Nightclub Fires and the Problem of Evil
In the recent aftermath of the horrific Kiss nightclub fire in Brazil that claimed 235 young lives, people continue to ask what they always ask after a disaster: “Where was God?”
On Sunday, January 27, the nightclub erupted into an inferno after the club’s band set off fireworks that ignited flammable material. The club’s poor design and the even'ts overcrowding were the main factors in the high death toll. Video footage of a similar nightclub fire in Rhode Island (be warned, it’s extremely disturbing) puts us as close as we can be to the horror of these events without singeing our eyebrows.
In videos such as these, the terrifying screams of the victims have the potential to overwhelm our rational thought process. They can send us running to God for comfort and security or running away from him in anger and despair.
I know I can’t satisfactorily answer in a simple blog post why God allows these kinds of evils to occur. But I think it might be helpful to review two ways not to answer the question, as well as how to cope when evil challenges belief in God.
Punting to Mystery
After the devastating 2011 Japanese tsunami, MSNBC’s Martin Bashir asked Evangelical pastor Rob Bell, “Which of these is true? Either God is all powerful but he doesn’t care about the people of Japan, or he does care about the people of Japan but he’s not all powerful.”
Bell rambled about God shedding tears and God’s desire to renew the earth, which prompted Bashir to forcefully ask his question again. Bell responded, “I think that this is a paradox at the heart of the divine, and some paradoxes are best left exactly as they are.”
“Punting to mystery” involves the Christian throwing up his hands and simply saying, “God works in mysterious ways” before ending the conversation. Even if suffering is a mystery, or a “paradox” as Bell put it, the pain that people endure and their honest questions about God’s goodness deserve a more rigorous explanation.
The other extreme is to act as if we know exactly why God causes evil and pretend that there really is no mystery. God’s zealous defender might say:
“The Lord gave us free will, and with the opportunity to do good comes the opportunity to do evil. The nightclub fire in Brazil happened because of the owner’s choice to operate a club that lacked emergency exits, had no sprinklers, had no working fire extinguishers, contained flammable stage material, had security that prevented guests from leaving, and had more guests than the fire code allowed. The band freely chose to use cheap pyrotechnics designed for outdoor use instead more expensive ones designed for indoor use. There—not so hard to explain.”
And yet it is hard to explain. God could have caused the fireworks the band used in their performance to malfunction so the fire would never start, but he allowed them to burn. Free will explains some aspects of this tragedy, but we still feel empty inside when this overconfident approach is employed.
This way of answering the problem of evil was lampooned in Voltaire’s novella Candide, which was written in response to another disaster that shook people’s faith. In 1755 the city of Lisbon, Portugal was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of people on All Saints’ Day.
Candide references disasters like this and critiques heartless, overly philosophical answers to the problem of evil via the character Dr. Pangloss. In one scene, Pangloss tries to reassure the title character, Candide, after their friend dies in a storm that the harbor where he died was made by God so that the friend would drown there.
Echoing the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, Pangloss says God must have intended the disaster because this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Pangloss tells Candide, “All this is for the very best end, for if there is a volcano at Lisbon it could be in no other spot; and it is impossible but things should be as they are, for everything is for the best.”
A better approach is one offered by my friend and fellow Strange Notions contributor Jimmy Akin. He once told me, “It is a mystery why God allows us to suffer, but there are truths that can help us endure it.” What might those truths be?
First, the problem of evil for Christians also brings with it the problem of good for atheists. If God exists, we might expect less evil, but if there were no God, we wouldn’t expect so many good things in the world. For example, we wouldn’t expect humans rising above their animal nature and doing noble things like dying for complete strangers. We wouldn’t expect there to be beauty and love that can be seen even in the tears of those who mourn. Evil may make it hard to believe in God, but we can’t forget the evidence that makes it hard to believe in atheism.
Second, we are simply not in a good position to know how God can bring about good from these seemingly senseless acts. When I say this, I am not punting to mystery. I can think of certain reasons that God allows evil (free will, builds our moral character, natural by-product of a universe where free creatures live), but I am not saying I know God’s exact reasons for allowing certain evils.
God is by definition the perfection of being, the summum bonum, the highest good, the infinite, all-knowing sovereign Lord of the entire universe. Because he is so far “above” me, I can no more understand his exact reasons for allowing evil than an infant can understand why her parents allow her to be stabbed with an immunization needle.
Finally, in the wake of the tragic deaths at this nightclub, we should take hope in Christ, who has destroyed death and gives us confidence to trust in God’s mercy for those who perished. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I was once was dead, but I now I live forever and ever. I hold the keys to death” (Rev. 1:18).
Evil may make it hard to believe in God, but without God evil and its gruesome sibling, “a universe without purpose or meaning,” would make life simply unbearable. We may not be able to explain evil, but God provides grace and strength to help endure it. As St. Paul writes:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
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