Bushfires have recently raged through parts of NSW, with some of the more severe burning on the fringes of Sydney, destroying more than 200 homes and taking 2 lives. Without good planning and preparedness, and some desperately hard work by firefighters, it could have been much worse.
I live in the middle of suburbia, far from the firefronts this time (though 20 years ago fires destroyed 100 homes in adjacent suburbs), but the ferocity of the fires and the apparent randomness of the destruction lead people to ask questions.
Environmentalism, climate change, property and life
Some residents and commentators blame the environmentalists for opposing more extensive hazard reduction burning during winter, while some greens and others point to the unprecedented weather conditions for this time of year as a sign of climate change and a pointer to the need for greater action to reduce global warming. Perhaps we should not have allowed urban development in some vulnerable locations.
I think all these views may have merit, and I certainly think such extreme weather conditions in mid-Spring are consistent with global warming predictions. But I want to focus on questions of faith and belief just now.
A christian’s prayers are not answered
Joel Hollier lost his family home in the Blue Mountains fires. He is a christian, attending Bible College, and he wrote a reflection on the loss, and asked some uncomfortable questions:
we prayed that life and property would be spared, but they weren’t – did God not have the strength to calm the flames? ….. How can I reconcile my loss with an all powerful, all loving father who seeks the best for his people?
The fires, and Joel’s response, raise questions of philosophy and theology for all of us, and very personal questions for those who have suffered loss. I don’t pretend to have any useful advice to those suffering – all I can do is pray and offer material support – but I think the philosophical/theological questions are worth examining.
Does suffering suggest that God doesn’t exist?
We need to keep these bushfires in perspective. Harrowing though the experience undoubtedly is, we live in an affluent society with good insurance, government, social services and community support. Houses will be rebuilt. Compared to how many people elsewhere live, we have it easy. These events don’t really change our perception of the world as a sometimes dangerous and hurtful place, they just make that reality a little clearer. So if we believe in God in the face of the suffering around the world, these bushfires shouldn’t change that.
But suffering is nevertheless the strongest argument against the existence of God. How can christians keep on believing?
I have always thought that there are reasons to believe and to disbelieve; the question is, which reasons are the stronger? Each person will assess that differently, but I find the bunch of arguments from the universe and human experience to, collectively, have far more weight than the problem of evil and suffering. Recent events haven’t changed that.
So why doesn’t God answer prayers to preserve?
Joel concluded that God is ‘bigger’ and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine, and that he has a plan through all this. Many christians believe God is so powerful (“sovereign”) that everything that happens “comes from his hand”. He causes all things, even destructive bushfires, and doesn’t answer many prayers because he has a ‘higher’ purpose.
But this makes a supposedly, loving God the cause of some very unloving things – like the rape or murder of a child – and our minds recoil at that thought. I cannot see how this ‘strong’ view of God can be maintained.
God, physical laws and human freedom
Perhaps God is sovereign, but he has chosen to not exercise his sovereignty. Many things happen not because he purposes them to happen, but because he allows our choices and the physical laws to determine outcomes.
God set up a universe that allows bushfires, just as it allows beauty and ugliness, love and hatred, good and evil. It is a dangerous and beautiful world. God must have planned it that way and we can only speculate why.
So why pray?
While we cannot predict what God will do, it seems that he has often answered prayers and ‘saved’ people from situations and sickness.
We make choices about how we live within this universe, whether we care for his creation or not, whether we live in risky ways or not. We can choose to seek his advice and direction, or not. We can ask him to preserve us, or not. He may choose to, or not. We can hope he will act, but cannot always be sure that he will.
We cannot even be sure sometimes whether he intervened or events turned out favourably naturally. But it does no harm to assume a favourable outcome is a result of God’s action, and to thank him for it.
God is still often a mystery to us, but resolving the mystery by making God the author of evil doesn’t seem right to me.
So where was God in the bushfires?
Same as he always is – close but easily ignored, giving us space and freedom, but sometimes intervening. It can take a lot of faith to believe in that sort of God at times, but that is where the evidence points (for me at least).
Picture: Rural Fire Service.