Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti Earthquake

Referring to the recent earthquake in Haiti, Secretary of State Clinton described the disaster as “biblical.“ (See, for instance,, which also provides a terrible history of disasters in that country.) I admire Clinton and am not criticizing her use of the term, but the metaphor always intrigues me when used to refer large-scale disasters.

We all think of the Bible as “the good book” which guides us spiritually and morally. But whenever we use that metaphor "disasters of biblical proportions" we tacitly acknowledge the book’s strangeness as a record of mass death. In fact, a certain blogger tried to calculate how many people “God killed” in the Bible and came up with nearly 35 million people, estimating how many people died in Noah’s flood, various famines and “smitings,” and the first-born of Egypt
The blogger compares this to the comparatively modest death tolls in the Book of Mormon (fewer than 20,000) and the Qur’an (only four).

As I think about in a book project that I’m working on, the Bible has numerous troubling stories of mass deaths from plagues and floods and divine vengeance. While it’s true that some of these stories verify the stereotype of the biblical God as an inconsistent and hard-to-please “smiter,” to me, the Bible “keeps it real” by acknowledging that the strangeness and tragedy of life. The nature of God's presence in terrible events is hard to fathom; no one but a few misguided people would want to attribute events like the Haiti earthquake to God‘s punishment. But Bible does not sugarcoat the fact that life contains violence, horror, uncertainty, unease, and the disappointments that are part of real living, just as the Bible expresses honestly the questions, unease, and troubles of many of the psalmists.

I also think that the Bible’s stranger stories also point us in the direction of greater involvement in the world. I don’t mean that the stories of mass death and disaster connect us prophetically or typologically to Christ. I mean that, when we look at the biblical witness as a whole, God is not removed from suffering but is always present in the lives of his people, through good and terrible circumstances. The “problem of suffering” will always be theological painful because we cannot see the whole of life or the whole of God’s activity. But the Bible gives us assurance that God experiences human suffering and calls us to be no more aloof from suffering than is God himself.

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