Paul Johnson

Why the giant waves were acts of a benevolent God

Why the giant waves were acts of a benevolent God

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Things are stirring on the God front. A leading atheist recants his disbelief, provoking cries of anguish from the Darwinian fundamentalists crowded on to their isolated bandwagon, now stuck in the mud of events. On the other hand, the giant waves in the Indian Ocean shocked the Archbishop of Canterbury — not one whom Jane Austen would have called ‘a sensible man’ even at the best of times — into doubting the existence of a deity, or at least a benevolent one. The question of whether the notion of God is compatible with the existence of evil or calamitous events in the world is a very ancient one, and was pondered by Plato and the Stoics, and most of the early Christian philosophers — such as Origen — and later by Thomas Aquinas. The Manichees got worked up about it, believing as they did that the universe was governed by evil as well as noble forces; obviously, a major earthquake would tend to suggest that evil has got the upper hand, if only pro tem.

In 1695–97 Pierre Bayle published his Dictionnaire historique et critique, which subjected common religious notions to historical and critical analysis, and became (as it were) a bestseller among European intellectuals, laying the foundations of the 18th-century so-called Enlightenment. Among other things, he argued that dreadful happenings in the world, whether natural, like earthquakes, or man-made, like wars, were incompatible with an omnipotent deity committed to the triumph of goodness and virtue. He was answered on this point in 1710 by G.W. Leibniz in a grisly work called Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal. The word ‘theodicy’ was his coinage, as meaning the investigation of God’s justice. He also invented the phrase that this world is ‘the best of all possible worlds’, much bandied about by 18th-century salon savants. To justify this view he argued that evil and disasters were like the shades in a painting, necessary to bring out the light of the composition and the beauty and harmony of the whole. Hence his general optimism. His view, however, was shaken by the terrific Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which destroyed the city, killed 150,000 people and set the savants arguing.

The Lisbon business, like the Big Wave of Boxing Day, makes me doubt not the existence of God but the common sense of those who claim to be leading thinkers. What had the deaths of 150,000 Lisboans to do with a fundamental question like the existence of God? They were going to die anyway. You might argue that the existence of death itself told us something about God, but not the acceleration of extinction in a few particular cases. The Lisbon earthquake occurred just at the beginning of the world population explosion, produced both by rising birth-rates and, still more, by falling death-rates, events, unlike the earthquake, of real long-term significance. They might well have asked, in the 1780s, when increases in population just became perceptible and invited comment, why God had suddenly decided to allow more people to live in the world. But by then the earthquake was forgotten, or was being relegated, by the Revd Thomas Malthus, to the ranks of natural disasters needed to keep an expanding population under some kind of control. The Lisbon earthquake, important though it seemed at the time, merely served to illustrate the rule that, in the long perspective of history, nothing is more trivial than a large-scale natural disaster. The only interesting thing, to us, about the enormous flood which devastated huge areas of the Middle East in the first half of the third millennium bc, is that it left some marks in the records, not only the Old Testament (Genesis vi 5-9; 17) but in the Sumerian King-List and the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. These different viewpoints, far from citing the disaster as a reason for doubting God’s existence, saw it as a demonstration of His power ‘to destroy all flesh’, as the Bible says, or (in the case of the Babylonian epic of Atrahasis) as the answer of the gods to the problem of human noise after previous attempts to diminish their numbers had failed. This is more in line with Malthusian theory than is the Old Testament Noah story. But neither is seen today as having any bearing on the existence or benevolence of God. Only children remember the Flood now. But they treasure it mainly because of Noah himself, and his dove and ‘the animals two by two’. The ark and its contents, which I bought for our first child getting on for half a century ago, has proved by far the most popular and desirable of all the toys. This, to me, has a much more interesting bearing on God than the Flood itself.

The notion, put forward by the Darwinian Central Committee, that the Indian Ocean disaster should persuade us to turn our intellectual backs on a God-directed universe, seems to be puerile. Why did God kill so many people? But God kills people all the time, millions every day. For that matter, God creates people, millions every day. The big waves killed no more than the Lisbon earthquake, and a much smaller percentage of the total population than in 1755. Against a total of 150,000 or so, we have to remember that four billion have been added to the number of people in the world during the last 70 years. That 150,000 is only the tiniest ephemeral blip on the world’s demographic radar. Sri Lanka, which suffered heavily, has a population of 20 million; 11 million will be added to it by 2050. Sumatra, another chief victim, will double its population by that date. Despite the losses, there are already considerably more people in the world today than there were in Christmas week. We are asked to draw transcendental conclusions from this event because of its scale. But the scale, in terms of the magnitude of the world and its inhabitants, is puny, almost insignificant.

It is worth pointing out that this catastrophe was a real event but also a media event on a grand scale. If it had occurred in 1755 it would have been virtually unheard of in Europe, and not at all in America. In 1755 the European media, such as it was, could just about take cognisance of what happened in its own continent; that is all. The Great Awakening then taking place in the American colonies was not interested in Lisbon, so it was ignored in the countless sermons then preached in the camp gatherings.

The true theological or philosophical point to be made about the Indian Ocean wave — if, indeed, there is one — is that it is a timely reminder of the fragility of our existence in this world, the ease with which life on a sunny holiday beach can be snuffed out in a few torrential seconds, and the awesome power which nature still wields, and will always wield, in a world where science and engineering make such boastful strides in subduing her. And any reminder of the ultimate and total powerlessness of human beings, made always necessary by our arrogance and boasting, must be an act of God, and a very sensible and benevolent one too. It can also be argued — and this is what our bishops, if they had any sense, would be arguing — that such events make us think about transience and death, and our own preparedness for our extinction and the life to come. So the calamity — so distressing for those individually involved — was for humanity as a whole a profoundly moral occurrence, and an act of God performed for our benefit.