Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 24 January 2010: God and Suffering

24 January 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

God and Suffering

In the Matins addresses I have been giving this month I have been examining the question of what we can realistically believe about God. I have thought about the role that metaphysics might play in that, I have talked about the God of the Bible, and last week I considered the relation between science and notions of God. If you are interested the series is or will be on the Abbey’s web-site.

Today though I want to look at what is probably the greatest practical problem for belief in God, the fact of suffering. And perhaps today that is peculiarly appropriate given the recent earthquake in Haiti, and in a week that will see this coming Wednesday Holocaust Memorial Day, marking the 65 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. When some years ago I spent some time looking at Jewish attitudes to God in the light of the Holocaust I was much taken by the remark of an American Rabbi, Irving Greenberg, who had read the transcript of one of the Nuremberg trials relating to Auschwitz. Evidently at one stage the decision was taken by the Nazi authorities not to put young Jewish children into the gas chambers, but to throw them alive into the crematoria, and the screams were heard throughout the camp. Greenberg commented ‘No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that could not be made with credibility in the presence of the burning children.’ Perhaps a similar remark could be made when we look at the bodies being buried after the Haiti earthquake or see orphaned children who are bewildered, hungry and frightened. Much suffering is truly terrible, and in the face of such suffering any believer in God must pause.

But at least in the case of the Holocaust there were other human beings who could, and should, be held responsible. We know, all too terribly, that we human beings have been given free will, and some have abused that free will most dreadfully. It was Edmund Burke who once said ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ It is a salutary warning that we would all do well to reflect upon.

But then there are other disasters that were not the responsibility of human beings, and where freewill cannot be used as an explanation, still less an excuse. The tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 resulted in a quarter of a million people killed and well over a million people displaced; and the final death toll of the recent earthquake in Haiti may almost reach that level. They were horrific disasters and of course they raise the question of ‘Where was God?’ That was a question that was similarly asked in 1755 after the tragedy of the Lisbon earthquake that may have killed up to 100,000 people, exact numbers are not known. A very tough answer to that question about Lisbon was given in the last century by the Oxford theologian Austin Farrer, who said that God was there allowing the earth’s crust to behave according to its nature. Much the same answer on the movement of tectonic plates could be given about the tsunami, and although very tough I suppose that answer is essentially true. The universe is as it is, and I am not sure that we can wish God had made it otherwise. Perhaps we need a world with the possibilities of challenge and tragedy if strong character is ever to be formed. If everything was just easy and there was no possibility of disaster maybe that would produce only easy and complacent character.

But what personally I think reflections like that show is that it is very difficult to sustain any notion of God being a sort of master-puppeteer, pulling the strings of the world to make things happen. Of course some Christians do believe that, and some have had the temerity to suggest that natural disasters are somehow a punishment on people for some wickedness. What any of the young children who died can have done to deserve that is, I confess, completely beyond me, and I find such expressions by some Christians frankly offensive. If God is a master puppeteer like that it seems to me he is nothing other than a monster, and certainly does not deserve our love or our respect.

But maybe God is not like that. God is not all powerful in the way some would suggest, because any act of creation carries with it an element of risk, as any parent will know all too clearly. Once something is created, whether it be a universe or a human being, it then has a life of its own and cannot be simply manipulated. In the case of our world, both because of the nature of the physical world and the nature of human beings there is always the possibility of terrible tragedy and even disaster, and the question about God is what will God-fearing people do in response to it. The answer seems to be, thank God, in many cases they strive to overcome the consequences and to re-build, learning the lessons of whatever disaster it was. I find a far more compelling notion of where God was in an event like a natural disaster is to see him in the practical love and compassion of those individuals and agencies who bring help and relief to those who are traumatised by the disaster, and to see him in the resilience, courage and determination shown by some of the victims who strive to live authentically even in the midst of tragedy, and who, if they survive, then seek to put their lives and the lives of their communities back together again afterwards. God may have been there in creating the world as it is, but he is also there in the victims, who are also part of his creation, creating the world as it will be.

But there is also one more dimension to all of this from a Christian perspective. The Christian Church has always believed that in some way the person of Jesus Christ shows us what God is like. It is not that Jesus is God-like, but that God is Jesus-like. And in the crucifixion we see Jesus fully participating in human suffering. Some theologians say that we should not speak of God suffering because that makes him subject to his creation, and it stops him being God. Well, maybe; but the cross of Christ surely shows us that there is the knowledge of suffering experienced in a deeply personal way in the Godhead. And I do not think it is fanciful in that sense to speak of God suffering. Many of you will know the story told by Ellie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, who witnessed in a Nazi concentration camp some men being hung, among whom was a young boy, who took some time to die because his body was light and therefore he did not die quickly. As the boy writhed on the rope Wiesel heard someone ask ‘Where is God now?’ and he found himself answering ‘In that boy.’

God is there in the suffering victims of this world’s disasters. He was there in the Holocaust, he was there in the tsunami, he was there in Haiti, not as the puppeteer pulling the strings, but in the victims who suffered, just as he was not there in Pilate and in Herod, but in the victim on the cross at Golgotha. That is where we can find God, and that is where we can choose now to follow him, in seeking to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust can ever happen again, and in ensuring that our world in managed in such a way that there are realistic warning systems for tsunamis, and that buildings in earthquake areas can be built to resist possible tremors. We cannot push all the blame on God, even though in the Cross we can see him accepting some of it; the responsibility for managing the world as it is lies with us.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure