William Luse, who has written for Touchstone, responds to David Hart’s Wall Street Journal article on the Indian Ocean tsunamis:

I read David Hart’s "Tremors of Doubt", which you linked to, and a few lines caught my attention. He says:

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.

Of course, I am no theologian and may not possess a theologian’s understanding of "ultimate meaning," but I had always thought that human suffering and death did have meaning, and that it was Christ’s own that allowed us to see it. In a world not created for suffering, our first parents let it in (that "primordial catastrophe" to which Hart refers), implicating not only themselves but all their descendants as well in the guilt for it and the restitution that must be made to God. What makes this imputation of universal guilt most difficult to bear is not merely the fact of suffering, but the suffering of innocents (the "infants crushed upon their mothers’ breasts"). We are all guilty, but some are guiltier than others. We don’t understand why the (relatively) innocent must suffer in the company, and sometimes at the hands, of the implacably evil or indifferent. Our sense of justice (and, we hope, God’s) demands that punishments and rewards be distributed according to our just desserts, and that if we cannot see it in this life, it will be completed in the next.

But Hart refers to Voltaire’s ‘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’—and says that, though Christians sometimes speak in these terms, "this is not the Christian God." And I agree, but he then goes further:

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.

I agree that it might be prudent in the crisis of grief to swallow the "banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels", but how is it that they become odious? And it might be wise in that same moment to bite one’s tongue on the matter of God’s good, though mysterious, ends. But how does mention of them become blasphemous, as though He would be offended by our acknowledging His providence, or by submitting our minds to His in matters beyond us?

Perhaps I’m misreading him, or reading too much into his piece, but Hart seems uncomfortable with Christians who speak of God as the great (though mysterious and secretive) balancer of accounts, as when he notes:

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.

People who "utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels" (with or without a license) are saying one thing and one thing only: we either have faith in those counsels, and His "good ends", or it’s all a big nothing. Either the suffering of those innocents participated in Christ’s own, bearing spiritual fruit for themselves and for all mankind, or…what? Nothing. Suffering has meaning. It can save us. (Can, not must.) To me, it would be a great sorrow and a pity to find out in eternity that it were not so.

So I ask: am I seeing something in his words that isn’t there?

And David Hart replies:

One must attend to the meaning of "ultimate."  The story Christian doctrine tells is that sin and death are accidental to our created nature, and so they never occupied any necessary place in God’s intentions for his creatures; nor has he need of suffering and death to realize his nature or ours. Whatever good God may bring from suffering or death does not, therefore, endue suffering or death with any eternal or ontological meaning in itself.

I shall skip over the matter of universal aboriginal guilt, as it presumes an understanding of original sin that is not quite in keeping with Eastern tradition, and I am of course Orthodox.  But let us grant original sin its place, and that we all sin.

Still, the notion that the suffering of, say, dying babies somehow participates in Christ’s suffering and is part of some vast providential calculus whereby God balances accounts is a Stoic parody of Christian orthodoxy, and were it true Christian teaching I should advocate apostasy.  There is no biblical or doctrinal warrant for such a view. Yes, the deaths of innocents are indeed meaningless, even if God’s providence will indeed bring good from that evil; there is no spiritual fruit to be reaped from the drowning of tens of thousands of infants, for them or for us; the reign of death in all things is not the same as the justice of every particular death in the great scheme of things; that is why Christ came to save us from suffering and death, and why God will raise the dead. This world is fallen, and nowhere does God promise to make the sum total of its suffering add up to some greater spiritual truth. Rather, through taking our suffering upon himself, he rescues us from the meaninglessness of death, and even graciously allows us to offer up our own sufferings in obedience to him.

This is the gospel: it does not announce the perfect rationality of the history of the fallen world, but the perfect love of God who overcomes the powers of this age.

I earnestly implore all who have not done so to read Ivan Karamazov’s remarks in the chapter entitled "Rebellion" in The Brothers Karamazov, and to reflect upon them.

Our thanks to Dr. Hart for responding here (for the benefit of our readers) to a piece he published elsewhere.