"A Theological Response to Natural Suffering: A Case Study of the 1999 Earthquake in Taiwan"
By Pan Ju-ta
In his book, The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger asserts that
``Religion has played a strategic part in the human enterprise of world
building,`` and `` implies the farthest reach of his ( man`s) infusion of
reality with his own meaning.`` (Berger, 1967, 27) Thus, theology, another
term for religion, is the foundation of human sense of the meaning of life
and closely related to our daily life.
The 921 earthquake occured on September 21, 1999 that caused the
most serious damage in Taiwan since 1935. Besides the 921 earthquake,
there have been many other earthquakes and typhoons in Taiwan that have
caused a great deal of loss of lives and properties. How do these people sense
the meaning of the suffering in their lives? How does theology give them
the appropriate answers to
help them to deal with their suffering? These issues are the ministry of
The purpose of this project is to examine natural suffering through
the understanding of the earthquake and the various perspectives of the
suffering and its relationship with the Ultimate Reality, God. The goal is
to identify an appropriate explanation of natural suffering and to help
those suffering to heal, undergo personal transformation, and start new
At 1:47 on the morning of September 21,1999, Dr. Tsai, the
president of Puli Christian hospital, drove on the road back to Puli.
Twenty seconds after he passed a tunnel, he felt the vibration of the
highway. When he turned his head, he found the tunnel he had just passed
had collapse, and the crack of the road before almost made him loose
control of his car. It was a strong earthquake that slammed the central
area of Taiwan. The earthquake was measured 7.3 on the Richter scale.
During the earthquake, the people of the entire island felt the
shaking of earth beneath them and the building for a few minutes. In
Nanto, the area of the epicenter, almost all of the buildings collapsed.
In Taichung, a close metropolis, many buildings collapsed or bent. For the
rest of the night, all the people in Taiwan were in the terror from
numerous aftershocks. According to one citizen`s description, although the
building she lived in was not damaged, her family slept in their car all
night for fear that their home would collapse in the next aftershock.
The earthquake brought great damage. (Some internet shows the
pictures of the damage in this earthquake: http://www.hello.com/~farms;
The collapse of numerous buildings caused thousands of people to be buried
under the rubble. Hundreds of thousand people had no place to sleep and
could not buy food or drinking water. They could not get money from banks
because of damage to electrical systems. But government and social
institutions quickly mobilized relief efforts. Rescue teams searched for
survivors amidst the rubble. Foods, tents, and drinking water were sent to
the victim areas. But people still needed to face the sorrow of losing
beloved ones and friends, the loss of their homes, the inconvenience of
living in tents fpr a long period of time, the horror of the next
aftershock, and the sense of powerless.
According to official statistics, this was Taiwan`s biggest
earthquake since 1935, causing the death of more than 2,300 people, injury
to more than 8,500 people, temporary homelessness of 100,000 people, and
the wreck of more than 6,000 buildings. There were also the problems of
mental hurt to the people in the victim areas.
Horror of the earthquake: After the earthquake, many people
continuously live in the horror of the possibility of another earthquake
coming. A woman in Taichung said that after the earthquake, when night
arrived, she and her husband would be in a situation that they never
contemplated. They could not even read, they could not even watch
television. For a period of time, all they could do was watch the light
and wonder whether there would be another earthquake. According to amedia
description, many people in the victim areas found it difficult to fall
asleep and had nightmare when they did. And when they were awake, they
were anxious and refused to sleep in their own home. (www.yam.com.tw)
Sorrow of losing the beloved person: Many people lost their
relatives and friends in this earthquake. The sudden lost of beloved ones
caused many people to expereince deeply sorrow and despair. Besides, some
people felt guilty about why they could not rescue their beloved ones or
their beloved died because they may have done something wrong, so they
Frustration of inability to reconstruction: Many people lost their
houses, property, and businesses. They needed to sleep in tents and live
inconveniently, without hygienic measures for a long period of time
because of the lack of electricity and water, and thus did not know when
would be able to rebuild their homes. This situation made the people in
the victim areas became depressed, angry and blameful of others.
Theological response in the victim area: The suffering of the 921
earthquake also had a strong impact on the belief and value systems of the
people in victim area. In Taiwan, the majority of people are Pureland
Buddhists. One of their responses was they must have done something wrong
and that suffering was the result of their bad deeds. This leads to the
denial of themselves. At the same time, they had the contradictory
attitude to Buddha. On the one hand, the suffering forced them to ask for
the help of Buddha, but on the other hand, they doubted why they had not
been protected by Buddha in their suffering.
There were also some Christians in the victim areas. The sense of
guilty, though was rare. But the concept that suffering came from the
punishment of God was held by some Christians who lived outside the victim
areas. At the same time, the desire to seek
the help of God and the suspicion where is God, co-existed among
Christians of victim areas. The earthquake precipitated a crisis of their
self-image and their attitude tabout religions, but the crisis might be a
turning point for the belief systems of people in the victim area.
The damage from the great earthquake was not a single event.
Actually numerous natural sufferings caused great harm to the people and
the environment throughout the world. There were 15 earthquakes over a 5
magnitude that caused serious damage. They were reported over the past one
and half years, including a recent earthquake in Indonesia. (www.cnn.com)
These earthquakes affected more than ten thousand people`s lives. In
Taiwan, an island that is smaller than Massachusetts in area, there was at
least one significant earthquake in the past 10 years. (www.cnn.com/asianow/east-
/9909/21/taiwansig.quakes/index.html.) A question thus arises as to
why so many natural sufferings happen.
Geology can offer an answer. The Eurasian plate overlapp the
Philippine Sea plate to the north of Taiwan and sank under to the south,
which caused the 921 earthquake. Ecologists reported that over-development
of mountains in central Taiwan caused the collapse of the mountains during
the earthquake. Engineers pointed out that the inadequate work of
constructive companies caused certain buildings to collapse, and many
people were buried under the rubble.
But these direct causes of earthquake and damage cannot solve the
fundamental questions about natural suffering. Theological questions exist
within the human spirit, especially when the natural suffering happen:
What causes such natural suffering why do
so many people die? Is there a God who created this world or is
there no God? If this world was created by God, why did he create a world
with so much natural suffering? People ask, why do I suffer? Did I do
something wrong or do I have bad luck? These fundamental and theological
questions might be the clues to help people unto such suffering to stop
grieve and then to move in.
The basic mission of theological response is to discover what is
the role of God in the natural suffering, and through such discovery, seek
to help people who are suffering. In his book, A Loving God and a
Suffering World, Jon Tal Murphree offers that there are two kinds of
problems concerning suffering. The first problem is ``something acceptable
to the intellect needs to be said to help us understand some of the
reasons for pain.`` The second is ``something emotionally satisfying needs
to be said to help us bear the pain.`` (Murphree, 1981, 9) These two
questions are close by related. From the theological perspective, the
question of the cause of natural suffering should be addressed first so
that it can be used as a foundation for the pastoring question. There are
numerous religions and philosophies that offer the answers to the causes
of natural suffering. Most of these answers are related to the concept of
Buddhism: Buddhism claims that the existence of suffering is
universal. An Individual is in a situation of suffering from birth to
death. Buddhism offers some answers about the causes of natural suffering.
At first, the general concept of the cause of suffering is human desire.
Human beings live in a impermanent world, but have the desire to
permanently grasp what we have is the source of suffering.
Thus, if a person wants to eliminate suffering, he/she must ceases
his/her suffering. Secondly, the principle of co-dependence offers an
explanation of the objective fact of suffering. Buddhism holds kind of
casual-events theory of the phenomenon of world. Thus, every events of
suffering comes from a cause. The natural suffering also comes from a
co-dependent principle of nature. Thirdly, the concept of karma-samsara
with a co-dependent principle offer an explanation that human suffering
comes from individual karma. The bad deeds of a past life causes the
present suffering. Fourthly, for innocent people who suffer in natural
suffering, the explanation of human karma is extended to the former life.
If a person did not count any bad deeds, the cause of
karma must come from his/her former life. In the Buddhist
explanation of natural suffering, there is no place for God. All the
natural suffering is a combination of cause-effect law in nature and the
personal deeds of present or former life.
In primitive Buddhism the ways to eliminate the pain of suffering.
First includes accepting the reason for suffering is what the victim
should be treated because of his deeds of former lives, or secondly,
accepting that the suffering is a fact because according to the co-dependent
principle it must be happen because it is destined to happen. Since the
sufferings are destined to happen, why don`t we accept the facts of
suffering so as to eliminate the feeling of pain. The problem is that most
people who are in suffering do not have such wisdom to deal with suffering
by themselves. The other possible solution is to offer a hope for the
victim through the concept of Samsara. Since the life of death is not
over, start a new life in his next life, the sorrow of loosing beloved
might be reduced. The Pureland sect in Mahayana Buddhism offers the third
solution, i.e., their belief in the help and comfort of Boddhishava and
Buddha is a sort of God-image
and outward help.
Dualism: The second answer to the cause of natural suffering
involves dualism, which involves the notion that the universe is the
domain of a struggle between the two mighty forces of good and evil. Its
chief example in religion is found in Zoroastrianism in ancient Iran.
Zoroastrian claims that the creation and all good come from Ahura Maxda,
the wise Lord, but at the same time, there is noncreated spiritual force
working against Ahura. This is the source of all evil, including moral and
natural. The world, although itself a good creation, has become the
battleground of good and evil, and the good will finally overcome and
destroy the evil. Dualism offers an explanation that the anomic
phenomenon, including natural suffering, are from the evil source.
Dualistic elements are also found in the Shaivic belief in
Hinduism. Shiva, one of three important deities in Hinduism, is both
creator and destroyer. He shows his benevolence at one time, but reveals
his terrifying characteristic at other times. In Shaivic belief, natural
suffering can be ascribed to the destructive acts of Shiva. Unlike
Zoroastrianism, which distinguishs the power of evil and good from two
different ultimate sources, Shaivic belief puts both good and evil on the
The most important dualism in Western religion is Gnosticism. Here,
dualism is understood as one between spirit and matter. The material world
was created by negative forces that were identified by Christian
Gnosticism with the divinity of the Old Testament. Since the good divinity
did not create the material world, the natural suffering cannot be
accounted as the imperfection of good divinity. Gnosticism claims that the
meaning of redemption is to return spirit, human true home.
Natural law and the misuse of free
will: In his book, A Loving God
and a Suffering World, Murphree holds the concept that there is no purpose
in natural suffering. It is the result of casual law. (Murphree, 1981,
43~46) He claims that God created this world and established natural law.
All the natural events causes suffering such as earthquakes and floods.
Natural laws are morally neutral, without good or bad. Although they
sometimes bring damages, they also bring good for nature itself and human
beings. For instance,
although floods are thought as bad, the Nile river floods in ancient Egypt
were thought of as good for soil fertility. Besides, usually it is not
natural events that are most responsibile for causing sufferings, but the
free will of human beings
that causes most sufferings. A distinction of natural evnets and natural
suffering should be made here. The natural events caused by natural law
does not necessarily cause damage. Usually, the misuse of human free will
causes or increases suffering. To some degree, this distinction maintains
both the goodness and greatness of God.
But Murphree claims the imminenet presence of God by the people who
are in suffering. On the one hand, he denotes that God shows his
compassion the suffering of people through the death of Christ. On the
other hand, he also denotes that God stands in the side of the victims and
helps them to walk through the sufferins. Thus, although in this
perspective, the greatness of God is not completely satisfied, the
goodness of God is strong emphasized.
The punishment of
God: The fourth opinion is that the natural
suffering results from the punishment of God for human sin. In his book,
Evil Suffering and Religion, Brian Hebblethwaite observes that this
concept is popular in primal religions. (Hebblethwaite, 1976, 19~20) In
his book, African Religions and Philosophy, John S. Mbiti notes that in
the concept of African religion ``the misfortune and calamity has come
from God but as a punishment caused by their (human) misdoing.`` (Mbiti,
1999, 203) Besides, the Hebrew Bible (the book of Deuteron) and the New
Testament Bible reveals that traditional Jewish belief holds that human
suffering comes from the sin of individual or his ancestors.( Lk. 13; Jn.
9:1~12) The solution of ceasing God`s wrath is to seek reconciliation with
God through repentance, to make sacrifice or through atonement.
This concept might be reasonable for explaining the suffering that
is obviously caused by the bad deeds of people, but it is difficult to
explain the suffering caused by nature.
The result of universal fall of human
beings: The concept that
suffering comes from personal sinful deeds is corrected by some Christian
theologians to the claims that Suffering is the result of the fall of
universal human beings. It is not the direct evil deeds of specific person
that causes the punishment from God, but the fall of human cause the
universe, whether nature of human society in a sinful and chaos state of
the world. Karl Barth is one of the theologians who holds this concept. In
his book, Evil and Theodicy in the Theology of Karl Barth, R. Scott Robbin
summarizes Barth`s concept of the suffering as follows. ``1. We have
rejected the Schattenseite of creation
and therefore all suffering is a result of the fallen state of creation,
2. all suffering must be therefor attributed either directly or indirectly
to sin, and 3, God is either active (positive will) or passive (by
permission) in all suffering in the world.`` ( Rodin, 1997, 277) Whether
the story of the fall in the Bible is a fact or not, this world is in a
state of alienation from God, and thus, causes the existence of moral evil
and natural evil of this world. This concept still cannot completely offer
process: Hebblethwaite posits that creation is an
on-going process leading to future hope. ( Hebblethwaite, 1976,53~54) He
asserts that there is a direct process of creation called higher level
creation. God gives the universe a basic structure and basic law. He also
addresses the matter in his direct creation the power of reproduction.
There is also an indirect process of creation called lower level creation.
In the lower creation matter with God`s given power reproduce other
creature according to the structure and law God provided. Therefore,
creation is ongoing process toward a perfect future. However, the indirect
process necessarily involves the possibility of accidental malfunctioning.
The existence of natural suffering is not a direct act of God, but rather,
is a by-product of process creation. Suffering does not come directly from
the creation of God, but is an accidental and unpredictable event in the
process of creation
maintains the good of God and does not impair his omnipotence. However it
needs to have presupposition of an expectation of the progress and perfect
future of this world. Is it possible to show convincing evidences that the
universe is moving toward a better future?
Submission to the totally
other: In his book, The Sacred Canopy,
Peter Berger mentions a concept of ``submission to the totally other ``in
the monotheist religions. In this concept, God is ``radically
transcendenlized, that is, posited as the totally others who can neither
questioned nor challenged, who is sovereign above any human ethical and
generally nomic standards.`` (Berger, 1990, 74) This perspective is found
in the Book of Job. At the end of this book, after the manifestation of
God in the whirlwind, Job confesses his own nothingness before the
sovereign power. This concept forms the basic attitude of Islam and
extreme Calvinism. According to this concept, there is no need to explain
why there is natural suffering, and why God lets people suffer in
earthquakes, for example, this is submitted to God`s supreme will.
This perspective is easy to skip the ontological problem of the
cause of suffering objectively. However, this concept maintains the power
and sovereignty of God, but gives up His goodness. Besides, this concept
cannot help people who are suffering if they do not have the same
experience of the manifestation of God as Job. Furthermore, if God is a
totally other, what is the hope for people who are suffering? Berger notes
that this concept ``would be hard to sustain for most people.`` (Berger,
Hume`s question of
evil: David Hume advances the typical problem
about the existence of evil and its relationship to God. Millard Erickson
responds to the problem of Hume: ``If God is great, then he is able to
prevent evil from occurring. If God is good, he will not wish for evil to
occur. But there is rather evident evil about us. So there exists three
conflicts: the goodness of God, the greatness of God, and the existence of
God.`` (Erickson, 1985, 412) The problem Hume notes is clearly a
theological problem in the theological response of the existence of
Different types of
solutions: The various perspectives listed above
can be analyzed based on four types of perspective for solving this
problem. The first type is, there is no God, the typical perspective of
primitive Buddhism. Primitive Buddhism gave up the concept of Brahman in
early Hinduism and claims that human beings need to solve the problem of
suffering through eliminating ourselves from the suffering and attaining
enlightenment. But a subsequent development in Mahayana Buddhism cannot
avoid shaping the image of Boddhishava and Amibudha to represent a kind of
image of God.
The second type is the perspective that maintains the greatness of
God, but eliminates the goodness of God. The typical perspective is
``submission to the total other.`` This perspective strongly defends the
absolute will and power of God, but renders the goodness of God to a
The third type attempts to defend the goodness of God, but
eliminate the total power of God. Dualism is the typical perspective. This
perspective holds that there are resources of evil that is beyond God`s
control. Therefore, God might have compassion to eliminate suffering from
people, but he cannot deal with it. Thus, God `s power is limited.
The fourth type attempts to defend both goodness and greatness of
God in nature, but claims the imperfection of God`s creation. There are
different explanation for the reason of imperfection of God`s creation,
including the creation in process, later the corruption of the universe,
and the human misuse natural law. Although these perspectives make a more
convincing defense of both God`s greatness and goodness, they cannot
establish the claim of God`s total power because of the fact of
imperfection of creation and the corruption of human beings.
The analysis of various types of theological response demonstrates
that the attempt to solve the contradiction of the fact of both greatness
and goodness of God and the
existence of evil seems impossible. However, the fourth type in the
theological response through the rationally ontologicalconcept offers a
more convincing argument Among these three perspectives, the perspective
of natural law and the misuse of human free are convincing and more
helpful to defend the greatness and goodness of God.
The approach of offering future
hope: In helping people who are
suffering, except offer an explanation of the cause of the natural
suffering, the explanation should also offer a convincing expectation to
those in suffering. (Hebblethwaite, 1976, 105~106)
Among three perspective on the fourth type, the perspective of
creation in process builds its future hope on evolution any progress of
the universe and the expectation of a perfection state for God`s creation.
In Barth`s perspective of general corruption of human beings, he
offered a hope of the reconciliation of human beings through the atonement
of Christ. (Robin, 1997, 250~253) Since the suffering of nature comes from
the fall of human beings and alienation from God, the only hope of the
recovery of the nature is in the reconciliation of God and human beings.
Except seeking a future expectation that this universe will growing
better, people in the suffering need to experience a imminent help.
Although there is no direct connection with the perspective of natural law
and the misuse of human free will, Murphree offers some concepts for
helping people cope with the suffering. (Murphree, 1981, 122~123) One of
them is the fact that Christ shared the suffering of people. God assumed a
physical body in Christ and experienced the suffering of death on the
cross for every person. The suffering of Christ reveals God`s caring for
suffering of people. Except the imminent presence and compassion of God,
Murphree also mentions an expectation of eternal happiness. The suffering
of Christ brings the salvation of eternal restoration of nature and human
According to the analysis
above, the perspective of ``natural law and human free will`` stands a
proper explanation of theological response of natural suffering. First,
this perspective offers a consistent and reasonable explanation for the
cause of natural suffering. Second, in helping people who are in
suffering, there is necessary to claim the existence of a personal God and
his greatness and goodness. Although there is no perspective that can
completely defend both God`s greatness and goodness, the perspective of
natural law and human free will is the opitimal way to defend both
characteristics of God among the perspectives noted above. Third, this
perspective claims a message of God`s presence and compassion to the
people who are suffering. Fourth, as some other perspectives, this
perspective also offers a hope to people who are suffering.
It has been almost one year since the 921 Taiwan earthquake.
Numerous works of reconstruction keep on going. A great deal of money has
been spent to rebuild schools and resident houses. But human mental and
spiritual reconstruction are more important but more difficult than
physical reconstruction. Theology can make a significant contribution to
helping victimes of earthquake walk through the shadow the suffering.
First, excludes the sense of human sense of guilty through offering
a reasonable explanation of the cause of this suffering. Both religions,
Buddhism and Christianity, have a tendency to blame the earthquake on bad
deeds of people. This claim does not offer healing of the heart of people,
but rather, deepens their mental hurt. Excluding the sense of guilty
through making an appropriate explanation of the cause of earthquake is
the appropriate way to heal the mental hurt of people. Second, sends a
message the compassion of God or Buddha to the people in suffering. When
people ask where is God in the suffering, the appropriate response is that
God is on their side and cares for them. This response can help people to
sense that he/she is not alone and has not given up by God the Ultimate
Reality. Third, encourage religious and other social institutions to give
practical help and concern to the victims. Practical help from others is
the way of realization the compassion of Ultimate Reality. Fourthly,
denotes a future hope for the victims. People who are suffering need to
believe that they have both physical and spiritual hope. On the one hand,
they need effective help to rebuild their lives. On the other hand, they
need eternal hope to become the motivating power to help them heal. The
latest 6.3 magnitude earthquake that happened on June, 11, reveals that
there are a lot of natural suffering continuously happen and result in
great harm. I pray that my
people get the comfort and revive in every suffering.
Berger. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. New
York: Anchor Books.
Millard J. 1985. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker
Brian. 1976. Evil, Suffering and Religion. New York: Hawthorn
Mbiti, John B.
1969. African Religions and Philosophy. Johannesberg, South Africa:
Murphree, Jon Ral.
1981. A Loving God & a Suffering World. Downers Grove, IL:
Robin, R. Scott. 1997. Evil and Theodicy in the Theology of Karl Barth. New York: Peter Lang.
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