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Where Was God in the Earthquake?


Jan 15 2010
A theological response to the Haitian calamity from Fleming Rutledge.

At the time of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, David Bentley Hart, the Eastern Orthodox theologian, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal that attracted wide attention. Bill Eerdmans, of Eerdmans Publishing, contacted Hart and asked him to expand the column into a book. Hart did so, and the resulting The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? is the most useful short treatment of the problem of evil and suffering that we have.

A tweet I saw this morning reminded me of Hart's book. The tweet said, "Why don't we have earthquakes on Park Avenue? The people of Haiti are so poor."

Why, indeed?

A frequent response heard from Christians is, "God has some purpose in this." "Something good will come out of this." "Haiti will become stronger as a result of this."

In one sense, all these things are true; however, these are deeply wrong responses, both theologically and pastorally. In a long chapter on the problem of evil that I wrote last year for my forthcoming book on the Crucifixion, I reflected long and hard on these matters. Glib, monochromatic responses to catastrophe should have no place in our faith.

It is important to maintain two contradictory attitudes at once in many areas of Christian theology, and this is one of those areas. These are the two clashing points of view in this case:

Point of view #1: The Creation does declare the glory of God, and the "Thunderstorm Psalm" (Ps. 29: "The Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon …") proclaims that message magnificently. God is not only the Creator but also the One who rules over the cosmos. The theophany (a manifestation of the power of God) in the Book of Job (chs. 38-41) is the preeminent biblical passage treating of this subject, and the phrase "the doors of the sea" is derived from 38:8.

Many people have experienced a sort of theophany even in the midst of destruction; people have testified to this even when they have had to face the dire consequences of a natural catastrophe (there are examples of this in Isaac's Storm, the book about the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, and in David McCullough's account of the Johnstown Flood). So the wild, untamed aspect of nature can be either comforting or exhilarating or both, depending on one's point of view.

Point of view #2: At the same time, nature is not benign. Nature is "red in tooth and claw." Nature, like the human race, is fallen and is subject to the powers of the Evil One who continues to occupy this sphere. Flannery O'Connor wrote that her work was about the action of grace in territory held largely by the Devil; we should not fail to realize that "nature" is part of that occupied territory. Nature is often hostile, as Annie Dillard has so powerfully shown us, and the nature-worshipers among us fail to acknowledge this hostility in their pantheistic enthusiasm. Only by action of the Creator will the peaceable kingdom arrive, where the lion lies down with the lamb. (Isn't it suggestive that "Lion of Judah" and "Lamb of God" are both titles of our Lord?)

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Where Was God in the Earthquake?