By Pastor Glenn Pease
It was in Santa Clara, California, in the summer of 1988 that Lavonne and I experienced our one and only earthquake. We were in a motel and the bed began to vibrate like it does when you put a quarter in the machine at the side of the bed. It only lasted a few seconds, but even that made an impression on us, and we felt a mild fear to be in the presence of such power. Psychologist say earthquakes can be more destructive psychologically than natural disasters because quakes strike at our most cherished belief-that the earth beneath us is solid and steady. Earthquakes shake the very foundation of our security. We can imagine the awful fear that comes with a powerful earthquake, like the one that hit that same area where we were.
Earthquakes are a part of this fallen world and they are going on all the time. Some like to speculate that they are more frequent now than ever, but F. W. Borham, writing in 1918, said, "there is an earthquake on the average every quarter of an hour-or about thirty to forty thousand a year. The earth is like a flea-bitten dog which is always shaking and twitching." Sometimes the destruction is beyond belief, but experts say we have not seen the worst yet-the big one. But the world has already seen some really big ones.
The greatest loss of life by an earthquake took place in 1556 in Central China when 830,000 people were killed. The second largest loss of life was in 1976 near Peking, China when 655,000 people died. There have been dozens of earthquakes with tens of thousand of lives lost. It is estimated that about 13,000,000 people have lost their lives in earthquakes. So there have been big ones in the past, and there will be bigger ones in the future.
The Bible tells us of the biggest one of all big ones. In Revelation 16:18 we read, "Then there came flashes of lightening, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since man has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed." The implication is, the biggest big one will not be affecting anyone nation only, but will be international. So the experts and the Bible agree-we haven't seen anything yet.
But what we have seen is very disturbing to Christians and non-Christians alike. Anything as big as a earthquake gets you into theology, for it goes beyond humanism. You have got to think about God when you think about earthquakes. The problem is, earthquakes seldom stimulate good thoughts about God. Paul said whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, what is admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy-think about such things. These kinds of thoughts lead you to praise God. But it is hard to maintain this level of positive thinking when the world is collapsing around you, and you loose loved ones and all you possess.
Earthquakes force you to confront God from a different angle, and they make you tend to blame God for all the evil that they bring. It is hard to avoid since we have already tried God and found Him guilty. We call such tragedies acts of God, and so He is the one to blame. Coming to this conclusion has never been a fortifying factor in people's faith. Earthquakes can wreck everything, including faith.
In 1755, on Nov. 1, the great Lisbon earthquake hit when the churches were full of people, and over 50,000 were killed. It was devastating to faith, and Goethe made up his mind the earth was a chaos that hopelessly out of control, and no longer in the hands of God. Many came to this conclusion as their faith was shaken, and that is why we need to do some serious thinking about earthquakes, and tragedy in general, to know just how God fits in, and whether is valid to get mad at God, and blame Him for the tragedy.
The first thing I learned about earthquakes in the New Testament is that they can be completely positive with no harmful effects. Our text is a case in point. Paul and Silas are delivered from prison by the violent earthquake that opened all the doors. Nobody was hurt in this quake. There was no judgment on the criminals there. Just the opposite, in fact. It was a day of salvation for the Philippian jailer and his family. God used an earthquake to open the doors of the prison, and the doors of the Kingdom of God, and a new family was taken into the family of God. This family would be praising God for the rest of their lives, and for all eternity, for the night of the earthquake. It led to deliverance and not to destruction.
That would be great if God always used the power of the earthquake for such a positive purpose. The fact is, every earthquake in the New Testament that God deliberately caused was just such a positive power. Come with me to the cross where we see another of God's directly caused earthquakes. Listen to Matt. 27:51-54. "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn into from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus rose from the dead they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the Centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and exclaimed, surely He was the Son of God!"
Here again, is a totally positive earthquake. It did tear the temple curtain, but that was symbolic of God's making the way into His presence open to all in Christ. There is no report of injury or death. In fact, the tomb's were open so that we have here the only earthquake on record that added to the population. People who were dead were shaken into life. The spiritually dead were also shaken into seeing the truth that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. What a powerful positive impact God had with this earthquake.
Then in Matt. 28:2 we find another one-the Easter earthquake which accompanied the resurrection of Jesus. Here was the best of them all. Here is the really big one from the positive perspective. This was the ultimate in positive earthquakes. The kingdom of hell was unhinged, and Jesus walked away as Lord of all with the power to release everyone from the bondage of death.
Now let's face this New Testament fact. God used earthquakes to accomplish His purpose of salvation for mankind, and, therefore, there is a wonderful and awesome and positive side to the earthquake. It is important for us to see this positive side for it is comforting to know that God may be doing something of great value for mankind even in what seems to us to be very negative.
Unfortunately, there are two sides to every issue, and we have to see the New Testament also reveals God's use of the earthquake as a means of judgment. Just as a father uses his belt both for support of his pants and for discipline; and just as a mother uses a kitchen tool for food control and child control; and just as the teacher uses the ruler to measure and to punish; so God uses the earthquake both for saving man and judging man. All of the seven judgment earthquakes are in the book of Revelation. They are severe in there devastation, and go way beyond the Richter Scale. Revelation 6:12-14 says, "There was a great earthquake. The son turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs dropped from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place." Such are the judgment earthquakes that represent God's wrath on a sinful rebellious world.
The interesting thing we see in the judgment earthquakes is the radically different response of those who feel God's wrath. In Revelation 16:21, the response to the big one was the people cursed God. But, on the other hand, back in Rev. 11:13 we read, " At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven." Every earthquake gets people's attention on God, either to curse Him or to praise Him.
So what we have so far are positive and negative earthquakes caused by God for either salvation or judgment. But the negative judgment type earthquakes still leave the door open for a positive response. They too have the potential of turning people to God and, thus, become positive tools that lead to salvation. If this was all we had on earthquakes we would be forced to conclude that most of those we hear about are judgment type earthquakes. The problem with this is the record will probably reveal that those who died, or suffer great loss, were not greater sinners than those who survived. In many cases they will be very good and even godly people. There will not be a clear, or even vague, connection between the crime and the punishment. Therefore, to classify it as a judgment earthquake takes quite a measure of audacity.
There are some records that leave little doubt about judgment. When the quake hit Mount Pelee in 1902, it was acknowledge to be the wickedness spot in the West Indies. Blasphemous rights and mockery of all things holy was the in thing. On Good Friday a pig was masqueraded through the city, and then crucified. The wickedness was deliberate and appalling. Forty thousand inhabitants perished in what could reasonably be considered the judgment of God.
But if we affix this label to all destructive earthquakes, we risk the danger of self-judgment. We would be like Job's friends who insisted that all his suffering was due to God's judgment. They were wrong, and they were the sinners for making this false judgment. What then is the alternative? The answer is, the one other New Testament earthquake that we seldom to never hear of because it is hidden in the sea. The Greek word for earthquake is Seismos, from which we get the word seismograph. This is the instrument by which the intensity of earthquakes is read.
This Greek word is translated earthquake 13 times in the New Testament. But it is used one other place where it is not translated earthquake. The reason is because the effects of it were taking place, not on land like all of the others, but on the sea. So the word Seismos this one time is translated tempest by the King James Version, or furious storm by the New International Version. It was the occasion when Jesus was asleep in the boat, and the storm became so furious that the waves threatened to sink the boat. The disciples were fearful of drowning. Matt. 9:24 tells us this was a seismos, or a storm cause by an earthquake. This is very common, and history is filled with accounts of great tidal waves created by earthquakes. The ancients believed that the shaking of the earth was caused by the anger of Poseidon, the brother of Zeus. He was the God of the sea. It was a seismic sea that was the origin of earthquakes they said. That is the case with this one that threatened to sink Jesus and His disciples.
It is obvious that God would not send an earthquake to drown His own Son and all of His hand picked men. Here is an earthquake that clearly is not of God. If that is the case, who, then, is the cause of this unique event? Just ask yourself, who would be most interested in wiping out the Messiah and His whole church in one swift storm? The same one who wanted to drown Moses as a baby, and destroy God's plan in the Old Testament. Satan, of course. But do we have any reason to believe that this was a satanic earthquake? Yes we do!
For one thing, it struck suddenly when Jesus was sleeping. It was a sneak attack when the only hope for survival would be divine power, and Jesus was deep in sleep. It was a clever plot that fits the mind of the evil one. We know from the book of Job that Satan does have the power to create natural disaster. But the key to seeing Satan is the cause of this seismic sea of destruction is the response of Jesus when He was awaken. In Matt. 9:26, and both Mark and Luke also, we see the same Greek word to describe it. Jesus rebuked the wind the waves.
This is the same word Jesus used when he rebuked the devil and the evil spirits. He used it again when He rebuked Peter by saying, "Get thee behind me Satan." This is a personally to personally word. Jesus was not speaking to water and wind. Water and wind are not persons. They cannot be evil, but there can be an evil person behind their destructive force, and that is what we see here. It is not Poisidon, the god of the sea, but Satan, the god of this world who is seeking to sink God's plan of salvation by means of this seismic sea.
Jesus puts a muzzle on this sea monster, and all is calm, and Satan is foiled again. The point of this story is, Jesus was not rebuking His Father in heaven for this earthquake. It did not have its origin in God's will, but in the will of Satan. This opens up the third possibility of how we are to look at earthquakes. It can be a satanic event designed by the evil one for his purpose, which is evil for evil's sake. This third option is a crucial one to avoid blaming God for every horrible thing that happens in nature. Jesus clearly teaches this third option when he deals with the signs of the time.
I always assumed that the signs of the end were signs that God was to be giving. But I discover just the opposite is the case. The signs are primarily of satanic origin, and earthquakes are one of the signs. In Matt. 24 the disciples asked Jesus, "What will be the sign of your coming?" Let's look at His answer, and note the author of the signs.
1. Many will come claiming I am the Christ and will deceive many. Does this sound like God's work? Does He send false Christs to deceive the world? No, this is the work of Satan.
2. There will be war and rumors of war and nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. This is also satanic, and the source of the strife and hostility of the world has its source in evil.
3. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. These are listed in a context of signs which are of satanic origin. Why do we blame God for famines and earthquakes when what comes before and after these signs are clearly of the evil one? We would not dream of blaming God for all of the evil in the world, so why do we blame Him for earthquakes? Look at number 4-
4. You will be handed over to be persecuted, and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. Does that sound like a God-designed sign? Does all the evil that Christians have suffered have its origin in God? If so, Satan is not even relevant as a cause of evil. It gets even worse as we look at 5-
5. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. If this sign has its origin in God and not Satan, then there is no distinction between good and evil.
Everyone of these signs of the end that Jesus gives us are of satanic origin. Yet, we have been so blind that we have lifted one of the signs out of context and attributed to God-the earthquakes. It is blasphemous to attribute to God what is of Satan. The evidence supports the conviction that the vast majority of earthquakes are of satanic origin. To blame God for an earthquake is as unjustified as assuming that false prophets are His will, and that the unjust persecution and killing of Christians is His plan, and that the destruction of His Kingdom and loss of faith is also a part of it. Jesus said a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. If you attribute these signs to God, you have made God divided against Himself.
So what is the bottom line on all of this? How are we to think about the terrible tragedies produced by earthquakes? The Biblical evidence leads me to these conclusions:
1. You first of all assume that any such calamity of nature is evil in its origin. Just as the personal tragedies of rape, robbery, and murder are assumed to be of evil origin, so the destructive power of natural disaster is to be assumed to be of evil origin. It is just what it appears to be-evil.
2. Secondly, you recognize that God is sovereign, and even where He permits Satan to do his evil will, He is also accomplishing His own two-fold purpose of judgment and salvation.
In other words, we can assume that in any calamity there will be those who are reaping what they have sown. There will be some element of judgment. We can also assume that God is working to bring forth repentance so that there will be fruit for eternity because of the calamity. People will face up to their mortality, and will come to Christ, who alone can give eternal life. So what we have in the New Testament study of earthquakes is a total picture which enables us to see any particular earthquake from a three-fold perspective. We will see evil that is satanic, and we will see God working for good through the response of His people to the calamity.
Heb. 12:26-29 sums it up beautifully-"Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words 'once more' indicate the removing of what can be shaken-that is, created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." God can use the shaking of what is passing to move people to the solid rock that does not shake, and, thereby, bring good out of evil.
In 1923 half of Tokyo was left in ruins, and five million people were homeless because of an earthquake. One hundred thousand people died. The suffering of the survivors was enormous. Toyohiko Kagawa, a Christian with great compassion for suffering people, collected supplies and went to Tokyo to help. He got Christians organized, and began to feed, clothe, and shelter the victims. The government saw him at work and set up a commission, and they asked him to serve on it. Through this commission Kagawa persuaded the Japanese government, not only to rebuild Tokyo to rid it of slums, but a number of other cities as well, which were not even touched by the earthquake. He helped tens of thousands get decent housing. His Christian compassion put an end to many slums, and made him one of the greatest Christians in history to have an impact on a non-Christian government. He did great things for God and man, and it was an earthquake that opened the door for his
Disaster may come from the devil, but God will be working in the midst of it for good with those who have a compassionate heart. We weep with those who weep, for evil is real, but we also rejoice with those who rejoice because out of evil God brings forth victory that even an earthquake cannot shake. The goal of life is to have a foundation that nothing can shake, and that foundation is the Solid Rock-Jesus Christ. Put your trust in Him and you will have an unshakable foundation forever.