Tremors of Doubt
What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami?
On Nov. 1, 1755, a great earthquake struck offshore of Lisbon. In that city alone, some 60,000 perished, first from the tremors, then from the massive tsunami that arrived half an hour later. Fires consumed much of what remained of the city. The tidal waves spread death along the coasts of Iberia and North Africa.
Voltaire’s „Poëme sur le désastre de Lisbonne” of the following year was an exquisitely savage–though sober–assault upon the theodicies prevalent in his time. For those who would argue that „all is good” and „all is necessary,” that the universe is an elaborately calibrated harmony of pain and pleasure, or that this is the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire’s scorn was boundless: By what calculus of universal good can one reckon the value of „infants crushed upon their mothers’ breasts,” the dying „sad inhabitants of desolate shores,” the whole „fatal chaos of individual miseries”?
Perhaps the most disturbing argument against submission to „the will of God” in human suffering–especially the suffering of children–was placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by Dostoyevsky; but the evils Ivan enumerates are all acts of human cruelty, for which one can at least assign a clear culpability. Natural calamities usually seem a greater challenge to the certitudes of believers in a just and beneficent God than the sorrows induced by human iniquity.
Considered dispassionately, though, man is part of the natural order, and his propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world. The same ancient question is apposite to the horrors of history and nature alike: Whence comes evil? And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God’s hand and he is not enchained.
As a Christian, I cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever; I can note, though, that–for all its urgency–Voltaire’s version of the question is not in any proper sense „theological.” The God of Voltaire’s poem is a particular kind of „deist” God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.
The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to „powers” and „principalities”–spiritual and terrestrial–alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him–„He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”–and his appearance within „this cosmos” is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.
Whatever one makes of this story, it is no bland cosmic optimism. Yes, at the heart of the gospel is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the victory over evil and death has been won; but it is also a victory yet to come. As Paul says, all creation groans in anguished anticipation of the day when God’s glory will transfigure all things. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.
When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering–when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s–no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms–knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against „fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.
Mr. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is the author of „The Beauty of the Infinite” (Eerdmans).