Q: Many have criticized Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti was the work of the devil or a form of divine punishment. But if one believes God is good and intervenes in the world, why does God allow innocents to suffer? What is the best scriptural text or explanation of that problem you’ve ever read?
The problem here is in the traditional assumption that God is a Supernatural Being who lives somewhere above the sky and who is in charge of the world. Everyone will deny that they still think of God as “an old man in the sky,” but the current theistic belief is just a slightly more sophisticated and even perfumed version of this mentality.
This attitude does not embrace the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo that led to our knowledge of the vastness of the Universe. It does not take into account the work of Isaac Newton and Louis Pasteur. In Newton’s work he removed God from any sense of controlling the weather patterns and natural phenomenon like earthquakes and hurricanes. In Pasteur’s case he removed the supernatural explanations of reward and punishment from human illness and sickness. This pre-modern religious mindset also does not embrace the work of Charles Darwin who narrowed dramatically the distance religious people once assumed to exist between animal life, which we thought had no eternal value, and human life, which we believed was alone endowed with an immortal soul.
So when I hear Pat Robertson suggest that a town in Pennsylvania will be punished with a hurricane for voting out of office a school board that favored Creation Science, or that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because it was the home of Ellen DeGeneres, and that the earthquake struck Haiti because the Haitians made a pact with the Devil when they kicked out the French in the 19th century, I simply become aware of the profound ignorance that marks the life of Pat Robertson and, I am afraid, many other simple-minded, but less well known religious leaders.
Professional theologians since the work of Alfred North Whitehead have struggled to redefine the way human beings, and yes Christians, think about God. Paul Tillich was the 20th century theologian who came closest to bringing this truth to the attention of the leaders of the church in my generation. It is a pity that so many religious people are still so unaware of the dimensions of contemporary theology. This dated and traditional thinking relegates these people to the position of always trying to explain tragedy, so that God is neither malevolent for sending or allowing it, nor impotent for not being able to prevent or stop it. A God who is either malevolent or impotent is not long for this world. Perhaps that is why only traditional churches are growing. It is because they do not know enough to face these issues and hence can continue to pretend that their answers are relevant to this world. They are not except to those who are as ill-educated or ill-informed as the religious leaders they follow.