Televangelist Pat Robertson was quick to call the Haitian natural disaster divine retribution, and critics were just as quick to denounce and ridicule him. But now commentators are taking a step back. Buried beneath Robertson's attempt to blame the earthquake on a centuries-old "pact with the devil" lies a natural, common question: why does God let people suffer? The Atlantic Wire covered one episode in this long debate back in September, but in the wake of tragedy theodicy the questions have resurfaced. Here's how philosophers and people on the ground in Haiti are addressing the age-old question in the face of new devastation.

  • It Wasn't God "These past days," writes William Pike at the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog, " I have been reminded of a bit of scripture--admittedly out of context--from 1 Kings 19, that provides me with hope, if not with an answer. 'The Lord was not in the earthquake.'" He recalls, too, a theologian writing of the comfort in seeing, in the death of a child, not "the face of God but the face of his enemy."
  • No Kidding--It Was Geology, responds a frustrated Christopher Hitchens, atheist, at Slate. Though the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 sent theology into a tizzy, notes Hitchens, "today, we can clearly identify the 'fault' that runs under the Atlantic Ocean and still puts Portugal and other countries at risk ... The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods 'why' such disasters occur. A fault," he puns, "is not the same as a sin."
  • If It Wasn't God, then What Is Left of God? If God didn't create the earthquake, then is he really God? Philosophy lecturer David Bain quotes David Hume: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" Bain points out that "we might distinguish two kinds of evil: the awful things people do, such as murder, and the awful things that just happen, such as earthquakes." Though the necessity of free will might at least provide some explanation of the first, Bain argues that "it's quite unclear how free will is supposed to explain the other kind of evil." He explains one--in his view, flawed--explanation of why God did not create a world without natural disasters:
Its denizens wouldn't be--couldn't be--truly good people. It's not that they would all be bad. It's that they couldn't be properly good. For goodness develops only where it's needed, the idea goes, and it's not needed in the Magical World. In that world, after all, there is no danger that requires people to be brave, so there would be no bravery. That world contains no one who needs comfort or kindness or sympathy, so none would be given. It's a world without moral goodness, which is why God created ours instead.
  • If It Was God, then What Is Left of God? Suppose God creates suffering in order to "Even," writes Ted Kinnaman, philosophy professor, "if a perfectly good and powerful God cannot find a way for me to reach Him except through, say, my child's illness, why does that require that my child slowly waste away and die in intense pain? Wouldn't a severe but curable stomach bug do the trick?"
  • When God Is All That's Left "Why, then," asks Pooja Bhatia in The New York Times, observing Haitian piety, "turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst?" Bhatia's suggestion: "Haitians don't have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don't exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing."