The Tsunami and God

March 13, 2011

6 min read


Let our primary question in the wake of this tragedy be not "Why did it happen?" but rather "What can I do to help?"

Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we revisit this poignant article related to the horrific tsunami in Southeast Asia at the end of 2004. We pray for the safety of all involved.

Josef Stalin was wrong.

A single death, he said, is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. But that is not the reaction of the world to the horrendous and seemingly unending disaster unfolding in Southeast Asia following a tsunami of unparalleled destruction.

The numbers, over 130,000 as I write this, are indeed beyond comprehension. Yet our proximity to far-off events by way of media coverage makes us horrified spectators to catastrophes that defy human imagination. Are there any words to describe the anguish of the mother holding onto her two children -- who had to choose between them -- so that she might have a free hand in order to cling to the floating raft that promised her deliverance?

Is there any language that can adequately convey the terror of the Israeli tourists who discovered that the killer waves had swept their 11-month-old baby right out of the hotel room?

The boy who clung for two days to a coconut tree is today's version of the biblical ark.

The mind reels. The tears flow. This is not supposed to be the way the world works. And yet this is our reality. Just as the biblical Noah, we witnessed the devastation of a torrential flood -- but this time we received no advance warning. In Noah's time a greater percentage of world population was stricken -- as only Noah and his family were spared -- but in raw numbers the contemporary tragedy probably ranks on a higher scale. Survivors are already called modern-day Noahs. The boy who clung for two days to a coconut tree is today's version of the biblical ark.

But it is precisely in this equation that I perceive an extremely troubling element. And it has already begun to raise its despicable head in some ostensibly "religious" publications. How could this have happened? It seems there are those who do not hesitate to assume the mantle of the prophet, to publicly assert their knowledge of divine intent as clearly as if God spoke to them "face-to-face" as He did with Moses. In the aftermath of tragedy, the false prophets of our times don't waver even for a moment as they pronounce judgment upon all of the victims.

Never mind that in the Bible it was God Himself who explained what He did. These defenders of the faith think it's necessary to always defame those who suffer in order to preserve the idea of divine righteousness. But bad theology is even worse than bad behavior. We can generally get over the hurt that comes from other people's actions. It's much harder, though, to recover from the kind of misrepresentations some people spout, ostensibly in the name of religion, that distort our proper understanding of God and His ways.

A perfect example is the famous scene in the play, "Agnes of God," by John Pielmeier. In perhaps the most dramatic moment of this masterful work, the court-appointed psychiatrist reveals to the Mother Superior why she abandoned her faith. As a young girl her best friend had just died in a horrible car accident. The nun at her Catholic school explained why it happened: "She didn't say her morning prayers that day, so God punished her."

Instead of inculcating the desired fear and religious feeling that would produce a lifelong devotee of prayer, the "explanation" created a revulsion as well as abhorrence for a God who could be so cruel in response to a little child's forgetfulness.

Biblical Job

The truth, as any serious student of the Bible can tell you, is that catastrophes don't always necessarily imply divine retribution. Sometimes yes, but sometimes not. The paradigm of suffering in the Bible is Job, a man blessed to have a book named after him. But when Job's friends witnessed the terrible things that befell him, they could only come to one conclusion: The man they thought was pious obviously had to be a fraud. Their "words of comfort" were nothing less than condemnation.

Listen to us, they told Job. You wonder why you find yourself in such a predicament. You can't understand your sickness, the loss of your fortune, and the death of your children. But you yourself claim that you are religious and that you believe in a righteous God. Then surely you know God would not afflict you unless you were deserving of His wrath. So tell us what you did wrong. Stop being a hypocrite. To claim you are pious when God's judgment clearly pronounces you a sinner only intensifies your crime. Admit, accept, and acknowledge the justice of the divine decree.

How easy is to judge someone else. How simple to assume that "the punishment fits the crime," even if we have no cause to believe that the victim is guilty.

Far from proving Job's guilt, the suffering was a sign of his stature in the eyes of God.

But of course the "friends" of Job were wrong. They lacked a key piece of information. What Job endured had nothing to do with sin. In fact he was a saint -- so saintly that God wanted to test him, because "God trieth the righteous." He was to demonstrate to Satan the strength of the pious, the conviction of the holy, and the fortitude of those who may question but still never abandon their faith. Far from proving Job's guilt, the suffering was a sign of his stature in the eyes of God.

The misguided theologians were clearly condemned. "My wrath burns against you," God said to them, "for you did not speak properly about Me, as my servant Job has" (Job 42:7).

In an ironic twist at the end of the book, God continues his reproach of the "friends" by telling them: "And my servant Job shall pray for you. It is only for his sake that I will show consideration, not to do terrible things to you; for you did not speak properly about Me" (Job 42:8).

Logical Error

How strange then to find echoes of the faulty theories of Job's friends repeated in different forms today. Some popular American preachers claim that God allowed America to be attacked on 9-11 in reaction to immoral elements of society. Of course this explanation hardly deals with the question of how thousands of innocent victims were singled out for this cruel retribution. Surely God could have aimed his punitive arrows with more precision?!

How can these religious leaders be so mistaken? They are guilty of a common error of logic. Any student of a Philosophy 101 course knows that just because A causes B, doesn't mean that B is always the result of A. Nails on the highway cause flat tires, but not all flat tires are caused by nails on the highway. Yes, it's true that the Bible teaches that sin is followed by tragic consequences. But that doesn't mean that every tragedy is the result of sin.

Yes, it's true that the Bible teaches that sin is followed by tragic consequences. But that doesn't mean that every tragedy is the result of sin.

Why bad things happen to good people is an ancient theological dilemma. Some of the greatest scholars of the ages have dealt with it and come up with different possibilities. There is room for many different approaches and a host of varying responses. There are those who believe that finite man simply cannot comprehend an infinite God. For them, as Hayim Greenberg so eloquently put it, "One who cannot praise God even as he sits in the dust and ashes and has no explanation for his suffering, nor any sign from above -- such a person is in the final analysis not a believer."

Others choose to stress the idea that suffering elevates man, that challenges are opportunities for spiritual growth, and that tragedies are the spurs to human creativity and development. As Philip James Bailey said, "Grief hallows hearts, even while it ages heads."

Mystics prefer to emphasize the insignificance of events on this earth compared to the quality of the afterlife. The Jewish ethical masters teach that it is never our job to judge others, but rather in response to tragedy we should look toward ourselves and examine how we can improve the world.

The common denominator of these, as well as hundreds of other efforts to solve the riddle of a good God coexisting with an evil world, is the realization that not every victim is a criminal. Yes, at times sin does cause Divine retribution. But we are not prophets, and the Talmud exhorts us: "Do not act as judge alone, for none judges alone except One" (Avot 4:10).

So let us grieve for the victims of the tsunami and spare them our condemnation. Let us maintain our faith in God not because we can justify His ways, but because His ways surpass our comprehension. And let our primary question in the wake of this tragedy be not "Why did it happen?", but rather "What can I do to help?"


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