God and Natural Disasters
“The question of why the tsunami happened is a geological question, not a theological question.” So said a Christian cleric when asked about the terrible disaster that has riveted our attention in recent weeks. Most of the Christians interviewed on television have tried to protect God’s reputation by putting distance between Him and the horrid suffering that we’ve seen so graphically.
So, does God have ‘anything to do’ with natural disasters? We all agree that nature is fallen and as a result there are faults in the earth that cause earthquakes, and earthquakes cause tidal waves. So, the argument goes that God watches, but is only marginally related to these events. After all, what good God would cause such devastation to happen?
But a moment’s reflection will soon make us realize that of course God is the ultimate cause of all natural disasters. Yes, there are faults in the earth’s crust; yes, there are weather patterns that cause rain and tornadoes. And yes, the existence of mountains make rock and mud slides possible. But does this absolve God of responsibility? Of course not.
The Bible explicitly traces natural disasters to the hand of God. Who sent the rain during the time of Noah? Who caused the darkness during the plagues? Who sent the earthquake that swallowed the rebellious sons of Korah? Who sent the storm that caught the attention of Jonah? And, who stilled the fierce wind on Galilee?
Any Christian who disagrees that God is in charge will come to complete agreement with biblical teaching when caught in a thunderstorm! Sitting in a comfortable chair on a calm day, it is easy to say that God has nothing to do with natural disasters, but when it is your wife and daughter who are being swept away in a flood; when it is your house that is shaking during an earthquake—when that happens and you cry out to God for protection, you then prove you believe that God is in charge after all!
Yes, let us boldly say, that God willed that the tsunami happen. Yes, of course there were geological causes—the massive shifting of the earth’s crust and the confluence of a series of waves and the like. But the God who stilled the storm on Galilee could have stopped that massive upheaval. The tsunami happened because God chose to let it happen; the God of creation and purpose willed that it be so.
Our question is: Why? By no means can we give a complete answer to that question. But we have some rather clear teaching in the Scriptures about what natural disasters should teach us. Let me say simply that what happened in Southeast Asia is consistent with the God of the Bible, who is both powerful and loving.
I expand on this theme in the question and answer section that follows. Let us learn what we can from the tragedy and ask: Is there a message here for ourselves and the world? While we weep with sadness, let us also listen to the whisper of God.
What Can the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Teach Us About God?
In the face of an overwhelming natural disaster like the tsunami, many people seek to find God’s role. Too often, Christians are afraid that if we acknowledge God’s hand on the disaster, we’ll diminish God’s reputation for goodness and mercy in the eyes of the world. Here, Pastor Lutzer gives some thoughts on giving God His proper role in natural disasters, while responding with the compassion and love that marks us as God’s people.
Q: You say that ‘God willed the tsunami to happen,’ but aren’t you afraid that such teaching will turn people off to the God of the Bible, causing them to dismiss Him as a monster?
A: Those who are not disposed to believe have good reasons for their unbelief; based on terrible tragedies they can, if they wish, dismiss God as a monster. On the other hand, they could say, “If God is so terrifying… if He can wreak such suffering upon the human race… I’d better flee to Jesus who can protect me from the wrath to come.” I pray that many people will turn toward God at this time rather than away from Him.
Q: So, what should the tsunami teach us about God?
A: The Bible teaches that nature displays God’s attributes: the calm beauty of the mountains and sunset are a reflection of His mercy and grace; the tragedies of nature are a reflection of His justice and anger toward sin. We have to accept both, because both reside in God.
Q: Were the people in Southeast Asia judged because they are worse sinners than, say, we are here in America?
A: Excellent question! In Old Testament times natural disasters were often immediate responses of judgment for specific sins. However, today, God’s people do not all live in one geographical area, and so we can say that natural disasters come to us indiscriminately; the righteous suffer with the wicked.
Thailand has a terrible reputation as a nation that tolerates the sexual slavery of children. Indonesia’s Muslims have cruelly persecuted and killed Christians. Yet, these nations are probably not more evil than others with similar characteristics. And we as a nation have sinned against so much light that we may ultimately be more guilty than others.
So, we should not be pointing our finger at them, but rather at ourselves.
Q: So can you summarize what this disaster should teach us?
A: First, let me say that there might be many purposes that God had in this disaster that are unknown to us. Perhaps His church will be strengthened in that part of the world; we also think of the thousands of children who were taken to heaven, and possibly spared an even more horrific future. Perhaps this disaster will open the way for the gospel, but we can only speculate. By no means can we read the fine print of God’s diary. Yet, looked at broadly, there are three lessons that God is whispering (or shouting?) to us during this time.
First, there is the reminder of our mortality; not only is it true that we all shall die, but we can do so unexpectedly and in terrifying ways.
Second, in the Scripture, natural disasters are seen as a picture of coming judgment; Jesus not only predicted earthquakes but said of the eighteen men who died accidentally at the tower of Siloam, “Unless you repent, you shall likewise perish.” Read the book of Revelation, where worldwide natural disasters are a part of the final judgment.
Third, as mentioned, we must repent. Some of these dear survivors are seeking God and do not know where to find Him. We in America should also be seeking God and tell people how He can be found in the person of Jesus.
Q: Someone might argue that if God willed this disaster, we should not bother to help people… after all, what happened was God’s will.
A: As Christians, we believe that although God is Lord over nature, nature is nonetheless not God. Thus, we are commanded to subdue it and rule over it. So we are invited to fight against plagues and natural disasters and diseases of all kinds.
We as Christians should be the most sacrificial in helping wherever we can; we must show God’s love even at great personal cost. We at The Moody Church have chosen to raise funds for Samaritan’s Purse, an organization that is on the scene with relief for people of all religions, but works with an explicit witness for Christ. World Relief is another organization that we could support. We applaud those who are actually traveling to the region to help.
If our hearts are not broken when seeing the suffering of children and adults, let us get on our knees and repent of our hardness of heart. “Unless we repent, we shall likewise perish.”