Theologians differ on how to answer this question. It depends on a more foundational question: did God know it would happen? (This also give rise to the related question: could God have stopped it?) Orthodox Christianity says yes. Some Christians believe that God knew it would happen because he decreed for it to happen. That is, God predestined it to happen exactly as it did, and that's why he knew about it. Some Christians believe that God knew it would happen because he simply foreknew or foresaw it happening. That is, God sees the future without causing the future. He permitted it. A few Christians believe that God did not know it would happen (at least not until he could calculate future plate tectonics based on his perfect knowledge of the physical world and his infinite ability to figure things like that out). Once he knew it would happen, he could stop it but permitted it anyway.
I embrace the second option listed above, that God knew it would happen, but allowed it without causing it. Fortunately (but sometimes frustratingly), it's not our job to explain why God permits or prevents anything. He is totally sovereign over all of creation. A few thoughts in that direction, however, can't hurt:
- Whether you think the movement of the tectonic plates is a result of the fall and cursing of the ground or not, the fact remains that it is a natural, normal event on Earth. It happens all the time. It is the location and timing that make it tragic, not the fact of the occurrence.
- As long as people continue to choose to live and build cities along known fault lines, it's only a matter of time for things like this to happen. We can't really be surprised when the next San Francisco or Mexico City earthquake happens, and we shouldn't ask, "how can God let this happen?" We should ask, "how can man let this happen?" "They knew there's a fault line there!"
- I can't say for sure, but perhaps one reason God allows natural disasters to happen (and this probably goes for other kinds of suffering and evil) is because for God to prevent every disaster or suffering caused by nature would basically involve God constantly interrupting or overriding things like gravity, trajectory, momentum, and a hundred other factors which are usually predictable. The world would be entirely unpredictable. If I try to light a match, will it work? What if hitting my brakes would have caused suffering; will God cause my brakes not to work? How could I ever confidently do anything? The scientific method, which depends so much on the principle of uniformity (e.g., gravity works the same everywhere in the universe, photons behave the same etc.), would be rendered useless and scientific progress/knowledge would cease.
- A certain amount of pain in life is actually very good, and healthy. The fact that your hand hurts when you put it near fire is a good thing; physical pain is a warning that something is going wrong with the body. The lack of sensation of pain (e.g., Hansen's disease/leprosy) shows us this truth.
- Without some pain and tragedy in life, such virtues as bravery, self-sacrifice, and forebearance wouldn't mean much.
- Just because God is allowing evil and suffering to exist now doesn't mean that evil people are "getting away with it." Don't criticize God when history is not over; he has promised that when Jesus returns, every person will be judged on the basis of what they've done, and if they do not belong to Christ, there is no forgiveness of sins and eternal punishment awaits them.
Theology must always lead to ministry. Ministry, the living out of one's theology and the application of that life onto the lives of others, is the most profound answer to the question of where God is when it hurts. As Philip Yancey concludes, the answer to the question "Where is God when it hurts?" is another question: where is the church when it hurts?
The answer? The church is in Haiti, has been for a long time. You won't read about it much in the papers or on the major news media, but dozens of ministries like International Disaster Emergency Services are making a difference in the name of Jesus.
As it turns out, the question of why God allows things is important, but perhaps not as important as the question of what the Church of Jesus Christ does in response to all the evil and suffering.