“Where was God when my brother was freezing to death on Mt. Hood?”

Three years ago in Christianity Today, Frank James wrote about his brother Kelly’s death in 2006 while mountain climbing in Oregon. Since June of this year, James is president of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA, not 5 miles from I sit typing this in my home office.

Given our close proximity, I took upon myself to contact him, email him, and otherwise stalk him to get to know him a bit more. We recently sat down over a pint at the local watering whole (though he prefers merlot, and this gives me a project to work on), where we were discussing, among other things: God, faith, trust, why we like Episcopalians, and how our life journeys seem to be just that–journeys.

James recounted to me the whole story of the deep grief and pain of losing his brother and how that drove him to come to terms, perhaps for the first time, with the mystery of life and faith, and how suffering seems to be the prerequisite for such a transformation. That got me thinking to go back and read his CT piece and I’m glad I did. The link above will take you there, and I think many of you will resonate with James’s experience.

Here is a brief preview:

One question haunts me: Where was God when Kelly was freezing to death on Mount Hood? For me, it is not whether I should ask such a question, but how I ask it. One can ask the question in a fit of rage, shaking one’s fist at God. Many of us, if we are candid, have done that. But once the primal anger settles to a low boil, we can—and, I would submit, should—ask the question.

I am not suggesting that mere mortals can stand in judgment of God or call him to account. God does not report to me. But an honest question posed from a broken heart is to my mind a good and righteous thing.

To ask this hard question is an act of faith. It presupposes a genuine relationship in which the creature actually engages the Creator. If God is my Father, can’t I humbly ask why he did not come to Kelly’s rescue? For me, to not ask this question would be a failure to take God seriously.

So, where was God? I don’t know. I may never know…

It seems paradoxical that David [in Psalm 13] would trust a God who hides himself when David needs him most. But as I have meditated on David’s Psalms, I sense he had a different kind of relationship with God—one not many Christians understand. It is more mysterious than I had been led to believe. It is a relationship where simplistic spiritual formulas and religious clichés have no place. David’s relationship with God combines brutal honesty with what Luther called a grasping faith. It is a relationship where disappointment is juxtaposed with hope.


For those who want to get to know Frank James better, you should check out his new 800+ page volume (co-written) on the history of the church from the pre-reformation to the present day, entitled in that creative, grabby way that academics are known for, Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. As a side note, James told me about the section he wrote on contemporary American evangelicalism and the rise of biblical inerrancy in the 19th century, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

And did I mention his PhD is from Oxford with an expertise in the Protestant Reformation? Did I also mention he is a Dallas Cowboys fan, and we’ll see how that goes in Eagles country….

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  • [“As a side note, James told me about the section he wrote on contemporary
    American evangelicalism and the rise of biblical inerrancy in the 19th
    century, and that alone is worth the price of admission.”]

    Maybe that section would be a good topic for an upcoming post–i.e. an outline of what he has to say with your commentary!

  • Dan Reid

    Nice shot of Hood. His brothers route was further to the left on the North Face, a route that nearly killed me in 1969. That photo shows a couple routes I climbed –and one attempt aborted in the worst storm to hit the region in thirty years. People thought we were in dire peril, but we walked out and greeted our rescue party on January 2, 1969. My question has long been Why were our 19-year-old selves spared? (And why did my climbing partner, much later in his 50s, go back and die on that same mountain?) For me, one of life’s riddles.

    • Lars

      That is THE riddle for me, Dan. The randomness of events such as this, yet our insistence on seeing the hand of God at work. If you’re a believer and you survive a mountain-side blizzard, survive cancer, or even a bus trip to Branson, it’s easy to credit God for that even though those things happen all the time. Or you can blame God when things go tragically wrong. Either God doesn’t/can’t intervene for some unknown reason or his intervention is just as random. The trick to faith, for me, is reconciling one’s hope (or expectations) of God’s action with the probable reality of His inaction.

      • Kate

        This is going to sound so awful, please forgive me: roulette has known probabilities. You are just as likely to land on the five as on a six.

        When you climb dangerous mountains in severe weather you have a much greater chance of dying then if you sit on your porch and read.

        I think it is a bit presumptuous of us to go ahead and take risky chances and then question why God doesn’t come through.

        • Lars

          All true, but what kind of life would that be! I’m sure Kelly and his partners had calculated the risks numerous times and under most circumstances would have been incredibly well-prepared. The problem is that you can’t completely prepare for things you can’t control or predict, whether it’s a sudden, furious winter storm or an inattentive driver. Plus, if you believe God will intervene, short of tempting him by hurtling yourself off a cliff, there’s no reason think he won’t do just that under just about any other circumstance (you may recall Jesus’ words in Mark 16:18 when he said “…they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them…”).

          I was raised to believe not only that verse but that every single prayer was answered, just not necessarily the way we wanted it answered – how can you refute that! I’ve since come to see things a little more fatalistically, that the roulette analogy is more Russian in nature, and that there are no guarantees beyond “No one here gets out alive.” In other words, we should appreciate what time we have (or had) with the ones we love. Everything else is icing.

      • I agree Lars. I realize many Christians expect God to intervene on their behalf in their daily lives, but I do not see that. People suffer or die, either from choices they make or from random events. God does not get in the way of cause and effect.
        However, as I read the original CT article, I discovered that it was more about deep grief, which I certainly understand and endorse. And his final conclusion has to do with the hope of the resurrection.
        So, as he says, his experience of his brothers death actually brought him nearer to God. I think it is an excellent article.

    • Muff Potter

      I hear you Dan. It’s almost as if it’s a great big roulette wheel (Stephen King calls it the Wheel of Ka) of chance with no other purpose than to deal out fortune and misfortune to the good, the bad, and the ugly alike.

      • Dan Reid

        Well, I don’t believe it’s a roulette wheel. But I don’t believe I have the capacity to determine the meaning of these events, at least in this life. I do know that when one is “spared,” it can (not always, of course) inspire gratefulness and a resolve to make the most of what has been given. But I am very reticent to assign specific divine purposes to these events (even though one of the events I’m alluding to did have some “coincidences” that suggest divine intervention).

        • scotmcknight

          Totally agree, Dan.

        • Muff Potter

          Agreed Dan. When I said ‘purpose’ it was only a place holder of sorts. I agree with the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes that there is no reason the way we understand reason.

        • It seems the pinnacle of arrogance (or fear) to imagine that human fate is somehow any different that the fate of other animals. A kid gets hit by a car accidentally and a squirrel gets accidentally hit by a car. Why would those be different?
          Seriously, Why?
          Answer: Just because we want them to be different!

    • peteenns

      Wow, the 19yr-old Dan is one I never knew before! Thanks for sharing this.

      • Dan Reid

        Pete, You would have never trusted me if I’d told you this stuff earlier.

  • mark

    Yeah, good question: why did God create earth instead of creating heaven and just sticking us in it, intervening whenever we screw up or whenever anything bad might happen. We don’t want freedom, we want to be, if not God, somehow angels who can never fall.

    • Andrew Dowling

      “We don’t want freedom, we want to be, if not God, somehow angels who can never fall.”

      That would make sense if things like natural disasters and cancer didn’t randomly strike down people into massive suffering and death. We could have freedom and not have cancer.

      • mark

        I see. A finite universe where nothing bad ever happens.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Umm, no, you are inventing a false dichotomy.

  • Lars

    Only 5 miles away? I trust this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship! Except for the Merlot part, but you can work with that (tell Dr. James to watch “Sideways”). If it was Riesling I’d say there’s no chance.

    Dr. James’ account of his loss on CT was heartbreaking and I appreciated his tackling ‘hiddenness’ head-on. My own sense is that the gravitational pull is less to God and more to ‘hope’, and God is the embodiment of that hope. The Judeo-Christian God here in the west, another version of God elsewhere, or another definition of hope. Of course, most would say that God is exactly where hope comes from, but I’m not so sure because of that inexplicable hiddenness that King David, Dr. James, and just about everyone who has ever lived has experienced to some degree. How you handle that hiddenness, that evidence of things not seen, goes a long way toward how much hope or how little hope you have in your God.

  • I have had my own moments of anger at God. When I have cooled off and asked my questions of God, I eventually get an answer. Sometimes the answer is immediate. Sometimes it takes a while. But sooner or later I get one.

  • dangjin


    The Bible tells us that :it is appointed unto man once to die then the judgment…’ God is there when someone dies but at that moment when it is time, God will not intervene. For that person life is over no matter how unjust or unfair we think it is.

    God doesn’t promise everyone a long life so we need to make sure we are right with him for when that time comes because our objective is not longevity on earth but to be with him in heaven

  • “It seems paradoxical that David [in Psalm 13] would trust a God who
    hides himself when David needs him most. But as I have meditated on
    David’s Psalms, I sense he had a different kind of relationship with
    God—one not many Christians understand”

    It is here where an atheist would most likely say that if God is not there where he is excepted to be, it is much more simple to conclude there is no such being.

  • scotmcknight

    Kris and I flew last weekend over Mt Hood and each time I was at the window, and I prayed for Frank and Carolyn. That CT article was special.

  • I understand why so many Christians expect so much from their God — both the NT and OT is replete with promises of prosperity and blessings. Yet other authors, as you point out, speak of a God who does not act at all (“hides”).

    I’ve heard different solutions to this dilemma — different theologies:
    (1) Psych: The promises passages are just for psychological, spiritual and afterlife stuff.
    (2) Dispensation: no more of that now, that was the old covenant stuff.
    (3) Mystery: God is a mystery: sometimes we get stuff, sometimes we don’t.

    (3a) We should not question
    (3b) We may question, since he is our father, but be OK with silence (His option)
    (4)Yep!: Yep, he still does give to the faithful, if not, there is some other special purpose. Prosperity Gospel and others.

    Does that sound accurate?

  • Carl Wagner

    I suggest folks seeking (an) answer to this try to find a copy of With God In Russia. I’m not particularly religious in comparison with a lot of you on this site but stumbled across the book and enjoyed it for the great (true) story, unexpectedly finding also a simple explanation of the answer to this ancient question.

  • Owen Vine

    Maybe the Open Theists are correct. Maybe God was weeping as well.

    • Peter Wolfe

      That has been my experience after my wife died 6 years ago, God weeping with me in that dark deep valley. Why? Eternity knows but for now I can only see through a dim fog that somehow this is part of God, part of his nature, to be with us but allow us these VERY difficult circumstances.