The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 which claimed the lives of some 250,000 people raised once again the inevitable question: where was God? If He is good and powerful He surely would have stopped it, and since He didn’t God is either not good, not powerful, or does not exist. According to David Bentley Hart, it was this last option that advanced with a perverse glee given the horror of the tragedy, by atheists who took satisfaction that here was another piece of evidence they could use in their case against the religious faith and the rationality of belief.
Such a disaster of course provoked scores of Christians to mount a defense of God in the face of tragedy. To explain how a good, loving, and powerful God could permit such a tragedy while ceasing to be none of these things. While most of these attempts were born of good intentions, their justification of the tsunami as somehow being part of a greater good or plan, or in some way necessary, rang hollow and even sinister. This was especially true of some rigorous Calvinists – who tend to acquit themselves very poorly in these kinds of circumstances – who stressed that everything is part of God’s inscrutable but perfect will, a thought that purchases logical consistency regarding God’s sovereignty at the cost of making God a moral monster.
It was this combination of atheistic triumphalism and theistic bumbling that occasioned Hart to write his short little book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Hart’s is an anti-theodicy, a refusal to make peace with evil, because that is what the God we know in Jesus Christ has done. His work reaches many of the same conclusions as another great book on the relationship between God and evil that was occasioned – at least in part – by the same event, NT Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God.
I will accuse Hart of burying the lede, it takes him until page 87 of 104 to say what is really the first thing that Christians must say when faced with the reality of evil and suffering:
For, after all, it is from Christ that we are to learn how God himself relates to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God (87).
Any theodicy, however brilliantly constructed, that justifies the necessity of evil for God has made a deal with the Devil. God hates evil, and so we are free to hate it to.
Hart’s primary interlocutor is Ivan from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan gives voice to the most challenging rejection of theodicy that there is, much more cutting, profound, and troubling than that uttered by any God-hating New Atheist. Ivan believes in theodicy, he believes that in the end God will show us why all this evil was necessary, that God will show us His work when it comes to the moral calculus of allowing so much evil and suffering, and it will all make perfect sense. All that being true, Ivan will still respectfully return his ticket to heaven, because he wants no place in a heaven that was purchased with the blood of innocent children. He wants nothing to do with a God who in any way needs such evil. Ivan damns the god of theodicy to his heaven, the cost of admission is too high for him to accept it in good conscience. And we Christians must do the same.
For the Christian Ivan’s argument – taken simply in itself – provides a kind of spiritual hygiene: it is a solvent of the semi-Hegelian theology of the liberal Protestantism of the late nineteenth century, which succeeded in confusing eschatological hope with progressive social and scientific optimism, and a solvent as well as of the obdurate fatalism of the theistic determinist, and of the confidence of rational theodicy, and in general – of the habitual and unthinking retreat of most Christians to a kind of indeterminate deism (43-44).
The problem with theodicies – particularly of the liberal and deistic sort – is that they assume an unfallen universe. Thus evil becomes a necessary part of the operation of the “best of all possible worlds.” It is simply the price that we and God have to pay if we want to have a universe at all. God is in some sense beholden to some particular set of laws – Newtonian or otherwise – that determine how He must create. In this scenario God’s hands are tied, so to speak, He might like to help us, but He too has to play by the rules. Whatever the merits of this perspective, it bears absolutely no resemblance to any faith practiced in the world today, and especially not Christianity. Christians believe that God created the world good, free from corruption, and that His intention all along was that creation should remain in Edenic harmony.
This raises the question, what happened? Where did it all go wrong and what does this have to do with the reality of evil and suffering in our world? And most importantly: what does God have to do with this and what is He going to do about it?
Such questions assume a relationship between God and creation that can’t be taken for granted in our contemporary context with its philosophical materialism and naturalism. Ours is a disenchanted universe, the product of blind forces and random chance. “Nature is for us a single, internally consistent thing, an event, lovely and enticing, then terrible and pitiless, abundant and destructive at once, but moved neither by will nor intelligence; it is sheer fact” (47). If postmodernity is incredulity toward metanarratives, then modernity (which is still alive and well, despite postmodern assertions to the contrary) is incredulity toward teleology. We face the terrifying prospect of living in a world without purpose or meaning. In this universe the question “what is the chief end of man?” is nonsensical, apart from a purely biological account that we exist to survive long enough to pass along our genes through procreation. Not exactly as poetic as “man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Our understanding of nature is essentially a closed engine of death where everything feeds upon everything without rhyme or reason. This is what a post-Christian culture means by nature. “To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to this reality” (52). With such a view of nature – which has been more of less common since the Enlightenment – theodicy takes the form of justifying why and how God must work within the confines of such a system. The results haven’t been pretty.
But contrary to this picture of nature is the Christian vision of creation, a creation that has been marred by its rebellion against its Creator, but nonetheless contains a veiled vision of His glory. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the works of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). This isn’t a fact that can be read off the face of nature, but through the eyes of faith we see nature for what it is: a creation that has been damaged yet ultimately good. Thus, Christians don’t apologize for the state of the world, we pray for it, we love it, we seek its redemption and release from its bondage to decay. We see beyond the constraints of what is natural to what is possible because God so loves this world. Nature isn’t a brute fact, but a gracious gift. This isn’t to deny the reality of the evil that surrounds us, it is instead to have a kind of double vision that sees the the world in all its brutal ugliness and all its God-given glory at the same time.
What the Christian should see, then, is not simply one reality: neither the elaborate, benign, elegantly calibrated machine of the deists, smoothly and efficiently accomplishing whatever goods a beneficent God and the intractable potentialities of finitude can produce between them; nor a sacred or divine commerce between life and death; nor certainly ‘nature’ in the modern, mechanistic acceptance of that word. Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence (60).
Since all evil and death are vandalism of God’s creation Christians can make no peace with them.
Christian thought from the outset, denies that (in themselves) suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It claims that they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may – under the conditions of a fallen order – make them the occasions for accomplishing his good ends (61).
Why is their evil, death, sin, and suffering? Because God graciously made space for a reality other than Himself that was free to love Him, but also free to turn its back. Our turning away from God has cosmic consequences, all of creation is in rebellion, all of it is infected with the disease, at every single level and to its very core. There is no part of our existence that hasn’t been radically shaped by sin. This isn’t a free will defense, there is no trump card we can pull to justify the ways of God to man. One can still question wether this freedom was worth it. But as Christians it is the choice with which we are faced: “either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the love of God is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God; or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it” (69).
This is the story of Noah, that the whole world was full of wickedness and God Himself was sorry that He had created it, yet He didn’t fully destroy it, but deemed it worth saving, even though the costs of sustaining such a creation were enormous: the death of His only and only Son. The uncomfortable position of the atheist who makes great hay of the degree of suffering across all of the animal world, to the point that the world can’t be thought of as the product of a good God, but something deeply malevolent is that if this place is so bad, then maybe we should step into God’s place in Genesis 6 and do what He was unwilling to: destroy every living thing, and thus put an end to all suffering. There are only two ways to end all evil: the victory of death over all life – which is where the natural world is heading (the so-called freeze or fry scenarios of the end of life on our planet); or the victory of life over all death, which is what Christians affirm is already true because the tomb is empty. God didn’t will His creation to Fall, but he permits it to continue to exist in its fallenness, even as He continues to will it back unto Himself through the work of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of His Word, and the invisible power of the Spirit.
The great narrative of fall and redemption is not a charade, not simply a dramaturgical lesson regarding God’s absolute prerogatives prepared for us from eternity, but a real consequence of the mystery of created freedom and the fulness of grace (97).
Back to the tsunami. What are we to make of that tragedy? What are we to say?
We Christians are not obliged (and perhaps are not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day – to look, that is upon the entire littoral rim of the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and Upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children – and to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning and purpose residing in all that misery. Ours after all is a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces – whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance – that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred…As for comfort when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy (101-104).
Our end is not in sorrow, but infinite joy, because the God whom we worship will deliver us from all evil.
Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will stroke off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne says, ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (104).