The Doors of the Sea

Some of you might have noticed the question I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday: how do you reconcile the existence of a good God with suffering? Some of you even responded.

I asked this question out of sheer frustration with my multiple failed attempts at expressing my thoughts in response to David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? The assignment was to articulate whether or not I thought that Hart provided a satisfactory answer to the question of how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil and suffering.

Much of the first half of the book is spent undermining the various theodocies articulated by both Christians and atheists shortly after the tsunami which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2004. I won’t go into more detail than simply saying that Hart dismisses them (with arguments, mind you).  According to Hart, the only real challenge to the Christian understanding of God is provided by the character Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.

He willingly grants, he says, that all wounds will at the last be healed, all scars will disappear, all discord will vanish like a mirage…and that such will be the splendor of the finale of all things, when that universal harmony is established, that every heart will be satisfied, all anger soothed, the debt for every crime discharged, and everyone made capable of forgiving every offense and even of finding justification for everything that has ever happened to mankind; and still rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it…[because] the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures are greater than his conscience can bear” (38-9)

And then Ivan presents his interlocutor (Alyosha) with “a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children — true stories, as it happens, that Dostoyevski had collected from the press and from other sources” (39). Ivan’s examples are truly heartbreaking and I could not–indeed still cannot–remove them from my mind as I tried to write my response.

He tells of Turks in Bulgaria tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs with daggers, or flinging infants into the air to catch them on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, or playing with babies held in their mothers’ arms — making them laugh, enticing them with the bright metal barrels of pistols — only then to fire the pistols into the babies’ faces. He tells the story of two parents regularly savagely flogging their seven-year-old daughter, only to be acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. He tells the story of a…couple who tortured  their five-year-old daughter with constant beatings, and who — to punish her, allegedly, for fouling her bed — filled her mouth with excrement and locker her on freezing nights in an outhouse. (39)

And then, perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all:

…he invites Alyosha to imagine that child, in the bitter chill and darkness and stench of that place, striking her breast with her tiny fist, weeping her supplications to “gentle Jesus,” begging God to release her from her misery, and then to say whether anything…could possibly be worth the brutal absurdity of that little girl’s torments (39-40).

Indeed.  Indeed.

This is the only real challenge to Christian thinking because it is a complaint that is deeply rooted in Christian thought (Dostoyevski was a man of intense faith). Hart’s final answer seems to be no answer–at least, no rational answer.  I’m fine with that.  That’s my response, too.

But before he gets there he argues for the distinction between what God wills and what God permits and how that relates to created human freedom.  God is not culpable, ultimately, in Hart’s view, and he then points us to God’s final victory–the thing Ivan believes in but ultimately rejects.

I don’t believe God is culpable either, and I, too, believe in the victory of God.

And yet, and yet, and yet…there is still that girl beating her tiny fists against her breast.  How can any response be made in the face of that image?  How can we do anything but be silent in the face of such suffering, as Hart, ironically, suggests would have been the most appropriate response to the 2004 tsunami?  My beef with Hart’s response–so far as it is one–is that no matter how you cut it, there is still that suffering little girl.

I struggled intensely with articulating my thoughts in this paper, and I think now it was because the theological and philosophical and ontological tension inherent in the question of evil had made its way into not only my head but also my heart.  While his belief that death and suffering and evil have no meaning or function in God’s economy (i.e. they are an anomaly), I was not ultimately not satisfied with Hart’s attempt at theodicy (reconciling a loving God with the existence of evil) because ever and again the image of that little girl crying and pounding her fists come to mind.  And yet I still share the same belief and hope as Hart: that God will one day make all things new.  But how to I reconcile that?

If there’s one thing I don’t have a solid grasp on in terms of faith, it’s the Christian notion of the victory of God now, rather than just at some point in the future. When Christ said on the cross, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about his life, but about the victory of God.  And yet evil appears to carry on apace. Again, how do we reconcile the two?  I asked this question in class today and my prof quoted Karl Barth (I think–it may have been Martin Luther), who said, “The old Adam is drowned, but the bastard keeps swimming” (that was what he said to me in private–in class he said, “the bugger”, which, depending on where you come from, is no less vulgar).  I approached him after class and asked if Barth’s statement (“the one about the swimming bugger”) wasn’t a contradiction–if he’s drowned, the bastard most certainly shouldn’t be swimming.  In response, my prof made another comparison: a chicken with its head cut off will still run around for a couple of minutes–it’s dead, but in a way it doesn’t realize it yet (or it’s in denial), so it tries to keep on with what ever it has been doing.

This made sense to me, but still isn’t satisfying. I guess I just want all suffering to stop–what sane person doesn’t?–and the fact that it hasn’t yet drives me nuts.  I don’t like that tension. But I realized that I’m a typical modern(ist?) evangelical, and my prof concurred, who likes to have everything neatly packaged and arranged and explained and spelled out.  We want answers and explanations. We want an apology (in the sense of apologetics).  There is not much place for mystery in the evangelical mind.

I was going to link to a .pdf of my paper, but it occurred to me that it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book and there’s no need to trouble people with out-of-context ideas.  I can’t say I haven’t marvelled at not falling into total despair, perhaps even rejecting God the way Ivan does.  But I don’t think this is the obvious or natural answer to the question.  Somehow–by the grace of God, I guess–I still believe that all shall be well, while at the same time recognizing that suffering is real and that there is no appropriate response to suffering in the moment of suffering other than silence or weeping.

I guess I’ll have to learn to live with that tension for now.

13 thoughts on “The Doors of the Sea

  1. becky

    I told Jerry about some of the struggles you were having, and he said that he went through the very same when he was studying at Providence.

    I think it was the problem of evil that finally pushed me over the edge in terms of rejecting my faith. What was interesting for me was that I wasn’t despondent or in despair after I realized I didn’t have to make excuses for God any more. If anything, I felt more free and the world became a more interesting and precious place.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading about your honest struggles. So often I find that believers aren’t willing to be so honest in their doubts — and when I see people who are willing, that makes me respect them all the more.

    Take care.

  2. Marc

    Well, people do say that seminary can make or break your faith.

    To be fair, I don’t know if this was an expression of doubt or simply frustration, impatience, grief and maybe a little anger. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for doubt–there is, and I do experience it.

    My prof borrowed a concept from Socrates and said, “The unexamined faith is not worth believing,” which I appreciate.

    I think that I am frustrated with this assignment and the contents of the book partly because I can’t simply deny evil or God, nor can I combine them. That may seem strange, I suppose, but for me there is no *necessary* conclusion arising out of this problem.

    Thanks for your comment, Becky.

  3. Andre

    We’ve come to attach God to what we call good and detach him from what we call evil. The curse of pretending we have the wisdom to name things good and evil is that it detaches us from the God that is in all things, and replaces him with half a God. We don’t need to diminish God by trying to argue him as good. We can learn to accept that God’s way is neither what we call good nor evil, it is simply God’s Way and on the way to unity with him, it leads us into joy and suffering, and he no more or less present in either.

    For the problem of suffering to exist, there must first be the problem of happiness – wherein we think happiness is the ultimate ideal, and that any absence of it is an infraction against the experience we are supposed to be having.

  4. Randall

    It was early in my ministry that I stopped defending God. I felt like my excuses were small insignificant attempts to explain the unexplainable. He is GOD and really doesn’t need me to get it all. Nor does he need me to make excuses for himself.

    Yeah, I have some questions to ask, when the time is right. But that time is not yet.

    The other day I stumbled again across this gem, from Daniel:

    Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If the God we serve is able to deliver us, then he will deliver us from the blazing furnace and from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

    If the God we serve is able to deliver us, then he will deliver us from the blazing furnace and from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not…

    No explanations or excuses for God not showing up, no abandoning God because he may not do what we want to see. Just an absolute trust in a God bigger than themselves.

    They didn’t always “Get” God, and still they had faith. I respect that. No excuses, no compromises, no blame.

  5. Marc


    “The curse of pretending we have the wisdom to name things good and evil”

    I agree–that’s something I didn’t know how to express, other than by saying, “God’s ways are not our ways.”

    Having said that, can we not know what is good and what is evil (i.e. un-good), and that what is un-good is other than what God intends?


    I certainly don’t intend to blame God for anything. I don’t have that inclination at all.

    My questions are simply, along with the Psalmists, I suppose, “Why?” and “How long?”

    While believing God is faithful, I don’t want to be flippant about the existence of evil, either (not saying you are).

  6. Andrew

    There’s no satisfactory answer(s) to the problem of evil – all attempts ring hollow at some point.

    But equally hollow are materialist answers provided to the question of suffering…

  7. Andre

    Marc: To take a particular event and call it good or evil is to deny the complexity and multitude of outcomes that a particular event can have. If witness to an ‘evil’ event changes someone and makes them ‘good’ then is the inciting event still evil? Why would we call it evil? Because the initial, immediate consequences were suffering? Ultimately it’s a judgment based on limited perspective. We lack the ability to see all the consequences of events so we lack the ability to judge.

    The good and evil paradigm is a polarizing dichotomy meant to instill the ego with a sense of self-righteousness. The point of good and evil is not to prevent me from being evil , but to assure me that my self-interested actions are good.

    If, however we think of God’s way, instead of good and evil, we don’t come to think of ourselves as being generally ‘good’. Rather we try to remain in God’s way, without much concern if that is ‘good’ for our ego or nation or what have you.

  8. Marc Post author


    The question that comes immediately to mind, though, is this: is there any possible way that the torture of children which Ivan described be considered anything other than evil? What good could possibly come of something like that…and even if something good came of it, does that change the nature of what was done? Hart would not deny that God can still use evil for good, even if the evil itself was not willed by him.

  9. Andrew

    I can’t disagree more with Andre’s comment…. Surely we can agree that, for example, the suffering of children as described by Ivan is evil?

    “If witness to an ‘evil’ event changes someone and makes them ‘good’ then is the inciting event still evil?” – clearly, yes; if I witness mindless evil (e.g., a senseless beating in the streets by a gang of thugs) and I thereafter dedicate myself to improving the welfare of the marginalized, the original beating will be no less evil.

  10. Andrew

    “Ultimately it’s a judgment based on limited perspective.” – I think we can trust our immediate gut reaction when we see suffering and call it evil.

  11. Andre

    My intent is to go back to the root of our mythology regarding human nature. Note that it is our supposed knowledge and ability to discern good from evil that separated Adam and Eve from God.

    Obviously there are many horrors in the world. My point is not to say they are actually ‘good’. I’m as hesitant to use the word good to pronounce judgment on things as I am to use the word evil. My point is that we are not able to judge because we have too small a perspective.

    Concerning the girl’s suffering – how does calling it evil alleviate it? Do you mean the suffering is evil or do you mean the parents are evil? What do you mean when you call something evil, except to say you dislike it severely, or that it illicits a disgust response in you (for some would call evil anything that discomfits them)?

    If you want to call suffering evil, then surely you must attribute evil to God who both causes and allows suffering.

    I disagree that suffering is evil. I believe that it is through suffering that we lose our self-centeredness and open ourselves up to the suffering and experience of others.

  12. Marc

    (I assume we’re discussing this from a Judeo-Christian point of view, right?)

    Does God *cause* suffering? Isn’t that what this whole discussion is about? If I call suffering evil I must attribute evil to God only if I believe that God causes the suffering.

    My question in this post is whether not causing evil but simply allowing it to occur is any better.

    Calling the girl’s suffering evil doesn’t alleviate it, but it names it for what it is, rather than downplaying it. She is not evil for suffering, but suffering is not the way it ought to be.

    There’s a difference between what was done to Ivan’s children and a child scraping her knee. I’m not talking about things that make us uncomfortable, but about those things that dehumanize.

    Suffering does help us to “lose our self-centeredness and open ourselves up to the suffering and experience of others,” but does that make suffering good (or not evil)?

    There a difference, too, between suffering by choice (i.e. as Jesus did) or by force (i.e. the children described by Ivan). But in either case, can we say that those who inflicted the suffering were in any way doing good or that the suffering itself was good? Was the suffering of Jesus meant to glorify suffering or to deal with it? Isn’t that the direction in which redemptive history is going, to the time when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”? Doesn’t this trajectory (and the fall in Genesis) imply that things are not as they ought to be–that death and pain are not the way things ought to be?

  13. Andre

    Marc: I appreciate your questions here.

    Judeo-Christianity doesn’t have one point of view on this. Actually I think the polarity of good and evil has less to do with Judeo-Christianity and more to do with Western dualism.

    Justice and righteousness are not at the end of the good/evil dichotomy. Justice and righteousness and the way things should be are at the middle. They are the equilibrium – which means where things should be.

    Some people are not content with reality or with an equilibrium of justice for all. They need to push past what God has given until they have dominated all around them, gaining more than is just for themselves (or their group) and forcing others to be inline with them. Some call this good, others call it evil. But it is the same thing: the forceful exertion of strength and will to shape our shared reality into the shape that I want it to have. This necessarily marginalizes and limits other people (degrees of dehumanization) and is called good if you are on the inside of the system, and evil if you are on the outside.

    Yearning to do good blinds us to our own evil because we start by defining ourselves as abstractly good and as oriented toward doing abstract good while taking care of our interests. Witness the Israeli governments response to accusations (by their own traumatized soldiers) that they committed gross war crimes (systematic killing of civilians, well poisoning, chemical weapons) in Gaza, “That is impossible. We are the most moral army in the world.” All that means is they believe they are so moral that anything they do can only be good.

    Why must the suffering of Jesus mean anything? Surely his greatest suffering was diminishing his Godliness so that he could become an incarnate human being. His suffering on the cross was only a suffering that was common to man; in fact it was so common for men to be crucified that two were hung with him and both suffered longer than Christ, whose suffering was cut sort by the thrust of a spear.

    Jesus suffering showed that suffering and death was part of the human walk. Overcoming suffering, remaining true despite suffering is what it means to be human.

    It’s interesting that Genesis 2 describes the nature of man as thus: Since woman came from man, a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. That is the nature of humanity as created by God – humans need to leave the comfort and safety of the parent and learn who they are by cleaving together. That’s not the result of The Fall – it’s the nature of who we are.

    The Fall story is a great metaphor of the snares that can come between man and god, and man and wife – but we know from Genesis 2 that Adam and Eve needed to leave the garden in order to become fully human (adults).

    Life is a journey and it is, generally, how it is supposed to be – filled with a mix of justice to give us hope and injustice for us to overcome. The purpose of the world is to make us grow up so we can have a mature relationship with God and with each other.

    This is the world God made. He is here. Fully. There is nothing good nor evil that makes him less present. That’s what enables me to say “life is” and leave it at that, without appending good or evil to it.

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