Less than two months ago, on Boxing Day last year, there was an earthquake under the sea near Aceh, in northern Indonesia. With a magnitude of 9.0, it was the strongest earthquake to occur anywhere in the world in the past 40 years.
The shift in the ocean floor generated enormous waves that sped thousands of kilometres across the ocean. These tsunamis (tidal waves) struck Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and eastern Africa.
One Australian holidaying in Koh Tao, Thailand, described the tsunami in this way:
I was standing on the beach about 30 meters from the shoreline at a dive shop when I heard raised voices and looked around. The deck chairs that were lining the beach were floating toward me. It was a bit confusing at first as nobody had any idea what was going on. There was no loud noise or wind, just all of a sudden the sea had risen a good 10 meters.
Then the wave sucked out away from the shore a few hundred meters, exposing the coral reef that I had dived on a few days earlier. That’s when people really realised something was terribly wrong …
When the second wave came in it simply tore apart the wooden buildings that sat at the top of the beach …
The third and probably largest wave came surging forward and simply ripped apart the cement buildings like they were made of balsa wood. I saw a friend of mine scramble onto a roof about 5 meters from me as the water reached its peak—only to hear a loud crack and see the roof lurch badly. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the entire roof, with my friend on top, floated to the side and was sucked out into the bay and out of sight.
It just seemed so impossible, 10 minutes earlier we had been sitting down on the beach drinking a coffee, and now the entire beach had been ripped apart and my friend and all the buildings were simply gone. (John Russell, The Age, 28/12/04)
This scene, or worse, was repeated along hundreds of kilometres of coastline in ten countries. Silently, swiftly, irresistibly, tsunamis devasted towns and holiday resorts, reducing buildings to rubble and killing more than 300,000 people.
How do we make sense of such a disaster?
We can, it is true, get some answers as to its cause: there was a shift in the tectonic plates causing an earthquake causing the tsunamis causing the destruction.
But making sense of disaster involves more than making out the immediate cause. It is not enough to know why it happened. We want to know why it happened to them. Why did it happen to those particular people? This is a question that has troubled mankind for thousands of years.
The Jewish people in the time of Jesus, for example, were troubled by it. On one occasion news spread abroad of two disasters. One involved people from Galilee who were slaughtered by the Roman governor, Pilate. The other involved people in Siloam who died when a tower collapsed on them.
When questioned about these disasters, Jesus said (Luke 13:1-5):
Do you think that these Galileans [whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices] were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Jesus’ statement must have shaken his countrymen. They generally believed that people got what they deserved. So to their way of thinking, a person who died in a shocking way must have been a particularly bad person.
But Jesus utterly rejected this notion. He insisted that the people who had died in the disasters were no worse than the people standing before him. Or to put it another way, the people standing before him were no better than those who had died.
In saying this, Jesus ruled out the conjecture that disasters are God’s judgment on especially bad people. God (by his wrath) is not the active cause of disasters, nor are victims (by their wickedness) the passive cause.
It is true that God can directly intervene in nature and in human affairs to achieve his purposes. And the Bible records many instances of such divine interventions. It is also true that sometimes those interventions are expressions of God’s judgment. But Jesus indicates that, unless there is some compelling reason to do otherwise, disasters should not be interpreted as “acts of God”, and disaster victims should not be regarded (and should not regard themselves) as especially bad people who have been punished by God.
Jesus rules out one possible answer as to the cause of disasters generally. This is very helpful. It preserves us from dark superstition about God, callous speculation about those who have suffered, and smug satisfaction about ourselves.
Interestingly, Jesus does not go on to say what the cause of disasters is. He contents himself with saying what the cause is not. We might be wise to content ourselves with that, too.
And yet perhaps Jesus’ words offer a clue as to why disasters happen. Perhaps his disclosure of the negative clears the way for our discovery of the positive. For if God does not directly and deliberately produce disasters to punish bad people, then it is reasonable to conclude that disasters must happen because of the way the world is. And two basic things can be said about the way the world is. Firstly, it is a causal world—that is, it is a world in which cause and effect are at work. Secondly, it is a ruined world—that is, it is a world in which both nature and human nature are in disarray.
The reason our world is a causal world is because God has made it that way. He made it so that this-leads-to-that according to fixed laws of nature and morality.
The reason our world is a ruined world is because it has been corrupted by Man and cursed by God. Human beings corrupted the world because they chose to rebel against God and his goodness, thereby causing massive disruption to the natural and moral order. God cursed the world and subjected it to futility in response to mankind’s sin (cf Genesis 3:16-19; Romans 8:20), thereby bring all people under a general and ongoing judgment.
So then, the (natural and human) world inevitably behaves as God intended so far as cause and effect is concerned. And this ordained principle of causation can be catastrophic when operating in a ruined world—a world on which God has placed a curse and in which he permits moral corruption.
Ironically, it appears that the cause of disasters is the exact opposite to the one imagined by the crowd to whom Jesus spoke. Far from occurring because God does intervene in natural and human affairs, disasters occur because God does not intervene. They occur because he permits things to proceed along the lines that he ordained when he originally created the world as a place in which all things interconnect and interact according to natural and moral laws. They occur because he allows one thing to lead to another. This means that, in a ruined creation, storms will arise and wreak havoc—they simply will! It means that, in a ruined heart, malice and greed will arise and wreak havoc—they simply will!
Disasters occur when God permits the world he cursed and we corrupted to function in a causal way. They occur when God stands back. But thankfully he often steps in. Without doubt there would be many more disasters were it not for his active intervention. So far as his intervention in the natural world is concerned, we cannot say much. Who knows what storms, what earthquakes, what floods would have occurred had he not stopped them? When it comes to human affairs, however, we can cite millions of instances of his gracious intervention. For every Christian person is a living proof that God acts in the world to divert disaster. How many more murders, how many more cruelties, how many more deceptions would there be in the world were it not for God’s cleansing intervention by his Son and his Spirit in millions of sinful human hearts?
If he chooses, God can bring disasters upon individuals or nations as punishment. But, according to Jesus, he generally chooses not to do this. Rather, he generally allows things to proceed according to the natural and moral principle of cause and effect. This means that in a world that is now in disarray because of human sin, nobody is immune from disaster.
In our efforts to make sense of disaster, we should not suppose that the victims are somehow personally at fault. Certainly, to the degree that disasters are part of God’s general judgment (curse) on our sinful world, and to the degree that we are all sinners deserving punishment, every disaster victim has justly tasted something of the wrath of God. But that, in a sense, is beside the point. Jesus’ point is that we should not suppose that God has singled out victims of disaster for special punishment. The specific cause of the particular disaster is not to be found in them. They are people just like us—no better, no worse.
But while Jesus rules out the idea that disaster victims are especially bad wrongdoers, he reminds us that all people are guilty of wrongdoing. And while he rules out the idea that disaster victims are especially subject to divine judgment, he reminds us that all people will be judged. “Unless you repent,” he warns, “you too will perish.”
Whether or not they have a moral origin, disasters certainly have a moral function. They remind us of our mortality and our accountability. They remind us that we are all going to die, and then we are all going to give an account of how we lived. They bring us to our senses. And this, from Jesus’ perspective, is the heart of the matter. The important thing is not that we make sense of disasters, but that we make sense of ourselves in the light of them.
“Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). One way or another, death will come to us all. And when it does, so will God’s full and final judgment. This will be the ultimate disaster—unless we repent.