Cancer and Tornadoes

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In many ways, it was Myrtle’s faith that held mine together.

I was a seminary intern serving a church in Oregon. Every week I visited Myrtle, who was in in her mid-80s and battling cancer. We talked and we prayed and we built a special bond. We never talked much about her cancer; she always wanted to talk about me and her daughter. Me, probably because I was the person whose hand she was always holding. And her daughter because she had brain cancer.

Myrtle’s daughter died near the end of my internship. And while there were tears and deep sadness, Myrtle’s faith never wavered.

After that internship, I returned to Princeton Seminary, and soon got word that Myrtle had passed. It rattled my faith. How could a loving God allow such tragedies to occur back-to-back like that? While their cancer made me question God, cancer—both Myrtle’s and her daughter’s—if anything, drew her closer to God. And that is what helped me hold it together as I began my last year of seminary.

The problem of evil and suffering faces us in many forms. Truth be told, it is probably the single best argument against belief in a good God. Especially in those cases where evil and suffering are rooted in nature and cannot be excused by human sin. As we begin a series on natural evil and theodicy, we will focus this week on some of those faith-rattling natural occurrences.

Disaster, Disease, Disorder

Now I know the term natural evil might sound weird to some people, because how can a tornado be “evil,” right? It’s a little easier to wrap our minds around moral evil, because it has a perpetrator and we know we are fallen. But evil implies intent, and a tornado doesn’t intend to kill and destroy. So what we mean by “natural evil” is that nature has processes that inflict suffering and death with no perpetrator. That is, unless, of course, you blame God.

There are at least two categories of natural evil, and both are often used to blame God—or even to argue against his very existence. The first is the way the Earth is set up, with its immutable natural laws. And the second connects to the evolution of life.

Natural disasters seem to be in the news almost every day. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires—we’re all too familiar with nature’s destructive power. It is fresh in our memories with Hurricane Dorian, and chances are that your community has felt the wrath of what insurance companies call “acts of God.”

Scientists can tell us much about the cause of these disasters. Since humans will always live on the coasts, along fault lines, or near volcanoes, much contemporary science focuses on early detection. The work is slow, but steady—including recent news that AI can help predict earthquakes. This is an area where the church can support science—and its potential to save lives.

The second major category of natural evil falls under biology. From cancer to genetic disorders to the “nature, red in tooth and claw” we mentioned last week, evolutionary biology is often used to argue against God. Like natural disasters, these diseases and disorders impact our lives almost daily.

In the coming weeks, we will look at resources to help us reconcile the reality of natural evil—starting next week with our first guest author, theologian Bethany Sollereder, whose work has engaged evolution and animal suffering.

Path of Destruction

Science describes it as an EF4 multiple-vortex tornado, but for me it was another of those “really, God?” moments—the 2011 twister that ripped a path near my in-laws’ home in Tuscaloosa, AL. They were OK, but many weren’t, victims of the devastation.

Nearly a year later, my father-in-law showed me the path of destruction through town, completely absent of trees and buildings. He described garbage trucks relocated and other stories of the tornado’s wrath. He took me to one of the poorer neighborhoods and described what once had been. All I saw was barren ground still strewn with branches, rubble, and rubbish—looking much as it had right after the storm. I thought of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken them?”

But again, the church being church, my doubts were quelled. I heard stories of volunteers, motivated by faith, coming to their aide—including 10 percent of the congregation of our church in Philadelphia, who traveled to Tuscaloosa to help rebuild. Moved by the goodness of God within them, this group used a full week of their vacation time to shine light in an area victimized by natural evil.

I’m sure your church is filled with similar experiences—you have saints like Myrtle and volunteers who sacrifice vacation to rebuild. Such experiences are powerful and give meaning to our faith in God’s goodness and the love of Jesus Christ. As we consider other resources to help us navigate natural evil and theodicy over the next few weeks, let us not forget these saints.


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