The questions raised by last week’s destructive earthquake in Christchurch give cause for the revisiting of reflections about ‘acts of God’. I make no pretence of providing comprehensive explanations, let alone entering the philosophical dimensions of theodicy (the justifying of God). I will leave that to those with more expertise in the arguments of Augustine and Irenaeus.
Once again, my thoughts are more in the way of theological reflections.
Firstly, there is a helpful distinction to be made between God’s ‘decretive will’ (all things that come as a result of what God intends or decrees) and God’s ‘permissive will’ (those things God permits or does not intervene to prevent). Such a distinction cannot be pressed too far, and it isn't as 'neat' as it sounds. Yet it does reflect something of the tension within Scripture between God's engagement with the messiness of the world 'here and now'—whether natural disasters or results from sin and evil--and the shape of things 'yet to be'.
There are still ultimately unresolvable questions about God’s capacities (all-powerful), yet things God is unable to do without diminishing the inter-relatedness of things (e.g. questions of whether God ‘could’ stop the cycle of seasons yet in doing so the consequent impact all that depends on seasonal cycles would be catastrophic). However, that is not the direction of my thoughts in this post.
What does Scripture tell us regarding a ‘non-moral’ disorder in inanimate creation? It is certainly recognised, and at a couple of points it is clear that those caught up in such happenings are no more sinful than anyone else. The attribution of God’s hand of punishment as an explanation for Job’s calamities (and those of his family) is clearly and decisively dispelled. While Job is never privy to a explanation of ‘why’, the association of personal sinfulness and the experience of any suffering is dismissed.
There is a theological framework reflected in the greater narrative of Scripture that points us in the right direction, even if we fall well short of anything like complete comprehension (and it is foolish to pretend otherwise).
Creation as reflected in the first creation account (Gen. 1:1-2:3) is ‘good for purpose’ but not complete. The ‘meta-creation’ is finished in the sense that it is in place (Gen. 2:2), but it is not static. Creation is an ongoing project that is progressing towards a goal of ultimate ‘fulfilment.’ Within this meta-order of things (the ‘wide angle lens’ account of creation), humans have been created in the image and likeness of God to be instrumental in the ongoing creation project. I understand ‘image’ in the sense of ‘role’ (to function as God’s authorised agents within creation, with special responsibilities), while ‘likeness’ reflects distinctive capacities given to humans to enable them to undertake such special responsibilities.
In the terminology of Psalm 8, humans have been made ‘a little lower than God’, crowned with glory and honour, and given dominion over creation to be exercised responsibly before God.
The language of Genesis 1 and 2 informs us through the power of evocative imagery more than precise description. Three themes in particular are important to note:
1. Creation itself is an ongoing act of bringing order and rightful place over a realm experiencing ‘hovering darkness’ and characterised as ‘total chaos’ (the image used conveys a desert wasteland, hostile and inhospitable). There is a ‘non-moral’ disorder at work that is to be subdued through the ongoing work of realising creative order.
2. The garden does not cover all the earth: it is a specific entity depicted as a walled sanctuary in which wider disorder and chaos is kept at bay so that within the garden the purpose of God’s creation is revealed and experienced.
3. The ongoing process of ‘filling out’ creation involves the spreading out of human community and in doing so extending the sanctuary of the garden further afield, with its fruitfulness and order.
There is much more in these chapters (especially in terms of the male being inadequate for the human vocation in creation and needing a companion corresponding to him to work in partnership to fulfil such tasks), but we have sketched enough to observe the main theological contours.
My purpose in noting this is by way of setting the necessary backdrop to our interpretation of the ‘Fall’, and especially its consequences.
The great disobedience is conveyed as an act and attitude of rebellion that reflects a paradigm that is true of us all. In narrative terms, Adam and Eve represent bigger realities than two individuals in themselves. In theological terms, each of us in our own way are Adam and Eve. And all humanity share in the consequences of rebellion against the God who is the source of life and all that is life giving.
Human existence now is located outside the garden sanctuary that makes real God’s purposes in creation. We now no-longer experience the order and protection from disorderly and chaotic forces yet to be subdued over wider creation.
The human indictment is in failing to be the image and likeness of God as intended by God. The world suffers as a result, and indeed inanimate creation itself is marred in that its fruitfulness is hindered and the work of cultivation becomes hard toil (Gen. 3:17-19). Death is now a reality that shall embrace all humans.
Just as all creation is drawn into the fruitfulness of cultivation and care through the first Adam, so too it is drawn into the consequences of the original disobedience and rebellion against the Creator.
This is picked up in Paul’s similarly evocative language of all creation (including inanimate creation) being subjected to ‘futility’ through the disobedience of Adam (Romans 8:20). ‘Futility’ conveys the sense that creation no-longer functions as intended by God. This takes us into the realm of creational disorder such as earthquakes reflecting God’s permissive will, but not decretive will.
Paired with this recognition of ‘futility’ (the present experience of life does not reflect God’s full creative purposes), Paul speaks of the sufferings of creation as ‘bondage to corruption’ (Rom. 8:21). This is not to be understood as moral corruption (evil), but the decay or entropy that features in the ‘age of Adam’ reversed in the unfolding new era and creation in Christ.
The wider context of Romans 8 is highly significant. It is set emphatically in terms of hope and the completion of God’s creative purposes, despite the consequences of rebellion. The new Adam, Christ, fulfils where the first Adam fails, and all creation will be drawn into all that comes with this great reversal. The resurrection of Christ is the ‘first-fruits’ of the greater fulfilment yet to come. Creation with its present travails is personified as a ‘mother-to-be’ in the pangs of childbirth, where new life will emerge and flourish.
Paul’s thinking is clear: the present experience of all that is not right with creation is, in the greater scheme of things, a transitional stage that will come to an end. It is for these reasons that we may ‘grieve, but not despair’ of all hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
However, my final thoughts are more pastoral (although hopefully no less theological). Where is God in the midst of such experiences? God is active through humans living up to all that we are called to be: to be responsible to our families and our neighbours. God is present through the capacities we are given as humans to bring order and restoration where there is chaos and destruction. God is present where we cultivate and create community – when we are about culture-making that honours God.
And God is especially present where the gospel of comfort and hope associated with the name of Jesus Christ is faithfully proclaimed in ways that speaks to the whole range of life's experiences.
Through God’s Spirit, we have the power to transform and to be the means of God’s grace (or in the classic terminology of St Francis, to be channels of God’s love and peace).
God weeps—and calls us to weep—with those who are weeping; and to rejoice with those who rejoice.
Beyond the recognition that events such as earthquakes are part of the fabric of life in the present order of things, there are no clear answers as to 'why?' I am quite sure we cannot comprehend what it takes to sustain a creation project with the complexity of the world as we experience it, let alone advise or instruct God how to do his job (Job 38).
But I see enough of God’s greater purposes revealed in Christ to sustain my faith and deeper hopes. The resurrection is at the heart of our gospel proclamation and hope. It changes everything, and Paul—who knew the realities of suffering as much as anyone—sets such suffering alongside the vision of the greater glory yet to be, but already impacting and shaping the present (2 Cor. 4:16-18).