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)