It is entirely reasonable that this string of disasters should lead to people asking questions: What does this mean? What does this say about God? Why does God let this happen?
There have been many different answers. Some end-times watchers have said this shows that the end is getting closer. I haven't heard of anyone claiming these disasters were judgements for specific sins - although this has been claimed in the past (eg. the Victorian bushfires). One answer I read from a non-Christian perspective suggested that the earthquakes happened in response to our damaging of the environment through mining, oil drilling and pollution - in other words it was the earth showing its annoyance!
Can I say up-front that I do not claim to be an expert on suffering. I have had some suffering in my life, but it wouldn't be hard to find someone who has suffered more. What I do want to do - as sensitively as possible - is to set a framework for responding to the question of suffering.
I was listening to some interviews of Pastor Rob Bell on US TV. The interviews were about his new book, but two interviewers asked similar questions about the suffering in Japan. This is the question asked by Martin Bashir on MSNBC, and Bell's response:
Martin Bashir: . . . Just help us with this tragedy in Japan. Which of these is true. Either God is all powerful but he doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore their suffering, or he does care about the people of Japan but he is not all powerful, which one is it?
Rob Bell: I begin with the belief that, when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear, so I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate and stands in solidarity with us. Secondly, the dominant story of the scriptures is about restoration, it’s about renewal, it’s about rebirth, it’s about a God who insists – in the midst of this chaos the last word hasn’t been spoken. So people of faith have clung to this promise, and this hope that God will essentially fix this place. It’s a beautiful hope and we I think we ought to keep it front and centre – especially right now.
Martin Bashir: So which of those is true: He is all powerful and he [doesn’t] cares or he cares and is not all powerful?
Rob Bell: I think that this is a paradox at the heart of the divine, and some paradoxes are best left exactly as they are.In both his interviews Bell began his answer with the assertion that "when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear". I can understand his desire to emphasise God's understanding and empathy with our situation up-front, but I have two main concerns with his (partial) answer: (1) he doesn't acknowledge that suffering might be part of God's sovereign plan, and (2) he asserts a paradox which the Bible does not really allow, and in so doing misrepresents God.
Let me offer some thoughts on each of these points:
(1) Rather than starting with the assertion of God's empathy with the human situation, the Bible starts with God's sovereignty and his goodness. Genesis 1 tells us that God is the creator (and sustainer) of the world. We also see that God is intimately involved in his world - he knows every hair on our head and no sparrow falls to the ground apart from his will. Without God's ongoing intimate involvement the world would cease to exist in an instant. Nothing happens outside his knowledge and will. This is what we mean by God's sovereignty.
The Bible also tells us that God made the world good - in fact "very good" according to Genesis 1:31. The goodness of the world reflects God's achievement in creating a world that was just as he intended and perfectly good and enjoyable for the people he placed there. Of course the goodness of the world also reflects God's character.
There are many other aspects of God's character we could mention that are important - God is Love, God is Holy, God is Just, God is Merciful . . . None of these should be 'played off' against each other. Rather we seek to find how they are worked out in relation to each other.
The Bible tells us that God expressed his Love and Goodness towards humans by giving them freedom to choose. Sadly their freedom was expressed by rebelling against God when they chose to do what they were told not to do - and in so doing received judgement on themselves and the earth. The judgement on themselves included pain, suffering and ultimately death. The ongoing effect of this rebellion is seen in the evil that is done by humans in their continuing rebellion against God - all too often leading to suffering for others and wilful damage to the creation. The consequence for the earth was the kind of events that lead to 'natural disasters'. In other words, natural disasters are a consequence (sometimes directly, but mostly indirectly) of human sin.
So what does God do about this? He has decided to show mercy!
What we deserve for our sin is death - not only physical, but eternal spiritual death. Yet God makes it possible for us to escape this judgement for our sin through the gift of his Son. As John 3:16 tells us:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should receive eternal life."
God's gift of Love to us was to come into the world in the person of the Son to identify with us, to suffer the judgement we deserve and to offer us forgiveness and eternal life. This can only be received by putting our faith in God.
So what about suffering? Can suffering be a part of God's plan? We see first of all that suffering is central to God's plan - the Son suffered the worst possible suffering so we could receive eternal life. And just as it was the Father's will that the Son should suffer, so also our suffering will have a purpose. Sometimes suffering is to refine our faith. Sometimes suffering comes as judgement (although we ought to be careful to label any instance of suffering as this, according to Jesus in Luke 13:1-5). Sometimes suffering is a warning to us. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis: sometimes God uses suffering as a megaphone to get our attention.
Our problem is that we forget that this world is not the end. God has promised a new and 'restored' creation, where there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4). Christians have the hope of 'heaven' - of enjoying the new creation in relationship with God.
(2) Is there really a paradox between God's goodness and the reality of suffering? The short answer is No. God is really sovereign - he has not lost control to some other force that brings about these evil deeds. But God has given us freedom, and our rebellion has brought evil and suffering into the world. Suffering must somehow be a part of his plan.
So is God really good? Doesn't God care? Of course he cares! But God has reasons for suffering that we will never know. All that we do know is that his plans are for the good of those who do and will put their trust in him and in his Son (Romans 8:28) - whose suffering (in God's plan) brings us eternal life and joy.