When thousands of people perish in natural disasters like the tsunami that hit Asia on 26 December 2004, questions naturally arise. Why did this happen? Was this a direct punishment from God? If so, who was he punishing? And why? How could God allow such evil in the world as this, if he is loving and all-powerful? Does the presence of such bad things mean that God is not real?
For many centuries people have asked such questions. They are not new, although they become new to us when we see people suffer from natural disasters or when we ourselves are affected by them.
Our Assurance Is Shaken
Above all, such questions do not reflect badly upon the limits or deficiencies of God, but upon our own finiteness and inability to comprehend the greater issues of the universe. Science is helpless at such moments, human thoughts fail, man cannot even sense the arrival of the tsunami like so many animals that fled the low-lying areas hours before it made shore. For all our efforts, we are at the mercy of a world careening toward destruction. The movie that shows man saving his world from a meteor is not only fiction, but fantasy.
Many lives were lost in the tsunami, and we feel deeply ourselves our vulnerability, but God did not drown in the tsunami! What died in the waves were our assurance that life goes on as normal and our belief that today will be just like yesterday. We must confess that we do not know what will happen nor why many things happen. God’s ways and purposes are beyond us. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29, NASB). Through Isaiah, the Lord reminds us, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
But there is still sense to be made from the tsunami.
Sometimes God Explained
If God were to speak from Heaven and say, “I am doing this for this reason,” we would know. Sometimes God did reveal that he was the immediate cause of a disaster. The Bible says that “the Lord hurled a great storm on the sea” when Jonah fled from his presence (Jonah 1:4). The Lord was directly behind the storm, with a specific purpose for causing it.
Likewise, through the prophecy of Joel, the Lord foretold that he would send a plague of locusts as punishment for the sins of Jerusalem and Judah (Joel 1:1-20). When God reveals his mind, then we may know! As the latter part of Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “… but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”
But God rarely identifies a natural diaster or occurrence with a special purpose of his.
No Special Meaning
Jesus said that, among other things, “there will be famines and earthquakes” (Matthew 24:7), but that these would not be signs of the end or of any immediate activity of God which would deserve the attention of the disciples. “But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8). So “for Jesus all these things were merely preliminary” (Jack P. Lewis, The Gospel According to Matthew, Part II [Sweet, 1976], p. 122).
This means that Jesus’ followers could not tie the famines and earthquakes to the direct action of God or to some purpose of his in history. Perhaps he was the immediate cause of a certain natural ocurrence, which had behind it a divine reason, but it was not something that humans could discern or with which they should be concerned, in terms of God’s history of redemption.
How, then, should we consider the natural disasters that happen?
When We Suffer
If they happen to us, we should consider that the suffering and damage we have experienced are not a punishment from God, but they are a sign that this world has been injured by man’s sin and our planet has been “subjected to futility” and “groans” in its present state (Romans 8:19-22). In this state, even innocents will suffer. The earth convulses because it will be destroyed, “being reserved for fire,” … “and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:7,10).
Aside from the immediate physical and emotional needs that may arise from an earthquake, tsunami, volcano, flood, famine or other natural ocurrence, we must consider that the Earth is destined to be destroyed. The destruction we have witnessed, the suffering which we have experienced, is but a prelude to the final and definitive end of this world. We must prepare for eternity! If we live but for this world, woe to us! (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:19.)
If I have sought for God and obeyed his gospel, in the final day “this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:54). With faith in God and hope of receiving a “kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28), we may say with all confidence and courage:
“God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.”
When Others Suffer
If they happen to others, our first concern should be to offer aid. This has been the response of many around the world, and this is right and proper. When Agabus prophesied in Antioch of a world-wide famine, that church, instead of debating the problem of evil or the why of natural disasters, immediately decided to help the Christians affected in Judea. “And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). So they fulfilled the spirit of Paul’s exhortation, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).
The greatest good we may do, of course, is to point others to the need for salvation beyond this life. Every opportunity should be taken to preach the gospel and share the blessed hope of eternal life with God. When the foundations of life are shaken, we may rightfully point to the arrival of the new heaven and new earth, where “there is no longer any sea” (Revelation 21:1). Every source of evil will be banished, and thus every reason for crying and sorrow will vanish (v. 4).
God did not drown in the tsunami, nor did the waves wash away our hope. On the contrary, it proved once again the brevity of life, the fragility of our world, and the solidity of our faith in the God who loves and offers much more in eternal bliss.
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