This strand of the natural disaster argument centres on some people’s belief that suffering is the product of human activity which came about when people decided to rebel against God. The result of this being that the world of humans was changed forever. The thinking goes something like this. Firstly, human rebellion allowed moral evil to come into the world, affecting the way people related with one another (and  God). Secondly, the delicate balance of the physical world was somehow damaged and derailed in this process as the human environment was brought into turmoil.

For many christians who subscribe to this sort of thinking, the turmoil is in the Bible where the present world is likened to a woman labouring in the pains of childbirth, groaning until physical order can be restored (Mark 13v8, Romans 8v22) . Now if such a thing were true, it suggests that the extent of sin is more pervasive than humans presently understand because it affects all kinds of environments. However, in the light of scientific understanding, this also begs the question of whether such a position can be taken seriously or not?

Of course, we know from our experience of natural disasters that these can be caused by human activity within our world. A good example of this is the extended deforestation of Bangladesh which occurred during the 20th century. The extensive flooding of its plains came about because there were no forested valleys left to absorb excessive rainfall higher up in the mountains. A different example is the ‘dust bowl’ which occurred when incorrect farming techniques, combined with storms, turned vast areas of the American and Canadian prairie into desert overnight. Perhaps the most common example that people are aware of today is how industrial development has produced greenhouse gases, currently thought to contribute to the climate change that is melting ice caps and raising temperatures around the world.

Now, although all the disasters I have mentioned are the outcome of human activity, it is questionable whether every phenomenon can be attributed to people in this way. One reason that it is problematic is because scientists date the world’s existence as millions of years before human life began. Given that there is much evidence to support the claim that earthquakes and tsunamis were happening long before human activity, it is not unreasonable to conclude that natural disasters have their origin in something other than human sinfulness. This reasoning is reached by an understanding that if the early development of the world required the movement of tectonic plates to create mountains and valleys, then it is equally likely that occurrences of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis began long before humans were ever around to record these events. All of which means that natural disasters simply cannot be the consequence of human rebellion away from God, because these already occurred at a much earlier date in history.

More notably, English naturalist Charles Darwin, who in his attempts to explain how species adapt and develop in their environments, came across Sir Charles Lyell’s theory of ‘uniformitarianism’. This theory proposed that the world was far older than the date advanced by the Church which had calculated the age by adding together the cumulative years in the genealogy from Adam to Jesus and then an extra 17 centuries after that. Lyell’s theory suggested these biblical calculations were incorrect because the time needed for the weathering and erosion of the landscape to occur (in the rocks he had examined) meant the earth was much older – a planet with an age that should be calculated in millions of years rather than thousands. This theory helped Darwin to begin developing his idea of a much slower and gradual sequence of events in the evolution of species and allowed the sciences to advance independently of the Church. Prior to this, the prevalent view among scholars was that of ‘catastrophism’, which asserted that the earth had changed as a result of violent cataclysmic events which disrupted the regular order of things within it. What Darwin’s model suggested was that change was not sudden but established over lengthy periods of time and in ways that allowed species to adapt and develop in different ways – an idea totally at odds with the global catastrophe described in the Noah account.

So, given that the world and its natural disasters have been in existence far longer than human life and activity, it is not unreasonable to suggest that these phenomena originate from something other than human sinfulness – though clearly not everyone will agree with such a conclusion.

One theological idea forwarded in recent years challenges the biblical notion that humans are introduced into a perfect world. Instead, it suggests that our environment has always been fractured and prone to natural disasters. In his book God at War, Boyd outlines a model in which the origin of evil is explained as happening before the creation of humans, brought about by the decision of God to give freewill to all spiritual beings. The result being that some angels use their freedom to oppose God, corrupting themselves into evil beings resulting in conflict in the heavenly realms. Later, these ‘fallen’ angels become an anti-creational force, standing in opposition to God.

The conflict that follows between God and corrupted angels essentially becomes the battle between good and evil. The result of this is that the world sustains damage in such a way that it no longer exists as an idyll because evil is now resident within it. This outcome requiring the early biblical narrative to be revised in such a way that it is no longer seen as a creation account but rather, ‘God’s restoration of a world damaged by a previous conflict which had become formless, futile empty and engulfed by chaos.’

The restoration theory advanced by Boyd develops the idea that ‘the earth is birthed, as it were as if in an infected incubator [because] it is fashioned in a warfare context [being] altogether good, but made and preserved over and against forces that are perpetually hostile to it’ A context in which humans, as God’s agents, are later called upon to conquer an evil being who has invaded creation. So Boyd sees human suffering as an inevitable consequence of a spiritual battle that is currently taking place and that earth and its inhabitants are located in the midst of this conflict. That said, if I remember it rightly, it does not deny the geological processes by which the earth is fashioned and it’s people are sustained day to day through tectonic movement, hydrological cycle, erosion and deposition  (to name a few of many).

Having considered how tectonic movement and gravity may be factors in natural disasters, let’s turn our attention to the terminology as we ask the question : what is a ‘natural disaster?’ Having considered how tectonic movement and gravity may be factors in natural disasters, let’s turn our attention to the terminology as we ask the question : what is a ‘natural disaster?’

The answer to this is not as obvious it may seem. Yes, while things such as tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, (etc) go some way to decribing the concrete events that occur in our natural world, the term ‘disaster’  is rather harder to define because of its human-centric emphasis – consider the following:

Although many natural disasters make headline news because they result in death and destruction, it is important to remember that natural phenomena often occur in places that are sparsely populated and in ways that do not result in the loss of human life. Interestingly, when natural phenomena occur in places that are sparsely populated and human death or injury does not result, the term is often not used at all. All of which suggests that what qualifies as a natural disaster is dependent on whether it has caused damage to human existence through, death, injury or destruction of property and livelihood..

For example, a tropical storm or tsunami that destroys an area of coral reef but does no harm to human life or industry is unlikely to be considered a natural disaster or deemed an evil event by a capricious god – even though the destruction of the reef might result in the extinction of many rare species, coral and animal life.

Now, let us imagine that it is a thousand years later. People come and settle in the place where the coral reef once was because it is picturesque and has great potential as a place for tourism. The fact that it is an area at risk of flooding from a tsunami is not considered. After all, as far as the people are aware, it is not prone to these disasters. So, when a tsunami happens twenty years later, this time killing people who now live in the area, the cry is one of an unfair world or uncaring God when really the decision to populate risky areas rested with human decision making. Had the reef area been considered dangerous and left unpopulated there would be no loss of human life when struck again by a tsunami. Moreover, no need to accuse God about his wantonness in creating such a dangerous world for people to inhabit.

The truth is that throughout the centuries, humans have often populated areas which are considered unsafe in terms of natural disasters. Indeed, due to seismic activity or recurring problems, these places are very often considered as accidents waiting to happen and yet development continues – suggesting that human need for an area may outstrip any concerns people  have about a disaster occurring later on. Often, these densely populated places have suffered natural disasters in their past but have since undergone redevelopment with no thought of the consequence should an earthquake occur again. Settlements like those along the San Andreas fault-line and the development of Lisbon and Tokyo, two cities that have experienced earthquakes in the past.

Although many people choose to ignore the possible outcomes of living in an unsafe area for reason of lifestyle choice – by this I mean they have chosen to live there because of its beautiful scenery or economic prospects – the poor and economically disadvantaged may not have such a choice as to where they can live. Consequently, living along a fault line or in an area that is liable to flooding, or in the shadow of a volcano, is often their only option.

In summary,  ‘wrong place, wrong time’ deals with the reasonableness of human responses to natural disasters as they occur. Particularly in regard to people’s failure to recognise that it is often a series of human decisions that have led communities to live, work and sleep in a place that is prone to destructive events. Given the choice, it is reasonable to presume that most people would choose to live in areas that are safe from natural disasters. However, as already noted, people continue to live in places that are prone to earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis (etc)  because they reason the risk of death is minimal and that the benefit outweighs the risk.

 

 

‘As a community on a planet spinning through space at thousands of miles per hour, I am sure we are all grateful for the earth’s gravity that enables us to live, work and play without fear that one day we will…

…jump too high and be carried off into outer space. We are probably also grateful for the way it benefits us in other ways, allowing us to collect fruit from trees, ski and abseil down mountains, canoe in whitewater, freewheel down hills etc – actually, the list is endless.  Indeed, gravity is part of the hydrological cycle that facilitates evaporated moisture returning to earth as droplets of rain rather than disappearing upwards into our atmosphere.

However, there is another aspect to gravity that we sometimes fail to consider. In the same way that gravity facilitates fruit falling from trees, it is also responsible for the roof tile that may fall  and kill the person below because of the gravitational pull acting upon it. Likewise, just as gravity draws water downstream to the watermill, it may on another occasion result in a flash flood which washes away the mill. Indeed, just as gravity keeps people firmly drawn to the earth and allows us to do many things, it may also result in rock slides, avalanches, fallen trees, excessive flooding and other incidents that are detrimental to human existence. But does the occurrence of these events mean that gravity is a bad thing? Or put another way:

‘Would we forfeit gravity rather than run the risk that it might one day cause something detrimental to happen to us?’

Now I am sure that most of us would say that we would not want to do away with gravity (even if that were possible) because we appreciate the benefits far outweigh any disadvantage we may encounter. But what of God in all of this – why doesn’t the Divine intervene and save the man who is standing in the spot in which a boulder will crash and kill him? Well, yes, God could do that. God could intervene whenever a tragedy of gravity was about to occur and save people from a falling object or flash flood. However, in order to achieve this, God would have to intervene in our world at other times and ways that we might not like.

For example, God could intervene and stop people working in a stone quarry because (with foreknowledge) The Divine might know that the excavation will loosen a boulder that will, at a later date, fall and kill someone. However, closing the quarry will cause hardship for the people who are no longer able to make a living because God’s intervention brought a stop to their work and livelihood. Or perhaps God intervenes and stops someone from getting up on the roof of their house to make a repair because He knows the person will fall and injure themselves. But without the accident occuring, the uninjured person might feel aggrieved about the intervention, especially if they are left with a leaky roof and uncertain that events would have turned out that way. Moreover, a strong case might be made that most people do not want to be mollycoddled but would rather take their chances in life. From these examples, what we see is that gravity is basically good though accidents happen. As such, God does not intervene and thwart accidents for to do so would remove from each of us the capacity to grow, learn and be free in our decision making.’

 

On 1st November 1755, the city of Lisbon was rocked by an earthquake. It was All Souls Day and many Christians were at church. The earthquake lasted 4-6 minutes and caused total… 

…devastation, demolishing virtually all of the buildings in the city. Unsurprisingly, it killed between 60,000 and 90,000 people and destroyed valuable works of art. As the majority of people around that day were Christian believers, this group suffered large in the death toll. Those who managed to escape the earthquake and resulting fire took refuge in Lisbon’s less developed sea front area. Here, they did not run the risk of being struck by falling debris or inhaling smoke, but the choice was not a good one. A short time later, several giant tsunamis swept in from the Atlantic killing the majority of those who had escaped the earthquake.

This event, more than any other, shook the foundations of religious faith within Europe because it challenged the conventional understanding about God in the post-Enlightenment era – an understanding that suggested God was best understood through Nature and events in the natural world. If this was the case, then it seemed God was angry and violent towards creation – moreover, God appeared aggressive towards people and their environments, particularly those who believed and worshipped the Divine.

The indiscriminate destruction caused people to question whether God was the great orchestrator of natural disasters. Many questioned why the Divine would carry out His judgement in such a haphazard and unreliable way. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, many sceptics heaped ridicule on the Church for its unchallenged beliefs about God. French philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire wrote a poem about the tragedy in which he ridiculed why Lisbon should be singled out by God when other cities in Europe, more notoriously decadent,  were allowed to survive.’ (The God of the Cruel World, sic B. Eckhard)

Today, most people have dismissed the idea that natural disasters come about as a result of God wreaking havoc upon humanity. That said, in some parts of the world, some believers still do hold to the idea of an avenging God. Indeed, our own use of the term ‘Acts of God’ (still on many insurance forms) to explain natural disasters, just shows how deeply ingrained this idea can be. More on this in next post as we work through this series towards a surprising answer about God and natural disasters….

 

Picture – 1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami striking ships in the harbor. (No copyright on picture as this work is in public domain in country of origin)

 

How many times have you heard someone explain a disaster away by attributing it as an ‘Act of God?’ Or a person explain to a grieving relative or friend that the bewildering loss of their loved one is a ‘holy mystery’ that only God can understand? Or maybe the idea that when bad things happen, God is somehow at work behind the scenes, bringing just enough stress into our lives so that He can manoeuvre us into a position to fulfil His purpose.

Now, well-intended as these statements are, each is problematic in their concept and understanding of a loving God. Let’s take them in turn…

A disaster attributed as an ‘Act of God?’ Well, aside from those times when the root cause of a natural disaster might be human (as in the flooding of Bangladesh caused by deforestation), the idea that God causes a volcano to erupt or a landslide to happen, rankles with the very idea of a loving Creator. Either God is loving or he is not. Reason tells us God cannot occupy both positions in the same way as a rock can’t be a snake and vice versa. In future posts, we’ll consider this argument in greater depth.

The idea that a loved one’s death is somehow a ‘holy mystery?’ It seems to me that people who offer this sort of explanation have never thought about the consequence of their words on grieving people – relatives, friends and complete strangers left with the idea that God has the answer but He is keeping it from them.  Answers that might help the bereaved to understand why their child was still born? Or a vivacious teenager diagnosed with motor neurone disease? Or a pregnant mother with a brain tumour? Behind the statement is an attempt to explain away the hardship of life without understanding the consequence of freedom for ourselves and other things in this world. An environment that God does not rigidly control so as to enable all life to flourish. A world that is a little less safe as people are exposed to viruses or make decisions that results in their own or other people’s injury. Likewise, consider gravity which facilitates life-giving water on one day through rain but results in a flood the next day in which human life is lost.  Consequences that are not a mystery but a reality of life in a broken world where God does not control everything that happens.

God brings hardship on people so they will fulfil God’s purpose for their lives? Rather like the statement above, this idea also centres on the notion that God has complete control. So, if you break a toe while walking upstairs, then God must have caused it to happen. Why? Because if God controls everything then He must of let this happen to the person to facilitate a greater good. – like, in going to the hospital, the person meets their future spouse or have the chance to save someone’s life, in which the hardship of the throbbing toe becomes make bearable. Of course a more rational person might posit that when ‘stuff happens’, God has nothing to do with it. Rather, the only lesson to be learnt is a human one in which walking around the house in bare feet has its consequences? Indeed, we might even question if it is fair for us to even consider God responsible for our clumsiness or lack of foot-eye coordination?

Okay, just a taste of some of the things we will be considering in future posts. We hope you like the content and that it may go some way to addressing any tough questions you have.