All three wished to justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand. None seemed to worry that others might think him to be making a fine case for a rejection of God, or of faith in divine goodness. Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all. ~David B. Hart, “Tsunami and Theodicy,” First Things (March 2005)

This is the core of Dr. Hart’s objection to conventional theodicy of a religious bent, and it forms the core of the main rebuttal of this kind of theodicy in his crisply-written little book, The Doors of the Sea (Eerdmans, July 2005), which carries with it the tagline: “Where was God in the Tsunami?” Expanding upon a December 31 Wall Street Journal article, Dr. Hart puts forward what he regards as the proper Orthodox perspective of natural calamity and God’s goodness. Having written an article, then a longer essay and finally a book in response to the dreadful tsunami of December 2004, Dr. Hart cannot be accused of having insufficiently thought about the problem. It is generally a successful summary of Orthodox doctrines of God, creation and man and a thoughtful consideration of the implications that innocent and ‘random’ suffering may or may not have for these doctrines. After a treatment of what we might call literary theodicies in Voltaire and Dostoevsky, Dr. Hart restates Orthodox teaching on the cosmological significance of the Fall, based in the truth that man is microcosm, and relies heavily on this one doctrine to ‘exculpate’, if you will, God from any connection to the massive suffering of the Asian tsunami. By the same token, presumably, he would make the same case for the disaster on the Gulf Coast and the destruction of New Orleans, which makes his sort of theodicy immediately relevant.

Where Dr. Hart goes awry is in his central argument that because God did not create the world with death and suffering (absolutely true), and because death and suffering have no inherent meaning (again, true), God therefore has no role in these calamities and death and suffering as they are experienced in the world have no meaning. I think the logical mistake is clear for all to see. What is true of suffering as such, which is simply the fruit of our alienation from God, is not necessarily true of suffering in history over which God is sovereign. If suffering was in some sense ’empty’ or ‘senseless’ before the Incarnation and Passion, it is difficult to see how it remained this way after the Resurrection.

If the Eighth Day is the beginning of a new creation, and even though we acknowledge and believe that death has no sting, Hades no victory, how do we account for the continued existence of natural calamities and death, unless these are to serve as spurs to repentance and thus serve the purpose of God to raise man and all creation to Himself?Taken abstractly and in isolation, it is correct that death is absolutely meaningless, because it is the deprivation and absence of life, and suffering likewise as part of our fallen, mortal condition. But that is not to say that illness, suffering and death have no purpose (their chief purposes, according to the Fathers, are to remind us of death, teach us to repent and limit our sinful state respectively), or that God does not ordain these things to come to pass (clearly, Scripture and the Fathers say that He does–more on this later).

I suppose it is conceivable that there might be ‘random’ or ‘senseless’ suffering in the world, but that would need to be argued much more closely than Dr. Hart does. In fact, Dr. Hart essentially grants that much suffering and death is random and senseless, and he grants this without much protest. He seems to assume that this claim is obviously largely correct–it is the misguided attempts to ‘make sense’ of disaster with reference to God’s inscrutable ways that are the main target of his ire.

His ‘solution’ is both to acquit God of any involvement in the calamities themselves, though he does allow that God might turn such evils to some good (because he cannot ignore Providence all together), and to affirm the meaninglessness of at least the random suffering experienced in such natural disasters. At the root of this is a curiously non-patristic (to say nothing of non-Scriptural) aversion to thinking of God as ever being a wrathful God, a God Who might justly and lovingly will destruction as chastisement and correction. It may seem distasteful to a modern audience to think of a hurricane or a tsunami in terms of God’s “fatherly” rebuke, but this is how a far greater Christian and theologian than Dr. Hart or I will likely ever be did see natural calamities. Dr. Hart cannot point an accusing finger at Bl. Augustine and his theological successors, or at anyone else, for this ‘distorted’ understanding of theodicy–it is eminently Orthodox, expressed by one of the greatest Orthodox saints, the Theologian himself, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (I intend to post a lengthier treatment of this problem with extensive quotes from St. Gregory’s Oration 16).

Dr. Hart’s squeamishness, which is what it seems to me to be, at the thought of a wrathful God has already made any patristic account for suffering irrelevant to his argument. The thought of a wrathful God is something he is so far from acknowledging that he does not even engage the Fathers when they speak of God in this way. It is certainly a trend in modern theology, including Orthodox theology, to de-emphasise potentially embarrassing concepts in the Fathers, whether by heavily ‘contextualising’ them historically so as to deprive them of contemporary relevance or by misusing, as it seems to me, the concept of the consensus patrum to write off some patristic ideas as eccentric or idiosyncratic and therefore not authoritative. Hart’s book does not ignore the Fathers–he relies on them for a solid account of the goodness of God, creation, man and his place in the cosmos. But his brisk treatment of the subject apparently precluded testing his idea against the received wisdom of the Fathers–it is not only St. Gregory who makes the case for understanding natural calamities as chastisements, but St. Maximos who approvingly comments on a similar view from a separate Oration. What cannot be stressed enough is that God’s wrath and mercy are both expressions of His love (whom the Lord loves He chastises–Heb. 12:6), and there has never been an inherent contradiction between divine wrath and divine love.

On the whole, Hart seems to be a very learned and sound theologian. But he has an odd habit of slipping into the most odd preoccupations of modern theology. Sometimes it is his odd (perhaps rhetorical?) insistence of practical identity between body and soul in other writings, and other times it is his unwillingness to grant that God, in His love for mankind, teaches us to honour His commandments and do His will through the very ‘brokenness’ of our broken cosmos in the form of the most terrible calamities. That may be difficult for many modern people to accept, but it was not a scandal to the Fathers and it is no harder than many of the Lord’s own hard sayings.

As a rising and accomplished theologian, and as a representative of the Orthodox in this country, Dr. Hart has the potential to convey Orthodoxy in all Her beauty to an American and broader English-speaking audience and may well work as an instrument of God’s inspiration for many to come and see the Truth in the Orthodox Church. In spite of his sometimes dubious choice of venues for publication, I believe he is a sincere and serious moral witness against the corruptions of our age and generally what another generation might have called sound. All the more reason that his theological reflections should be tested and re-tested against the prominent boundaries laid down by the Fathers.

It is also all the more reason why we should doubt his blithe theodicy that does not even aspire to explain the problem of suffering and evil in the world, except to say that this is the way it has been since the Fall, which is not to tell us anything we didn’t already know. That is not all there is to it, and it is a failure of nerve and a failure to fulfill the responsibilities of someone to whom much understanding has evidently been given.