This question was raised, sheepishly, by a friend who considers herself a progressive-thinking Catholic. She doesn’t imagine God as a big punishing dude on a throne, exacting vengeance for humanity’s crimes—which are considerable, when you think about it. She’s been thinking about it: counting ways that maybe we “deserve” a global reckoning. We destroy rainforests, fill oceans with floating continents of plastic, poison the soil, make the air unbreathable, contaminate freshwater with hazardous waste. We torture Creation to make a buck, while the gap between rich and poor widens. Honestly: why wouldn’t God “do this”?
It’s not a stupid question. It’s an ancient biblical question: is human suffering a measure of divine wrath? Is God “pleased to crush us with infirmity,” to restore balance to a celestial justice we’ve disregarded?
The biblical character of God does seem to exact justice by means of catastrophe: The expulsion of humanity from Eden. The great flood in Noah’s time. The ten plagues visited on Egypt. Israel’s trials in the desert due to relentless ingratitude. Babylonian exile. Sequential occupations by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome. The death of Jesus “for the sins of the world” can be viewed as ringing evidence that God expects satisfaction for offenses against divine justice. From this perspective, human suffering is the currency in which God is to be paid.
Some routinely see God’s wrath expressed in famine, war, and disease, as when half of Europe’s population died in the Black Death, or the 1918-1920 Spanish flu infected one in three people worldwide. AIDS has claimed 35 million lives and counting, causing some to point to divine judgment. Yet at least once a century, flu season results in a million deaths. The odds of getting cancer across a lifetime are roughly one in two for men, one in three for women.
The biblical story of Job objects to drawing clean lines between human guilt and periods of devastation. Job is just; why would God punish him? The book argues that the why of suffering is a mystery best left to God. The more meaning-laden question may be: when suffering comes, what will we make of it? Jesus refused to blame a blind man or his parents for this misfortune. The crucifixion testifies that God isn’t “doing this”: God is suffering this with us. The cross invites us to take all our pain and to consecrate it to God’s benevolent purposes. God redeems human misery and, indeed, saves the world. That’s a promise.
Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-24; 6:5-13; Exodus 7:14-11:10; Deuteronomy 11:26-32; Jeremiah 15:1-4; Isaiah 53:4-12; Book of Job; John 1:1-14; 9:1-40
Books: Job - Study Set, by Kathleen O’Connor, et.al. (Liturgical Press, 2012); Through the Dark Field: The Incarnation Through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability, by Susie Paulik Babka (Liturgical Press, 2017)