By Tom Krattenmaker
God is all good. God is all-powerful. Evil and tragedy happen. Pick two, as the saying goes, but all three of those postulations can’t possibly be true at the same time.
As seems to happen all too often in a troubled world, religious people are left to struggle with these riddles of life and belief following the tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., on Monday, killing at least 24, including at least nine children, injuring hundreds, and destroying homes and buildings by the score.
People have struggled mightily over the centuries to make sense of the evil that happens on the watch of a God believed to be both beneficent and omnipotent. Legion are the ex-believers who cite the inescapable problem of evil in their explanations for why they gave up faith. But to this friendly religious skeptic, the persistence of evil hardly disproves the existence of a good and all-powerful God — provided we’re clear about what we mean by “all powerful.”
If you’re set on maintaining that a loving God controls every little thing, well, good luck squaring that with the suffering of innocents and deaths of children. But if we’re talking about the idea of love, the idea of dignity, the idea of hope, these endure no matter what hideous circumstances befall us on the ground. These are undefeated, unconquerable. In this sense, it’s possible for the doubting, the wavering, the skeptical, and the grieving to reconcile the power and goodness of God with the apparent evidence to the contrary.
Not only possible, but extremely helpful.
“We’ve been through this before,” Moore city manager Steve Eddy said. “Our citizens are resilient.” Although Moore was speaking of the tornados that have struck his city in the past, he could well have been describing the human experience. We have been through tragedies before. And we are resilient, invariably drawing upon wells of faith and strength we scarcely knew we had to get us through.
Writing in Christianity Today about last winter’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which 20 Connecticut school children were murdered, Philip Yancey eloquently describes the ways in which Christian faith asserts itself, in the most consoling and uplifting ways, in the wake of unfathomable disaster. “Tragedy rightly calls faith into question,” Yancey writes, “but it also affirms faith. It is good news that we are not the random byproducts of a meaningless universe, but rather creations of a loving God who wants to live with us forever.”
To his Christian audience, Yancey offers the hope of Easter, the empty tomb, the resurrection. God, he writes, will restore all. As one in the practice of translating explicitly religious claims into universal concepts to which I can relate, and presumably all can relate regardless of creed or affiliation, I welcome the comfort and perspective these words bring.
But they still skirt the central question. Why did an omnipotent God allow Newtown? How can a vicious tornado kill kids when God is good?
There is, alas, no satisfying answer. Unless, that is, believers can arrive at a deeper understanding of God’s omnipotence. They won’t have to look far for clues. No farther than Moore, Okla., in fact, where the generally good-hearted people are going about the tasks that people always go about after tragedy: tending to the injured, consoling the grief-stricken, and beginning the long work of rebuilding their devastated community.
Christians believe that the people of the church are the hands and feet of God. It’s in this way that God intervenes and comforts in the darkest times. It’s in this way hope and goodness endure, no matter what. And it’s in this way that God, or love, or the transcendent, or whatever word you want to use for the ultimate, proves to be all good and all powerful, even in the face of evil.
These have, in fact, never been defeated.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He is the author of the new book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.