The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?


As news reports of the horrific December 2004 tsunami in Asia reached the rest of the world, commentators were quick to seize upon the disaster as proof of either God's power or God's nonexistence, asking over and over, How could a good and loving God — if such exists — allow such suffering?

In The Doors of the Sea David Bentley Hart speaks at once to those skeptical of Christian faith and to those who use their Christian faith to rationalize senseless human suffering. He calls ...

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As news reports of the horrific December 2004 tsunami in Asia reached the rest of the world, commentators were quick to seize upon the disaster as proof of either God's power or God's nonexistence, asking over and over, How could a good and loving God — if such exists — allow such suffering?

In The Doors of the Sea David Bentley Hart speaks at once to those skeptical of Christian faith and to those who use their Christian faith to rationalize senseless human suffering. He calls both to recognize in the worst catastrophes not the providential will of God but rather the ongoing struggle between the rebellious powers that enslave the world and the God who loves it wholly.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In his latest work, theologian Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite) responds to passionate secularists posing the question, "Where was God during the Asian tsunami?" In his response, Hart addresses natural evils and moral evils, but it is often unclear for which evil he is apologizing. Moreover, he weaves a disjointed argument that attempts to reconcile evil by suggesting it is outside a benevolent God's creation. From here he explains why God allows evil to exist by unwittingly using variants of what philosopher Theodore M. Drange (Nonbelief & Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God) has called the "Free Will Defense," the "Afterlife Defense," and the "Unknown-Purpose Defense." Alas, Hart's explanations will do little to challenge naturalistic philosophers who, like Drange, have considered this problem. For a more rigorous theistic treatment of the problem of evil, try Richard Swinburne's Providence and the Problem of Evil. An optional purchase for academic libraries.-Brad S. Matthies, Butler Univ. Lib., Indianapolis Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802866868
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 136
  • Sales rank: 225,061
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

David Bentley Hart is author of Beauty of the Infinite and In the Aftermath?, among others, and has taught at The University of Virginia, Duke University, and Providence College.

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Read an Excerpt

The Doors of the Sea

Where Was God in the Tsunami?
By David Bentley Hart

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2976-7

Chapter One

Universal Harmony

* * *


In that great verdant arc of lands that forms the northeastern rim of the Indian Ocean and that takes the Bay of Bengal into its embrace - sweeping out from Sri Lanka and up the coasts of eastern India to Bangladesh and Burma, then down the Malay Peninsula to Thailand and Malaysia, and then further down the coast of Sumatra to the western tip of Java - there are Gods without number. Hinduism, in the full profusion of its various forms, is of course the dominant religion only of India, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and the greater Indian diaspora of Southeast Asia. At one time or another, however, the Vedic deities have held sway over all these shores; among the Hinayana Buddhist peoples of the region - the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka and most of the native inhabitants of Thailand and Burma (or Myanmar, if one prefers) - they have always enjoyed a high, if subordinate, eminence in the order of religious devotions. The Chinese communities of the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, being Mahayana Buddhist for the most part, but also Taoist and Confucian, are attended by bodhisattvas and divinities of a more remote provenance. Islam is the official faith of Bangladesh and Malaysia, and the dominant religion of Indonesia. Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, has a presence in all these lands, in some cases small but substantial, in others somewhat more fugitive and beleaguered. As for the aboriginal animisms of the indigenous peoples, such as the Nat worship of Burma, none of the great faiths of the far or near East has succeeded in extinguishing them. And - needless to say, perhaps - in very many places the demarcations between differing traditions are lost in a golden haze of generous and unreflective syncretism. Very few of those who live at the upper periphery of the Indian Ocean doubt that, among the many supernal powers keeping watch over those waters - benign or capricious, transcendent or local, omnipotent or merely mighty - there is at least one who is able to govern their tides and turbulences and to keep the sea within its appointed bounds.

Far below the water's surface, however, at and beneath the ocean floor, lies a source of elemental violence so vast, convulsive, unpredictable, perennial, and destructive that one might almost be tempted to think that it is itself a particularly indomitable and infernal sort of god. And, in fact, the most enduring manifestations of its power above sea level - those grim volcanic islands that lie in a long catenate archipelago off the western shores of Indonesia - have in their time no doubt been objects of worship, supplication, propitiation, and pious dread. These islands are situated along perhaps the most volatile geodynamic fissure in the world, the place where apparently two enormous tectonic plates - the Indo-Australian and the Eurasian (upon whose edge Sumatra and Java are precariously poised) - continuously pass one another by in their slow, interminable, millennial migrations. It is an immense seam of unquenchable fire that down through the geological epochs has shaped and reshaped this entire crescent of islands and continental littorals. Its forces do not subside, and it is never truly dormant; but it does know long intervals of comparative stability, during which life above goes on largely undisturbed. Up there, when the weather is calm, the water is a smooth, immeasurable, tremulous mirror of the tropical sky, gleaming like silver, furling with crystalline brilliancy, its waves sapphire blue at their crests and a deep glassy green in their inner folds. Tourists - upon whom many of the countries of the region so desperately depend - come by the thousands in order (for the most part) to luxuriate on ivory beaches and gaze out at the beauty of the ocean and marvel at the extravagant lushness of the South Asian flora.

On good days, it must be all but impossible to imagine the slow, constant, savage geological ferment so many fathoms down. When, though, the power lurking below the marine fault does break forth with full strength, the devastation it wreaks is more terrible than the mind can easily encompass. It was here, for instance, in 1883, in the Strait of Sunda between Sumatra and Java, that the entire island of Krakatoa exploded, killing more than 36,000 persons. All but a minuscule minority died not from the burning ash flung into the air by the blast, but from the massive tsunamis that followed from it. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children drowned on land, or were carried out to sea, or were shattered by the force of the water. It appears, moreover, that this same volcano had erupted in similar fashion many times in the past, only to form itself anew. Even now, it is growing into an island again in the broad mouth of the Sunda Strait, storing up fire for its next eruption. And, of course, earthquakes are inevitable. As the tectonic plates move, they must on occasion grate against one another, impede one another's drift, then jolt free. When this happens, the heavier basalt of the ocean floor can even actually slide beneath and raise the lighter continental shelf. When this occurs, it may be as if the doors of the sea have been flung wide again. The ocean breaks from its confines with annihilating power, and God - it seems - does not stay its waves.

So it was on the second day of Christmas 2004, when an earthquake - measured on the Richter scale at a magnitude of 9.0 - struck offshore of Banda Aceh, at the northern end of Sumatra, early in the morning. Near the epicenter, the tremors were horribly lethal; but the far greater devastation released by the quake came (as is almost always the case) from the tsunamis it drove toward all the surrounding coasts. An enormous surge, scarcely visible at first, spread in all directions with extraordinary speed, then slowed and mounted as it approached land, and then struck with cataclysmic ferocity. No one was prepared. Warnings may have been given to some of the regional governments, but they were not made public. At the shorelines, the lovely glistening hyaline waters were all at once polluted with the silt and debris and murk of the ocean's bed, and rose with such terrifying suddenness that very few - even as far away as Sri Lanka - had sufficient time to flee.

In the days immediately following, a proper picture of the real dimensions of the disaster was strangely slow in reaching the world beyond. At first, those of us who lived far from the region heard that thousands had perished, which seemed tragic enough; then, in subsequent days, the number of the dead began to be reckoned in tens of thousands; and then, finally, in hundreds of thousands, and the true horror of what had occurred became in some small measure appreciable for us. As I write, the most recent estimate is very near a quarter million. And when images of the aftermath began to appear, they seemed too dreadful to believe: films of those caught amid the flood clinging desperately to poles and railings, and occasionally losing their grip to be torn away by the fierce rush of the water; satellite pictures showing where whole islands had been laid waste, villages swept away, the earth stripped of vegetation; and photographs of long stretches of coastline strewn not only with wreckage but with countless corpses, a great many the corpses of small children.

Considering the scope of the catastrophe, and of the agonies and sorrows it had visited on so many, we should probably have all remained silent for a while. The claim to discern some greater meaning - or, for that matter, meaninglessness - behind the contingencies of history and nature is both cruel and presumptuous at such times. Pious platitudes and words of comfort seem not only futile and banal, but almost blasphemous; metaphysical disputes come perilously close to mocking the dead. There are moments, simply said, when we probably ought not to speak. But, of course, we must speak.


It is difficult to tell sometimes, in the wake of a great disaster, whether those who hasten to announce whatever greater significance they find in the event are moved more by an urgent moral need to sow light in the midst of darkness or by a kind of emotional and rhetorical opportunism, which takes the torments of others as an occasion for the reiteration of one or another set of personal convictions. I can scarcely, I hasten to say, be very sanctimonious on this score: I myself agreed to produce a short column on the Indian Ocean catastrophe for The Wall Street Journal on the Friday following the earthquake. But it is hard not to suspect (uncharitably, perhaps) an especially glacial and doctrinaire callousness on the part of the triumphalistic atheist who feels compelled to leap at once into the breach and stridently to proclaim that here, finally, the materialist creed has been vindicated: that here we have an instance of empirical horrors too vast to be reconciled with belief in a loving and omnipotent God, and that upon this rock the ship of faith must surely founder and sink and leave nothing but fragments of flotsam to wash up into the shoals of the future.

The vice is especially pronounced among journalists, as might be expected: for, naturally, if one believes that God's last defenses have been dashed aside, and that the coup de grace can now be dealt, one does not wish to be beaten to press. Which is not to say that other, more commendable motives are not also at work: no doubt the fanatical materialist and the captious skeptic often need to give voice to a genuine moral outrage, and this is nothing contemptible. But the alacrity with which some seize upon the moment when tragedy befalls to hold forth upon the indifference of the universe and the obvious nonexistence of God inevitably gives rise, at the very least, to extraordinarily inept arguments; and this in itself suggests a certain want of care or scrupulous reflection. After all, if one considers the implications of an event like the Indian Ocean disaster in a broader perspective than is provided in the first few moments, and asks what it has taught us about the world we live in or the nature of finitude that we did not already know perfectly well, the answer - to be unsentimentally precise - is absolutely nothing.

This is not to ignore the pitiless immensity of what happened that day, nor certainly to dismiss the spiritual perplexity that misery on so awful a scale occasions. But there comes a point when prudence, no less than intellectual honesty, requires us - Christians, that is - to prepare ourselves for what must inevitably follow: the perorations and tirades of secular moralists, gravely and condescendingly informing us that the last slender supports for our irrational religious allegiances have been ripped away, and exhorting us to repent at last of our savage credulity. Christian forbearance can all too easily falter at such junctures and give way to anger if one has not cultivated some degree of equanimity in advance. In the aftermath of the wreck of so many thousands of lives, it would be somewhat wicked to yield to petty annoyances. But, obviously, it is hard not to become impatient at disquisitions on the absurdity of religious beliefs confidently delivered by persons who have made no discernible effort to ascertain what those beliefs actually are. It seems a curious delusion - but apparently it is one shared by a great number of the more passionate secularists - to imagine that Christianity has never at any point during the two millennia of its intellectual tradition considered the problem of evil, or confronted the reality of suffering and death, or at any rate responded to these things with any subtlety: that Christians have down through the centuries simply failed to notice every single instance of flood, earthquake, or tempest, pestilence, famine, or fire, war, genocide, or slaughter; or that every Christian who has been crippled, or has contracted a terminal illness, or has watched his wife die of cancer, or has stood at the graveside of his child has somehow remained inexplicably insensible to the depths of his own pain and to the dark moral and metaphysical enigmas haunting every moment of his grief.

The British journalist Martin Kettle, for instance, published a column in The Guardian two days after the catastrophe that, in its logic and in its tone, seemed on first reading (not to put too fine a point on it) excruciatingly fatuous. "Earthquakes and the belief in the judgment of God are ... very hard to reconcile," he declares. When confronting an event like the Sumatran disaster, he argues, only two explanations as to its cause are possible: either one that is "purely natural" or "some other kind" (as though there must be some conflict between a naturalistic elucidation of contingent causes and the doctrine of creation, or as if God were to be imagined as some finite cause among the world's other causes - a particular worldly agency - who must occupy a place in the sequence of natural events akin to that of a shifting tectonic plate). The scientific explanation is uncomforting but internally coherent; but what, he asks, of the view of "creationists"? How can they possibly look upon destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of a divine intelligence behind the fabric of nature? "What God sanctions an earthquake? What God protects against it? Why does the quake strike these places and these peoples and not others?" Clearly, Kettle is convinced, no very impressive answer to such questions ever has been or ever will be ventured. But Kettle is also uncertain that there are many at present as bold as he in pressing these questions. Confident though he is in the justice of his plaint, he concludes by reflecting upon proposed laws in Britain forbidding expressions of religious hatred, which he fears might restrict open critique of religious beliefs, and morosely wonders whether most of his contemporaries still have the courage to join him in his mission to ecraser l'infame, or whether they are now "too cowed" even to ask if indeed "the God can exist that can do such things." (Of course, all things being equal, it is fairly safe to say that a public avowal of atheism will not require any particularly plentiful reserves of courage in Britain in the foreseeable future.)

A somewhat less portentous - but even more combative - article by Ron Rosenbaum appeared in the January 10 edition of The New York Observer, which laid out the same conventional assortment of arguments at greater (and rather more tedious) length, but did so in a way that suggested an at least fitful acquaintance with the sort of debates that, in the past few centuries, have been conducted between atheists and (it is necessary to emphasize this term) theists. This is not to say that Rosenbaum is acutely clear as to his terms. He defines "theodicy" quite accurately as "the attempt to reconcile the idea of an all-powerful, just and loving God who intervenes in history ... with the recurrence of catastrophic slaughter from 'natural' causes such as tsunamis and man-made evils such as genocides"; but he also calls theodicy a "subdiscipline of theology," which it most definitely is not. Nor, clearly, is he a trained philosopher, as his audacious but reckless attempt to summarize and then criticize Leibniz's theodicy makes obvious. Nor, certainly, does he address what Christian theology has traditionally said over the centuries about the nature of evil, principally because he clearly has no idea what that is. But, presumptuous as it is, Rosenbaum's article does possess many very real virtues: it is contemptuous of facile and evasive theodicies that seek somehow to disencumber God of his omnipotence; it is marked by a salutary scorn for any view of divine sovereignty that amounts to little more than the fatalistic adoration of a celestial despot; it is equally merciless in its derision of those who treat natural calamities as direct acts of divine retribution and of those who find evidences of divine benignity in isolated anecdotes of implausible survival amid the general ruin; and it is written with the awareness that if what happened in the Indian Ocean is a challenge to any kind of religious belief, it is the belief in a God of consummate goodness: a God of love.


Excerpted from The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Universal harmony 1
2 Divine victory 45
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