Sure, you might prefer one thing over another. But that’s all it is: just a preference. If the earthquake was as much part of the evolutionary process as childbirth, sunsets, and laughter, then the earthquake just happened. Why struggle against Mother Nature? Why question fate? If there is no God, if there is no ultimate, transcendent right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful or ugly, then “who cares?” is just as appropriate a response to Haiti as sending aid and assisting in relief efforts. It’s only a matter of preference. Not only is this an empty, inhuman response, it is entirely unsatisfying and does not match our experience at all.
The Absent/Ignorant Deistic Response
This is really atheism for cowards. This person is willing to admit the existence of a god, and probably he created this world, but when the earthquake occurred, he was either busy with something else or simply didn’t know that it was happening. This god is not omniscient; this god is not omnipresent. He does not see all things or know all things. He is absent and ignorant. He is far removed. But this is no god. This is the god invented by rationalists who need a place holder for their orderly system of explaining the world. This is the generic god of American civics, the god of “god bless America” and “one nation under god,” the god who does not interfere or impose upon us. And that’s the root of this atheism-lite, this atheism for cowards. These cowards are also usually power hungry. This god does not speak, and cannot be counted upon to help in a time of need. But the worshippers of this god would be glad to help. Their god is useless, but that’s because this god is a front for tyranny. Deists want a distant god so that they can force their own moral vision on the world. They know what’s best for you. Hitler believed in a god like this. These moral fascists don’t know where god was when the earthquake struck, but they’ll be happy to play the part of god and exploit this horrific situation to their lust and greed.
The Absent Christian God
Unfortunately there are some Christians who embrace the Bible, embrace the revelation of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but for whatever reason refuse to listen to the clear teachings of Scripture. These Christians believe in a personal, present God, but when it comes to natural disasters and horrific events, they insist that God was in some way unable to stop the evil. These Christians (I think mostly unintentionally) are so infatuated with a particular form of “free will,” that they are willing to sacrifice many other Biblical truths on the altar of this conviction. In the name of the freedom of humans, they sacrifice the freedom of God. And they do this by insisting that God was only vaguely there. God heard the cries, God saw the plates of the earth moving together, and the buildings shaking, and for some reason God was not able to act to stop it. God was crying when the earthquake struck Haiti, crying for the hurt, crying for the pain. He wanted to stop it but couldn’t. This is little-old-lady Christianity, an anemic version of Christianity that’s trying to protect God from Himself. O God, don’t get mixed up with natural disasters; it’s not good for Your reputation. But not only is this unfaithful to the full teaching of Scripture, it is less than satisfying to the biblical standards of justice. This is a powerless God who cannot act to intervene and save lives when the earth shakes. This kind of God cannot be trusted. Can you pray to this kind of God?
The Christian God: Father, Son, and Spirit
1. God is the Creator and sustainer of all things. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). “In these last days [God has] spoken to us by His Son whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds… and upholding all things by the word of His power…” (Heb. 1:2-3) “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord do all these things” (Is. 45:7). This includes earthquakes. While this is perhaps the hardest part of the answer, it ultimately rests in the conviction that God is love and that this love is supremely evidenced in the horror of the cross of Jesus Christ. Christians refuse to get their definitions of love, justice, and mercy from the newspapers, Hollywood, or sappy vampire romance novels. We insist that these and all other virtues must be grounded in the person of Jesus crucified. So we do not begin with an abstract notion of “God is love” or even that “God is good.”
We begin with Jesus crucified. And the Scriptures teach that in Jesus crucified the love and goodness of God was displayed to the world. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us (1 Jn. 3:16). When Jesus was delivered up according to the foreknowledge of God the Father (Acts 2:23), He displayed justice and mercy and love and goodness for the world (Rom. 1:17). Jesus on the cross is the foundation for all Christian morality and theology. If we cannot accept that, then none of the rest will follow, none of the rest of the Bible will seem coherent or rational. But if Jesus crucified is the justice and goodness of God for the world, then everything is changed. The world isn’t what it seems. If the Christian God orchestrated the salvation of the world through the suffering of an innocent man on a cross and was raised up again three days later, then He can be trusted. The God who delivered Jesus up to be crucified for the salvation of the world, is the same God who orchestrates all things (even earthquakes) according to His wisdom for the salvation of the world.
2. This leads to the second point which is that the curse of sin is embedded in the earth. All of creation groans for the redemption of the sons of God (Gen. 3:17-18, Rom. 8:20-22). But it groans even louder after the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits Paul says of the renewal of all things. This means the renewal of families, the renewal of states, the renewal of economic policies, the renewal of the environment, and yes, the renewal of the tectonic plates of this planet. How can we trust that this is in fact happening? Because Jesus is risen from the dead. Where is Jesus now? What’s He doing? St. Paul says that He reigns in heaven until every enemy has been put beneath His feet (1 Cor. 15:25). And the last enemy will be death. Jesus is reigning until injustice is put beneath His feet. Jesus is reigning until economic oppression is put beneath His feet. He reigns until disease is put beneath His feet. The Scriptures teach us to believe that Jesus will reign until natural disasters are likewise put beneath His feet. How can we believe this? How can we trust that this is true? The answer of the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus came back from the dead then the impossible is not only possible, not only likely, but absolutely certain. Who can stop Him now? The promise of the gospel of Jesus is that “creation itself will also be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
3. God hates evil and suffering, but God is not bound by them. God is free.
He is free to overcome evil and suffering through bending it to His good purposes. Joseph says that what evil men meant for evil, God can and does turn to His good purposes.
“I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I the Lord, do all these things” (Is. 45:7). This is not a question of what is reasonable or conceivable; it is a question of God’s freedom and power. What is God up to in the world? The Bible presents God as the God of Freedom, the God who sets captives free, the God of the Exodus. And Jesus comes to fulfill all of it: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk. 4:18). Jesus is the freedom of God come for the world. But this freedom is not bound by our categories, by our standards. How could it be? God’s freedom is the definition of freedom and liberty. Jesus is the standard.
And so the question becomes: what is God’s freedom? What is God free to do? One of the central answers of the cross is that God is free to bend horror into beauty. He is free to display His glory in the cross, free to display His love, free to display His mercy and justice for the world. He is free to bring about His good purposes through the hardship of an earthquake in Haiti. God is free to do that, but we also know that He is strong enough to do it because Jesus is risen from the dead. What is possible? Is it possible to bring good out of evil? Is it possible to transform what from one perspective is awful into what becomes unflinchingly lovely? Is God free to do that?
4. God hates evil and suffering in itself, because it is the remnants of the old sin cursed world that still haunts all of us. But God is free to use this ugliness as He pleases, and He does. How does He use pain and suffering and death?
First of all, we know that God teaches us wisdom and hope through suffering (Job, Js. 1, Rom 5:3-5). Is God free to use hardship, even horrors to teach us wisdom? Jesus says that the truth will set us free.
Secondly, He confronts unbelievers with their mortality and their rebellion and frequently people need to be shaken awake from their sin-filled sleep. “But the idols He shall utterly abolish. They shall go into the holes of the rocks, And into the caves of the earth, from the terror of the LORD and the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake the earth mightily. In that day a man will cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which they made, each for himself to worship, to the moles and bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the crags of the rugged rocks, from the terror of the LORD and the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake the earth mightily” (Isaiah 2:18-21). But this is not a mechanical equation (this is the problem with Pat Robertson’s declaration). When asked about a tower that fell in the town of Siloam in his own days, killed 18 people, Jesus said, they were not worse sinners than anyone else, but unless we repent we will likewise perish (Lk. 13:4).
Third, God does save lives and others He takes. “Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive: I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from my hand” (Dt. 32:39). He is the God of the living and the dead: the life of every living thing is in His absolute control (Job 12:10). He takes the lives of those who are wicked and in high handed rebellion, and He brings His own people home to rest in His presence until the resurrection.
In this, He is absolutely just and merciful. And our certainty of this does not rest in the images we see on the television. Our certainty rests in the crucified Jesus. In Jesus, the justice of God was revealed. In Jesus, all sin and evil was put to death. In Jesus, the way of life and freedom and joy was opened up to all who place their trust in Him. The God of the cross is the same God who continues to push history forward in every detail. And He can be trusted because Jesus is risen from the dead.
In conclusion: Where was God in Haiti when the earthquakes struck? Jesus said that not a hair can fall from our heads apart from the will of the Father. Where was God? God was in Haiti. Not one stone was outside the perfect control of our faithful Father. Not one life was taken accidentally, not one bone was broken by mistake. The same God who displayed His love and justice in the cross of Jesus, is the God who is free to use every circumstance, every disaster, even great horrors for good.
There are many metaphors that work well to illustrate how this could possibly work: Can a composer resolve dissonance into harmony? Can a master chef blend the bitter and the sour into a meal of exquisite fine dining? Can a sculptor turn an ugly stone into a lovely image? In every instance we know this is true, and the Christian God wields this freedom perfectly.
And despite the many trials we face in this world, we are likewise surrounded with piles of good things. And the same God is actively bestowing those gifts, and the question is: how will you respond? Will you give thanks for the good, and trust the God of the cross?
Where was God when chocolate was discovered? Where was God when I met my wife? Where was God when Mozart composed his requiem or stained glass was invented or we first saw the northern lights? God was there.
And where was God when my daughter died? The God of the cross was there.