Why Does God Allow Terrible Things to Happen to His People?

January 1, 2005
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First published in The Times on 1st January 2005

It is the question of questions for religious belief. How does God permit a tragedy such as the Indian Ocean tidal wave? How does He allow the innocent to suffer and the guiltless to die? It was just such a disaster — the Lisbon tragedy of All Souls’ Day 1755, in which 60,000 people died as a result of tsunamis produced by an earthquake — that led Voltaire to write Candide, satirising religious faith. The butt of his irony, Dr Pangloss, is generally thought to be modelled on Leibniz, the German philosopher who held that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”.

What incensed Voltaire was that there were religious believers at the time who thought that the earthquake represented God’s anger at Lisbon’s “sinful” ways. After all, didn’t the Old Testament speak of Divine anger? Were catastrophes not interpreted as punishment against sinful nations? Is there not justice in history? Yet in the end the interpretation was unsustainable. Why Lisbon and not other cities? Why were the young, the frail, the saintly, among the casualties? Even the most dogmatic found it hard to answer these questions. In any case, the suggestion is morally unacceptable. It blames the victims for their fate. After the Holocaust, such thoughts ought to be unthinkable.

Jews read the Bible differently. One of its most striking features is that the the most challenging questions about fate come not from unbelievers, but from the heroes of faith themselves. Abraham asked: “Shall the Judge of all the Earth not do justice?” Moses asked: “Why have You done evil to this people?” The entire book of Job is dedicated to this question, and in the end it is not Job’s comforters, who blamed his misfortunes on his sins, who were vindicated by heaven, but Job himself, who consistently challenged God. In Judaism, faith lies in the question, not the answer.

Earthquakes and tidal waves were known to the ancients. They spoke of them in awe. Job himself said: “The pillars of the heavens quake, aghast at his rebuke; by His power he churned up the sea.” David used them as a metaphor for fear itself: “The waves of death swirled about me . . . The Earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook . . . The valleys of the sea were exposed, and the foundations of the Earth laid bare.” In the midst of a storm at sea, Jonah prayed: “Your wrath lies heavily upon me; You have overwhelmed me with all Your waves.” Yet God taught Elijah that He was not in the earthquake or the whirlwind that destroys, but in the still, small voice that heals.

What distinguished the biblical Prophets from their pagan predecessors was their refusal to see natural catastrophe as an independent force of evil, proof that at least some of the gods are hostile to mankind. In the ancient Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, for example, the goddess of the oceans Tiamat declares war on the rest of creation and is only defeated after prolonged struggle by the younger god, Marduk. Essential to monotheism is that conflict is not written into the fabric of the Universe. That is what redeems tragedy and creates hope.

The simplest explanation is that of the 12th-century Sage, Moses Maimonides. Natural disasters, he said, have no explanation other than that God, by placing us in a physical world, set life within the parameters of the physical. Planets are formed, tectonic plates shift, earthquakes occur, and sometimes innocent people die. To wish it were otherwise is in essence to wish that we were not physical beings at all. Then we would not know pleasure, desire, achievement, freedom, virtue, creativity, vulnerability and love. We would be angels — God’s computers, programmed to sing His praise.

The religious question is, therefore, not: “Why did this happen?” But “What then shall we do?” That is why, in synagogues, churches, mosques and temples throughout the world this weekend, along with our prayers for the injured and the bereaved, we will be asking people to donate money to assist the work of relief. The religious response is not to seek to understand, thereby to accept. We are not God. Instead we are the people He has called on us to be His “partners in the work of creation”. The only adequate religious response is to say: “God, I do not know why this terrifying disaster has happened, but I do know what You want of us: to help the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, send healing to the injured, and aid those who have lost their livelihoods and homes.” We cannot understand God, but we can strive to imitate His love and care.

That, and perhaps one more thing. For it was after an earlier Flood, in the days of Noah, that God made His first covenant with humankind. The Bible says that God had seen “a world filled with violence” and asked Noah to institute a social order that would honour human life as the image of God. Not as an explanation of suffering, but as a response to it, I for one will pray that in our collective grief we renew the covenant of human solidarity.

Having seen how small and vulnerable humanity is in the face of nature, might we not also see how small are the things that divide us? And how tragic it would be to add grief to grief.