By noon, they knew they were looking at an epic disaster: acres of land under water, tens of thousands dead, homes and public buildings churned to piles of rubble. Tallying up the damage would take weeks, cleaning it up would take months, evaluating its impact would take years. The aftershocks made an entire continent tremble, not only physically but spiritually. For the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 became as much a philosophic event as a tectonic one.
How could God do such a thing, and not just on any day, but on All Saints' Day? Why shake the very churches where worshippers were kneeling in prayer one minute and crushed by falling masonry the next? For many, faith died in the ruins. Or else it migrated to the cool, rational theology of the Enlightenment, with its central proposition that if God exists, His policy toward the earth is strictly laissez faire.
Last month, in the season of peace and good will toward men, the ocean rose and struck Southeast Asia with a solid wave of death. It already looks like the worst natural disaster in history in terms of lives lost. Modern wars have produced a higher body count, but we know about man's inhumanity to man.
This was different. This was God's doing-who else? He who wraps Himself in the heavens as in a cloak is more than up to shaking the seas. "Faiths Ask of Quake: 'Why Did You Do This, God?'"-so runs a headline from Reuters. Similar headlines appear after every high-casualty earthquake, epidemic, and mudslide-though, of course, the question itself is hardly news.
Imagine a man, already reeling from the loss of his property, now slapped with the tale of a mighty wind that demolished the house of his oldest son. Not one, not two, but all his children were inside: "It fell upon the young people and they are dead." The occasion was just a family get-together of the type these siblings enjoyed-normal human behavior, like going to church, or vacationing on the beach, or measuring rice to cook for dinner. "Just as it was in the day of Noah," when people were "eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all" (Luke 17:26-27).
Death is the point at which all humankind meets, whether one by one or en masse. Some are allowed to see it coming. But for Job's children, for the citizens of Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755, for the coast dwellers and tourists of Southeast Asia last month, the Day of the Lord came swift and unexpected as lightning.
If fist-shaking at heaven is not a reasonable option, what do you say? Job, after a period of shocked, oriental resignation, found plenty. Under the crushing weight of disaster, all the joys of his previous life appeared as mere illusion-or worse, a trick. He understood that in the hierarchy he had no more place than a bug, that Jehovah was all-powerful and obligated to no one. Still, on the basis of their prior association during happier days, Job felt entitled at least to an answer.
But God's response to Job was famously beside the point. Instead of an answer to the question He gave Himself-torrential, prolific; life in all its variety and vexation gushing from His very fingertips. Job was not so much answered as mugged by the exuberant potency of the Almighty, and it was more than enough to stop his mouth.
For those who are even now cleaning up beaches and recovering corpses, living in the stench of death, it may seem that death alone is real. We've learned to handle it in small increments, but so much at one time mangles all previous assumptions. The anguish of Job, multiplied by tens of thousands, demands an answer.
God's response is the same-in essence, though very different in tone. He still gives Himself: stripped, beaten, and nailed to a cross. No one has ever pinned God down to the question, Why? But He pinned Himself, once for all, to the ultimate enemy. To the anguished demands of those who suffer, He extends, not a detailed treatise on the purposes and causes of suffering, but a hand pierced by a nail. To those nearly out of their minds with grief He says only, Take hold of this.
And the mouths of all who hear Him are stopped.