On the morning of Nov. 1, 1755, one of history’s worst sequences of natural disaster struck Lisbon, Portugal. First, with its citizens at Mass, Lisbon was shaken by an earthquake that toppled most of its buildings. Then, an hour later, a tremendous earthquake-induced tsunami crashed into the harbor, followed by two more giant waves that rushed up the Tagus River, drowning thousands who had fled the rupturing roads for the safety of their boats. Further inland, fires broke out that raged for nearly a week.
As many as 90,000 people (in a city of 250,000) perished in the natural catastrophes that destroyed 85 percent of the city, including nearly every major church.
The Great Lisbon Earthquake, occurring on All Saints’ Day, shook the faith of pious Portugal, with philosophical aftershocks that reverberated across Europe. Voltaire, for instance, saw the cataclysm as a repudiation of the notion of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God.
The disasters prompted conversations among Europe’s citizens about the nature of a God who would allow the almost complete destruction of such a devout city.
Centuries later the discussion continues.
The recent earthquake in Haiti, with the estimated number of dead and injured already reaching into the hundreds of thousands, has undoubtedly caused many to wonder: Where was God? That question may have added resonance because Haitians are, as President Obama said last week, “no strangers to hardship and suffering.”
For Christians, who believe that God’s perfect world was destroyed by man’s disobedience in Eden, suffering highlights the ongoing struggle to reconcile an apparent incongruence. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Problem of Pain”:
“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”
For some, what Lewis called the “problem of pain” quickly becomes the “problem of faith.”
Following the tsunamis that ravaged the Indian Ocean in 2004, killing some 230,000, many writers took direct aim at God. Writing in the Guardian, British Journalist Martin Kettle asked: “Are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?” Writer Heather MacDonald called for a boycott of God, whom she called a “monster” for centuries of passively sitting by as human life is wantonly mowed down.
Atheists’ anger at a God they insist doesn’t exist begs the question, as Dinesh D’Souza writes in his recent book, “What’s So Great about Christianity”: “Where is atheism when bad things happen?” Mr. D’Souza notes that while neither atheism nor theism have complete explanations for suffering, only theism, and in particular Christianity, “offers a better way for people to cope with the consequences of evil and suffering.”
Atheism, in contrast, offers only meaninglessness.
But let us reflect on how God can use terrible moments for good, thereby demonstrating that while suffering can be faith-shaking, it can also be faith-deepening.
Suffering is an invitation to embrace God for those who regard Him, as Lewis put it, “as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.” In the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a renewal of faith was evident as churches and synagogues across the country reported record-high attendance rates; prayer vigils were held for the victims and their families. Members of Congress even spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the front steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Tragedy can also prompt positive change. The Lisbon earthquake initiated early developments in seismology as scientists searched for its geological causes. We can hope that the plight of Haitians, whose country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, will focus the world’s attention on fresh ways to help alleviate that country’s devastating poverty once the rubble is cleared.
Some have suggested the creation of an international response corps that can respond quickly to save lives in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. Others have noted that decades of foreign aid have proved strikingly ineffective in reducing poverty and corruption in Haiti and instead support encouraging the government to reduce business regulations as the best way to attract foreign investment and cultivate economic growth.
Suffering can arouse compassion and provoke acts of mercy, charity and heroism. American private charitable donations reached into the billions of dollars after the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Aid given by churches and religious organizations was especially high.
In Haiti, America is again leading the global response. President Obama has promised our “unwavering support” to the beleaguered island nation. Millions of dollars in aid has already poured in from around the world. American donations to the Red Cross have already surpassed $100 million.
In the end, suffering reminds Christians of Christ’s innocent suffering and death and of the eternal home with Him that awaits. As Lewis said, “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
Suffering poses a central theological problem for many religions. And the continuing anguish in Haiti may evoke more questions than answers. But for all those who question their faith in times of torment, many more are reinforced in theirs, because amidst even the most inexplicable suffering, the hope of better things to come never dies.
Gary Bauer, president of American Values and chairman of Campaign for Working Families and Daniel Allott, senior writer at American Values.