Monday, March 14, 2011

The Challenge of Natural Disaster

When I read and hear the news about the recent tsunami that swept over Japan (as I write this, keen eyes are on California as the water level is rising) and I reflect on the many other similar events of the past few years, I find my perspective being challenged.

Why do we call things like earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes and storms, tornadoes, volcanoes, snowfalls, and like events “natural disasters?” I had to stop watching the news and local weather because when it rains, it is disaster because we need the sun. When the sun shines, the report is delivered apologetically as we need the rain.

When we refer to these things as natural disasters, aren’t we implying that creation should behave in some other fashion? What is creation’s view of the events?

“Disaster” is defined as a state of ruin or misfortune, an occurrence of widespread destruction and distress. Ruin for whom? Misfortune for whom? What is being destroyed? Who is having the distress?

Creation is to behave a certain way and “disaster” occurs when humans are involved. The stuff that happens in space does not bother us because we are too far removed from it—we are not in the way. The reason it is called “space” is because things are so far apart—we just can’t appreciate the chaos because of the distance, namely, from us.

There are times when God uses the natural function of creation to deal with man, such as the earth opening up and swallowing people who intentionally sinned against God. God said, “No,” the people said, “So?” and God said, “Oh?”

And there are times when God made creation do something just a little different in order to deal with man: the sun stood still; a bush that did not burn; water parting or being made into wine; a fish swallowing a man and vomits him up again; a vine growing overnight and producing fruit and dying; dead coming back to life, etc.

The loss of human life is tragic--a real disaster--and for the most part, disaster cannot be avoided. Yet again, there are times when it can. For example: if hurricanes have a predictable path, why must people make residents there? Nobody builds their homes on the freeway or Interstate, do they? No, but “Tornado Alley” should be a warning sign, not a welcome sign. Certainly there are many, many people who have no choice but to build their homes in certain places (such as the very, very flat land of Japan), but is it God’s fault if gravity works?

Jesus was once asked to comment about a group of people who were killed by Pilate. “What about them?” the people wanted to know. Jesus’ reply is interesting because he brings a natural disaster in to give an answer. He asks in reply, “What about those on whom the tower of Siloam fell? . . . unless you repent you will likewise perish.” Clearly, creation has done nothing wrong, but for those who have broken God’s moral law and sinned against Him, there is something much worse than natural disaster coming.

All creation is evidence there is a Creator, and it operates just as it should. I will even venture there are things that happen in the “machinery” of the world that have happened even before the fall: the wind blew, water flowed, the sun was hot, lava gushed, smoke billowed. But when the wind blows and the earth shakes and the water flows, we shake our fist at God because we have been inconvenienced, and tragedy sets in when life is disrupted. Or is there something more to life? Perhaps here is another place where our perspective is challenged.

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