Monday, March 21, 2011

Earthquakes: An Act of God?

When the M7.7 earthquake hit Luzon in July 1990, an Evangelical preacher said it was a quirk of nature. That is, neither God nor humans had anything to do with it. Such a fatalistic view somehow excuses our inability to do anything to prevent it from happening and destroying everything in its path. Likewise, it somehow releases God from any moral responsibility in causing death to hundreds of people. As if God needed a judge to absolve Him.

Today, after the devastation wrought by the Sendai M9 quake and tsunami, some are saying earthquakes and their corresponding tsunamis are an “act of God”. Meaning, together with shaking the Earth and causing the ocean to rampage inland as well, God causes the death of thousands of people caught in the wakes of these gigantic force-generators. Or maybe, it is just our way of saying we do not really understand God or life at all. Still, we can’t avoid imagining God as if He were a mean brat pouring hot water over helpless ants scrambling on the ground.

Two different views of one and the same supposedly natural phenomenon: one makes God indifferent, the other makes Him answerable for all the suffering we see splashed on TV every minute or so.

Do these views give us the real pictures and the truth? Are we then helpless and worthless creatures blown here and there, buffeted to and fro by the heartless forces of Nature or by a whimsical God ?

Haiti, Chile, Christchurch, Sendai and so many other places have tasted the blind “quirkness” of Nature or the indiscriminate “act” of God. Christian or not, rich or poor, nations suffer the same devastation from some of life’s inscrutable realities.

How are we to make sense of these cruel events?

Let us lay down principles that will hopefully make this difficult question more within our grasp.

First, when God created the Universe, He put perfect order into it. (Everything was “good” in the eyes of God.) Whether it came out of a Big Bang or not, it now proceeds according to His laws – laws which we now ascribe as the characteristics of Nature. Adam came after all things were already made and working according to the Grand Universal Design. We can be sure that God gave him a lecture on how the cosmos worked and how the Earth played its role in it. Without this assumption, we would make of God and Adam two indifferent beings with nothing to converse about except for laying down rules. (“OK, Adam, here are the rules: blah blah blah….” “Yes, Father. Yes, Father. Yes, Father.” Sounds like something we would hear happening today in some circles.)

Second, somewhere along the line, Adam caused things to go haywire. That led God to rewire the whole Universe in order to make things difficult, apparently, for Adam and the rest of us. Sounds so simplistic but we might as well see it as kids do; for in the eyes of God, we are truly kids at play. The way Adam and Eve misused their blessings proved it. The way we continue to misuse Nature proves it.

Third, how things work today has come as a result of God’s rewiring the Universe to show us humans how we must not forget that divine law and order still apply in spite of our belief to the contrary. The fact that God has patiently waited for humans to learn this lesson also shows His love for us His wayward children. Noah’s Flood was a prime example of how God totally changed the playing field so He could begin afresh with good seeds, human or otherwise. And He did it not without waiting for 120 years to give a chance to those who turned their backs on Him. Failing that, He destroyed then rebuilt the Earth and made it even a more habitable place for more people but not without its misgivings. If God has to adjust to our wild and rebellious ways, we humans must also learn to adapt to His firm and unchanging ways. Somewhere in between, we can learn to live with God and with one another in our God-given planet Earth. Easier said than done.

Fourth, in rebuilding the Earth, God ended up making it less conducive for long life to be experienced. He had foreseen how people would become more sinful and made it a place where He could easily instill discipline and judgment when people needed it. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and of Moses in Egypt prove this point. When we hear people reaching the age of 100 or more, we wonder if they are exceptional quirks or they exemplify a state that once was the rule. Eat your hearts out! Methuselah really did live to 969. Unwittingly, even scientists name the elusive long-life gene after him—not the myth but the real historical person.

Finally, the present spate of disasters is simply in keeping with what God has been doing for millennia. Nature is God’s tool to make people recognize His power and authority – even for those who think that God is a myth Himself. The many calamities and disasters that come and go prove that sin still abounds and God’s judgment still applies. There are those who believe and there are those who do not believe. That does not stop God from doing what He had been doing for centuries and which He had made known to humans long before they forgot. Then, in the end, we will know who holds the Truth.

In short, Nature is not quirky. It behaves according to God’s plan -- Plan B, that is. Disasters are, in essence, acts of God which He accomplishes through Nature. Yet, He does so in relation to what humans do. In spite of having made the Earth less livable than Paradise, it does not mean that God has no way of making us live in abundance and contentment through His provision and protection.

Nothing happens by accident, not even disasters of such magnitudes that rattle and dazzle our senses. The best we can come up with is to say that such disasters are “just or justified acts of God”. In cursing the Earth because of sin, He was and is justified in placing it under a less orderly or less comfortable manner for humans. Greater pain in childbirth, sweating in order to feed ourselves, getting sick and eventually dying. All these are products of human frailty, not of divine cruelty. Of human disobedience, not divine helplessness.

But even disasters can be “loving acts of God” as well, especially when they lead people to turn back to God. Nevertheless, many find it hard to accept that considering that many of the victims do not even believe in God in the first place. Thousands of Chinese, Japanese or Haitians who died in those earthquakes may have lived all their lives not knowing the true living God other nations commonly worship. How can we tell those people what they suffered was brought about by love? It is so easy to say then that in their case, they received the justice of God. But then again, even believers could be placed in the same lot. Like Job, who suffered much though he was upright.

God’s love and justice, inscrutable as they are, do not apply haphazardly like tsunami waters carrying infants and adults alike. If there is order in the Universe, there is also order in God’s righteous laws and rule. When He sent His son Jesus to die on the cross, it was a “loving act” for it allowed sinners to be saved by the pure sacrifice of a perfect being. Yet, it was also a “just act” in that it punished the sins of many through the same sacrificial offering of Jesus. Christ took our pains and our sins and died doing so. The Father, thus, punished His own Son on our behalf. And He did it through wicked people whom He loved and forgave. That prime act in human history merged both justice and love in one supreme plan designed to undo the work of sin and death upon humans.

Who suffered and died that justice and salvation might be established and proclaimed? Jesus Christ. Yet, so many still do not see the value of that turning point in history as the final solution that God would want us to apply in our lives. Our refusal to do so keeps bringing us back to the ancient times when people preferred to walk in the wilderness instead of entering the Promised Land.

Today, justice and salvation are being applied through God’s handiwork in the lives of people. He does it through human societies recognizing His sovereignty and, thereby, applying His rule and grace in small and great ways. When a criminal is put in prison, that is divine justice at work. When a worthy politician wins an election that is divine grace at work. When nations rise up against dictators, that is divine justice being expressed. When they are freed from bondage, God’s mercy applies. All these events – big and small -- make God’s presence known and felt. So, why can’t disasters do likewise?

Hence, when earthquakes occur today, we can be sure that God is not asleep but is working to shake us up from our complacency and forgetfulness. Ironically, suffering and death can be great stimuli for people to awaken to spiritual realities. And yet, we wonder if people are truly paying more attention to God when He gets their attention through disasters. After a while, people go back to their normal wanton ways because they never learn to appreciate God, His creation and His ways.

To bring out more clearly how people often miss God’s role in the midst of disasters, let us consider a paradoxical reality exhibited by the tragic Sendai Tsunami. It is clear that Japan was prepared for the M9 earthquake in cultural and infrastructural terms. In general, only minor damages, casualties and social disruption, if there were any at all, were reported immediately after the temblor. It was the tsunami surge that wrought havoc to the coastal areas which killed thousands and led to the present threat of a global radioactive exposure from the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

Water from the sea caused the tragic death of about 8,000 people in Japan. And as we said, God did not originally design the Earth to behave that way but rebuilt it to behave, in response to human behavior, in ways that allows Him to deal with humans for their benefit (“loving act”) or for their discipline (“just act”) and eventual salvation. Paradoxically, it is now water that is badly needed in order to cool down the overheated reactors of Fukushima.* The first case showed how water kills; the second, how it can save. (In the same way that the Great Flood waters killed and also saved.) The first is a result of human inability to live perfectly within God’s laws and the second a result of human inability to completely control Nature. This may sound like a theological cop-out to many. Nevertheless, it shows us how we continue to put ourselves in harm’s way when we only seek to satisfy our all-too-human thoughts and fail to incorporate divine realities in our ways.

The historical record shows that humans did have technical expertise in ancient times which allowed communities to attain control of Nature’s forces. For example, some of the unearthed iron tools used by those so-called “crude” people are so advanced we cannot even duplicate their metallurgy today. The medical practices and tools of the ancient Romans remain in use in modern hospitals. The pyramids amaze us no end but they were in pursuit of the most elusive goal of humanity: eternal life. Today’s social and technological progress could mesmerize many into thinking that we have had it all figured out. Until Nature messes up all that we have labored hard to achieve. And, we are back on the muddy ground asking ourselves what happened and thinking what we did to deserve all the pain and anguish. We weep and we wonder. We struggle to cope and we somehow overcome. For what? Simply to die eventually? No, God gives us the opportunity to understand and accept once and for all the INDESTRUCTIBILITY OF LIFE. And that kind of life can only come from God.

In essence, we see only death and suffering in disasters; but God sees and wants us all to see as well His love when He disciplines us humans. Disasters can be our only window to genuine life.

*With all the technological know-how Japan has, they failed to design the reactors such that cooling water could be conveyed by gravitation during power disruptions. As it is, they have to pump water using generators, hose it using fire trucks or pour it from helicopters.

(Painting above: "The Deluge" by Francis Danby, 1840)