On May 22, 2011, a devastating tornado left the town of Joplin, Missouri in shambles. There were 162 dead and 1,150 people injured. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was in splinters. The Catholic priest was asked if God could have prevented the tornado. The priest’s response was that, “Of course he could. He is God and he could do anything.” He was then asked why God did not prevent it if he could. The priest said that God is a mystery, and that mere mortals often cannot understand his ways. He spoke about how God would use this tragedy somehow for good. As the priest struggled to explain this conundrum, his logic became more and more twisted and awkward. The priest had inadvertently stumbled into the God paradox.
The God paradox is simply this: If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. If God is all good then he cannot be all powerful. Otherwise, there is no explanation of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no simple exit from the God paradox. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the harder we pull, the tighter the grip becomes. The result becomes some elaborate web built of prevarications. And the more we try to work the story the sillier it becomes. The priest’s whole congregation would need to wrestle with this. No doubt the priest would need to spin more yarns for the faithful in the process, thereby polishing the illusion that God the guarantor of our wellbeing.
The Holy Bible speaks of a God that intervenes in persons and communities. The Bible tells us that even the hairs of our heads are numbered, and that God is our ever present help in times of trouble. We want desperately to believe in a God who loves us and cares about our fate. This is the message that Christians hear most every most from clergy who seek to polish this illusion. This is not just a Catholic issue, but one that is carried out by clergy everywhere. It is just what clergy do, to try and soothe the faithful when bad times happen.
On days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing it is easy to live comfortable inside the illusion of a benevolent universe that will provide for our every need. We feel that we are being coddled by life, and embraced by a loving God. But other, darker days we are jolted back to reality by a tantrum of nature, a tragic accident, a life threatening illness or injury, a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one or other such disrupter of our comfortable existence. At times like those we rediscover how vulnerable we truly are. There are potholes in life that demolish our illusions and shatter our easy comfort.
The Joplin tornado had nothing to do with God. It is not that the good people of Joplin were being punished. There was no malevolence in the tornado, only indifference. To try to moralize about the destruction is pointless and totally wrongheaded. It just happened. Sometimes we think that bad things happen to us because we are doing something bad and we punish ourselves accordingly. We are somehow unworthy of God’s grace. This can drive some into fanaticism as they try to assuage their guilt. Others seek scapegoats to blame for the calamity. “If only we had gotten rid of THOSE people this would have never happened.”
The only graceful exit from the God paradox is to acknowledge that the situation at hand has nothing to do with God.
In truth the tornado is indifferent to our fate. The tornado does not either know or care whether we are just or unjust. It simply runs its course according to the immutable laws of weather systems.
Tornadoes are among the most capricious of disaster agents. A tornado can destroy all buildings on one side of the street while leaving the other side unscathed. The owners of destroyed homes might be thinking, “What did I do to deserve this?” while the people across the street might be thinking, “Thank you, God, for sparing us.” In truth both of these sentiments are but an illusion.