Why does God let bad things happen?

This question is probably as old as religion itself. It is a stumbling block for some of us, and for many more at given moments of tragedy.

The Last Day

Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755
by Nicholas Shrady

Written by Jon M. Sweeney

The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 by Nicholas ShradyPublished by Viking Press, April 2008

Most writers I know have mental lists of books that they would love to write one day. Frankly, this was one of mine, but Shrady has beaten me to it—and surely he’s done a better job than I could have done.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake may sound obscure to your ears—why would explorefaith be talking about a topic like this?—but this horrible series of events played a central part in the progress of the Enlightenment and the disintegration of traditional Christian faith throughout Europe and the rest of the First World. The ways in which we imagine God’s “hand” at work, or not at work, in the world around us probably began just after the Lisbon disaster.

November 1, 1755, was a Sunday and also All Saints’ Day. The sun shone brilliantly that morning as men and women, families and children made their way to Mass. In the overwhelmingly devout Catholic country, hundreds of thousands of people were in church that day, praying. “Lisbon counted more than 40 parish churches, several nonparochial churches, 121 oratories, 90 convents, and close to 150 assorted religious brotherhoods and societies,” explains Shrady. Lisbon was even home to the Inquisition in the 1750s, and many of the leaders in the churches and brotherhoods were friars, priests, and cardinals active in rooting out unbelief and heresy.

The churches were especially full because it was All Saints’ Day. Ships were docked at the busy port of Lisbon, and many others were en route waiting to come in, but they would not come in on that day. All Saints’ Day was a solemn Feast of the Church, “and the ways of Mammon were put to rest.” Almost no one was working. Perhaps the seamen stuck on those ships out at sea were taking some rest themselves, if not in piety, to admire the beauty of the sun reflecting on the surface of the Mediterranean.

At 9:30 a.m. the ground began to shake. People were not sure what it was at first, but within seconds, it was clear that Lisbon was undergoing an earthquake like it had never felt before. The quiet city of packed churches had hardly a minute to react and escape. The churches of Lisbon were mostly medieval and made of stone and mortar. The foundations were old and fragile, and within a few minutes the masses of people were crushed as the walls of churches and other buildings throughout Lisbon fell in on top of them.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Once the quake had ended, firestorms began to rage throughout the city, consuming both the ruins left by the quake (and thousands of the injured that lay waiting, in vain, for rescue), as well as the buildings that were left standing. Then, a tsunami—which we now understand far better than we ever did even a decade ago, let alone 250 years ago—rushed over the docks and ships in Lisbon port and drowned hundreds more. You see, after a deadly quake, and a fire that raged on for five days, many of the survivors fled to the sea, seeking safety if not shelter. Twenty foot-high walls of ocean drowned many of them.

This seems too horrific to be true. Surely, it’s the stuff of a blockbuster movie about the end of the world? No, it really happened, and Shrady tells the story with just enough detail.

Europe and America were stunned. It took weeks for the news to spread to cities like Paris, Geneva, London, Madrid, Constantinople, Boston, and Philadelphia. When they heard, the people of these cities were afraid; if it could happen to the beautiful, wealthy and devout city of Lisbon, something similar could happen anywhere. Did God cause this? Is God angry at his people? Why didn’t God prevent it? Disasters happen from time to time, but why on that day, at that time?

Leading intellectual figures debated these issues and offered their opinions to the people. Most of all, the philosopher and poet Voltaire made his mark on history as a result of his interpretation of the Lisbon disaster. The popular atheists of today—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins—look to Voltaire as one of their intellectual heroes. Voltaire took the occasion to declare that either God is not good, or God does not exist.

His secularist masterpiece, Candide, made these arguments for the first time to a wide audience. Safely ensconced in his home in Geneva (he had been exiled from France by Louis XV), Voltaire wrote with a bleak, existential, pessimistic outlook on the future. He mocked the churches, and the faithful who inhabit them. Humankind is all alone, he explained, get used to it. It was through Voltaire’s work that popular atheism first began.

But other responses to Lisbon are still with us today, as well. Some Protestant leaders used the Lisbon earthquake as a way of denouncing the Catholic Church. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, wrote in the months after the quake: “What shall we say of the late accounts from Portugal? Is there indeed a God that judges the world? If so, it is not surprising he should begin there, where so much blood has been poured on the ground like water [through the Inquisition], where so many brave men [Protestants] have been murdered.” Such pitiless comments have been echoed even in our own day, as when the late Pastor Jerry Falwell suggested two days after 9/11 that God caused it to happen in order to pass judgment on the abortionists and gays in America.

Did God cause terrorist extremists to attack New York City on 9/11 in order to send some sort of divine message?

Did God cause Hurricane Katrina? Did God aim it at New Orleans?

When disaster strikes, it is natural to wonder about the nature of God, and God’s role in world events. In fact, it may be that we only think about these deep issues when bad things happen to us. (Many theologians have argued over the centuries that that’s precisely why God allows bad things to happen.) Personally, I don’t think that God is in the business of causing disasters, or deciding who should be hurt by them. The primary image of God that I see shining out of the New Testament is a God who suffers with us; he doesn’t point arrows.

Shrady’s book is a fascinating account of the Lisbon disaster. He tells the story of what happened and then chronicles the response of people like Voltaire, in the years following. He points out what a pivotal event it was in the history of Europe and in the progress of the Enlightenment. But he leaves the spiritual reflection to others—that’s not his intention in The Last Day.

So…what do you think?

Copyright ©2008 Jon Sweeney

The Last Day by Nicholas Shrady

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