The scale of suffering and the magnitude of the disaster in Southeast Asia defy the imagination. Sitting comfortably in our own homes and offices, we can look at the images, video segments, and computer simulations, knowing all the while that, in the nations that encircle the Indian Ocean, the death toll continues to mount.

This much is clear - the direct death toll from this disaster is likely to reach 250,000, and subsequent deaths related to the disaster may drive the total number of deaths to well over half a million. Those numbers are hard to take, but the video images are even harder to see. Satellite pictures taken before and after the massive tsunamis struck unprotected coastlines tell the story.

Before the tsunami, a thriving region is clearly visible. In the aftermath, entire towns, villages, and cities have been wiped off the map. A wall of water traveling several hundred miles an hour and reaching the height of a multi-story building slammed into Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka with devastating force. At least nine nations were affected, with some of the waves bringing destruction as far away as Somalia on Africa's eastern coast.

The magnitude of this disaster is multiplied when we realize that these very areas most devastated by the tsunamis are among the most impoverished and helpless regions of the earth. On December 26, families were washed away, children were ripped from their parents' arms, and suffering beyond description settled upon the earth. Why?

The Big Question

That question comes immediately to the mind of any sensitive person, and any individual whose mind is allowed to rest for even a moment upon the magnitude of this disaster. At the first level, the scientific explanation seems clear. A massive earthquake, registering over 9.0 on the Richter scale, occurred more than six miles beneath the surface of the Pacific, just off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

In an instant, one of the most beautiful parts of the world became one of the most deadly, as successive mountains of water radiated from the epicenter of the quake and headed for some of the earth's most densely populated coastal areas. The sliding of tectonic plates beneath the surface of the ocean led to massive devastation and a tidal wave of grief and questions.

How do Christians explain this kind of suffering? What do we have to say about the meaning of an event like this? In short order, questions like these found their way to the front pages of the newspapers and the front lines of our cultural conversation. All too soon, confusion was evident, as various religious leaders offered advice and counsel.

Writing in The Guardian, reporter Martin Kettle put the problem in clear form: "Earthquakes and the belief in the judgment of God are, indeed, very hard to reconcile. However, no religion that offers an explanation of the world can avoid making some kind of an attempt to fit the two together." As Kettle asserted, "As with previous earthquakes, any explanation of this latest one poses us a sharp intellectual choice. Either there is an entirely natural explanation for it, or there is some other kind. Even the natural one is by no means easy to imagine, but it is at least wholly coherent."

For the atheist or agnostic, the natural explanation will suffice. Those who hold to a naturalistic and materialistic worldview will simply see this disaster as one more meaningless event taking place in a meaningless universe. As British philosopher Bryan Appleyard concluded, "The simple truth is what it has always been: nature, uncontrolled, unbidden, unpredictable, can still humble our pride and wreck our schemes in an instant. We are a thin film of thought confined to a narrow band around an undistinguished planet orbiting a pretty average star." In other words, this is just one more accident taking place in an accidental world, observed by accidental human creatures.

A Challenge