At least 232 people were killed yesterday by a nightclub fire in Brazil. A band's pyrotechnic spectacle started the blaze, which spread to the ceiling and across the club "in seconds," according to police. Security guards had locked exits, intensifying the panic as people stampeded to the doors. Most were university students; the vast majority of the victims died of smoke inhalation. Others were crushed in the stampede. "It is a scene of horror," one police investigator said. One firefighter told BBC News he had never seen such a tragedy in his life, with the victims "so young."
If you lost someone you love in the fire, wouldn't you be asking how an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God could allow such a tragedy? I would. I would wager that innocent suffering has caused more atheism than any other issue. For instance, atheist Sam Harris states that the suffering of a single child anywhere in the universe calls into question the existence of God.
How are Christians to respond? One approach: When we misuse our God-given freedom, the consequences are not his fault but ours. The nightclub owners apparently allowed far more patrons than building codes permitted; fire extinguishing systems were inadequate; guards initially prevented people from escaping. "Bureaucracy and corruption also cause tragedies," said Andre Barcinski, a columnist for one of Brazil's largest newspapers. God could prevent the consequences of misused freedom, but then we wouldn't be free.
While the free-will approach obviously has merit, doesn't it feel inadequate this morning? If one of our sons had died in the blaze, I wouldn't derive much comfort from a theology that claims God couldn't do anything to prevent the tragedy. King Darius misused his freedom by sending Daniel to the lions' den, but God intervened miraculously by protecting the prophet (Daniel 6). Herod misused his freedom in imprisoning Peter, but God intervened miraculously by sending his angel to free the apostle (Acts 12:1-10). If them, why not the students in Brazil?
Here's the bottom line: I don't know. I understand why God must give us freedom so we can love him and each other (Matthew 22:37, 39), and why he must therefore allow us to misuse this gift. I understand that the consequences of such choices are not his fault. But I don't understand why he sometimes intervenes and sometimes doesn't. (For more on this issue, I invite you to read my essay, "Why does a good God allow an evil world?" I also hope you'll share your thoughts on our website.)
Here's what I do know: God redeems all he allows, in ways we can see and in ways we will not understand until we are in heaven (1 Corinthians 13:12). I know that he sustains all who seek him in the darkest nights and hardest days (Isaiah 43:1-3). And I know that God is grieving the death of every student in the Brazilian tragedy. President Dilma Rousseff cried in front of reporters as she said, "This is a tragedy for all of us." Our Father agrees.