Loving God, Suffering World?

Tsunami, Sri Lanka 2004: Morning
Rosi, a tourist recalls:

“We were on holiday and just finishing breakfast when somebody looked out of the window and commented that the sea was doing something rather strange. People started gathering to look for themselves. The sea was unusually high and seemed to be coming in closer. At first it was just a curious sight and we went over to watch as well.

All of a sudden, the sea was coming up the beach, over a wall and across the grass, and began to surround our building. Then the water level seemed to be rising. I registered how fast this was happening when I saw a lamp post knocked over directly under the restaurant. At that point, the atmosphere moved from one of curiosity to one of urgency and panic. We had no idea what was happening.

We were urged to move up some external stairs that led to the roof and so we picked up the children and swiftly made our way upwards along with some of the other guests. We stood at the top of the staircase and watched as the water rose to the level of the restaurant and ripped off parts of the balcony. All I could think of was the children. How can we hold on to them and save them? What will we do if the water gets any higher?

At this point, I prayed out loud to Jesus, asking him to save us. I tried to think about Jesus calming the storm, but this storm somehow felt too big. It was terrifying. I like to think my prayer was said in faith, but it was a desperate cry. I was really, really frightened, and couldn’t imagine God intervening.

Then the water stopped rising and started to recede. At its peak, the water had reached to where we had been eating breakfast. As we looked out, we saw muddy water everywhere. You could not make out the swimming pool from the sea. People were clinging on to palm trees for their lives. The beach where our children had played happily the day before was now an empty shell. The sea had receded, exposing the whole bay as a barren crater. We didn’t know that we had only twenty minutes before the second wave would hit.

There was a sense of urgency to get to higher ground. We moved as fast as we could, following whoever was in front, and wading past boats, fire extinguishers and other debris. No-one was talking.

When we got to the main road, it was total chaos. Every- thing seemed upside down. A car was standing upright on its nose. I saw a woman being carried towards us and felt sick with fear. We didn’t feel nearly high or safe enough and began to panic. A Sri Lankan man appeared and showed us a track into the bushes which went uphill. I remember thinking, this is what it feels like to be running for my life and the lives of my children.

We eventually reached a clearing, where there were a couple of houses. The owners were amazing, serving bananas, tea and even curry later on in the day. Most of the people from the hotel congregated there and gradually more villagers started to arrive. Everyone was in shock and mobile phones were being passed around as people tried to make contact with the outside world. Slowly the bigger picture started to emerge.

Those who returned to the hotel came back with stories of mass looting in the time between waves. Many villagers had lost loved ones. I met a lady who had two boys at her side. One of them, about ten years old, had played with my daughter on the beach. Just two days earlier, he had seemed a cheeky little boy, full of life, but now he was drenched and confused. I hardly recognized him. The woman gestured to me that she had lost a third child. I hugged her and cried with her and prayed for her. There were repeated screams of grief from one of the houses. Other people cried silently. Many did not know if their families were OK.

We were in a remote corner of Sri Lanka, with just the clothes on our back and no idea of the full scale of the disaster. I did have a sense that rescue would come, but there was absolutely nothing we could do to speed this up. We were totally dependent on the kindness of those around us, and of course God.”

On 26 December 2004 millions watched their TV screens in disbelief as a wall of water surged onto beaches in Thailand, Indonesia and southern India, destroying homes, entire families and livelihoods. Up to 230,000 people were killed and 1.74 million displaced, and many thousands were injured or missing. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated parts of New Orleans, and many other cities and neighbourhoods in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, leaving as many as 1,833 dead1 and more than a million displaced in the Gulf Coast region.2 We could also call to mind the Japan 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the devastation in Haiti in 2010, and the havoc wreaked across the Caribbean in 2018.

It is impossible to go more than a couple of months without hearing of a new disaster of some kind. And yet a large-scale natural disaster of another kind has also swept across the globe in recent years. At the time of writing, the coronavirus has infected almost 580 million people and has claimed nearly 6.5 million lives. During March and April 2020, up to a third of the world’s population was in lockdown, with huge implications for households, families and communities, not to mention educational and economic spheres. We have all been brought face to face with the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus.

How do we make sense of natural disasters? One of the strongest objections to the Christian faith is the question of suffering. Suffering is one of the biggest barriers to belief in God. When Christians respond, a key part of their argument is to give what is known as a free will defence and highlight that humans can make choices for ill that can bring about suffering in the lives of others. Yet, a free will defence is helpful only in accounting for what philosophers call moral evil – evil relating to how humans behave. A very different kind of response is needed to make sense of natural evil – evil that impacts the natural world itself, either through geophysics in the case of natural disasters, or through our biology in the case of disease and sickness.

Questions about natural disasters are expressed in many ways. The premise behind each question is that events such as earthquakes, tsunami and pandemics seem to happen regardless of our choices, not because of them. Even if people are responsible for their actions, we are surely not responsible for natural disasters? They are caused by forces much bigger than us. Our insurance policies protect us against ‘Acts of God’. If God exists, then why does he let them happen? Is the profound suffering and loss caused by natural disasters yet more evidence that God does not exist? (I will refer to God as ‘he’ throughout this book because the Bible consistently uses the male pronoun. This is not to infer that God is male, but rather that he is a person rather than an ‘it’.)
Broken Planet will take a closer look at some of the questions that we ask about natural disasters.

But answers and arguments that appeal to the intellect will only get us so far. We also need to hear from those with first-hand experience of earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, drought, locust infestations and pandemics, as well as from those who have experienced war, famine and refugee crises. In researching my book “Broken Planet” I spoke to many people who have experienced natural disasters around the world, humanitarian aid workers, chaplains, doctors, tourists and local residents. Some were working for NGOs to bring emergency relief in the aftermath of a disaster. Others survived the disaster itself, which yields a suffering of its own: not just flashbacks of their trauma, but also survivor’s guilt – why they survived when so many others didn’t. I included their stories in my book not simply as a supplment to the material on philosophy and science to make the book more readable; but as arguments in themselves.

In the process of taking the interviews, I was shocked to repeatedly hear that this was the first time anyone had ever asked about their experiences, and of how hard it can be to relay the trauma they have seen on the front lines of life’s worst situations to friends and family back home. For some, their stories have never been told before, and so I count it a privilege to have been able to sit with each person and listen. Some said that if their story could help someone else, then it was a story worth sharing.

However, each person featured in the book has a lived experience of faith in God and shares his or her story from this point of view. You may not share those beliefs, but my hope is that you will be able to take their perspectives on board as you think through your own questions. Even though there is much we don’t understand, each person would say that they had seen God, whom they call Jesus, at work in very real ways, even amid widespread catastrophe.

This extract has been taken from Sharon Dirckx’s book, “Broken Planet” published by IVP, 2023 and available here.

Dr Sharon Dirckx is a freelance speaker and author and an adjunct lecturer at OCCA, The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. Originally from a scientific background, she has a PhD in brain imaging from the University of Cambridge and held research positions in the UK and USA before moving into the area of apologetics. Sharon speaks and lectures regularly and has appeared on several BBC programmes in the UK, including Radio 2’s Good Morning Sunday and Radio 4’s Beyond Belief. She is author of the award-winning book, Why?: Looking at God, evil and personal suffering, as well as Am I Just My Brain? Sharon lives in Oxford with her husband and two children.