What Kind of God: Wrestling With God’s Character in Time of Tragedy
…the hour of testing which is to test those who dwell upon the earth.
— Revelation 3:10
Note: This article was written in response to the mid-Atlantic explosion of TWA flight 800, July 17, 1996. Afterwards, people were asking big questions.
Truly, it is a time to try men’s souls.
For it is not only the stunned, grief-stricken, and sometimes enraged families of those who perished on TWA flight 800 who must find the spiritual resources to cope. It is an entire nation—or at least those among us who have paused long enough over the whole grisly scene to glimpse once again the age-old mysteries of God, providence, evil, injustice, death, and immortality hovering like specters in the background.
One thing is sure: For Christian ministers there is no escape, especially for those on whom it falls to bury the dead and comfort the living.
They are like men hemmed in by mountains.
On one side are the survivors—not only relatives, but all who have been left behind. Overtaken by loss, guilt, confusion and anger, many stand paralyzed, waiting for the words by which life may be embraced again.
On another are the events themselves—dark and seemingly impenetrable, yet virtually screaming for spiritual interpretation, lest God be missed, misunderstood, or even maligned through it all.
On yet another side are the hard truths of Scripture—the inescapable realities of sin, death, and eternal judgment—all of which must be carefully woven together with the tender truths of divine goodness, mercy and grace, if the comfort offered is to be comfort indeed.
And on another still is the inscrutability of God Himself. In the midst of his sermon preparations, the eager pastor seems to hear a scriptural voice whispering in his heart, “Go carefully. You know in part, you speak in part. Now you see dimly; only then, face to face.”
And yet He is, after all, “the God of all comfort.” People are asking, “What kind of God would allow something like this?” Surely, to those who ask sincerely, He has something important and consoling to say—if only they are willing to hear.
Here, then, is one pastor’s humble attempt to say it.
What kind of God would allow such a something like this?
- A Sovereign God
God is sovereign. Among other things, this means that He is King of all that happens. Everything that occurs goes over His desk. He is in control of all things.
In the face of calamity, the human impulse to question God—and sometimes even to charge Him—is based on our intuitive awareness of this truth. Moreover, God Himself unabashedly affirms just what we suspect: “I am the Lord, and there is no other–the One forming light and creating darkness, causing peace and creating calamity. I am the Lord who does all these” (Isaiah 45:6-7). He is the One who ” . . . works all things according to the counsel of His own will” (Ephesians 1:11).
But there is mystery here. For He does not control human choices the same way He controls galaxies or electrons. Somehow, as the Bible reveals, there is scope for man’s freedom, yet in such a way that God’s purposes are always realized and His sovereignty always assured.
Both poles of this paradox are seen in the apostle Peter’s sermon to his Jewish kinsmen on Pentecost. Speaking of Christ he said, “This man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). The text goes on to say that his audience was “cut to the heart.” God was in control, but sinful men were responsible, and they trembled because of it.
In the aftermath of this bombing, federal authorities are not looking for God, but for evidence of a terrorist. This is as it should be. At night we may groan, trying to understand why God would allow such a thing. But when day breaks, we must go after the man who committed the crime. We cannot leave human freedom, sin, and responsibility out of the equation.
Undoubtedly, the truth of God’s sovereignty challenges our finite understanding, especially when “bad things happen to good people,” particularly to children. But surely the answer is not to deny His sovereignty, as some do. For that would be to cut away from beneath us the very ground of true comfort in the face of egregious evil. For it is precisely because a wise, just, and benevolent God not only sets absolute limits on evil, but also directs it to wise and benevolent ends, that our anguished minds can at last find peace. Men and devils may mean it for ill, but God means it for good—and it is His meaning that will finally prevail.
Yes, there is mystery here—but enough has been revealed to provide a shelter for faith. Therefore, with the hymnist, the trusting Christian learns to affirm: “This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought . . . that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
- A God at Work to Test, Reward, and Judge His Free Creatures
We have said that God is sovereign, but also that man is free and responsible. Here—in the undeniable reality of man’s freedom—is, I think, an important clue about why God permits evil and its hurtful aftermath. For whatever else may be hidden, it is clear enough that the presence of evil in our midst is the direct consequence of God’s having actually given us the freedom to choose it. Blessed experience—and bitter experience—prove that human freedom is definitely not a fake or lightweight gift. The consequences tell us so.
But three age-old questions immediately spring to mind.
First, why would God, knowing beforehand that we would abuse the gift, give it to us anyway? But if we bear in mind that God both limits evil and directs it to holy ends, then the answer would appear to be that in His sight the risk of our using freedom for evil is somehow outweighed by the possibilities and benefits of our using it for good. For example, my son will no doubt one day be burned by fire. But should I therefore withhold from him the knowledge of fire, or instruction about its safe and proper use? The surpassing benefits of having fire dictate the answer.
But what precisely are the fiery “possibilities and benefits” of the right use of freedom? In the Scriptural scale of values the chief thing appears to be the glory of God. “For of Him, and through Him, and unto Him are all things, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen!” (Romans 11:36). The apostle’s profound affirmation means that God’s ultimate purpose for each of His creatures, and for each event of their existence, is that they should somehow reflect one or more of His attributes, thereby bringing Him glory and honor in the sight of all.
But we should note carefully that some creatures and some events glorify Him more richly than others. Most would agree, for example, that God is definitely glorified by the beauty, precision, and usefulness of sun, moon, and stars–brightly wheeling through space in perfect obedience to His command. But how much more is He glorified by men—especially sinful men—who, against the bent of their fallen nature, and often in the face of pain and costly sacrifice, lovingly give Him their obedience, even when they have the perfect freedom not to? In short, because man is created free, he has a unique capacity to please and glorify God. The countless tiny acts of trust and obedience, freely offered up by struggling saints, shine brighter than a billion suns. Like jewels, they make many rich, and they are very, very precious in the sight of God.
But there is more. For the right use of freedom may also bring diverse “possibilities and benefits” to man as well. For even if, in this life, our freely choosing God and His righteousness is not always rewarded, in the next it surely will be. This is one way Christ motivates His disciples to take up their cross—by unveiling to them the eternal rewards of doing so. “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). Likewise, the apostle admonishes us to view this life in eternal perspective, looking not on the things that are seen, but on things that are unseen, remembering that the hardships of earthly obedience are not even worthy to be compared with the weight of heavenly glory that is yet to be revealed to the saints (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).
These thoughts prepare us to consider the second question—why does God keep on giving the gift of freedom, especially to those who keep on abusing it? To this the response of Scripture is quite clear: we should consider the longsuffering of the Lord to be salvation (2 Peter 3:15). In other words, God, knowing the eternal consequences of sin, mercifully withholds final and irreversible judgment against sinners, graciously giving them both time and opportunity to repent, trust Christ, and be saved (Isaiah 55:6; Romans 2:4; Revelation 2:21). Yes, while the saints cry out “How long, O Lord?” terrorists of every stripe pursue their murderous course, foolishly misreading God’s patience for indifference or even non-existence. But faith knows that they are really treasuring up wrath against themselves (Romans 2:5f); that one day they will be utterly swept away by sudden terrors (Psalm 73:17-20); and that faith, now vindicated, will overflow in praise to the justice of God (Revelation 19:1f).
Thus, summing up what we have seen so far, it appears that the mystery of evil can only be understood within a world-view that acknowledges the existence of a sovereign, holy God, the reality of human freedom, and the sobering fact that God tests, rewards and judges man concerning its right use, with consequences both for this life and the next.
Interestingly, this pattern was laid down quite clearly in the very beginning. For the Scriptures reveal that God placed before Adam a simple test of trust, loyalty and obedience—with life and death, joy or sorrow, hanging in the balance. Moreover, it was a test with profound consequences, not only for himself, but also for his children and the world of nature they were given to inhabit.
The sad results of this test we know all too well—or at least we should. For when calamity strikes we ought not to think first of blaming God, but rather remember that it was the man and not his Creator who opened the door for sin and its whole mournful retinue of violence, struggle, natural disaster, sickness, and death to come into the world. (And here, by the way, is the blasphemy of evolutionism which, when it acknowledges His existence, implicitly ascribes the origin of evil and suffering to a holy Creator rather than to His rebellious creatures).
Furthermore, as we do remember that original test, we will be all the more likely to realize that the same pattern of testing continues among us–and that we sons are all too able to further our father’s disaster by giving in to sins of our own. For in the mercy of God, the world is still on probation instead of in hell. God is still graciously offering life and threatening death. A human choice must still be made. The main difference now is the whereabouts of the Tree of Life. Before, it stood in a lovely garden. Today it stands on bleak Golgotha’s hill, with One crucified upon it—a solemn but loving invitation to all sinners, that they should come, eat, and live forever.
So then, God is at work among us, to test, to reward, and finally to judge. Obviously, terrorists are failing the test big-time. But what about the terrorized? Why does God permit the terrorist’s evil to fall so painfully upon them? This brings us to our third question: Why does God allow “bad things to happen to good people,” and guilty evildoers to have their way with innocent victims?
Doubtless there are many reasons, some of which we will suggest in a moment. But we must begin on a right foundation. For by now, one thing is clear: whether terrorist or terrorized, in an absolute sense there really are no “good people,” no “innocent victims”—only sinners facing eternity, each doing more or less well in the midst of his own test.
With regard to this plane crash, for example, we must frankly acknowledge that for some of the victims death may have come by way of judgment on a life that completely rejected God. Thankfully, that is not given to us to know—though the the very possibility of it serves as a healthy warning to us all.
For others, however—both dead and living—there is hope. For we have already seen that God knows full well what awaits man in eternity, and that He is therefore much at work doing what He must to bring before men’s eyes the eternal peril and the eternal promise of the test of this life.
Perhaps, then, God’s permitting this tragedy is actually a mercy: a severe mercy, a mysterious mercy, but a mercy nonetheless.
- A God of Mercy, Salvation, and Comfort
We have said that the focal point of human testing in our time is the Lord Jesus Christ. Him hath God “set forth” on the stage of history, not only as a propitiation for our sins, but as the One through whom He tests our love of truth and righteousness (Romans 3:25; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). All the gears of Providence revolve around Him. The seemingly random events of our lives are secretly designed to subdue our rebellion, to soften and prepare our hearts, to call and conduct us penitently to the Savior, and thereafter to conform us to His image. Through the lens of Scripture we begin to see how even in calamity the hand of mercy may well be at work for the salvation, sanctification, and eternal blessedness of sinners, all to the glory of God and Christ.
Let us therefore pause and consider a few questions designed to suggest how God, pursuing the eternal good of sinners, might well have woven golden threads of mercy into the dark fabric of this event:
What if, for example, some of the victims of the plane crash were Christians, folks who had already passed the test of life by responding to God’s offer of salvation in Christ and going on to walk in obedience with Him? Where are they now? What burdens were they carrying—or about to carry—from which they have been mercifully released?
What if the children on the plane, whose guardian angels continually behold the face of God, are safe with Him now in heaven? From what more painful and protracted sorrows—whether physical or spiritual—might this one brief sorrow have delivered them? And what kind of secret comfort might God have given them as they—and other passengers—departed this world for the next?
What if some of the other passengers, in the last focused seconds of their earthly existence, remembered the gospel of God? And what if some, like the thief on the cross, employed their last few breaths to speak words of repentance and faith to His Son?
What if Christian family members, facing the loss of a loved one, found grace to resist anger and despair, and instead grew deep in trust, submission, and humble gratitude towards God for His many comforts?
What if non-Christian family members, shocked by the death of their loved one, suddenly awoke to the brevity and uncertainty of their own lives, as well as to serious questioning about the next? What if, in bidding farewell to the dead, they heard and began to ponder the message of eternal life?
What if they somehow came into contact with Christian survivors, and had an opportunity to observe their faith, hope, and courage in the midst of trouble? What if they were provoked to jealously and began to ask questions about the source of such remarkable virtues?
What if their Christian friends, neighbors and co-workers surrounded them with words and deeds of compassion, drawn from the wells of their own experience of walking with God through the valley of tears (2 Corinthians 1:3f)?
What if teenagers, confronting their own mortality early on through the death of a classmate or close friend, took thought of God and began to build their life on Him instead of the vain ambitions and passing pleasures of this world?
And what if many casual onlookers—absorbed with their own pursuits, indifferent to God, wandering carelessly towards judgment—were stunned by the hellishness of this fiery cataclysm and its dark aftermath? What if they began to awaken to the peril of a far greater hell? What if, in fear and trembling, they began to ask, “What must I do to be saved?” (James 4:13f; Acts 16:29-30).
These are only a few of the ways that a merciful God might well turn an evil event to the eternal good of sinners whom He loves, but to whom He also accords the solemn right to choose.
- A God Who Knows and Cares
Christian author James Dobson tells a memorable story of a visit that he and his two-year-old son, Ryan, once paid to the doctor. Ryan had a severe ear infection, and the doctor asked Dobson to hold his son tightly while he painfully probed the ear with instruments in order to remove the foreign matter. Ryan, of course, was at a loss to understand why his father was tormenting him. But nearly as painful was Dobson’s own fear of being misread as a cruel and untrustworthy traitor.
So it is, perhaps, with the case of TWA 800, and with the many similar tragedies that occur daily around the world. Guided by Scripture, we try as best we can to sort out the causes and reasons for such evil and suffering. And yet, on the manward side, there often remains an element of inscrutability and even a sense of betrayal by God. The Dobson story helps us see that in the end–and in the shadows–we must still believe that God really is a good and trustworthy Father with our best interests at heart. For reasons that partly escape us, He is sometimes constrained to remove His protective hand and to allow suffering into our lives. But hear the words of the prophet: “He does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men” (Lamentations 3:33). And listen to the Lord Himself: “What I am doing, you do not now understand. But afterwards you will understand” (John 13:7). We should believe this—and strive, in faith, to pass the test that is laid before us.
But there is more. For if, in order to assure his son of his love, Dobson could have taken his place or laid down beside him and undergone the same painful surgery, he surely would have. Dobson couldn’t, but God could—and did. For in sending His Son to live and suffer among us, He tangibly involved the entire Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in the depths of sinful humanity’s condition. God is no stranger to pain, nor is He indifferent to ours, but is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15).
Do we imagine that God is “above it all”—aloof to our agony and confusion in the face of radical evil? Then we should consider especially the Man of Sorrows, so well acquainted with grief. For when we remember the many evils that unjustly fell on Jesus, and the “. . . prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears” that they brought forth from Him, we will not be so quick to charge God (Hebrews 5:7-8). And if we also remember that through it all God was with Him, and in complete control, working it all to His glory and our good, we may even begin to feel the courage to keep on trusting to the end, just as Jesus did.
For surely, in the case of those who do trust God, Easter is coming quickly—and with it, resurrection joy that no man or calamity can ever take away.
What kind of God allows a tragedy like this plane crash to occur?
A sovereign God who, with inscrutable wisdom, overrules evil and turns it to the eternal good of His people—that we may trust in Him.
A God of truth and righteousness, who tests, rewards and judges His free creatures—that we may seek His truth, obey His commandments, enjoy His blessings, and thereby bring Him glory, both now and forever.
A merciful God who skillfully employs various trials—some quite severe—to awaken sinners to the peril of hell and the hope of heaven, that we might call upon Christ for salvation and, as a Bride for the Groom, use what remains of our life to adorn ourselves with holiness for the wedding day.
A compassionate, empathetic God, who has been there Himself and is in it with us now, that we may hide our troubled souls in the comforting wounds of His own dear Son.
And He is more—much more—even than this.
Yes, we see Him through a glass darkly. But surely, in the light of Scripture and in the light of the gift of His Son, we see enough of Him to trust, to hope, and (it may take courage!) even to rejoice.
One thing, however, does remain to be seen—and that is whether or not we will choose to look.