Lisbon and Haiti, God and Earthquakes, Part 2

In response to the earthquake in Haiti, quite a number of people have seemed to settle for keeping God out of the explanation.  “There is no meaning in this event or any like it,” they tell us.   They are convinced that nature has no meaning and this disaster is a random, albeit terribly unlucky, event.  

In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, especially due to the Enlightenment influence of people like Voltaire, the God-factor was largely banished from public explanations for “natural” disasters.   The only proper response to such inexplicable events, people tell us, is not debate but action.   So forget the “why” question.  It cannot be answered.  Just focus on the “what” question (i.e. what should we do next).   Just bury the bodies, help those in trouble and get on with life.

Of course, in the wake of any disaster like Haiti, action should be high on the list of any Christian.  We are called to love our neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give a cup of cold water to the thirsty.   But is that all?   Is there no Biblical wisdom that sheds light on catastrophes in Lisbon or Haiti?

When it comes to so-called natural disasters, the Bible is not silent.   It gives, not a simplistic, but a multi-layered yet incomplete explanation for such events.    What help does it offer?

Let’s begin with this.   The Bible affirms that there is much we don’t know, either because we “see in part” or because we do not fully understand the ways of the Lord.   This was Job’s problem.  It is our problem as well.  While there is much we can know about God, due to his revelation, there is also much we cannot know, due to God’s incomprehensibility and our finiteness.   If nothing else, this should prompt some humility in any Christian who claims to clearly know the reason for events like Haiti.   And that’s my problem with Pat Robertson.

Having said that, the Bible also affirms that God is both sovereign and good.   His goodness is seen in the fact that he created the world in a perfect and unbroken state.  According to the Bible narrative, it was human sin that spoiled everything—even creation.  

God’s sovereignty is also seen through Scripture. He is not just the creator, but the all- governing creator.   He rules over nature and history.   Because of this, I believe that a Christian who wants to be Biblical cannot shrink back from saying that God in his sovereignty, for his own reasons, allowed Lisbon and Haiti. 

I cannot go down the path of the Openness of God theologians who deny that God ordained or even permitted this.  There is too much in the Bible affirming both God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge for me to concede this point.  Besides that, if God has nothing to do with this tragedy, and if he was as surprised by it as we were, then we end up with a God who is not in control of the universe.

But the Bible says he is the Lord of heaven and earth.  He reigns over the earth and its movements, over the rising and falling of sparrows and nations, and yes, even over the upheavals of nature.

Of course, to say God is sovereign, does not mean he necessarily likes all that goes on.   Clearly  he does not.   He opposes proud kings.   He brings judgment on sin.   He also grieves over our deep losses.

The God of the Bible is not pictured as a distant God.  Rather, he enters human suffering.   He sends his only son into the world to share and carry our sorrows.    Through Christ, he offers people who suffer immense consolation and hope.

His incarnate birth reminds us that God is with us.  He knows our condition.   His cross reminds us that he is not immune to suffering.  He knows about losing a son.  In fact, he knows the deepest kind of suffering of all.   His resurrection reminds us that he is stronger than the forces of death.   He can bring great good out of suffering.    It can have a redemptive purpose.   The promise of his second coming reminds us that his plans are yet unfinished—there awaits a renewed creation.

While the Bible never gives us full explanations of our suffering in this world, it gives us many partial explanations.   Of these, perhaps the most important is that creation itself fell with Adam when Adam and Eve defied God in the garden (Gen.3.51).  Their “cosmic treason” had cosmic consequences.   All nature has been affected.   Everything sin touched became broken—the human heart, relationships, and nature itself all need to be healed.

Beyond this we are told that suffering can come from the natural consequences of wrong doing (Rom 1.27), from God’s fatherly discipline (Hebrews 12.4-11), from the sins of other people (Psalm 42.43), from the cost of following Jesus (John 15.18-20), from Satanic opposition (Job 1, 2), from serving others (2 Cor. 1.3-7), from God’s desire to display his glory in our lives  (2 Cor. 12.9), from his intent to cause us to grow in Christ and prepare for heaven (Hebrews and James), and from God’s direct judgment for wrong doing   (Gen 6.5ff; Acts 12.20-23; I Cor. 11.28-30).

Let’s think about this last one.   Make no mistake about it.   Sin does bring judgment.   And in the Bible, judgment sometimes involves stuff like earthquakes.  Upheavals in nature are sometimes an outpouring of His wrath.  The Lord sometimes visits with earthquake, tempest, and devouring fire (Isaiah 29.6).

Which is not to say we know have the final explanation for Haiti.   But we do know about a day of judgment that is yet to come.   We are called to be ready for that day.    According to Jesus, local catastrophes are to be a wake-up call, prompting us to repentance, so we are ready for that final day (Luke 13.1-5). 

This world is under judgment.   Every episode of judgment depicted in the Bible is a reminder of that great Day of the Lord yet to come.   For just as God answered the evil of Noah’s day,  and of Sodom’s day, and of Jerusalem’s day, he will answer the evil of our day.  Even nations are accountable to the Lord.

The book of Revelation describes great earthquakes at the end of time.  In Revelation 16.11 it speaks of “a great earthquake as never before” where the cities of the nations will fall.  Jesus himself once said that earthquakes are the “beginning of the birth pains” which will precede his coming deliverance (Matthew 24.7).

Meanwhile, all creation groans as it waits to be set free from its bondage to corruption” (Romans 8.21).   It looks forward to its liberation and the glory of the promised new heaven and earth.

So before we completely mock Robertson and side with Voltaire, realize the disbelief that drove Voltaire to deny so many realities that the Bible affirms.   God is sovereign over earthquakes.  He does judge nations.  He hates sin and will one day judge the world in righteousness.

And before we conclude with Robertson that we know exactly why the earthquake came to Haiti, let’s exert a little humility.    I certainly have not been given insights into the reason why Haiti was struck and not Los Angeles or Tehran.

Meanwhile, I can tell you this for sure.   There will be more earthquakes in the days ahead.   When they come we should have, like Isaiah, a ministry of warning of the judgment to come, and of extending hope in the name of the messiah.  

In other words, we should care about both the “what” and the “why” of Haiti or any other disaster that befalls us.

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