2004-12-31 / Knight Ridder / By Tom Schaefer
The death toll from Asia's devastating tsunami could surpass 100,000.
One hundred thousand men, women and children. One survivor, describing the scene, said, "Hell was unleashed."
How are we to make sense of the senseless?
The answer is, we can't.
The problem of evil in this world has never been fully understood and cannot be completely explained.
Watching the unbelievable devastation of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and other parts of Asia only heightens the anxiety about the role of the divine in the midst of destruction.
How can God allow the innocent to suffer and die so horrendously?
When the Reverand Billy Graham spoke at the National Cathedral following the September 11, 2001, attacks, he recounted how he is often asked why God permits evil in the world. He paused and said that he has never been able to find a fully satisfactory answer.
Not even America's pastor, as he's been called, could explain the tragedies that afflict this planet.
The question of God's power - or seeming lack thereof - has plagued humanity since biblical times.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, suffering is described as a punishment for sin, a cleansing or testing of a person.
The Book of Job tells the story of a righteous man who is afflicted with physical and emotional pain and suffering and demands to know why he must endure such injustice.
The only answer he gets in the end is a voice from the heavens that asserts: Who made the heavens and the earth? Certainly not you. Who are you to question me?
Evidence for atheists
In the play "J.B." by Archibald MacLeish, the main character addresses this paradox of the ages: "If God is God, He is not good; if God is good, He is not God."
The logic seems irrefutable. As one theologian put it, evil and suffering are "evidence for the atheist."
Christian theology has tackled this question - often referred to as theodicy or the justice of God in the face of evil - in various ways.
Some have tried to assert that everything that happens is determined by God. Humans act in a way that is commensurate with the will of God.
Others assert that humans have free will that somehow is wrapped up in a larger scheme that God ordains.
But do any of these attempts completely satisfy?
Perhaps our idea of God, who is usually described as all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful, needs to be reshaped.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his best seller "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," contends that God should be understood as all-knowing and all-loving, but not as all-powerful. For Kushner, it's the only way to make sense of the senseless in life.
All of these points of view, however, inevitably break down. They subdivide and become more complex than a DNA double helix.
The fact is, no religion has a simple answer to the vexing question of evil and suffering.
Judaism dismisses the idea of theodicy and focuses on the righteous who suffer. Islam contends that believers must submit to whatever the will of God is. Christianity asserts that suffering is redemptive through Jesus.
But no matter how we try to understand suffering - our own or others - we will never be completely at ease when we face tragedy ourselves or when we see it on a monumental scale.
To look at the death of more than 100,000 people - or at a loved one who dies tragically - always forces us to confront evil head-on.
Here's what we're left with:
Without faith, the question of suffering and death is unanswered. With faith, we reassert every day our belief in the One who sees the universe from a perspective far greater than our own.
We trust in the ultimate goodness of our God even when unbelief seems so much easier to embrace.
We cling to faith even as we comfort those enveloped by the evil of this world.
Charles Spurgeon, a 19th-century preacher, gives us as much an anchor of hope to hold on to as anyone can:
When we cannot trace God's hand, he said, we must simply trust his heart.
Tom Schaefer writes about religion and ethics for the Eagle.