One of the central questions in the debate over the nature of God is: Does
God or doesn’t God intervene in human affairs? Variations on this question
include: Does God punish evil people? Does God reward good people? Does
God respond to prayer requests? Does God watch over and protect us? For
many people this is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to deciding
who God is or if God exists at all.
A survey I read about recently made me realize this question is probably
more complicated than most of us realize. Not only is it difficult to determine
whether or not God has intervened in some situation or another, it’s also true that
there is no agreement among believers on what divine intervention means.
In a Washington Post survey of survivors of Hurricane Katrina, 80% felt closer to
God as a result of the event. Many of these people had horrific experiences and
lost all or nearly all their material possessions. For these people the issue was not
why God let this happen in the first place but their sense that God was with them
during its horror. Did God actually “do” anything for them? Most would probably
simply say, “I survived.”
This past fall an uncle of mine had a serious illness requiring major surgery. He
and my aunt belong to a large fundamentalist Southern Baptist church. Emails
went out asking for prayers from friends and family. After the surgery he again
emailed his thanks and praise that God had been with him and—perhaps—kept
And yet, knowing my aunt and uncle, I can say with some confidence that
had things not turned out well—even if he had died—it would not have
affected their faith. They have no assumptions that because of their faith there is
any guarantee that God will meet their requests. Both of their children have had
numerous problems over the years related to relationships, failed marriages, jobs,
etc. I am sure they have offered up many prayers for them in that time,
apparently with little result. Yet that seems to have had no affect on their faith in
God. Rather, like the victims of Hurricane Katrina, their trials may have made that
faith stronger and more important.
About a year after the 9/11 attacks, PBS aired a special on the religious
reactions of people affected. Some were in the Twin Towers; others lost loved
ones there. The responses were all over the map. Again, some had their faith
strengthened by a sense of God’s presence during the catastrophe. Others,
however, reported having serious doubts about God’s nature or existence or
losing their faith altogether, especially if they lost friends or family members.
Many said it simply taught them to value their lives and relationships more than
All of these situations deal with God’s role in times of difficulty or tragedy.
Theodicy is the theological subject of reconciling the reality of suffering and evil
with the nature or existence of God. It is an ancient question and found
throughout the Bible, most famously in the book of Job. In fact, it really is the
central question of the whole Bible: If God is good and all-powerful, why is the
world such a mess and what if anything is God trying to do about it? It’s not a
question that gets a final answer but the Bible writers do seem to agree that God
has given us what we need to make this world a better place. In other words, the
work needs to be done by us but we are not alone—God is with us.
Elie Weisel is a Holocaust survivor, writer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Night, his remembrance of his concentration camp experience, he tells of an
occasion when the camp is forced to watch the hanging of a child. As they
stand and watch in horror, Weisel hears someone ask, “Where is God? Where is
he?” and he hears a voice inside him answer, “Where is He? He is hanging here
on this gallows.”
The story forces us to ponder what the words mean. Is God dead? Perhaps,
or at least for Weisel a certain type of God has died. Or does it mean that it is in
just such moments of horror that God appears? That too, but is that enough for
us? Don’t we want a God who acts like a celestial cavalry, riding to our rescue?
But the Holocaust, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Christmas earthquake and
tsunami, and countless other disasters and personal tragedies have made such
an image of God impossible.
In his bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold
Kushner says that God neither punishes us nor rescues us but does give us the
strength to endure, especially by drawing us together in community. This, he says,
is one of the primary purposes of religion—a word which literally means “to bind
together”. Many have criticized Kushner’s view but from the sales of the book
and from the comments I hear and read, I wonder if this is not, in fact, the way
people increasingly think of God.
Is that enough? Does it even make sense? Perhaps they are questions to
ponder as we enter the season of Lent because in some ways they are already
there. Lent is our collective journey to Calvary—certainly the most famous story
of God not coming to the rescue. Yet Christianity has said that Jesus hanging on
the cross is the ultimate witness to his being Immanuel, “God with us.” In the
debate about the existence of God, the question is always, What God are we
talking about? Today the case for the cavalry God ready to ride to our rescue is
a pretty tough one to make. But is that really the Bible’s God anyway? Perhaps in
our more realistic world it is the “Calvary God”, if you will, that makes more sense
and what the Bible has been trying to get us to understand all along.
Blessings in your life and ministry,