This picture, taken by a Miyako City official on March 11 and released on… (Jiji Press / AFP/Getty Images )
What hath God wrought?
In the Bible, that's an exclamation, not a question (Numbers 23:23). Still, it's a common response to any natural disaster, especially one on the scale of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, now compounded by the unnatural disaster of a nuclear crisis.
If there is a God, and if He (for the sake of convention) is all-powerful, what in God's name was He thinking?
This is perhaps the oldest of theological questions — the one that may, in fact, explain the nearly universal human yearning for faith, what evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering calls "the belief instinct." How can we explain the inexplicable? How can we make sense of suffering?
Atheists say we can explain life's complexities through science, and that there is no meaning in suffering. It just is, and we should do our best to alleviate it.
Monotheists see it somewhat differently. Faith offers answers, if only the unsatisfying: "It's a mystery." But there is little consensus among the faithful.
In the days following the 9.0 earthquake in Japan, some saw the punishing hand of God. Others saw a sign of the end of times, the coming of the apocalypse. Still others saw, well, an earthquake.
On Fox News, host Glenn Beck said he was "not saying that God is, you know, causing earthquakes," but that he was "not not" saying that.
"Whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus, there's a message being sent," said Beck, who is Mormon. "And that is, 'Hey, you know that stuff we're doing? Not really working out real well.'"
The governor of Tokyo prefecture, Shintaro Ishihara, was compelled to apologize when he was quoted after the quake as saying that Japanese politics was "tainted with egoism and populism," causing "tembatsu," or divine punishment.
Those remarks, theologians say, reflect a natural human desire to make sense of a disaster whose force and scale are difficult to comprehend. But many Christians, Jews and others profoundly disagree with the idea that the quake can be explained by the "doctrine of retribution," the idea that God punishes evil in the world.
"I think that's a common, almost instinctive, knee-jerk reaction," said Warren McWilliams, an ordained Baptist minister who is a professor of Bible studies at Oklahoma Baptist University. "The danger, I think, is in moving backwards — moving from effect to cause. It's what I call the thinking process of Job's friends." The reference was to the biblical figure whose trials helped create the archetype of a good person forced to endure inexplicable suffering.
"So long as he prospered, they thought he was good," McWilliams said of Job. "The moment he suffered, they thought there must be some sin." When Hurricane Katrina struck, he added, "a lot of conservative Christians said, you know, New Orleans is a sin city, and so God judged them. I don't think it's my place to make that judgment. I think it's a dangerously simple way to think of a complex situation."
Certainly, the Bible is full of examples of divine retribution: Noah's flood or the plagues that afflicted the Egyptians. And Jesus warned of earthquakes (Matthew 24:7-8) as "birth pains" before the end of the world.
Erik Thoennes, a professor of theology at Biola University and a pastor at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, said he believes that human iniquity does, in fact, play a role in natural disasters. But he does not want to cast blame on the Japanese.
"Is God judging Japan?" he asked. "Well, no more than He's judging me."
Thoennes added that events like the Japanese earthquake can bring people closer to God. It "calls us back to rethink the biggest questions of life," he said.
Siroj Sorajjakool, a professor of religious psychology and counseling at Loma Linda University, has written about the religious response to the 2004 tsunami that struck his native Thailand and other parts of south and southeast Asia, and said different faiths have divergent ways of dealing with disaster.
The Buddhist explanation, he said, boils down to: "People die; life is impermanent. You can't control it so you have to let go." Christianity, he said, "has greater challenges dealing with this kind of question." As a Seventh-day Adventist, he prefers not to dwell on that which is unanswerable.
"The challenge," he said, "is not how does God make all these things happen. The challenge is, in a world where bad things happen, can Christians hold onto hope and continue to practice compassion?"
That isn't far from the theology expressed by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an organization of Conservative Jewish rabbis.
God created the world but isn't micromanaging it, Schonfeld believes. "I live in a real world of science and technology," she said. "We know that these things happen, and we are humbled by them."
"As Jewish theology has evolved, it has focused more on what people can do to help each other," she added. And with that in mind, she said the earthquake image that made the deepest impression on her is not one of endless devastation.
Instead, Schonfeld keeps thinking of "these workers who have stayed with the reactor. What heroes! That's the immense, for me, faith-provoking image." What that tells us, she said, is "that people have a concept that there's something greater than their own life that they're willing to work for and sacrifice for."