Yet again we see him, a solitary figure bowed with grief, silhouetted against a backdrop of desolation. This time, a hurricane blasted on shore, snapping power lines, overwhelming levees, flooding neighborhoods, flattening structures, scouring a path across a defenseless landscape. When we saw this grieving figure before, he may have been staring at the debris left by a tsunami, the capricious devastation of a tornado, the charred remnants of wildfires, or the sodden souvenirs of a flood.
Josef Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” He was correct, because our senses cannot cope with the scale of these disasters: thousands of square miles of destruction, billions of dollars in damage, uncounted lives swept away. We can write the numbers and cite the statistics, but our minds cannot comprehend destruction on such scale. Translating the grim reality into abstract numbers sanitizes it, robs it of emotional impact. And then we see him again, this timeless, grieving figure, and the abstraction of numbers becomes concrete in his loss. We share in his grief, and with him we ask, Does God care?
Strangely enough, both those who believe in God and those who profess not to believe ask that same question. On the one hand, unbelievers and skeptics assert human suffering as evidence that God doesn’t care, while on the other hand, believers strive to reconcile such suffering with a world created by a loving God. But no oneeven those materialists among us, who believe only what they can see and measurenot even they ask, Does Nature care?
Nature doesn’t care
Sometimes we speak of these catastrophic events as “natural disasters.” But the term “natural disasters” is misleading because they do not harm nature, but, rather, they are themselves natural events. The Tunguska Eventa 1908 a meteor strike in Siberiakilled thousands of reindeer and millions of trees. The Mount Saint Helens explosion sent scalding gases and mud to scour all life from thousands of acres. Yersinia pestis, the Black Death, killed millions of people across Europe. Yet in the face of these, and thousands of other even more drastic events, “nature” didn’t even pause.
Indeed, for all their destructive effects on humans, these events often exhibit positive effects on nature. For example, some have described the effects of the December 2004 tsunamithe cataclysm that took 250,000 lives in a matter of hoursas having a “cleansing” effect on Thai beaches.1 But “disaster” and “cleansing” are both human evaluations. In every case, some natural elementssome plants and animals, including humansdied, but others prospered. Nature regards neither the cleanliness of beaches nor the extermination of a quarter million people. As scientist Richard Dawkins says, “Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.”2
If “natural disasters” does not describe them accurately, what about the other label we put on such horrific events?
Acts of God
If you ask your insurance agent about earthquakes, floods, and storms, he’ll call them “acts of God.” Are they? And if they are, how can they be the acts of a caring God?
At least part of the answer, I think, must come from the ancient human habit of attributing every inexplicable happeningboth good and badto God. And the Old Testament surely speaks of God’s punishing wicked cities. Even in those cases, though, the record may surprise us.
One of the most notable involves the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. God sent Jonah, famous for his reluctance to obey, as a messenger to warn the Ninevites of their impending destruction. When the Ninevites repented as a result of Jonah’s message and God relented from His decision to punish them, Jonah felt like a fool and was furious with God. But God retorted with the following question: “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”3 God cared about the Ninevites.
This same contrast emerges in the New Testament. Disciples James and John suggested calling fire from heaven to rain down on villages that refused their message.4 Maybe that’s how they got their nickname Sons of Thunder. Jesus prescribed the far less drastic remedy of “shak[ing] the dust off your feet.”5 In these cases, humans appear far more eager to inflict “acts of God” than God does.
And when we mention Jesus, suddenly the picture of the solitary grieving man materializes. This time we recognize Him: There stands Jesus, before the tomb of Lazarus. John condensed the powerful scene into two short words: “Jesus wept.”6
But why? Why did Jesus weep? After all, of all those present, only Jesus realized that in mere moments, Lazarus would walk from the tomb alive, to the rejoicing of all. Yet Jesus paused before the tomb and wept. Why?
Because He is touched with our weaknesses.7 Jesus always grieves, every single death.
How can we be certain that Jesus grieves every loss? Jesus himself told us, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”8 If not one sparrow is forgotten by God, if even the hairs on our heads are numbered, we can be assured that He will not forget one of us for whom He shed His own blood.
After all, if it weren’t for the Gospel accounts, Lazarus would be forgotten. If Jesus had not paused to grieve and then to raise him, we would not know that anyone mourned Lazarus. We would not even note his life, much less mark his death. Just like the thousands lost in tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes whose names we may never know, whose deaths would go completely unnoticed by us except for the unforgettable image of a solitary griever in the news photo or on the TV screen, we know about the death of Lazarus because we see another individual. We see Jesus, grieving for him.
That’s what rivets our attention on the image of the solitary man mourning in the midst of catastrophe: That image transforms the numbing statistics of death into a personal reality of tragedy, grief, and loss. We see Jesus grieving Lazarus, and it stirs the compassion in our own hearts. We care because God cares.
Because God knows all, He experiences a million deathsnot as a statistic but as a million individual tragedies. Ever since the death of Abel, Jesus has grieved each and every one of the billions of human deaths as individual, personal tragedies. “Oh, that my . . . eyes were a fountain of tears,” wrote Jeremiah, reflecting in a small way the torrent of grief that streams from the heart of God. David, crying out at the loss of his son, “Absalom, Absalom, O, my son Absalom. Would God that I had died in your place,”9 echoed the distress rending the heart of God for each one of His children. God cares more than we can fathom.
So Jesus grieves with us. God cares. But if He cares so much, why does He continue to allow so much suffering? And what is He doing to stop it? The Bible describes the world as God made it, a world in which the earth did not quake, volcanoes did not belch their poisonous vapors or vomit molten rock, and storms did not roil the seas or scour the land. A world without disease, without death. God left Adam in charge of that world.
God not only gave Adam a beautiful home, God gave Adam the gift of freedom, so that he could truly give and fully receive love. But freedom worthy of the name includes the freedom to make mistakes, the freedom to choose wrongly. So long as Adam continued to trust God, he continued to enjoy that benevolent environment. But, deceived by the serpent, Adam unwisely chose to give his authority over the earth away. And Scripture reveals that Adam’s disastrous choice precipitated the environmental disasters that followed. At first thorns infested the ground, but as evil increased, eventually earthquake, flood, and pestilence followed. Ironic, isn’t it? The Bible narrative indicates that cataclysmic natural events are caused by the actions of humans rather than by “acts of God.”
Adam’s choice left humanity in a desperate situation. But God had already provided for the emergency. The very presence of Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb demonstrated that, as God promised, “Before they call I will answer.”10 Before we were born, “from the creation of the world,”11 a rescue mission had been planned. Jesus’ first coming, His life and death on this earth, represents the first stage of this rescue plan.
When completed, this rescue mission will end all suffering. God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”12 Nature itselfa new heaven and a new earthwill be re-created, and the benevolent environment of Eden restored.13
Until that day, disasters, both natural and man-made, will take their toll in human suffering and loss. We will again see that solitary grieving figure. But now, each time we see that solitary grieving figure, we will know that Jesus weeps too. Yes, God cares.
Ed Dickerson writes from Garrison, Iowa.