An intensity 7.1 earthquake in Mexico left scores of structures in rubble with hundreds of people dead and still counting. This came in the wake of two consecutive category five hurricanes that battered the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and southern parts of the United States.
What are Christians to make of this?
Judgment on the Sinful?
There is an answer that gets articulated easily by preachers: these natural disasters are God’s judgment on sinful people. Something like Sodom and Gomorrah reenacted, though in miniature. This explanation is not to be dismissed. It acknowledges God’s sovereign control of natural forces. However, this explanation is not complete; and when expressed easily, almost gloatingly, it is cruel. There is a school of thought that almost welcomes such tragedies as signs of the nearness of Christ’s Second Coming and the Judgment Day!
One cannot make an equation of the destructive force of nature in proportion to the sinfulness of its victims. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed thousands in Aceh, Sri Lanka, India – even thousands of tourists from Sweden – yet it did not reach the shore of the Philippines. Is it because we were a better people? Not very likely!
God lost control?
At the opposite end are those who stagger from the sheer destruction of these natural disasters; and they dismiss any idea that God could have anything to do with them. It has to be beneath God to bring about such disasters that victimize people so indiscriminately. There was the picture of a wailing mother over her dead baby by her lap. How could any of these be of divine design? The question is poignant, and reveals the edge of disbelief. To disbelieve in any divine participation in such disasters is the only way for some to retain belief in God at all. Natural disasters are simply a case of the earth gone mad beyond control. No one could have prevented them – much less Someone causing them!
But the Scriptures are clear. They reveal not only the overall control of God, but His intimate involvement with His natural creation.
When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens,
And he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth.
He makes lightning for the rain,
and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power not one is missing.
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
Indeed, nature has its laws, but God is directly involved in the operative movements of those laws. They were not abandoned by God like a watchmaker might abandon his timepiece to function all by itself. Nothing moves in creation, but what God in His omnipotent control has willed. Yes, including disasters.
I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.
But is this not exactly the view that creates the poignant question we asked? How could He?
Groaning for Redemption
Paul reveals the condition of creation as one of groaning. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:20-22)
Creation groans. This is the distinctly biblical view of natural disasters. The fall of man into sin has involved a cosmic dimension. Nature is not functioning in its unspoiled original design. There is disrepair in nature, and that disrepair manifests itself periodically in destructive forces. Those forces, originally designed to make life perfect in Edenic earth, now transform into calamities. The rains that are essential to vegetation now bring killer floods. The seabed is the earth’s most secure foundation. But on December 26, 2004 the Indian Plate moved several meters to slide under Sumatra, part of the Eurasian Plate, resulting in the worst tsunami in recorded history. The earth groaned. Last November 8, 2013, winds packing speed of 315 kms/hour became supertyphoon Haian – the strongest typhoon that made landfall on the Philippine Islands. Creation groaned.
Ironically, it is this view of creation that breeds positive hope for Paul – and should for Christians. As Paul puts it, the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Creation is on the way to redemption. The earth will have its complete and perfect repair. In unfathomable wisdom, hope is animated by the misery that disaster brings, that amidst the chaos, we hope for the final and perfect order. Well did John Calvin weigh the impact of misery upon Christian hope:
Whatever kind of tribulation presses upon us, we must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life. For since God knows best how much we are inclined by nature to a brutish love of this world, he uses the fittest means to draw us back and to shake off our sluggishness, lest we cleave too tenaciously to that love… To counter this evil the Lord instructs his followers in the vanity of the present life by continual proof of its miseries.
Meanwhile, nature will have its groaning period. At such times, it is comforting to know that humanity is not left completely at the mercy of natural forces. To those on the edge of disbelief, consider this: Is it any more comforting to believe that nature is going mad at times of disaster? To the man of faith, belief in the God behind the disasters will yet be his sustaining hold when such disasters strike.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea …
Come, behold the works of the LORD,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
Psalm 46:2, 8
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: III. 9. 1