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Explaining a Columbian Mudslide

During the term when I was teaching my class on the problem of suffering at Rutgers in 1985, one of those unthinkable natural disasters occurred that made headline news and disturbed all caring people around the world.   The night before there had been a volcanic incident in Columbia that caused a mudslide that wiped out several villages, killing thousands of people in their sleep.  The death toll in the end was 23,000, men women and children.

Some people blamed the Columbian government – they shouldn’t have allowed these villages to be near a volcano.  Fair enough I suppose.  You have to blame *someone*.  And who can blame a volcano?   But why do disasters like this have to happen in the first place?  And how do people who believe in the God of the Bible account for such things?   Blaming government officials for a volcanic eruption seems a bit lame.  And it didn’t occur to most of us at the time, as we were reading accounts in the papers.  Instead, our reactions were “Oh my God!  Why do things like this *happen*????”

As you might expect, I raised the issue with the students in my class.  Most of the “explanations” for suffering in the Bible really didn’t seem to work very well.  Could you say that God had allowed such a thing to happen in order to punish people?  That, as I’ve said, is a very common view in much of the Bible – it’s a constant refrain on page after page after page in the Hebrew Bible especially.

But really?  Who…

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Apologies to All Colombians
The Variety of Views of Suffering in the Bible



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    anthonygale  July 10, 2017

    Even if one believes that cosmic forces aligned against God cause suffering, would God not have created these forces in the first place? I see how it “explains” forms of suffering that other explanations do not, but if you don’t subscribe to the price of free will theory, how does this explanation get God off the hook any more than the others? If a dog mauls a child, you might put down the dog but you will definitely prosecute the owner.

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    NancyGKnapp  July 11, 2017

    It seems to me that humans evolved at some point where they could observe the world around them with awe and wonder. The thinkers among them began to develop myths to explain how it all came into existence. The philosophers and prophets among them began to ask the big questions and work on explanations for them. All world cultures did this. One book, “How the People Sang up the Mountains,” (Maria Leach, 1967) illustrates this. Here is an excerpt (pp. 36-37) “How the World Began,” by the Greenland Eskimo. It gives an explanation for death. “Long, long ago, soon after the earth fell out of the sky and became the earth, men rose up. …The days went by and the people lived their lives. New babies were born, and the people became many. The old ones wished to rest, but they did not know how to lie down and take the long rest that each man deserves after a long life. They did not know how to die. There was no sun yet in the world. The people had only the light of their lamps in their houses. [Then an old, old woman wished for light and death.] Suddenly there was light and with it came death. After this the sun and moon and stars were in the sky. …and every time someone died there was a new star shining in the sky.”
    Science, too, seeks answers to the big questions of how the universe came to be and how it works. It is probably a surer way of finding answers than religion. The scientific method causes one to discard theories that are proven to be incorrect. Whereas, religion holds on by faith to theories way past their time. Consider how many hundreds of years it took before the Hebrew prophets let go of the “God is punishing us for disobedience” theory and move on to the “apocalyptic” theory of the coming kingdom. Each generation thought it would happen in their lifetime. Finally, Christians stopped in large part talking of the coming kingdom and turned to the idea of individual souls going to heaven when they died? Progressive Christians have let go of the orthodox doctrines of the Roman Church and are now searching for new ways to understand the meaning of God for our lives.

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      dragonfly  July 15, 2017

      That’s a very touching story. I like that they didn’t view death as something to be avoided, but a fitting reward for a long life. Thank you.

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    Seeker1952  July 11, 2017

    Do you think that one significant reason Christianity is still attractive to many who experience terrible suffering is because God, in the form of Jesus and his passion, is also thought to have suffered terribly and ultimately triumphed over this suffering? Christianity, I would argue, can’t explain or justify the conjunction of terrible suffering and an all-powerful, perfectly good God. It can only say suffering is a mystery. By suffering himself for the sake of humanity, God shows that he still cares about humanity even if he can’t stop terrible suffering or that somehow it’s necessary in order to have the best of all possible worlds. God’s suffering may provide many Christians with (false?) hope and comfort when confronted by the mystery of suffering.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2017

      Yes, I would say that is a fairly recent theological view to appear, but one that is very popular in some Christian circles, “the God who suffers.”

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    Seeker1952  July 11, 2017

    Terrible suffering only has something like a “purpose” because we can make it our purpose to reduce it. I don’t mean that God planned it that way. I simply mean that reducing it can give our lives meaning and purpose. I’d be inclined to say that any sort of good god comes closest to existing in the efforts that human beings make to foster a better world.

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