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God and Earthquakes

After the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti in 2010 television preacher Pat Robertson claimed it was caused supernaturally. After the 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan, Glenn Beck suggested it was caused by God. He went on to say, “Whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus — there’s a message being sent.”

What does the Bible say? 

There was a massive earthquake in the time of Uzziah, King of Jerusalem. The Bible mentions it twice. Neither time is there any hint that this earthquake was caused by God. This is especially curious because it appears to be the largest earthquake that ever occurred during the history of Israel.

Jesus talked about earthquakes in response to his disciples questions about the end of the world. In Matthew 24:7, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” Notice, Jesus does not say anything about an increasing frequency or severity of earthquakes. Jesus does not give the slightest hint that these things are caused by God. He recognizes them as part of the reality of human life on earth before the second coming. And indeed, war, famine, and earthquake have been frequent throughout human history. The good news is, they will come to an end.

So, neither the references in the Old Testament to the most severe earthquake in ancient Jewish history nor the most famous reference to earthquakes in the New Testament offer the slightest hint that God causes them. When people argue that God is causing earthquakes, they are inventing their own theology.

What does it mean?

Earthquakes have been happening all through history. The USGS (United States Geological Survey) monitors about 20,000 earthquakes every year. And this rate has been fairly constant for the past hundred years or so that they have been monitoring. So, if the earthquake in Japan was a message sent by God, it was only one of the millions of messages that God has sent over the last hundred years.

What makes the earthquake in Japan different is the scale of the human tragedy. If we think of an earthquake as merely an instance of the ground shaking, then we are dealing with a routine occurrence. It is hardly worth our attention unless we are geologists. However, the recent earthquakes in Japan, Haiti, and the Indian Ocean were not merely instances of the ground shaking and ocean waves striking beaches. These earthquakes were instances of horrific human suffering. And because of that they rightly command our attention.

Human suffering is not trivial. It appropriately engages our minds and hearts. What are we to think in the face of such massive suffering?

Jesus addressed the question the relationship between human suffering and human character in Luke 13. He mentioned about two groups of people who experienced tragic deaths. One group was killed by Roman soldiers. The other group was killed in a building collapse. Jesus asked, “Do you think these people were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus answered his own question. “I tell you, no!” Jesus went on to derive a message from these tragedies: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

There are three points here to take note of.

1. First, you cannot judge people’s spiritual state by what happens to them.  If something bad happens, that does not mean that the victims were more evil than those who were spared.

2. Second, bad things happening are not messages created by God. In these two stories, Jesus makes it clear that God did not cause the Roman soldiers to kill the peasants or cause the building to fall down on the people who got killed. Those things just happened. It is the nature of life here on earth that sometimes catastrophe strikes. God does not invent catastrophes as a way of communicating. He is quite capable of sending messages through prophets and visions. God is not inarticulate.

3. Third, even though God does not send catastrophes, wise people will make catastrophes an occasion for self-examination. Disasters, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes — these things certainly grab our attention. They remind us that life here is uncertain. So those who are wise take stock. How is it with me in God? How is it with me and my family? Have I prepared myself as well as I can for disasters?

The earthquake in Haiti highlighted the value of planning for earthquakes. Appropriate building codes adequately enforced would have prevented much of the loss of life in Haiti. The stockpiling of some emergency provisions would have also made a wonderful difference. The earthquake in Japan illustrates the truth that no matter how much we plan and prepare, ultimately there is no guaranteed security and this world. God did not send either earthquake to teach us those lessons. But those who are wise can learn.

When Jesus talked about earthquakes the punchline was this: someday earthquakes will end. Without minimizing the trauma of warfare or earthquakes, Jesus offered his disciples hope for a new world beyond the reach of disaster and catastrophe. Braced by that hope we can devote ourselves here and now to bringing help and healing to those who are wounded. In doing this, we will be participating  with Jesus in his response to human tragedy. And we will avoid the foolishness of those who blame God for earthquakes.

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About John McLarty

John McLarty

writes from the Pacific Northwest.

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