Why does God allow accidents, disasters and terrorist attacks?

Why does God allow horrible things to happen to us, when Christ “died for the ungodly,” Romans 5:6, to save us? The answer is in why Christ died for us (same verse); it’s because “we were still powerless.”

Humans are powerless? That’s not what we want to hear. It’s the last thing we want to hear, because we think we’re invincible. There’s no challenge we can’t meet with human initiative and human spirit. Horrible disasters, and terrible terrorist attacks? We’ll pull through. We’ll rebuild. We’ll survive.

But God made it plain to us, right from the time he created humans, that we are powerless. Adam and Eve, for instance, didn’t have it in them to avoid the fruit that would kill them. But when they died, just as God said they would, did their death shake the world to its senses that God really meant death, and maybe it ought to take God seriously? No, it didn’t. People just carried on as though death wouldn’t happen to them, much like people rush off to war thinking they’re somehow immune to being killed, or that death really isn’t all that bad if it’s for a right cause.

We’ve clearly got a problem, then. Not only are we blind to the horror of death and the choices we make that cause it, we have also conclusively proved after years of dismal human history that we have no idea how to avoid accidents, prevent natural disasters or stop people killing each other. We even believe we can do what we like to our bodies and minds and there won’t be consequences.

And why is that? Because we fall for the same lie over and over again that the serpent told to Adam and Eve, that we are gods (Genesis 3:5), that we’re above the laws of the universe, and way above having to listen to what God has to say, and so we carry on doing what humans have always done; we live, we die, sometimes horribly or wastefully, and we are utterly powerless in reversing the process that has ruled humanity since our history began.

So what does God do to wake us up to that reality? Well, to start with, he gets the point across that it took Christ’s death to stop us annihilating ourselves all together. He also subjects us to a world we cannot cure (Romans 8:20). Again and again, then, things happen to us that we cannot prevent, including automatic penalties God designed for those who resist him (Romans 1:24-32). And then he waits patiently for all this to sink in, so we see the folly of our ways and repent.

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What kind of God would allow THAT to happen?

You’ve been waxing eloquent to a person about God’s goodness, but then, next morning, he turns on his TV and out blasts the latest news of a massive earthquake stirring a gigantic tsunami that thunders across a populated area destroying everything in its wake. His jaw drops at the scale of destruction, and he’s on the phone to you yelling, “What kind of God would allow THAT to happen?”

“You told me,” he continues, “that God is in control of everything that happens on this planet, and he’s a God of love, mercy, compassion and kindness. You also told me of the amazing things God has done in your life and how blessed you are, and how God forgives, holds none of our sins against us, and takes no pleasure in punishing us. So why is he punishing people so horribly?”

“And what was the point,” he shouts, “of God creating tectonic plates in the first place, when it was obvious, surely, that they pose an enormous danger to human life and property? And why put the lives of children, good people and Christians at risk too? And why, if humans in the earthquake zone needed a wake up call, didn’t God send prophets to warn them as to what was about to happen and why, so they could repent and God would reverse the threat, just like he did in Nineveh? And why would God allow disasters, accidents and terrorist attacks to happen at all when they’re only going to create negative reactions toward him and even cause people to curse him for what’s happened, like I’m tempted to do? And since you’re always going on about the Christian message being good news, I’d like to know where you find good news in all this awful stuff happening.”

And as he’s yelling you think of 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the HOPE that you have.” But what reason can you possibly give for hope in a terrible disaster, accident or terrorist attack that wipes out Christians and non-Christians alike, and shows no mercy to the good and innocent?

Peter’s answer in verse 15? “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord,” and stick like glue to verse 22, that Christ “has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him,” and somehow, miraculously and unexplainably, that is the key; that’s when hope, despite what’s happening in the world, comes. And all you can do is offer that to the person and let God take it from there.

Pain, suffering and evil

So how come pain, suffering and evil still exist, despite the fact that Christ in his death “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3), and in his resurrected state he’s now at God’s “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come“ (Ephesians 1:20-21)?

Surely our hope rests in clear evidence that those two scriptures are true “in the present age” – in life in this world right now, in other words – and we can see with our own eyes too that Jesus rules supreme, “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). If peace is what Christ died to create, then shouldn’t we be seeing pain, suffering and evil becoming less and less?

Yes, if by “peace” it means an obvious decrease in pain, suffering and evil worldwide. And isn’t that the world’s great hope, that one day all pain, suffering and evil will be eradicated? But in Colossians 1:21-22, that’s not what peace means. Peace isn’t the opposite to pain, suffering and evil. Peace is defined as no longer being “alienated from God,” and “enemies in our minds because of our evil behaviour.” Peace is defined in context here as the eradication of our hostile attitude to God, because at the heart and core of all evil is thinking God is our enemy.

Remove that thought in our heads and, hey presto, we have peace. But that’s what Christ died for, to reconcile us to God (verse 22) so we don’t see him as our enemy anymore. But how can he be our enemy when it was God, in Jesus, who died to cancel out every evil thing we’ve ever done or thought of, and now “through his death presents us holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (verse 22)?

We brought pain, suffering and evil on ourselves by our hostility to God, but God shows through Jesus’ death that he feels no hostility to us. It’s so hard to keep that in mind, though, when evil things happen, because it looks like God doesn’t like us at all, and he makes us suffer to show his disapproval.

But we can keep it in mind, Paul says in verse 23, “IF we continue in our faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” The hope of the gospel is that Christ’s death will end everyone’s hostility to God, and it’s keeping that in mind that keeps us remarkably and miraculously at peace, despite everything happening to and around us.

Candles, flowers and vigils

When horrible things happen to people, like being killed in a shooting or a terrorist attack or a tragic accident, people stream to the spot where the deaths occurred to light candles, drop off flowers, and quietly sorrow together. Some huddle in groups to pray, sing together, or simply just cry, and sometimes the vigils last for several days and nights. And no matter how risky it might be after a terrorist attack to gather in a large group at the site of the tragedy, there is no stopping people doing it.

I remember when the 9/11 attacks occurred that my immediate instinct was to be with people. I needed to talk about what happened and why. I needed to hear what other people were saying. I needed to be with people as bewildered and shocked as I was. I needed that, and so did a lot of other people, it seems, because the coffee shop I sat in was packed. Some sat quietly saying nothing, others had to let their emotions run free, but both groups needed the comfort of other people near them, just as I did.

Perhaps the terrorists themselves have noticed this phenomenon, that when they pull off a shocking attack with great success, people come out into the open to be together. There’s fear, yes, and the natural instinct to run to safety and hide during an attack, but soon after the attack is over people come out of hiding to feel the comfort of other people, to show they deeply care for those who suffered and died, and to prove to the terrorists that all they’ve done is draw the world closer together and released more love.

So take a good, hard look terrorists, because what you’ve done is shown us what’s really tucked away inside us when the chips are down – and it’s very encouraging. It’s deeply heartening to discover that, faced with terror or tragedy, we humans naturally band together, we grow in strength from being with each other, we feel compassion, we want to help, and we won’t rest until justice is done on behalf of the victims.

What must a terrorist be thinking, then, when he sees vigils springing up worldwide, and people coming out into the open to light candles, drop off flowers, and be together – in nations that weren’t even directly affected by the attack too? Will it dawn on him that humanity is a family, and threats only bring us closer? And what if we decide as a family to go to our heavenly Father for help, taking into account that terrorists are already causing many people to pray?…

Why was God so vicious in the Old Testament?

The God of the Old Testament was involved in killing thousands upon thousands of people. In Genesis alone he drowned thousands in Noah’s flood, and he had Sodom and Gomorrah firebombed. In Exodus he wiped out the Egyptians’ firstborn, and buried Egypt’s war machine in the Red Sea. In Exodus 17:14 he promised to “completely erase” the Amalekites, and in Numbers he creamed anyone who threatened or attacked Israel. Huge slaughter commanded by God in each case; lots of blood, destruction and “no survivors” (Deuteronomy 2:34), and then came the total destruction of Jericho and “twelve thousand men and women” killed in Ai (Joshua 8:25).

Add up the thousands of Israelites yet to die because of their rebellion, and possibly millions more who died in attacks against Israel, all by God’s command or direct action, and we have a horrible picture of God emerging in the Old Testament, doling out bucket loads of death and suffering, and even on children too.

So why was God so vicious? Because, as Paul explains in Romans 5:13, “sin was in the world.” If there’d been no sin, in other words, there wouldn’t have been any death. But “sin entered the world” when Adam and Eve blatantly disobeyed God, totally disregarding why God had created them, “and in this way death came to all men” (verse 12), exactly as God had said it would back in Genesis 2:17.

But death wasn’t real, because people continued doing exactly what Adam and Eve did, totally ignoring God’s purpose for them. Clearly, then, humans had to learn what God meant by death, and how seriously he meant it. For nearly four thousand years, therefore, God made his promise of death real. Anyone who did not fit in with what he created humans for became expendable. He allowed millions of people to die violently, but their lives held no value anyway, because sin had already destroyed their value.

In Paul’s words in Romans 9:22, humans had become “objects” who deserved to be eradicated. Harsh words, but when God said “death” he meant death, horrible death, dreadful destruction, and human life becoming utterly useless and dispensable.

But after four thousand years of wasted human life, God sent Jesus to end that era of death. It had gone on long enough, but long enough to seal the brutal lesson in human history that human life is completely pointless and therefore totally dispensable “because of sin” (Romans 8:10). So, what is human life like without sin? Well, that’s what we’ve been finding out ever since Jesus “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3). Now we’re learning what happens to humans who are tuned in to God’s purpose, and how valuable such a life becomes.

The conundrum that is Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day brings into sharp focus a conundrum, that humans are willing to sacrifice their lives. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian or non-Christian, or which side you’re on in a war; the instinct to give up our lives for a cause we believe to be right is shared by all.

We acknowledge that instinct on Remembrance Day as we remember the men and women who died to free the world of a brutal evil. But where did such an instinct come from? It flies in the face of Evolution for a start, which talks of creatures and plants doing whatever they must to survive. But all through our history humans have put aside their instinct to survive, and in the prime of their lives they do what Evolution would never support a species doing. Where in Evolution, for instance, does a species give up its life when it’s at the top of its game?

So where did this conundrum of self-sacrifice come from? Well, from God, of course, because it helps us to understand him. We see God best “in the face of Christ,” 2 Corinthians 4:6, and what we see in Christ is God willing to give up his life in his prime too, and for the same reason we are willing to give up our lives – to rid the world of evil.

What Christ did rings a familiar and honourable bell in a human heart, because the most honourable thing a human being can do is give up his life for others, especially in his prime. But it’s in us to do that. It’s instinctive in us to give up our lives to crush evil. And we honour that instinct every year on Remembrance Day, because to us it’s so obviously right.

But that’s the beauty of Remembrance Day because it not only shines a bright light on the amazing phenomenon of a species being willing to give up its life, it also shines a bright light on God – because we’re not so different, we humans and God, are we? He was willing to rid the world of evil by self-sacrifice, and so are we. It makes it very easy for us to understand God, then, because tucked away inside us is the same heart he has.

No wonder the Christian message “commends” itself, or rings true, “to every man’s conscience,” verse 2, because the sacrificing of a life to rid the world of evil is what we already believe as good and true as well. Remembrance Day isn’t really such a conundrum, then, because self-sacrifice is a desire God has given us to help us understand him.

A real devil with a real plan

If the Bible was published in chronological order, it would start with the first 11 (or 22) chapters of Genesis and then straight into the book of Job. And in both Genesis and Job the devil pops up very quickly, first as a serpent and then as an angel called Satan. So right from the very beginning, the devil’s already striding into human history as a central figure to be reckoned with, and, what’s more, he soon makes it obvious what his plan is. And his plan never changes either, from the beginning of the Bible to the end of it.

He lives for one thing – to get God to curse us so we curse God in return. The devil’s very good at it, too. In the book of Revelation, for instance, God curses humanity horribly with “the seven bowls of his wrath,” Revelation 16:1. And the people’s reaction? They “cursed the name of God,” verses 911, and 22. It doesn’t cross their minds that they’d brought God’s curse on themselves; their focus is entirely on blaming God for cursing them.

But that was the devil’s plan with Job, too. In Job 1:11, the devil believes that if God hits Job with a few disasters, “he (Job) will surely curse you (God) to your face.” Get God to curse Job and Job will curse God back. It worked with Cain: When God cursed Cain for killing his brother, Cain’s reaction to God was, “My punishment is more than I can bear,” Genesis 4:13. Cain’s reaction to being cursed was to blame God for cursing him – the same reaction as the people in Revelation 16.

And the devil’s got us doing the same thing today. When we’re hit with a disaster we call it an ‘Act of God’, not an ‘Act of the devil’. We’d much rather curse God than the devil, which fits in perfectly with the devil’s plan yet again. And it never seems to enter people’s heads – Cain’s head included – that the devil is playing a clever game. He’s got us thinking it’s God’s fault when bad things happen, and instead of questioning our own behaviour, we question God’s behaviour.

But why would God LET the devil turn people against him? For the same reason God let the devil try to turn Job against him. It was to face Job (and all humanity) with a question: “Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” Job 40:8. Because isn’t that, in fact, the devil’s ultimate aim, to find reason for condemning God to vindicate and elevate himself? Is it any surprise, then, that we humans, under the devil’s influence, condemn God to justify ourselves too?