Do you remember where you were ten years ago on September 11 as you heard of the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon? Televised images of people fleeing and buildings crumbling seared into our national consciousness. Where was God in this attack? Where was God on September 11?
The question is not a new one. It arises in the face of natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina and the Japan tsunami) and moral atrocities (think of the many victims of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and other, perhaps more petty but no less deadly, dictators). The question was formulated following the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755: if, as Christians believe, God is good, and if he is all powerful, could he not have prevented the quake? How do you explain these disasters and atrocities? Some, like Bart D. Ehrman, the popular author of God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, have looked suffering in the face and concluded that they can no longer believe in God. A deficiency of this approach is that it tries to hold God to a standard that mere human have set up.
Admittedly, the responses Christians have given are not always helpful. Following 9/11 some proclaimed that this was God’s judgment on certain specific sins–never mind that many other cities were at least equally sinful. Such indictments tend to focus on some sins and ignore others, such as pride, greed, and selfishness, which are also offenses against God.
What perspective does the Bible give on these kinds of disasters? Although there is not space to develop it here, I write against the background of the teaching of the Bible, that God, our Creator, is both good and is sovereign. He created all things good. Horrendous evils exist in our world, but even they are not beyond his control.
The Bible does not describe God as helpless in the face of evil or simply aloof from it. Joseph, speaking to his brothers about their murderous intent and treacherous actions which resulted in his being sold into slavery in Egypt, affirmed: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” The interconnection of God’s control of all things and the responsibility of sinful mankind for their actions comes out in Peter’s words about the crucifixion of Jesus by members of the audience to whom he was speaking in Acts 2:23: “This man [Jesus of Nazareth] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
The church affirms with the Apostle Paul that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself would be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Mankind’s sin has had an impact on God’s good creation, bringing deformation and disorder. Thus it is not surprising that as the Father gave his Son, Jesus Christ, to die in the place of sinners, Calvary was shaken with an earthquake, and the earth was covered with darkness. Where was God on September 11? Where is he when we go through suffering? The same place he was when his own Son died for his people.
Thankfully, the cross is not the end of the story. The Savior who died rose the third day. Paul writes, “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Together with a suffering creation we look forward to a new heaven and earth, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
(submitted to The Newberg Graphic for its “Ponderings” column)