Why Natural Disasters?
Many of us are watching our TV screens in horror as Hurricane Irma rips through and devastates the Caribbean islands. The Category 5 storm, with wind speeds of up to 185mph (295 km/h), has left some islands almost entirely underwater and uninhabitable. The death toll is rising and many thousands are homeless. Moreover, monsoon floods in Southeast Asia have left thousands dead and potentially millions displaced.
We can barely go for a couple of months without hearing of a new disaster. We remember, in particular, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the 2011 Japan earthquake and Haiti in 2010. How do we make sense of natural disasters such as these? Philosophers refer to this kind of suffering as ‘natural evil’. In other words, evil that impacts the natural world itself, as opposed to ‘moral evil’, which results from human behaviour. But, even if some of the suffering in the world can be explained by the actions of people, this can’t explain natural disasters! Humans, far from being the cause, are swept away by them. They are caused by forces much bigger than us. Our insurance policies protect us against ‘Acts of God’. Is this what they are? Why does God let them happen?
I do not take this subject lightly, nor do I even pretend to have all of the answers on this deeply sobering topic. But, let me offer some broad reflections I have had on natural disasters over the last few years.
If God doesn’t exist then it’s all ‘natural’. There are no ‘disasters’.
If there is no supernatural dimension then we are left with a closed system of atoms, molecules and physical forces. Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes are simply the outworking of the laws of nature, cause–effect, and probability. This is simply the way the world is.
Richard Dawkins put it like this,
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.
In other words, if God does not exist then it’s all natural. There are no disasters as such.
But this raises another question. Why cry out against the injustice of natural disasters if this is simply the way the world is? The apologist Ravi Zacharias points out that when we object to suffering we invoke a moral law that can be traced back to the One from whom that law originates, God Himself. The fact that we raise these very questions points us towards God, not away from Him.
What is a natural disaster and what is not?
When referring to large scale natural ‘disasters’ it helps to start with some definitions. What is not a ‘natural disaster’? Famine, war, and mass migration of refugees fleeing violence and persecution are not natural disasters. They can result in disaster, perhaps even a large-scale ‘national disaster’ but they are not caused by events in the natural world. This type of large-scale suffering is dictated by power struggles, corruption, greed, poverty and injustice, and is rooted in moral evil rather than physical evil.
What is a ‘natural disaster’? A natural disaster is a large-scale event caused by physical mechanisms in the natural world, and includes earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. They will be referred to as ‘natural events’ for now and we will discuss later whether they should be referred to as ‘disasters’.
It is a wonder that life exists at all
It is important to remember that, although natural events occur, the extent to which they occur on Earth seems to be within boundaries, so that life is possible. Other planets, such as Venus, possess hundreds of volcanoes, and volcanic plains cover 80-85% of its surface. Neptune and Jupiter have storms that make ours look tiny by comparison and call for a redefinition of the term ‘extreme weather’. On Earth, the most powerful hurricane, a Category 5, may reach 249kph, whereas on the gaseous planet of Jupiter they may be as strong as 400kph. Jupiter is most well known for its Great Red Spot; an anticyclone 20,000 kilometres long and 12,000 wide, larger than two Earths put together, with an average temperature of -163Oc. This storm is so large that it consumes smaller storms and has been around for at least 400 years. On Venus and Jupiter, and every other planet we know of, life, as we know it, is untenable.
Britain is well known for its variable weather and it is a popular topic of conversation. We are quick to bemoan the conditions whatever they are, be it too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold, too sunny, too cloudy. And yet, when we consider the planets around us, our weather conditions and temperature lie within such narrow limits that it is incredible that we exist at all.
Philosophers refer to the laws of the universe as being incredibly finely tuned or intricately balanced, to enable complex life. If any of these constants of nature had changed during the first moments of the Big Bang, life in the universe would have been untenable. For example, if the gravitational force changed by as little as 1 part in 10,40 stars such as our Sun would not have existed, rendering life impossible. Cosmologist Hugh Ross highlights the level of accuracy involved,
Cover America with coins in a column reaching to the moon (380,000 km or 236,000 miles away), then do the same for a billion other continents of the same size. Paint one coin red and put it somewhere in one of the billion piles. Blindfold a friend and ask her to pick it out. The odds are about 1 in 1040 that she will.
The extent and severity of natural events could have been such that life was untenable on our planet. But they are within limits such that life is still possible. Even though our planet contains natural events that can claim lives, we also need to be mindful of a bigger perspective; that it is a wonder that life exists at all.
Natural events create beauty
Geophysicists would say that some of the physical mechanisms behind natural events have contributed to much of the natural beauty that we enjoy. The mountains that we climb up in summer and ski down in winter, together with deep ocean trenches, are formed by the riding up and forcing down of tectonic plates against each other, over time. Molten lava, from volcanoes once cooled, allows new terrain to form, and land masses such as the Hawaiian islands were formed this way.
Natural events sustain life
These same natural events are needed to sustain and create life. Tectonic plate movement enables nutrients from the ocean floors and beneath the Earth’s crust to be recycled back into the biosphere. Volcanoes provide channels through which excess pressure and gases beneath the Earth’s crust can be released back into the atmosphere. Volcanic ash releases minerals into the soil producing fertile soil that is valuable in agriculture. Flooding can also be beneficial because the influx of water brings with it valuable nutrients for the soil.
So, the question ‘Why natural disasters?’ is not as straightforward as it may seem at first. There are a number of positions held by Christians, and two will be highlighted here.
1. Natural events are not bad in themselves. They only become a disaster when people die.
One view is that natural events are not intrinsically evil. They existed before the Fall and will exist in Heaven. However, the impact of the Fall is that we have become vulnerable to them in several ways.
Perhaps we ignore or misread the signs of nature? Could it be that the earliest humans enjoyed a closeness with God, and also with the whole natural world, such that they used to be able to recognise when a natural event was coming, but their broken relationship with God (impacting us) has muddied our capacity to do this? In this case, the Fall has not changed nature itself, but has made people vulnerable to nature.
Animals, who are arguably not fallen in the same way as humans, often have a greater awareness of the natural signs than people. We know that, before a tsunami, cattle run to high ground, and before a storm, birds go quiet. Could it be that the Fall has not changed nature itself, but how humans interact with nature?
A second factor is that poverty and injustice increase the death toll. The number of deaths from natural events in developing countries is generally an order of magnitude higher than in developed countries. The death toll in Asia after the tsunami in 2004 was in the hundreds of thousands because many were living in poverty in makeshift houses close to the beaches. Landslides kill far more people in developing countries because of the lack of infrastructure and high-density housing. Earthquakes in developing countries are far more devastating because the buildings are not built to withstand the impact.
Comparing two earthquakes of similar severity, California in 1989 (m6.9) and Haiti in 2010 (m7.0), highlights this point. 57 people died in California, whereas 230,000 died in Haiti. Although people are generally not responsible for the natural event itself, poverty and injustice, caused by human greed and folly, undoubtedly add to the death toll.
A third factor is to say that human lifestyle may have impacted weather patterns. During the twentieth century, the Earth’s global temperature has notably increased, causing polar ice caps to melt and leading to a global rise in sea levels. Some scientists also believe global warming has caused changes in local weather patterns, leading to increased numbers of hurricanes and tornadoes, severe flooding and landslides.
There are many competing explanations for these changes, but at this stage it cannot be ruled out that human lifestyle has had a role to play in some of the more severe weather we are seeing. Sadly, the poor are the greatest affected.
2. Nature is broken.
A second possible position is that natural events are, in some sense, evil. Nature is incredibly beautiful but something is also wrong. Nature itself is broken and theologians differ on when they think the breakage occurred. Some believe it happened before the Fall. The serpent is simply in the garden already in Genesis 2, and potentially wreaked havoc with nature before humanity.
Others would link the breakage to the Fall itself, and believe that the human decision to turn away from God dragged the whole of nature along and introduced (or made worse) volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement, hurricanes and tornadoes. In other words, the spiritual condition of humanity has impacted the whole natural world. We see glimpses of this when Adam is told by God that ‘the ground is cursed’ because of his actions in Eden (Genesis 3:17), and again in Romans 8:20-22 that, “Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse… [and] has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
There are other Bible verses that connect spiritual events with natural events but most notably, the death (Matthew 27:50-54) and resurrection (Matthew 28:1-2) of Jesus were both accompanied by an earthquake. Could it be that the effects of the cross are so far reaching that they probe not only the very depths of the human soul but also of nature itself?
Are natural disasters God’s judgement?
On hearing of a natural disaster, some are quick to pronounce events as God’s judgement on a particular region for a particular sin they have committed. Perhaps Jesus’ response to two types of larger scale suffering helps us here.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans 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 seems to be addressing mass suffering as a result of evil committed by Pilate towards the Galileans (moral evil), and because of the accidental collapse of a tower (natural or moral evil). We are not told whether the tower collapsed due to an earthquake or due to poor construction. Yet, Jesus is clear that suffering of this kind is not God’s judgement but is a reminder to onlookers of the brevity of life and the urgency of the need to turn to Christ because the alternative is that we perish.
What should our response be to natural disasters? In the West, we usually encounter natural disasters from a distance, as an observer, but we all have a part to play in relieving the suffering that they cause, whether directly or indirectly.
Medical professionals and disaster relief organisations serve as God’s hands and feet in rescuing and restoring the people on the ground.
Scientists that develop technologies to predict the onset of, for example, a tsunami, help to minimise suffering the next time.
Politicians and civilians that live in freedom and wealth can speak for justice on behalf of those who live under oppression and poverty. We all have our part to play.
‘There’s always somebody worse-off than you’ is a common phrase in our country in regard to suffering. As we are bombarded daily with news of yet more disasters it can engender the feeling that our problems are mundane and irrelevant. And whilst natural disasters can put our own suffering into perspective it does not render it irrelevant.
Nor does it mean that God is not interested. Whether you are alone and grieving your last living relative, or whether your entire island is submerged and uninhabitable, you matter to God.
Your suffering matters to him. Unlike a junior doctor in A&E on a Saturday night, he will not grow tired or weary. His capacity to love people who are hurting is limitless.
Who is to Blame? Disasters, Nature and Acts of God.
Robert S. White, Lion Hudson, 2014
Why? Looking at God, Evil and Personal Suffering.
Sharon Dirckx, IVP, 2013.
Why Suffering? Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense.
Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale, Faith Words, 2014.