At the age of just 18, and fresh into university, the writer and broadcaster Mark Dowd was put on the spot by one of his fellow students: “If you believe in a loving God, how come your God lets babies die of leukaemia?”
It’s a question which Mark, who was brought up a Catholic, has wrestled with ever since. In 2004, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, it led him on an epic journey through Asia and to the Vatican in search of answers.
Have you ever wondered how a loving and all-powerful God can allow his creatures to suffer? Then this podcast is for you. Released to mark the beginning of Lent, it offers no easy answers – but Mark provides some fresh perspectives which are both insightful and thought-provoking.
“If you believe in a loving God, how come your God lets babies die of leukemia then?”Erm…tricky one that. I was first faced with this at a student party aged eighteen. I was a wet behind the ears cradle Catholic, who’d arrived at University with the firm conviction that most people were believers. Nothing in my religious education had remotely prepared me for being put on the spot like that.My name is Mark Dowd and in this special Lenten podcast for THINGS UNSEEN, I want to offer a tentative way forward to troubled believers and curious agnostics on this most pressing of questions. Why has God fashioned a world with viruses like Covid-19, a world bedeviled with earthquakes, cyclones and horrible cancers?Many years later, long after I had left UNI, this question came back to haunt me. Except this time, there was no running away from it. It was Boxing Day 2004 and I was enjoying the most idyllic of Christmases with my parents in a picturesque village in the Peak District. After a sumptuous dinner, my Dad switched on the late evening BBC TV News bulletin. We saw image after image of corpses being pulled from buildings in Thailand. The Indian Ocean tsunami had struck. Buddhist monks turned their temples into temporary morgues that took in dead bodies on an industrial scale. Orphaned children wailed in the muddy rubble of what was once their homes. When we switched off the TV, there was a minute of silence. Then my Dad uttered the words that would change my life forever: “God could have stopped that.”That night I barely slept. Next morning I called the head of religious programmes at Channel Four TV and recounted the events of the previous evening. Within hours, I had been commissioned to make a two hour TV special: “Tsunami: Where was God?”This was my big chance to try and answer the question that has dogged mankind since the Old Testament Book of Job was written: why does God allow the innocent and virtuous to suffer? Job, if you remember, was a good and God-fearing man. But God allowed Satan to put Job’s faith to the test, and Job lost his cattle, his servants, his children and finally his wife. He developed horrible sores all over his body, but he still refused to reject God. Eventually God appeared to him and made him realize that us mere humans can never fully grasp God’s power and plans. At which point Job’s health and wealth are restored, he remarries and has a new family. But he never understands why he’s had to suffer so much – and it may seem that since his day, we haven’t made much progress with that crucial question. On my epic journey to talk to people in Indonesia, India and Thailand, I was not going to put up with any of the traditional excuses. “Suffering is divine punishment for sin?” Really? Then how come the wicked prosper and poor old people like Job get it in the neck? Another explanation. “God uses pain and adversity to test us and enhance our character?” Well we all know even Jesus was tested by the Devil when he spent forty days in the desert, a time Christians remember during Lent. Jesus stood firm – but among us normal mortals, for every one person who emerges bigger and bolder after a trying time, many are broken and some are driven towards taking their own lives. Is this really what God wants? And then there’s my all time favourite: the idea that the imperfections of the natural world are all down to the Fall. That Adam and Eve rebelled against God and somehow corrupted the laws of nature. Once upon a time we all lived in a perfect world devoid of death and disease and then our ancestral parents messed it up for us. That is certainly what a LITERAL reading of the Biblical Book of Genesis suggests. Except there is one tricky flaw here. Death and destruction predate the emergence of complex human life by millions of years. Indeed, were it not for the waste and elimination at the heart of the evolutionary process, neither you nor I would be here today recording and listening to this Lenten podcast.So whatever the Book of Genesis is trying to tell us about humanity’s relationship with God, as an account for the thistles and barbed wire in the natural world, for me, it simply doesn’t cut the mustard.I was away for seven weeks on that Tsunami journey. Some towns and villages looked like a Hiroshima style bomb had flattened them. I met extraordinary people who claimed to have had their reliance on God actually strengthened, such as the amazing Fadil in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, who lost NINETEEN members of his family as the killer wave swept them all away…on his brother’s wedding day. I also met people who raged at God, such as a young woman off the coast of Tamil Nadu in India, who had spent all her life making offerings in Hindu temples, only to lose her husband and two of her children. And talking to Buddhist monks in Thailand, I came perilously close to a convenient solution: ditch God altogether. I mean, the Buddha had said that you cannot prove nor disprove God’s existence, so why waste all this time worrying about all this: wouldn’t it just be better to act like a good humanist and get on with combating all the suffering? Except…except….I saw my faith as a gift, a connection with my parents, my past…it was an essential part of my DNA, my identity. I couldn’t just click a “delete” button. I had to carry on in my quest to understand God’s broken yet beautiful world.We returned from our journey and then, out of the blue…..was it coincidence or an answer to prayer..?...news of an extraordinary conference in Rome that set my heart racing. At the Vatican’s Observatory – yes the Catholic Church actually has an OBSERVATORY at the Pope’s summer palace – a group of theologians and scientists were planning a week long symposium on “scientific perspectives on evil.” We pitched up with a small film crew a few weeks later. We then gently muscled our way pass the Swiss Guards to install ourselves in this spectacular setting just twenty five miles south east of the Italian capital high above the majestic Lake Albano.On our first full day of filming, we attended a session on tectonic plates and “crustal recycling.” Yes, crustal. “If we have a movable crust,” said a professor from a Californian seminary, “we’re going to have earthquakes and if we have earthquakes underwater, we’re going to have tsunamis. But if we didn’t have a crust that moved, basically the whole surface would be smooth and given the amount of water on it, it would be marshland all over. So you could have basic forms of life, but certainly not complex creatures like us.” Just when you thought that tectonic plates were agents of the devil, we were being told that their movement regenerated the surface of the earth, ploughing up minerals and ores necessary for agriculture. And in further discussions other examples of nature’s positive/negative ambiguity abounded. The mosquito, yes, was a transmitter of malaria and other horrid diseases, but they are also arch pollinators and a decisive presence in nature’s food chain. Hurricanes and cycloneswere unquestionably destructive to humans, but their heat and energy transferring properties were essential for maintaining a global equilibrium. “It’s all in scripture,” said Fr Coyne, the Jesuit priest who was director of the observatory. “Unless a grain of seed die and fall into the ground, I tell you, you cannot have new life.”A broad consensus emerged among the group over the ensuing days. Death and decay are inevitable aspects of a material world, and it does not limit the power of God to say that a pain free world therefore makes no sense. An all powerful God cannot be asked to perform the logically impossible. Natural processes have a freedom of their own that gives the world its creativity….so yes, even the spread of cancerous cells occurs by the same mechanism that genes and DNA are randomly passed on in the process of evolution. You cannot shine the light of a lamp without casting a shadow. Put it another way, if we do believe in a God rooted in self-giving love and if other options that involved next to no pain and destruction had been possible, then we would have had a case for putting God in the dock. This was all new to me and was certainly more acceptable than blaming Adam and Eve or asserting that people brought misfortune on themselves by their sins.But wait, I thought. If you cannot eliminate the rough edges in creation, its occasional downsides, like tsunamis and the like, then why create at all? Wouldn’t it be better if God had not pushed the button? This is a question I raised with a very erudite scholar, Phillip Clayton, a philosopher of science. He had been racking his brains for years on all this and his answer was most revealing.“I would love to imagine a divine being who stood before that button and wept”, he said, “and somehow at the last minute felt it was better to have us than to have only the divine in eternal emptiness.” And he went on: “That God pushed that button and made creation, hints at a mystery that we don’t understand. It hints at a resolution that we only hope for: God will only be God if the outcome is something so far better than what we see around us. But I can only say that as a wish and a hope and not as an item of knowledge.”Since making that film all those years ago, I have not stopped pondering this question. It’s critical because I think of all the obstacles to faith, this is the big one, the one that really gets in the way. And one thing I have grown to appreciate is this: if this all really revolves around the nature of matter, the ambiguity of its life-enhancing and destructive forces, then as a Christian, I am so grateful to confess my faith in an incarnate God: a God that meets us head on in human form. Jesus is the grain of seed that lives, enriches and teaches us by his abandonment to God’s will and then dies. He doesn’t just die, he undergoes a brutal and excruciating death and at the climax of the Lenten season, when all seems lost and forlorn and life is devoid of any ultimate meaning, I believe in a God who makes all things new by raising his Son and transforming humanity in the Resurrection. It is a bold and audacious claim and one which is simply too much for many to embrace. At the end of that tsunami documentary, I stood under a huge crucifix in London’s Westminster Cathedral and said the following words staring straight down the camera lens:“This cross could be the biggest lie ever bestowed on humanity. But equally it could be that God became human precisely to tackle this question of evil and death. And if suffering is the biggest obstacle to faith, what an image to leave with your doubting creatures. A powerless God who says that no account of creation is complete without a final act of redemption. Can I, can you, begin to accept that that is not a hoax, that in the end all may be well? For the first time in my life, I begin to understand a prayer I was taught as a child. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”Those words from my father, “God could have stopped that” when he saw the footage of that tsunami carnage in 2004 set in train a quite incredible journey of discovery. Aged 18, I was asked why God had fashioned a world in which babies might occasionally die of leukemia. I had blurted out some crass formula: it’s all a great mystery. I still don’t know all the answers….far from it. But after that tsunami journey I feel more able than ever to not only say “I believe” but also stand up for God. Yes, even against the great leading atheist minds of the day.I’m Mark Dowd, and you’ve been listening to Things Unseen, the podcast for people who are curious about the big questions that take us beyond the material world. Things Unseen is brought to you by CTVC.