God in Tragedy


Child Photo Karen's post

By Karen Ho, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!

– John Donne

I’d just like to start by saying that this post isn’t meant to prove God’s existence to non-believers; I’m not trying to prove anything in this post. This post is meant to provide a personal, Christian viewpoint for believers who are struggling to find God’s love and care in a world of pain.

A friend of mine mentioned how in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, many people questioned how there could be a God in this world who would allow something like this to happen. How could twenty innocent, potential-filled children and six wonderful, selfless adults die at the hands of one murderer while God simply watched on?

I think it’s important for the believer to remember that while God always has a good plan for us, He also loves us enough to give us free will. Because we are His children, He gives us the liberty to make our own decisions. And free will is something He has given all of us; it’s a gift that He won’t take away. And many times, our free will clashes with someone else’s will or even God’s will, and we can’t help the fact that some use that will very destructively; that a man used his free will to destroy innocent, beautiful lives. And God let the consequences of that man’s will play out.

What about natural disasters? I’m not going to try to justify it; I’m not going to pretend I know.

Then again, what is death but the ushering into a new life? I like to picture us as fish in a tank. When a person dies, it’s like God takes a fish out of that tank and simply transfers him to another tank – the transition from the mortal to the eternal. And all of us in the first tank are distraught, because our friend is gone forever. God, why did you allow an innocent one of us to be taken away?

But he isn’t gone. He’s simply in a different tank, one we can’t see.

Death is definitely destructive in other ways. The shortest verse in the Bible – “Jesus wept” – follows the death of Lazarus. Jesus was the visible image of of God on Earth, the full example of His love. And even though he knew that death was simply a transit into eternity, He cried at the thought of losing his friend here. Jesus, the full representative of God, cried upon a friend’s death. Death destroys human relationships, and God Himself understands our pain of losing a loved one; it’s just important to remember that it never ends there.

I pray that even when we’re distraught and dealing with the immense pain of losing people we love, He reminds us that their real lives have only just begun.

There are a lot of related but separate issues, like that of poverty / suffering, salvation and the age-old question: “Why would a caring, loving God allow evil and pain?” All three issues are entire separate discussions and it would take me too long to type out. Maybe I’ll talk about them in another post someday, but I guess I can just give a really brief summary of my thoughts on those issues.

On poverty and suffering: I think all of us are born with a life’s test, something we struggle with our whole lives. For some of us, it’s emotional vulnerability. It could be things that many people don’t see as wrong but might struggle with in their faith walk, like greed, selfishness and pride. Maybe it’s the struggle to be a filial child, or a responsible parent, or to stay true to yourself in a corrupt world. Maybe it’s lust. And for others, this test could be sickness, poverty, disability. These ‘tests’ are a lot more tangible and obvious, but they’re a test of hope and character, too.

Salvation: Christians believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. Now, I know that what I’m going to say next might draw a lot of questions and some might call me a blasphemer or whatever, but I personally don’t believe that God will look at a non-Christian whose heart was full of kindness, love, selflessness and faith in a greater hope and say, “I’m sorry; you were a great person, but you didn’t believe in Christ and therefore you’re going to Hell.” After all, aren’t we all His children? Weren’t we all made in His image? (If you then ask “Well then, why become a Christian?”, Christ is a lot more than a ticket to heaven, and well, Christianity works for me; Jesus’s authority and existence is real to me.)

Classic question about evil and pain: There’s so much more to God than our comfort. He is so much more than a needs-meeter. I think most of us agree that God’s more interested in our character than in our comfort. Remember Job? God allowed everything – family, possessions, health – to be taken away from him, but He had a much greater purpose for him. Remember Judas? God allowed Judas to choose to betray Jesus and cause Jesus’s death – but there was a greater purpose, and Judas’s betrayal became His way of elevating Jesus “to the place of highest honour”.

These issues and more will take forever to discuss, and I’m not planning to delve into them in greater detail right now. This post isn’t meant to justify my faith or justify God; I just hope it brought an alternative point-of-view to any believer (or curious non-believer) who struggles with questions like I do.

15 comments

  1. This is my thought on the question ““Why would a caring, loving God allow evil and pain?” : because there is no happiness without grief. There would be no meaning of life.
    I’m not a Christian, and I believe that if God has a plan for me then that plan is to let me explore the world.

  2. metepeira

    I wonder if your distinction between the harmful actions of people and the harmful actions of nature is really so clear. How can you be sure that Adam Lanza exercised free will when he made the decision to murder his mother, 20 children, 6 teachers, and himself? Undoubtedly there exist psycho-active drugs that would have caused him to make a different decision at that time. Alternatively, perhaps had a dispute with his mother the previous week not happend, he might not have reached the crisis point that set him off. What if there were kids who were absent from school because of an “act of nature” (e.g. the family’s alarm clock didn’t go off, or the wind knocked a tree across their driveway that morning, or they happened to be sick in bed) — surely we can imagine that some lives were spared and other lives not spared because of circumstances attributable to “nature.” If God loved Adam Lanza so much that He decided not to interfere with Adam’s decision to commit mass murder (an odd kind of love — my own love for my child would move me to actively prevent her from committing murder-suicide — wouldn’t you?), why couldn’t God have called forth a volley of snow so that the school was, by act of nature, closed that day?

  3. Reece

    Just wanted to commend your courage in writing a post on religious views :)… few youths (esp SIngaporeans) are that forthcoming in expressing their religious philosophy these days… which I feel is a great pity.

  4. Second Mouse

    In Singapore, religion is used as a vehicle to enforce the continuing criminalisation homosexuals.

    http://www.fcbc.org.sg/announcements/sp-lawrence-khong-statement-esm-goh-chok-tong

    That’s a form of suffering – for gay men and women.

    So what do you have to say about religion and the suffering it itself causes? Or is that a lacuna you’d rather not address?

  5. Karen Ho

    @GKhuyen: I agree too; how do we know what blessings are without pain? But it’s quite tough to take that in when you’re stuck in the deepest of pits. It’s so true, though, that it’s in the darkness that you learn to appreciate even the dimmest of lights.

    @metepeira: That too, and why? I can’t explain God, but all I can offer is consolation, I guess. And Khuyen’s point.

    @Reece: Aww, thank you! I was a bit hesitant at first, but then I thought, as a part of the pioneering batch of students at a college that aims to protect the freedom of discussions of any kind, I should have the courage to take this small step and voice my own views.

    @Second Mouse: It definitely is. The law banning sex between men was incorporated by the British colonial administration in the 1850s, and it just never got taken down. I think it’s heartening that there are so many people who are calling to abolish this law, and I personally don’t see why the law has the right to restrict the actions of people who happen to love differently – after all, various religious views aside, we are a secular state, and I don’t think it’s right to impose one’s religious values on others. In addition, the Singaporean community is becoming a lot more accepting of and open to people who happen to love in a different way, and I personally feel that regardless of the stand taken by anyone of my faith towards homosexuality, we have been called by God to love everyone, regardless of who they are.

    • Karen Ho

      Sorry, to add on to my reply to @Second Mouse (pressed the reply button a little too enthusiastically) – I don’t think anyone who sees homosexuality as wrong should see homosexuals any differently from people who get drunk a lot, or people who lie, or people who are selfish, or people who engage in pre-marital sex. And there’s no reason to love any of those people less, or judge any of them.

    • Hi @Karen Ho
      I do not believe in the existence of God. The age old question of evil and suffering is a deep and serious philosophical one. Though I do not agree with your theological view, I can’t help but admire your bravery and the level of intellectual rigour shown in your blog post. I would like to pose a question to you, though. Granted that there may be various theodicies used to defend theism against the Problem of Evil/Suffering argument, why should we allow the possibility that a “good” God exists is greater than the possibility that an “evil” God exists? This is a question posed by the philosopher Prof. Stephen Law, and it is one that is worth looking at.

      • Karen Ho

        Hi Filbert,

        Thanks for your reply, and your question. I assume you mean ‘why should we believe that God is good more than bad?’ and not ‘why should we believe that Jesus is more powerful than Satan?’ … either way, it’s pretty obvious in the New Testament that He’s a God of love and compassion, who heals, hears and provides, and who wants us to love, and who rewards those who seek good, and will allow bad things in measured amounts to happen to good people to shape their character, with the reassurance that the true reward lies in Heaven when we return to Him. (I can provide verses for each characteristic I named, if you’d like, but it’s pretty obvious.) So I guess the question is more applicable when looking at the Old Testament, because with the wrath He brings upon people in the Old Testament, and all the deaths recorded, sometimes it’s easy to question.

        Firstly, I’d like to reiterate my firm belief that death is nothing but a transition into a different kind of life.

        I don’t know why God did some of the things He did in the Old Testament, and I’ve never been to the ‘other side of life’, whether it be in Heaven or Hell or Sheol. I’ve have no idea why He killed armies and armies in protection of this one special group of people, and what would’ve happened to the Gentiles in the armies He killed back then – are we not all His children and His creation?

        I believe that for people who’ve never heard the gospel, God judges according to their conscience and how they deal with struggles and temptations to do what is right. Perhaps it was that way for the Gentiles of that time, too. I’ve no idea. And sometimes, in the Old Testament, He does seem like this wrathful, ‘evil’ God. I don’t know what happened to the people He killed, especially those in armies opposing ‘His people’, but I think it just goes to show how much God is willing to do protect and bring to victory those who belong to Him.

        From what I’ve gathered from the covenant of the Old Testament and the covenant of the New Testament, and keeping in mind that He is ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’, all I can conclude for now is that God has always been a God of justice and judgement; He loves people, because He created them in His image, but He also hates sin. If God is good (and Xi Min introduced me to a new way of seeing that sentence: by making ‘good’ a noun, not just an adjective), and God gives life – physical, spiritual or eternal, then the opposite of God is evil, which translates into death – whether physical, spiritual or eternal.

        And so, for a good God of justice who hated evil, He brought judgement against those who deviated from Him – and therefore, life, in any one of the three forms, or all. I definitely wouldn’t count the people He killed as those He judged, because, again, death is just a transition. And at the same time, the great men recorded in the Old Testament also had their own times of sin, but God forgave those on account of their love for Him.

        People in the Old Testament could atone for their sins with animal sacrifices, but it wasn’t a perfect substitution for sin, and so when His own Son died and He put all His judgement and wrath on His own sinless Son, He made a perfect way for us – imperfect, sinful – to reach out to God as His own children. He still hates sin, but with the mark of His son’s blood on our heads, He remembers the stuff He made His son go through for us who are willing to accept the mark of the cross, and lets His own love for Jesus fall upon us who carry His mark.

        Sorry this is so long-winded and probably out of point, but my point is basically that now that Jesus has died, the God who hates sin is now able to see us sinful men as flawless and righteous, because we have the mark of that perfect sacrifice of a sinless Son. That’s why now, He seems so much less ‘wrathful’ than in the Old Testament times. In the Old Testament, there wasn’t that sacrifice yet, so perhaps, when sinlessness was coupled with deviating away from God’s love, God was less able to see past man’s iniquities. But do remember again that I don’t see death as His judgement!

        Then again… Exodus 33:19 ‘Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”‘ and Exodus 34:6-7 ‘”The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty…”‘
        – how does He choose who to be gracious to? What’s the difference between the ‘guilty’ and those who have ‘iniquity and transgression and sin’? The only difference I can think of is that those He forgives are those who love Him and try to keep a clean life. But I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll learn in time to come.

        I hope this helped somewhat! This is just my personal point of view, so don’t hold it against all Christians 🙂 Anyway, I think a lot of what we can gather about God personally has to come through how He reveals Himself to us personally. I’m a very strong believer in spiritual encounters, and so much of how we see God has to come from what he reveals of Himself to us in these encounters. After all, through the centuries, God has been portrayed as so many different things – from a tough king to a merciful father. We have to find a balance, based on everything we read of His word.

      • Karen Ho

        One more thing: I was actually planning to do a blog post on predestination and freewill, with the ‘case study’ of Judas betraying Jesus. If God has a good plan for everyone, especially His own disciples, was Judas’s betrayal of Jesus his own free choice, or planned by God? In the case of the latter, God’s plan for someone to betray someone to death, and then hang himself out of remorse, doesn’t seem like a ‘good plan’ to me.

        I’ll do this post sometime soon. I’m not sure if I’ll put it up on the Yale-NUS blog. If I don’t, I’ll link you to my personal blog article!

  6. Kandastol

    Hi, your comment on how God will not send virtuous non-believers to Hell reminded me of this really interesting episode on This American Life.

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/304/Heretics

  7. You should read “The Brother’s Karamazov”. Dostoevsky is deeply concerned with this issue.

  8. Marissa

    You go girl! Definitely a well written article. Its hard explaining religion & in this case, Christianity. One simply have to experience & have relationship with God to understand. Congratulations on being a part of the pioneer batch of Yale-NUS:) all the best on your future endeavours!

  9. blah

    First off i would like to say it’s a rather well written essay. Kudos to you Karen. Although i am a non-believer of Christianity (I’m sorry would probably go to hell for that) but hey! Its a rather interesting subject and you definitely highlighted some interesting perspectives for the topic. Not to debate on the differences that you and Filbert shared on the problem of whether a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ god exist (you should look at Zoroastrianism for that the religion provides a rather simplistic and innovative perspective despite being one of the oldest religions that predates Christianity that still exist).

    Rather, i am more concerned with the idea of the afterlife. I think your gist of your article in part was to intone the idea that the people that died in the tragedy have gone to a better place (sincerely hope they did). Although your analogy of the tank was superb, i think it missed a few assumptions. Suppose Christians believe that the best life to live is the afterlife, since then they would be by God’s side in paradise, yes? This basic theological assumption can be broken by the very fact that there exists a place called Hell, for discussion purposes we term it as antithetical to being in paradise.

    Thus, if god created two extreme places for us to ‘choose’ to go to the afterlife, is he truly an ALL benevolent god after all?(putting aside the concept of eternal damnation that i shall not broach here) The existence of such a place supposedly created by god would show that he is not all compassionate and all benevolent.

    Since there is both paradise and hell, which are two opposing extremes, what/who determines where we go? Are we going to be judged by the actions we did in this life? If so, wouldn’t it be too simplistic for starters? It begets the idea that there is a ‘prescribed’ set of actions that we will have to follow before we are accepted into the ‘Christian Paradise’, however wide the parameters of the ‘set of actions/behavior’ are my point is there are still boundaries, hence there is a distinction of what you ‘can’ do or what you ‘cannot’ do. Wait a minute. Won’t this indicate a loss of ‘free will’?? Since there are things that you ‘cannot’ choose? What about those innocent lives that are lost? How have they proven themselves?? Where would they go hither? A tragedy in this world will create many consequences and questions that the christian assumption of the afterlife cannot prove(sorry for being blunt here! :/ ). I know we cannot be in god’s position and hence we cannot decide who gets to go to heaven or who gets to go to hell, but this proves a point. And if we cannot decide on the simple ‘set of actions/behavior’ that we have to take, how do we know which actions will lead where? Since we are not the deciding factor but ‘god’ is? Just a suggestion but for all we know our actions may be wrong?

    Im not trying to condone the murderer here, for myself it is more of a matter of morals(that are not preordained by god) but i believe just a set of ‘laws’ formed by societies and communities ages past to determine what is acceptable behavior or not. This ‘set of laws’ would probably have undergone evolution from the Neolithic age unto now, from the age where humans are hunter-gatherers to the current evolved species of man. A prime example would be human sacrifice in Mayan culture and animal sacrifice in Mother Goddess Cults, different sets of religions/behavior that postdates and predates Christianity respectively. Such behaviors are phased out probably due to a shift in the moral thoughts of men at that time, where probably due to different historical circumstances certain practices are not condoned anymore in a particular time?

    To take christianity into perspective, when Constantine the Great embraced the Christian religion he virtually outlawed other religious practices that existed in his empire, at the same time using religion as a tool to consolidate his hold over the roman empire. Not just the origins of Christianity per se, but the interesting case study of Amenhotep in Ancient Egyptian history is also similar albeit his religion failed while in Christianity’s case it flourished. It begs the question, Is the rise and fall of religions a matter of political/personal necessity? Hence also the matter of a ‘god’ that ‘supports’ your thinking? In the case of the crusades? “If god is on my side, who is there to appear against us?(precisely because they assume that the opponent is godless since there can only be one or one set of ‘true gods’)” A quote borrowed from biblical references i think. So if god supports your point of view(there are people who invoke the name of god in everything they do) who supports mine? Since almost all religions agree upon a common point where there must be at LEAST one god that exist. The Christian concept of the Sebellian trinity is still one god, and most religions have a creator god/goddess. Have people asked whether God has any ‘free will’ to choose to be on whose side and whose viewpoint?? Granted that there may be opposing viewpoints?

    Think i’ve strayed a little from the original topic for the previous paragraph above but the issues are quite interconnected lol. Sorry for the poor organisation above but i tried my best! And continue to believe in what you believe in. A little faith goes a long way and i’m not kidding. All i want to say is thanks to you who got me thinking about these issues again after a seriously long hiatus pondering on such issues. They are really interesting especially established religions like Christianity(named only one there are plenty of others) that influenced many different aspects of the world in the past as well as today. Please pardon me if i’m a little blunt at times(heh u cant blame a non-believer hehe).

    P.S. Suggest you look at the American author Sam Harris’s Free Will about the topic of ‘free will’ he provides an interesting perspective from the point of a neuroscientist on the topic 🙂

  10. Much more appropriate

    I am sorry Karen, but you caught my attention so here is another comment for you to think about. (Ahem, Liberal Arts and Intellectual Exercise)

    “I think it’s important for the believer to remember that while God always has a good plan for us, He also loves us enough to give us free will.”

    Free will which he gave to Adam and Eve, who then took the chance to eat the Forbidden Fruit and cause all of us to be condemned to hell if we did not repent in the name of his Son. And by the way, being almighty and all knowing, he probably saw it coming anyway — so he did that in order that (1) the larger part of humanity be sent to hell (2) he could send his beloved Son to earth just so he could crucify him. Which says a lot about this Love you speak about (and we have not started discussing about the sacrifices he demanded from the Israelites and the slaughters people committed in his name (yes, slaughter of men, women and CHILDREN) — if the Bible were true).

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