Navigating the faith challenges in a world of tragedy

When we are faced with a tragedy on the scale of what happened in Manchester, there is very little to say. For those who can, simply being with those who are suffering is not only an adequate, but an appropriate response. There is simply no reasonable explanation that can bring comfort. And, more pertinently, no explanation or kind action can bring back those who have been cruelly ripped away from their loved ones.

It’s not that this is the only tragedy that has happened in the past week. Unspeakable cruelty is all too common in some parts of the world. But this one is felt so keenly because it is so close to home.

No doubt in days to come empathy and fellow feeling will give way to the desire for explanation. Some of that desire will translate into questions asked of the authorities. And inevitably some of that desire will be driven by a frustration with religion or even with God.

I offer this post, not as an attempt to explain anything. The events of the last week, however, must cause thoughtful people to ponder how all of this relates to their faith or more importantly how their faith relates to the kind of tragedy that is all too common in our world. After all, the problem of evil is often stated as a major stumbling block to faith. And let’s face it most of the nation is trying to get its mind around the motives and the consequences of unrestrained evil.

So this post is simply a few thoughts on faith in a time of tragedy.

Tragedy often draws the best of humanity to the surface

One of the most notable features of any tragic situation, is how tragedy draws the best from people. The events at Manchester are no exception. At the very moment when you might be tempted to lose faith in humanity – `or people’s capacity for humanity – people respond with a kindness that perhaps they themselves never realised was possible. The worst of situations sometimes bring the very best out of people.

For some, this is simply the triumph of the human spirit. For any believer, and not necessarily any Christian believer, this kind of response points toward a humanity created in God’s image. How difficult it is to write of such deeply felt emotion and altruistic action as merely some sort of chemical response “designed” by evolution to enable us to cope with threat. Such an explanation seems cold and unfeeling in a world where there is so much hardship and sorrow and frequently such tragedy.

The very human response to Manchester and many another tragedy is a reminder that we really are human. We are not just animals or machines. We’re more than a random concoction of chemicals cobbled together by some sort of impersonal process. We are much more than gene machines   .

Resisting the temptation to distance ourselves because of fear

The impact of tragedy, particularly the kinds of terrorist incidents we have experienced in Europe in the last few years, is often one of fear. That is understandable.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 13.1-5) Jesus mentions two tragedies, one a natural disaster, the other mass murder. The reaction of the public at that time was along the lines of “they got what they deserved because they must have been above average sinners”. Jesus’ response was that they should take stock of their own lives, rather than pronounce judgment on those who had perished.

Thankfully, the vast majority of people are not prone to such judgments these days. However, I believe we do try to distance ourselves if we allow such things to pass without reflecting on the state of our own souls. Tragedy reminds us that our lives hang by a thread, a thread that is easily cut. It is no bad thing to reflect on the brevity of life or the fragility of our humanity.

Resisting the temptation to dehumanise the perpetrator

The flip side of the incredible kindness for which we have the capacity, is an outrage that anyone could commit such a crime. Tabloid newspapers seem to have a vocabulary of opprobrium especially reserved for such people. You know the kind of language. Most of it screams “This person cannot really be a human being.”

Unpalatable as it might seem, he was. Just like us. Jeremy Vine posted a very touching piece on his Facebook page lamenting the loss of one of the victims, attempting to convey the scale of that loss by contrasting it with what might have been.

The bomber also had his life ahead of him and chose not only to take his own life but the lives of other’s along with him. He was a human being. He was a human being who made a monstrously evil decision.

Controversy has always surrounded Hannah Arendt’s work Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, the story of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. For Arendt, the striking thing was that this mass murderer came across as a buffoon. Whether her assessment was accurate or not, the point is that someone guilty of monstrosities did not come over as a monster.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for creativity and good. And they have a staggering capacity for evil and destruction.

And for Christians, the challenge is not simply to recognise that a terrorist is a human being, but that he or she is loved by God. Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Church in Britain, in a reflection on the events in Manchester and the murder of Christians in Egypt later in the week, made this comment: “You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.”

Resisting the temptation to deny a religious dimension

There is a religious dimension to what happened in Manchester. We simply cannot deny that.

In our collective desire to explain what happened, we will search for all sorts of causes. British foreign policy. Western influence in the Middle East. Multi-culturalism. Whilst there might be connections with the above, they do not explain the cause.

What happened that Monday evening has its roots in a strain of Islamic theology that predates any recent military activity in the Middle East.

Sometimes the impression is given that it is only the more “hawkish” commentators or politicians who take this line. But that impression is not correct.

And some sections of the press and the political establishment go to great pains to maintain that this is not a religious issue. Oddly, some of those same media outlets were not slow in attributing religion as a major factor in the conflict in Northern Ireland. They had no qualms about referring to the IRA or the UVF, amongst other terrorist organisations without attaching the prefix “so-called” when in fact neither of those groups or their like represented the people of Ireland or Ulster.

Even the BBC’s Quick Guide: Northern Ireland Conflict cites religion as a main factor.

The religious dimension in the current terrorist “troubles” looms large and if not recognised little progress will be made in tackling the problem.

Nick Cohen argues cogently for a recognition of the religious dimension not only to this incident but to the ongoing conflict between the Western nations and Islamic terrorism. Cohen mainatains that to say Islamic State isn’t Islamic is like “saying Opus Dei isn’t Catholic”.

And former Islamist, Shiraz Maher, is in no doubt that theology gives the bombers the impetus to plan and execute their attacks. See reviews of his book Salafi-Jihadism in The New Statesman and The Guardian.

In a more recent article, Maher presents this view once again, relating an interview that he conducted with a member of IS.

“We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue” was the answer to a question about how IS would react if the West met all its demands

We are not doing ourselves or anyone else any favours if we pretend that religion is not at the very heart of this issue. Of course, that might complicate things for us as Christians, but facing the facts is better than pretending that there is not a theological root to this problem.

Recognising the desire for justice and meaning

If nothing else, Manchester reminds us once again, that deep in our hearts there is a sense of what is right and what is wrong. A sense of justice and fairness. And that innate sense of justice and fairness is not something made up. It is the inheritance of every human being. God’s image in us might be broken, but we are still created in His image nonetheless.  C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity speaks of his own experience of this:

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

Our outrage is not a denial that God is there, more a cry for Him to intervene with His justice.

Alongside the desire for justice, there is the desire to make sense of all of this.

The familiar Darwinian line of life being without purpose or meaning, cuts little ice. It offers no hope. It’s just the way it is. But every human instinct rebels against such pessimism. And Christians say that we instinctively know that there is something wrong with the world and that life can’t be meaningless. Those kinds of thoughts

Recognising the role of the demonic

Finally, any truly Christian response to suffering in the world recognises the role of demonic power that lies behind the kind of evil that people inflict on one another. We live in a fallen world. A world that is in the state it is in because of one man’s sin (Romans 5.12). Of course, Adam’s sin did not just result in a breakdown in humanity’s relationship with God. It also resulted in yielding control of the world to Satan.

Jesus described Satan as the prince of this world (John 12.31, 14.30, 16.11). Paul referred to him as the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4.4). Elsewhere he is the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2.2).

There is a battle going on between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. It is a real battle. And the prince of the kingdom of darkness has given himself a mission of stealing, killing and  destroying (John 10.10). But the fight back has begun. In fact, the decisive battle was fought and won when Jesus died at Calvary and rose again on Easter Sunday (Colossians 2.15).

And one day evil will finally be brought to an end and the eternal kingdom of Christ will be established forever (Revelation 11.15-17; 21.1-4).

That is the hope that we have. That is a hope that has endured through much persecution and opposition over the last two thousand years. And it will endure until Christ finally returns to earth in glory.

Conclusion

The above isn’t intended is an explanation for what happened in Manchester or Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. It is offered more as a reflection on how we might respond to some of the questions that will inevitably arise in days to come. Hopefully, some of what I have written above will prove helpful to some.

I want to end however with the words of the Coptic bishop, Angaelos, whose church has suffered much at the hands of IS:

“Our world is certainly suffering from the brokenness of our humanity, but it is our responsibility, personally and collectively, to encourage and inspire ourselves, and all those whom we meet along our path, to a life of virtue and holiness, and the love and forgiveness of all.

This of course, is far from the reaction that many may have expected, but the Christian message is just that, to look at our world as through the eyes of God, Who loves all and Who desires that all be liberated through Him.”

Amen.

The Unbelievable Beliefs of Unbelief

I don’t think I have ever preached a full blown apologetics sermon on Easter Sunday morning. This year was no exception.

However, I do attempt to add an apologetic element to the Easter talk as it is important to remind everyone that what we believe is based on events that actually took place. We don’t believe the resurrection happened because it is in the Bible. We believe it is in the Bible because it happened.

A few things occurred to me as I was reading through the Easter story. So let me try and explain some of the things that you would have to believe to disbelieve the Easter story.

The first thing that struck me as a bit odd if you believed that the Easter accounts in the gospel are history thin, might seem a bit strange at first. It is found in Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel. It is the Roman centurion’s response to the death of Christ:

The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ Luke 23.47

Matthew expands on Luke’s account with some additional detail, indicating that the other soldiers had the same reaction:

Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Matthew 27.54

If the gospel writers had simply been writing to serve some sort of overarching theological or literary purpose, why include something that could easily have been disproved? Both gospels were written within a generation of the first Easter, so it is very possible if not likely that there were people around who had actually been there. If Matthew and Luke did make this up, they took a huge risk, because something so easily disproved would have called into question the authenticity and the value of the rest of their respective gospels.

If you believe that this was made up, you are forced to conclude that both Luke and Matthew were trying to persuade Jewish Christians that there had always been a place for gentiles in the church. To strengthen their case they independently made up a story about a centurion and Roman soldiers at the cross.

If they didn’t make up the story independently, then they colluded in a most calculating way. To make their accounts appear more authentic, they agreed on the overall narrative and changed the details to make it look more authentic.

Is it not more plausible to believe that they spoke to different eyewitnesses – or even to some of the soldiers or the centurion himself! – and recorded their recollections of that moment?

A second thing that occurred to me concerns the idea that the disciples stole the body. (We can safely rule out the mass hallucination theory. It has no weight whatsoever).

If we are to believe that the disciples stole the body – we have to in some way account for the empty tomb – then that calls into question the picture we have in the gospels of the disciples as a frightened group of men locking themselves away in case the authorities come looking for them.

The disciples of the gospels had no motivation to risk their necks trying to steal Jesus’ body from the tomb. So if we are to believe that they stole the body of Jesus, we have to believe that they were not in the kind of disillusioned, fearful state presented in the gospels.

If the gospel record about the disciples isn’t accurate, why did they allow themselves to be presented in such a bad light? And even if they were prepared to make themselves look so bad to further their deception, why did they ever allow Jesus’ body to be buried in the first place? Why risk it falling into the wrong hands? They could have taken the body of Jesus after He was crucified and hid it. The only reason Jesus was buried was because Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus asked for permission to take and bury the body of Jesus (John 19.38-41).

And if you think the whole Easter story is made up, then how on earth have the gospels and their accounts of the events of Easter survived for almost two millennia, especially when what they claim as fact could have so easily been disproved?

It seems to me that the more you reflect on Easter, the beliefs of unbelief become harder and harder to believe. And that’s before you get into serious apologetics. After all, I was only letting my mind wander during sermon preparation. Happy Easter.

Suffering and evil demand a God

Antony Flew (1923-2010) was considered the leading atheist of his generation. His father was a Methodist minister, so most of Flew’s early years were spent in church circles among church people. His early years were also some of the most turbulent years in European history, and the suffering that came about through ideological and military conflict led Flew to give up on God. How could there be a God when there was so much suffering?

That question is asked by many people. It is one of the major objections to the Christian faith and to faith in general. And it’s fair to say that even believers are sometimes bewildered by the prevalence of suffering and evil – especially when evil people seem to get away with it! The author of Psalm 73 had exactly that problem until he began to see things from God’s perspective.

Oddly enough, the existence of evil and suffering is an argument for the existence of God.

That might sound a strange thing to say, but think for a moment what is implied when we become frustrated or even outraged by suffering and evil. We are saying that there is something wrong with the world. That it’s not the way it should be. That indicates that there is a way it should be. “It’s not fair” indicates that we have in mind a standard of fairness.

This is something that just about every person in the world holds in their heart: a sense of what is fair and what is not fair, what is right and what is wrong.

Where does that intuitive knowledge of a standard of fairness come from?

Well, if there is no God, then we can have no real complaint about the way the world is. It just is that way. Nature is violent, human nature is selfish. Everything is based on the survival of the fittest. There is no order or meaning in the world. We are here by chance so looking for some sort of meaning to life is pointless. That’s what some famous thinkers have taught. Albert Camus and John-Paul Sartre are among them. Richard Dawkins’ outlook takes you in exactly the same direction.

But that kind of thinking doesn’t satisfy most people. Because most people believe there are real standards of morality and justice. Believers answer that our quest for fairness and our dissatisfaction with what goes on in our world reflects an intuitive if diminished knowledge of God’s law. Martin Luther King, when he was in Birmingham jail, said that if there was no divine law, then we had no basis for challenging any unjust law.

How does that help us with the issue of evil and suffering? Well, the Bible teaches that all of the problems of the world can be traced back to the wrong choice of the first couple. The root of the problem of evil and suffering lies in a choice that was made to yield to the voice of Satan, who promised Adam and Eve that they would become more powerful if they ate the forbidden fruit. When you think of it, the first temptation was all about power; much of the suffering and evil in the world today is tied up with the pursuit of power.

Those first chapters of the Bible also reveal that what happened is part of an ongoing battle between light and darkness. In Genesis 3.15 we find the promise of Messiah who would crush the serpent’s head. God is a warrior actively hunting down evil, not a policeman defending His own patch.

When we turn over to the New Testament, we find that God goes even further to rescue His world. He comes into the world in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 4.15 says that Jesus understands us completely and is able to sympathise with us, because he was tempted in every way, just like us.

The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is another chapter in the long war against Satan. And it is a decisive chapter. Satan’s doom is sealed. Broken lives are being restored and healed by His grace.

Of course, the Bible teaches that there are still better things to come. One day Christ will return and bring about a whole new order where righteousness is the standard. No more pain, suffering, sickness or death.

Until that day comes, God offers every person the opportunity of a relationship with Him and of securing their place in His eternal kingdom.

That might seem a long way from where we started out! However, what I have just sketched out briefly outlines the Christian hope and the Christian response to evil and suffering.

People sometimes think that evil and suffering deny that there could be a God. I believe evil and suffering demand a God.

I don’t know if Antony Flew ever managed to find answers to his questions about suffering. He did eventually change his opinions about God. Late in life he came to the conclusion that the laws of nature, our sense of purpose as humans and the very existence of the universe indicated that there was a God. One thing is certain, however, if there is no God, there is no way to understand evil and suffering let alone fight it.