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Terror and Tragedy: A Comment on 11th September 2001


Isaiah 49:13-18


I: — Like you I watched the World Trade Centre tower burn in NYC, smoke billowing out of the windows on upper floors as people hung out of the windows knowing that torment and death awaited them if they didn’t jump, while torment and death awaited them if they did. I watched the airplane flying into the second tower, setting it ablaze too. Like you I watched both towers crumble, trapping 5,000 people inside. We all watched it many times over.

As often as I have watched I have tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside the burning or crumbling tower: the terror in one’s heart, the convulsion in one’s psyche, the sheer physical torment of glass and concrete breaking one’s bones, as well as the panic of asphyxiation. The suffering endured by any one person who died in Tuesday’s tragedy is incomprehensible.

[a] Many who ponder such suffering find themselves asking, “Why does God permit people to suffer like this?'” When we ask the question, “Why suffering?”, we may be assuming that anyone half as good and half as mighty as God is supposed to be would be able to program a universe and design human beings in such a way that suffering would never occur. In asking the question we are assuming that we human beings who are asking the question at this moment could remain who and what we are — persons (not animals or things) whose intellectual nature is what we know it to be — even if we were redesigned so as to be unable to suffer. But is this the case? To ask the question, “Why suffering? Why does God permit suffering?”; to ask this question requires a high level of abstract thought. The capacity for a high level of abstract thought presupposes a very sophisticated brain and neural structure. After all, a toad doesn’t ask questions like the question in our minds today; neither does a robin. A robin isn’t distressed over the matter of slaying a worm, when all the while the writhing of the worm indicates that the worm resists being stretched and slain and eaten. The robin merely kills and eats instinctually, as instinctually as the worm itself does whatever worms need to do to stay alive. We human beings, however, are different. We don’t act instinctually; we ask questions. To ask the question, “Why suffering in a world ruled by God?”; simply to understand that there’s a problem, simply to be able to formulate the question: all of this requires an exceedingly complex neural structure. The complex neural structure that allows us to understand the problem and formulate the question is the same complex neural structure that gives us our extraordinary capacity for pain.

In asking the question we are assuming that we can have the extraordinary privilege, as it were, of being able to reflect as we do without our extraordinary vulnerability to suffering. But – let me say it again – the neural complexity that supports advanced thinking is the same neural complexity that supports increased suffering. Whenever we ask the question, “Why does God allow us to suffer?”, we are asking, in effect, “Why doesn’t God create us so that we can think profoundly enough to ask the question about suffering even as he creates us so that we have no capacity for suffering itself?” In asking for this has it ever occurred to us that we might be asking for something that is logically self-contradictory? If we were to ask, “Why doesn’t God make a square circle?”, we’d recognise immediately the silliness of what we’ve proposed and we’d never fault God for not making a square circle, since a square circle is a logical impossibility, an instance of nonsense, non-sense. No one faults God for not creating non-sense. When we ask the question that has motivated today’s sermon we should pause; we might be asking for non-sense; we might be asking for a logical impossibility.

[2] In the second place, since we are creatures with enormous sensitivity to suffering, we must admit that some sensitivity to pain is essential to our self-preservation. Sensitivity to physical pain is essential if we are going to survive in a physical world. The elderly person who has lost sensitivity in her hand places her hand on a stove element to steady herself. She burns her hand. Then the burn infects. Now she has blood poisoning in her arm. Because she has diminished sensitivity to pain she can’t protect herself; unable to protect herself, she can’t preserve herself.

[3] In the third place, our capacity for suffering is also our capacity for pleasure. To be without any vulnerability to pain would mean that we were also incapable of experiencing pleasure. Everyone knows that the parts of the body that are most capable of pleasure are also those most capable of pain. In the same way those aspects of our mental existence and our emotional existence that are most vulnerable to pain are the same aspects through which we experience the most profound and the most intense mental and emotional delight. Once more, to fault God for not making us able to experience pleasure without exposure to pain might be faulting him for not creating a logical impossibility, non-sense.

[4] In the fourth place, when we think beyond our private vulnerability to suffering to our capacity to cause others to suffer, the question then becomes, “Why is the universe so arranged that people can be made to suffer terribly on account of someone else’s cruelty?” When we ask this question we forget that that arrangement of the universe which makes it possible for others to harm us also makes it possible for others to help us. Human existence is much more interconnected than we commonly think. We are connected — intertwined with, even — our spouse. Marriage makes it possible for our spouse to lend us a comfort and consolation that no other human being can. Marriage also makes it possible for our spouse to make us suffer as no other human being can. Our lives are interconnected with our family, with neighbours, with colleagues at work. Politically we are connected with fellow-citizens. Economically we are connected with people throughout the world whom we have never seen and never shall. Human existence entails pervasive, inescapable interconnectedness. The interconnectedness that makes it possible for others to help us also makes it possible for others to harm us. If we couldn’t be hated we couldn’t be loved.

“Why does God allow people to suffer, and suffer dreadfully?” I trust that what I have said so far helps us understand that some suffering, at least, is inevitable.

II: — At the same time, I am aware that while what I’ve said discusses the small-scale question — how and why it is that we have a capacity for pain, and in our universe at least, must have some capacity for pain — what I’ve said doesn’t discuss the large-scale question: how and why is it that enormities like the enormity of last week occur in a world ruled by the God “whose love is as great as his power, and neither knows measure nor end”, in the words of the old hymn?

One reason we were horrified as we were this week is that we saw the event in which 5,000 people died through the deliberate, wanton cruelty of fellow humans. The truth is, there are other events where far more people die through deliberate, wanton cruelty, but we are much less affected by these events just because we don’t see them — unless we have access to film.

One of the most hideous instances of gratuitous suffering, in my opinion, concerns the children who were annihilated en masse between 1939 and 1945. The parents of these children were gassed first; gassed, that is before their remains were burnt. The children, however, were never gassed: they were thrown live into huge incinerators. I don’t become unravelled easily, but I’m close to unravelling every time I see film-footage of the event. You too have seen the pictures of the children huddled behind barbed wire at the railway stations, waiting for the train that was soon to take them to the place of execution; 1.5 million children. Can you imagine the terror, the torment, in the nine year old’s heart as he was separated from his parents, packed into a windowless boxcar, jolted for several days, only to be let out at Theresienstadt or Auschwitz? Why does God allow this?

III: — In light of what I’ve just said I have to tell you how unhappy I am with Harold Kushner’s best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People. I’m disappointed in the book for several reasons. In the first place there’s virtually no discussion of God’s love in Kushner’s discussion of God. In view of the fact that God is love, that God’s nature is to love, the book is woefully deficient right here. In the second place, because God’s love isn’t discussed, the rest of the book is skewed. Kushner writes, “Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. [I’ve no problem with this.] They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. [No problem here either.] We can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them.” I do object to this statement! We redeem them by imposing meaning on them? Any meaning that is imposed can only be arbitrary. An arbitrary meaning is no genuine meaning; something imposed is just another form of “make-believe”, and no less “make-believe” for being adult “make-believe.” Those who perished amidst the terror of holocaust or hijacked airplane; what meaning were they supposed to impose on the event? And why impose that meaning rather than another? And how would the imposition of such arbitrary meaning redeem the tragedy?

Harold Kushner’s book is yet another attempt at theodicy. Theodicy is the justification of God’s ways with humankind, the justification of God’s ways in the face of human suffering. All attempts at theodicy left-handedly put God on trial, so to speak, and then develop arguments that acquit God, allowing us to believe in him after all, allowing us to believe that he really is kind and good despite so much that appears to contradict this. All theodicies assume that we know what should happen in the world; as long as there continues to happen what shouldn’t, God (we think) is on trial; we have to develop arguments and marshal evidence that will acquit him if we are to go on believing in him.

IV: — All of which brings me to my next point; namely, our assumption that the questions we think to be obvious and obviously correct are the right questions. The question, for instance, “If God is all-good, he must want to rectify the dreadful state of affairs so often found in the world; if God is all-powerful, he must be able to rectify such a state of affairs. Since such a state seems not to be rectified, then either God isn’t all-good or he isn’t all-powerful, is he?” Next we set about trying to remove the suspicion that surrounds either God’s goodness or his might. We think our question to be the right question, even the only question. But in fact the question we’ve just posed didn’t loom large until the 18th century, specifically the 18th century Enlightenment. The question we’ve just posed was raised by Enlightenment thinkers who weren’t even Christians. Eighteenth century Enlightenment atheists raised the question, and Christians took it over in that they thought it to be a profound question. But this question didn’t loom large in the Middle Ages where physical suffering, at least, was worse than it is today. This question wasn’t pre-eminent in the ancient world; neither was it front-and-centre in the biblical era. The pre-eminent question in the biblical era wasn’t “Why?” because those people already knew why: the entire creation is molested by the evil one. It won’t be molested for ever, but it is for now. Therefore the pre-eminent question in the biblical era was “How long? How long before God terminates this state of affairs? What’s taking him so long?”

Think for a minute of the biblical era; think of John the Baptist. John and Jesus were cousins. Not only were they related by blood, they were related by vocation. John began his public ministry ahead of Jesus. John’s ministry ended abruptly when a wicked woman had him slain. What did Jesus do when he learned of John’s death and the circumstances of John’s death? Did Jesus say, “We need a theodicy! We need a justification of the ways of God! We need an explanation of how John’s terrible death could occur in a world ruled by a God whose love is mighty. And if no explanation is forthcoming, then perhaps we can’t believe in God?” Did Jesus say this? He said no such thing. When John’s arteries and windpipe were sliced open Jesus didn’t cry to heaven, “You expect me to trust you as my Father. But how can I believe you’re my Father, for what Father allows his child to be beheaded? In view of what happened to cousin John, I can’t be expected to think that I’m dear to you!” Jesus said no such thing. When he was informed of the grisly death of John, Jesus said, “It’s time I got to work.” Whereupon he began his public ministry, and began it knowing that what had befallen John would befall him too, and did it all with his trust in his Father unimpaired.

My point is this: that question which we suppose to be a perennial question, “How can we continue to believe in a mighty, loving God when terrible things keep happening in our world?” — wasn’t the most pressing question in the biblical era or the ancient church or the mediaeval church. It was shouted only in the 18th century Enlightenment, and was shouted by atheists. Having heard the atheists’ question, the church took it over thinking it to be the soul of profundity.

Inasmuch as I teach a course in the thought of John Wesley at Tyndale Seminary I speak often about the Wesley family. Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, had 19 children. Ten of them survived. As the other nine died (eight of them in infancy), Susannah’s heart broke. Never think that she was unaffected; never think that her heart wasn’t as torn as anyone’s heart would be torn today. Read her diary the day after a domestic helper accidentally smothered Susannah’s three-week old baby. Infant death was as grievous to parents then as it is now. What was different, however, is this: even as Susannah pleaded with God for her babes while they died in her arms she never concluded that God wasn’t to be trusted or loved or obeyed or simply clung to; she never concluded that as a result of her heartbreak God could only be denounced and abandoned.

Until the 18th century Enlightenment there was no expectation of living in a world other than a world riddled with accident, misfortune, sickness, disease, unrelievable suffering, untimely death, terror. There was no expectation of anything else. It was recognized that the world, in its fallen state, molested as it is by the evil one, is shot through with unfairness, injustice, inevitable inequities, unforeseeable tragedies. When John the Baptist was executed Jesus didn’t say, “If honouring God’s will entails that then I need a different Father!” Instead Jesus said, “I’ve got work to do and I’d better get started!” Susannah Wesley didn’t say, “If I bear children only to have half of them succumb to pneumonia and diphtheria, I should stop having them.” Instead she had twice as many. If today our expectation is so very different on account of the Enlightenment, then what did the Enlightenment cause us to expect?

[V] — We were brought to expect that humankind can control, control entirely, the world and everything about it. The Enlightenment brought us to expect that we are or can be in control of every last aspect of our existence. Think, for instance, of the practice of medicine. The Enlightenment brought us to expect that the practice of medicine would smooth out our lives. And with the new expectation of physicians there arose as well a new agenda for physicians. Whereas physicians had always been expected to care for patients, now physicians were expected to cure patients. Until the Enlightenment physicians were expected to care: they were to alleviate pain wherever they could, they were expected to ease the patient in every way possible, and above all they were expected to ease the patient through death, which death everyone knew to be unavoidable in any case. But cure? No one expected physicians to cure, at least to cure very much. Nowadays physicians are expected to cure everything. I’m convinced that people unconsciously expect physicians to cure them of their mortality. When physicians can’t cure people of their vulnerability to death, blame for such failure is unconsciously transferred from medicine to God.

In the same way I’m convinced that people today expect leaders on every front in our society to be able to control. In the wake of the Enlightenment we assume that our political leaders ought to be able to control all potential problems with our society; our military leaders ought to be able to control all potential problems with national security; our financial wizards ought to be able to control all potential problems concerning money. Prior to the Enlightenment we expected all such leaders to care; now we expect them to cure. But they can’t; they can’t cure our world. Blame for such inability is unconsciously transferred to God.

“Why do such events as last Tuesday occur in our world?” This question isn’t as old as humankind. In fact it’s very recent. Furthermore, it wasn’t posed first by people who were steeped in the nature and purpose and way of God. It was posed — even as related expectations were fostered — by atheists who, at the time of the Enlightenment, came to think there was nothing humankind couldn’t control.


VI: — The question, “Why does God allow…?”; we raise the question expecting an answer. But scripture already announces the answer: the world lies in the grip of the evil one. The evil one, we are told is the prince of this world. Note: he is prince, but he is not king; Christ is king. Then we need to look to the king. We need the king’s confidence and encouragement. We need the king’s assurance that one day we are going to be delivered.

A good place to begin is the book of Hebrews. Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the pioneer of our faith. It’s not that Jesus is the pathfinder; he doesn’t find a path. Rather, he forges a way through life’s suffering and life’s terrors for us. Having forged a way through this himself, he comes back for us and beckons us to follow him. His life wasn’t immune from suffering, even terror; therefore, the way through that he has forged for us will never give us immunity from suffering or terror. A careful reading of the written gospels convinces us that our Lord knew physical torment, mental torment, spiritual torment; knew it every day, and knew it with unutterable intensity particularly in the last week of his life. Yet in the light of his resurrection we know that he has been through it all ahead of us, and because he’s been through it ahead of us we have confidence that there is a way through. We aren’t going to get part way through our journey with him only to have him turn to us and say, “I thought there was a way through, but it appears there isn’t; I’m stymied; we’re all in the same ‘fix’ together; your situation is therefore as hopeless as mine.” In his resurrection he has gone through it all ahead of us.

We have just spoken of our Lord’s resurrection. His resurrection enables us to interpret his cross rightly. Plainly the cross indicates there’s no limit to the vulnerability our Lord will expose himself to for us; there’s no limit to his identification with us in our terrors; there’s nothing he will stop short of in standing with us in life and in death and in everything dreadful in both. Then his resurrection means too there is no impediment to our inheriting that victory, his victory, which finally relieves us of our predicament. For this reason there’s a glorious text from the book of Hebrews that we should tape to our refrigerator door and our bathroom mirror: “For since Jesus Christ himself has passed through the test of suffering, he is able to help those who are meeting their test now.” (Heb. 2:18, NEB) We must memorise this and repeat it until we shall remember it for as long as we shall remember our own name.

As long as we remember? What if we don’t remember? What if, from time to time, tragedy or terror renders us unable to remember? Then what matters above all else is that God remembers. His promise to his people through the prophet Isaiah must sink into us: “I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:16) We need to learn the context of the promise. During their exile at the hands of Babylonian captors God’s people feel that God has forgotten them. Through the prophet Isaiah God asks them, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” Can a mother neglect, even abandon, the child she has borne and nursed? She can. We read of this in the newspaper every day. But there’s no chance at all that God is going to neglect or abandon those to whom he has given birth. If you find these verses from Isaiah too much to memorise for now, then memorise the little paraphrase I learned as a youngster:

    “My name from the palms of his hands
Eternity cannot erase;
Impressed on his heart it remains
In marks of indelible grace.”


                                                                         Victor Shepherd
16 September 2001