Waves of sadness
Tsunami terror raises age-old questions
30 December 2004
Compared to seeing a plane plunge into a skyscraper, the first amateur video shots showing a surge of brown water overpowering the blue of a resort pool didn’t seem to rate high on the scale of horror.
Tsunami Timeline (most recent first)
But as the images kept pouring in and the estimated death toll kept rising, into the six figures even, it became apparent that the Asian tsunami disaster makes 9/11 seem tame by comparison.
Of course, 9/11 was triggered by the deliberate actions of people, whereas the tsunami disaster is in quite a different category. No human action, nor any failure to act, caused this Indian Ocean catastrophe.
The killer waves were set off by a massive undersea earthquake, apparently the result of slippage of tectonic plates after years of pent-up strain. Some coastlines are estimated to have moved as much as 20 meters (65 ft.).1 An earthquake of magnitude 9, like this one, sounds “almost twice as bad” as a more common one of magnitude 5; but the Richter scale is an logarithmic one. That means a “9” is really 10,000 times as violent as a “5”. [In fact, this refers only to the wave amplitude. The energy involved is actually a million times greater.] The giant quake shook the world with the force of millions of Hiroshima-size atomic bombs. Sensitive instruments were said to have picked up an effect on the earth’s rotation; the globe was described as “ringing like a bell” afterwards.
Philosophers refer to the problem of “natural evil”—people suffering and dying from things that have no apparent link to “human evil”—or even human carelessness. So much seemingly senseless sorrow and loss, regardless of the cause, inevitably raises the same sorts of questions about God, death and suffering as 9/11 did. Namely, regardless of whether people or “natural disaster” are the cause, if God is all-powerful and loving, why does He allow it?
In earlier times, insurance jargon for such an event, especially one for which adjectives like “biblical” or “near-biblical” have been applied by newspapers to its scale of tragedy, would have been “an act of God”. In our more secular, evolutionized times, reports have generally used terms such as “nature’s fury” or “Mother Nature’s wrath”. But does God just sit back and “let things happen”? I.e., is “nature” independent of God? That would have the advantage for the Christian of removing some of the responsibility for natural disasters, but would it be a biblical view of God?
If He is who He says He is, the sovereign of the universe—the One who is continually upholding the entire cosmos with the Word of His power—there are implications for events such as this. I suggest that when I let go of a compressed spring and watch it cavort in seeming randomness as it releases its stored energy, it is, despite appearances, not something that “just happens” without the involvement of God. (I would submit that reflection on the meaning of God’s sovereignty leads to the conclusion that God is either in everything, or He is in nothing.)
Similarly, as the tectonic plates off Sumatra slipped past one another and released their huge amount of pent-up power, this (and the titanic consequences for so many) was not something that just “happened”, independent of God. Just as it is not mere happenstance when the sparrow falls from the sky (Matthew 10:29).
But that does not mean that it was a “supernatural” or miraculous event. The sparrow falling can be described in terms of “natural” laws like gravity, but God is “in it” totally, completely. (As has been said before, “natural law” describes God’s “normative” way of operating within this universe. Miracles refer to his non-normative operation.)
Equally, the combinations of genes as sperm meets egg follow the (from our viewpoint) random laws of chance. Thus, if a couple with a certain mix of genes were to have enough children, one could predict that ¾ would be brown-eyed, the remaining ¼ blue, for example—just as determined by the laws of chance. But it would be a gross caricature of God if we were to imagine Him to be uninvolved in the inherited makeup of an individual. Hopefully, not many readers will think that God is helplessly dependent on the outcome of a genetic lottery when it comes to our own abilities and predispositions, both positive and negative. But if we try to avoid God’s responsibility for the killer tsunami, and pass the event off as “natural” (read “truly random”) then we are doing the same thing—we have reduced God, the all-powerful Creator God who created countless galaxies in the blink of an eye, to a helpless or impotent bystander.
To put God at the helm of events, while thoroughly biblical, raises disturbing questions, of course, in the face of the Indian Ocean nightmare. The immense unfairness of it all, for one thing. Poor villagers, already facing enormous handicaps in their ordinary lives, battered emotionally and physically beyond belief. Young children, brutally torn out of their mother’s arms and suffocated by water. But before raging at the unfairness of it all, and at God, we would do well to “zoom out” and look at the bigger picture.
Each day, some hundreds of thousands of people die. We see this as somehow “natural”, yet humanly speaking, what’s fair about that, either? In fact, what’s “fair” about any death? If God prevented all deaths except the death of one solitary person, that one death would also be “unfair”—perhaps even more so.
So the question becomes much bigger; not just “why 9/11” or “why the tsunami tragedy”—it becomes one of “why is there any death and suffering at all?” And it has to be faced squarely by Christians, since we claim to have the answers to the true meaning of life, the universe and everything.
But how can one even begin to give a Christian answer, one with biblical integrity, without taking Genesis history seriously?2 That history tells of the creation of a once-good world, in which death and suffering are not “natural” at all, but are intruders. They occur because of humanity’s rebellion against its maker (Genesis 3). But if fossils formed over millions of years, which so many Christians just blithely accept as “fact”, then that wipes out the Fall as an answer to evil, especially “natural evil”. Because the fossils show the existence of things like death, bloodshed and suffering. So if these were there millions of years ago, they must have been there before man, and hence before sin. This is the rock against which old-age compromises inevitably founder. This is also the reason why the age of things is not some obscure academic debate that Christians can put in the “too-hard-for-now” basket. Because it strikes to the heart of the hugest questions of all in relation to the nature of God, sin, evil, death; questions at the very core of Christian belief (or reasons given for nonbelief, for that matter).
The tsunami and the Flood
When we try, however inadequately, to see things from God’s viewpoint rather than our own, things become quite different. There is suddenly nothing unfair about the deaths of any one of us, no matter what the circumstances. God is the sovereign Judge who is totally holy (1 John 1:5). It would therefore be impossible to overstate His utter abhorrence of even the slightest sin. From His perspective, it would be totally lawful and just to wipe out all of us, in whatever fashion.3
But God is also merciful and loving (2 Peter 3:9), and longsuffering. In the most profound display of mercy and grace imaginable, He stepped into our shoes as a man, God the Son. He came to suffer and die, not in some sort of ooey-gooey martyrdom, but so that His righteous anger against sin could be appeased and the penalty paid for those who place their trust in Jesus Christ and receive His free gift—forgiveness of their sin and admission into God’s family—by faith.
There are daily reminders of His Curse on all creation all around us. When they are punctuated by horrifically sad concentrated bursts such as this recent disaster, we are doubly reminded of the awfulness of sin. Does knowing the answers to the “big picture” make us callous to suffering? Far from it. We are moved even more by compassion, just as the Lord Jesus was when He lived among us. Because of Jesus, Christians—those who take the Bible as the Word of God, and know Jesus Christ as the Creator incarnate—will tend to be at the forefront of digging into their pockets to help alleviate the agony. Let me explain how I can say this with confident hope.
A World Vision representative once told me confidentially that it is conservative, Bible-believing churches and Christians who are far and away the most generous givers to that organisation’s efforts to help people in poor countries.4 That makes sense, of course; God’s Word commands us to do good to all men. But if one did not believe the Bible to be really, truly true, there would be a shortage of strong motivating factors to sacrifice heavily for others. Whereas (if I may be forgiven a modest adjustment of the magnificent words of the great missionary, C.T. Studd): “If (since) Christ is God and died for me [i.e., the Bible is really, truly, totally true], then nothing I can do in obedience to Him can ever be too much”.
Addendum (01/04/05)—further resources on our website
- Why is there Death and Suffering?—by Ken Ham and Jonathan Sarfati
- Why Would a Loving God Allow Suffering
How can you help?
While Creation Ministries International (formerly Answers in Genesis) is not involved directly in any disaster relief efforts, we recognize that many of our readers might want to help. May we recommend that you participate through your local church or a mission agency with which you are familiar. If you are interested in other Christian ministries, please take a look at http://www.gospelcom.net/content/disaster. To participate with the world wide efforts, you can do a google search on “christian tsunami relief.”
References and notes
- Even higher figures have been mooted. Some experts have suggested that much of the movement may have been horizontal, not vertical, however. Return to text.
- Incidentally, despite various challenges by unbelievers, there is no burden of explanation on the Christian as to why particular things happened. E.g., why certain people or groups of people died when others did not. As discussed here, a “natural” disaster, despite being totally God’s activity, will (in the absence of the miraculous or non-normative activity of God) follow a pattern that looks “random”. I.e., it will obey the natural laws that describe God’s normative activity. So there is no need to feel philosophically intimidated by reports of a Christian dying while the Hindu next to him is spared, for example. When the Tower of Siloam collapsed and killed people (Luke 13:4-5), Jesus made it plain that they did not die because they were “more sinful” than those who were spared. For more (admittedly inadequate) thoughts on apparent randomness and God’s actions, see my discussion in the book Beyond the Shadows on “butterfly effects” and the “cockroach that killed Princess Diana”. Return to text.
- A skeptic at one of my talks said publicly that the Flood would make God “the biggest mass murderer in history.” But murder is defined as the unlawful killing of innocent human life. First, from God’s perspective post-Fall, there is no such thing as an “innocent human”. And second, the concept of murder presupposes a universal law that such things are wrong, which can only be so if there is a Lawgiver, which the skeptic was trying to deny. As Creator, God has decreed that it is unlawful for a human being to take another human’s life, but the Judge of all the earth does not Himself do wrong when He takes a life, which in a very real sense happens whenever any of us die, regardless of what is called the “proximate” cause (whether tsunami, heart attack or even suicide). Return to text.
- Liberal Christians (i.e., those who take alarming liberties with biblical truths) talk a lot about social justice and helping poor countries—all noble concepts, of course. But in practice, although keen to see laws passed to take money from others, they are as a group less enthusiastic about dipping into their own pockets. Return to text.
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