As is typical when disasters and great human suffering occur, any number of armchair theologians and anti-theologians come out of the woodwork to pronounce how this particular disaster reflects on our understanding of God, or our need to abandon belief in Him. Simplistic formulas are devised and discussed in attempt to prove God is either good or evil or non-existent all together. Great questions are posed – do disasters occur because of human evil? Because of human negligence? To encourage compassion and eternal reflection? Or perhaps, the cynical and skeptical claim, it is reflective of God’s impotence, or even malevolence.
Of course this isn’t the first time such questions have been asked, or answered. Often overlooked is the fact that Christ Himself was asked such questions, and responded to them definitively:
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
While on the face of it this statement seems somewhat cryptic, parsing it is rather straightforward. The first consideration is that we can’t merely attribute earthly suffering to a karmic formula where certain kinds of suffering are directly connected to certain evil actions. There isn’t in our earthly experience a one-to-one relationship between sin and suffering. The reason this is so isn’t because evil doesn’t exist or deserve punishment; rather the reason we can’t reliably connect the two is because everyone has sinned sufficiently to deserve punishment. The people who are suffering aren’t exceptionally bad, they are in fact experiencing the in a small part what we will all eventually experience as the result of our sins. Those who aren’t suffering are the exception in this world, if only for a brief time.
Understanding this rather flips our notion (and the beliefs of the Jews who were questioning Jesus) about reality on its head. We have a tendency to look around the world and suppose that on a scale of things we measure up pretty well when it comes to being good persons, and thus deserve to be free from suffering. As a result we come up with convoluted explanations and twisted theologies to explain away others suffering in light of our ‘goodness’ and their ‘evil’.
But this isn’t the reality Christ speaks about – Christ talks about a world that is perishing, one that is literally dying beneath our feet, falling into decay. The disasters that occur, both human caused and ‘natural’ are only symptoms of this coming death, and the inevitable suffering it will bring to all who can’t escape. The human suffering we view in Haiti, and many other places in the world, are merely previews of what will eventually consume all of us. It’s not a cheery picture, but it is the reality into which we are born and live.
Many will reject this picture of the world not because there is no evidence that is accurate, but because it destroys all alternative metaphysical views. An atheistic materialist needs to see the world as salvageable by the advancement of human knowledge and technology because to think otherwise leads to complete hopelessness and a finality of one’s existence. Many Christians will reject it, or attempt to ignore it, because acknowledging this reality would mean surrendering a life devoted to leisure and accumulation of wealth, which mean little in a perishing world.
So then the question becomes, as Jesus properly framed it, not “What did the Haitians do to deserve such suffering?” but rather, “Where do we find hope in a world where such suffering is a fact of existence?” Perhaps the disciples put it more succinctly by simply asking Jesus, “Who then can be saved?”
The answer comes, perhaps inadvertently, from Laura Wagner, a UNC student studying the people of Haiti in Port-O-Prince. She recalls in an interview on NPRs The Story how she was rescued by a local handyman, Frenell, who dug through the rubble to pull her out. As he burrowed down to her, she cried out, “You’re saving me, you’re saving me!” to which he calmly replied, “No, it’s not me, Its Jesus”.
No theological formula or materialistic proscription is going to save us from the rubble of this world – only one Person can, and it is only in accepting His aid that prevents our fate from being the same as thousands who just perished in Haiti.