I now realise firsthand that there is nothing like a serious disaster to pose a significant and urgent challenge to Christians articulating theodicy or the justification of God's goodness in the face of evil's apparent rampant triumph over human life. Walking an individual through (say) an awful tragedy there is potential for hugs, long silences, counselling to cover a multiple of shortfalls in one's ability to offer theodicy. A large natural disaster, by contrast, leaves a lot of people fit and able to engage rationally with hardheaded (if not hardhearted) critique of theodicy, in response to which hugs, silences, and counselling are no response.
Here, so as not to disappoint you once you get to the end of the post, I am not offering my own theodicy. I may or may not do that in a future post, but there are others aroundabout able to offer theodicy with greater intelligence and wisdom than I can muster. But I am offering here the idea that theodicy may be like an onion: layer upon layer of justification, each serving a purpose in specific contexts.
One layer of the onion goes like this, based as far as I can remember it, on an actual reported conversation a day or two after the quake last week:
Shop attendant to collared clergyperson: "Tell your boss to stop these quakes. We have had enough."
Clergyperson: "My boss didn't cause the earthquakes."
In one way or another a variety of church spokespersons in the media have offered a similar line: God did not cause the earthquakes - the earth did.
Now, in my view, in a brief conversation in a shop, or in a media interview when a soundbite is all that will be broadcast, something pithy, understandable, and direct is needed, and the kinds of things I am hearing said serve a purpose: to uphold the honour and reputation of God as the One who is Love, who may be turned to for help and comfort in good faith and without fear.
But there is another layer, longer to explain, and liable to lose the listener at the shop counter or watching the TV, but it needs to be said, at least in the theological discourse of the church, at some point in the process of honest dealing with the general situation humanity experiences in a world experienced both as friendly and as hostile.
In this layer God is responsible for the world. God has caused it to exist in the way it exists. God continues to sustain the world. God continues to watch over the world with all its travails and groanings, working a purpose out which culminates in a new heaven and a new earth. Various passages in Scripture supporting this understanding of the work of God can be turned to. One which hit me with special force yesterday is this:
'All things were made through [the Word], without [the Word] was not any thing made that was made.' (John 1:3)
This earth with its spasmodically moving crust is not a random outcome of an ancient cosmic explosion which God ignited without foreknowledge of how all the post big bang bits and pieces would end up. We praise God as creator, precisely because we believe God created our world as it is, not because we believe God's creative power was solely about detonating the initial explosion of cosmic matter. God through Christ the Word is at the centre of creation as well as at its beginning and its end: all things were made through the Word.
From the perspective of theodicy, in this layer of the onion, the God of Jesus Christ is not quite so easily off the hook for responsibility for earthquakes.
There is much more to say, other layers of the onion. But I must stop there today.