Where is God to be found in natural disasters?
Article by Sharon Dirckx
OCCA Senior Tutor Sharon Dirckx steers an apologetic course through this deeply sobering topic as she offers some reflections on the natural disasters we have witnessed over the last few years.
We can barely go for a couple of months without hearing about 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.