God is all-powerful but does not care about human suffering.
God cares about human suffering but he is not all-powerful.
This dichotomy is usually how the subject of human suffering and tragedy is approached, if not explicitly, it is the way many of us process the problem internally. And it is a problem, to be sure. It is a problem that has plagued the human conscious since the dawn of human consciousness. All the great theological minds for thousands of years have tackled this issue.
Has there been a successful resolution?
I don’t think so. At least not for everyone. It really depends on a person’s stage in life: is the person young or old, experienced with tragedy and suffering or inexperienced, religious or irreligious, etc? I’ve been dwelling on this for some time and I’ve come to realize there are two heads to this coin. On the one side is the problem of evil (i.e., moral evil and its existence in a world created good by a good God), and on the other side is the problem of pain or tragedy (i.e., natural occurrences that cause death and suffering in a world ruled by an all-powerful God who could theoretically stop tragedy if he wanted to). This article is focused on the latter, the problem of tragedy. What follows is my personal understanding of the problem through the lens of the Eastern Orthodox Christian perspective.*
Where to start?
It seems to me that to understand the Orthodox perspective (note: not to “accept” the Orthodox perspective, but to understand it) requires an understanding of its doctrine of human nature and how mankind was intended to relate to the natural world.
Alexander Schmemann gives one of the most succinct yet thorough treatments of the subject that I have heard. He explains that human beings were originally created with three fundamental dimensions: the royal, the priestly, and the prophetic, and when mankind fell he (the human race) lost these “vestments.” His relation to nature was originally one of “priest,” he was the mediator between God and nature; he is the only creature in God’s creation that exists as both a physical and a spiritual being. As Schmemann put it, mankind is “the sanctifier of life through its inclusion into the divine will and order” (Of Water and the Spirit, p. 95). Man’s natural ‘kingship’ over the natural order is fulfilled in his priesthood. “He has ‘power and dominion’ over the world, but he fulfills the power by sanctifying the world, by making it into communion with God” (p. 96).
The essential expression of the priestly “sacrifice” is the desire for communion with God. Man was placed within nature primarily for the reason of communion; nature was to be for man the very meeting place of communion with God, likewise mankind was to be the meeting place for God’s communion with nature. This is why man’s fall included the fall of creation. Without mankind as mediator between God and nature, nature lost its communion with God. Mankind turned, not only on God, but on nature itself. Instead of acting as nature’s priest, man became nature’s consumer.
Again, Schmemann brilliantly captures this concept, saying: “The first consumer was Adam himself. He chose not to be priest but to approach the world as consumer: to ‘eat’ of it, to use and to dominate it for himself, to benefit from it but not to offer, not to sacrifice, not to have it for God and in God. And the most tragical fruit of that original sin is that it made religion itself into a ‘consumer good’ meant to satisfy our ‘religious needs,’ to serve as a security blanket or therapy, to supply us with cheap self-righteousness and equally cheap self-centered and self-serving ‘spiritualities’…” (p. 96).
To understand how man was originally created to operate within nature, one need only observe Christ’s life. Mark chapter 4 contains the story of when Jesus and the disciples were on the sea when a major storm arose. The situation was so intense that the disciples feared for their lives. Oddly, Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, not concerned in the least. The disciples woke him saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus then calms the storm and chides his disciples for acting cowardly and having no faith.
And this is precisely how the rest of us feel during times of tragedy in life. We are threatened with suffering and imminent death yet God seems to be asleep without a care in the world for our well-being. We shout at him, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’ response in these verses is a culmination of all that has been discussed so far. Christ in his incarnation—both man and God in the flesh—had power to still the storm, and then turns and rebukes his disciples for not exercising similar power through faith. The lesson seems clear enough: Jesus existed as mankind was originally created to exist, as king and priest of creation—having dominion over creation for the purpose of communion with God.
Perhaps Christ was asleep during the storm because he was not in need of the boat for his survival in the first place, and apparently neither were his disciples so long as they were with him. Jesus was able to walk on water. Peter, by faith, was able to walk on water. Apparently the natural order had no dominion over Christ’s life, neither did it have dominion over his disciples so long as they were with him. Are we with him today?
This story seems to tell us that we are still called to be priests of creation. It is not a dimension of our nature that is foregone but rather one waiting re-birth. Our experience in life would dictate otherwise. But in his great prophetic question Christ asked: “When the Son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).
Our generation is not one marked by faith, one can hardly argue that point. But for the one struggling with the loss of a loved one, or the one who sees great tragedies in the world unfolding in the form of earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides, etc., this “analysis” may offer precious little support. As I said above, I do not believe there is an answer that will satisfy all people everywhere who ask the question, “where is God when tragedy strikes?” What is important, I think, is that when the smoke clears one is at least in possession of the actual claims of Christianity—the religion that specifically claims to believe in a good and all-powerful God. Natural calamity is not the result of God’s will (at least not in every circumstance; the argument can be made from scripture that God does indeed use calamity in some circumstances as judgment on sin in the here and now), often it is the natural concomitant of a creation which has lost its priestly mediator. That concomitant has everything to do with man’s willingness to be nature’s “Consumer” rather than nature’s “Priest.”
I do not intend in any fashion to say that the sufferer is to blame for his or her suffering. Such a claim is often made by low-information Christians who desire a cheap and easy answer to a very difficult question. My overarching point is that God is not to blame. Take the story of Christ calming the storm; again, was it God that brought the storm onto the sea that day? If so, then Christ rebuked God’s work. No, what threatened the disciples was the natural order on auto-pilot without a priest. Christ calmed the sea because he was(is) such a Priest. We were created to be priests of creation. We are re-birthed as such through the waters of baptism. But that’s another article.
Thanks for reading.
*Note: this view does not reflect “official” Orthodox dogma, but rather my understanding of the issue after applying Orthodox perspectives. I am not aware of any official Orthodox dogma on the issue, per se.