Question 2 - Why does God allow natural disasters
Why does God allow natural Disasters?
There is no doubt that reading accounts of how people have been affected by famines, earthquakes, floods, Tsunamis, eruptions, epidemics, storms and landslides makes for harrowing reading. It is almost impossible (at least for me) to not find yourself in tears as you read about families who are devastated and lives wrecked by events that are often so mind-bogglingly big that it’s just too much to take in.
For instance did you know that in 2005 in America Hurricane Katrina caused the deaths of more than 1,800 people. It was a hurricane so powerful that it destroyed virtually everything in its path. There was no running from winds reaching speeds of more than 125mph, and the destruction and flooding from it was terrible.
But as massive and heart breaking as that figure is, it pales next to the Tsunami of 2004 that hit countries around the Indian Ocean. 280,000 people died directly as a result of the wave and thousands more later because of disease, dehydration and malnutrition.
Stories of children left without parents, and parents left without children, abound, and it is really difficult to read them.
But that’s recent history. The great flood of 1931 in china is estimated to have killed up to 4 million people.
A drought in China 1936 just four years later is said to have killed 5 million people.
And the Spanish flu epidemic (1918) killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
Now the problem for me with all these figures is that it just gets beyond what I can take in. And the danger is that as a very privileged and relatively sheltered westerner I can talk about these things in a very cold and detached way, or maybe even worse, in a passionate way as if I understand. I of course was not in New Orleans, or Indonesia or China when these things happened. I do not have to live with the loss of family or the direct consequences of these things in the lost of my home or livelihood.
So I just want to start out by saying I am trying to tread carefully, not wishing appear cold or callous or maybe worse giving the impression I have got it all sorted out and that I know all the answers.
I take immense comfort in the fact that I am not God, that I am not in control and that I don’t have to have all the answers. I am also hugely encouraged that while God doesn’t tell me everything in the Bible he does tell us enough so that we can start to think about these things and start asking the right sort of questions.
Now as with last week, and perhaps even more so this week the amount of material is vast and my problem has been in condensing it down to something we can manage together in the time we have. So you’ll have to forgive me for moving quite fast and also forgive me for not covering everything. What I have done is pick out five key things the Bible says about natural disasters and death and then present them so we can at least start thinking about the issue.
So here we go:
Point 1 – All Death is a result of a world falling apart in rebellion against God
When God originally made the world, it was good and perfect. In the original pattern there was no death for humanity. But then Adam and Eve took a decision to reject God’s pattern and go their own way. The results is a world that is suffering the consequences of that original decision.
Paul the apostle has this to say about the matter:
Romans 5:12 ESV
12 … sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…
There we go in a nutshell: death is a result of sin and so because we live in a world where there is sin so we live in a world where there is death.
Don’t get all excited and jump up and down on your chair and think that I am saying that all the people who die in natural disasters are bad people who were swept away or burnt or buried alive because they did something awful, something worse than the rest of us, wait till I get to point three. All I want to establish in this first point is something really simple. Death for us in whatever shape or form it comes is not how it was when God first made us. When he first made us things were very different. There was no death in Eden. Adam and Eve did not get old and die in Eden and they would not have been killed by natural disaster either.
But we don’t live in the Eden world any more. That is not our world. Our world is broken and spoilt and not as it should be and part of the results of that are natural disasters that bring terrible destruction.
Now I am aware that some take a slightly different line on that and suggest that natural disasters are part of the design of the planet and so they have always been with us. On that point I am simply not sure, but I can say with confidence that before things went wrong in the fall (when Adam and Eve sinned) there was no death.
In the past when I’ve tried to explain this to people I’ve talked about the design plans for a detailed model or piece of engineering. If you look at the plans they go on for pages and pages explaining how things fit together and how it works. The problem comes when you try to do it without the plan; of course it all goes horribly wrong.
Well, God’s pattern and plan for this universe has been screwed up by us and that is why we live in a world that is messed up.
So again, the reason why there is death in the world is because of sin. That covers all human death and not just some deaths.
If we don’t take that into account then we are going to have all sorts of problems coming to terms with how the universe functions and why things are as they are.
God lays it out clearly for us; death is here in the world because of sin. That makes sin THE big issue, the thing that needs sorting out.
Without sin there would be no death, and so in order for death to be dealt with then sin needs to be dealt with somehow.
Second thing to say:
Point 2 – Natural Disasters Point to God’s Final Judgement
Now this is almost certainly the most controversial thing I will say this morning but I think it is important not to ignore what the Bible has to say about this.
There are a number of occasions when God tells us in his word that he brings disaster on people because of their sin. The most obvious example of this is the flood of Genesis 6. There God has reached the set limit of his patience against the world and so he says enough is enough I am going to act against these people, and he wipes them all out except Noah and his family.
That is an extreme example of natural disaster being used by God as judgement, but is by no means the only example.
As we will see in a moment that does not mean that every natural disaster is always a direct act of judgement by God against people. But there are occasions in the Bible where he does judge people and nations by natural disasters. I can’t ignore that and say it isn’t the case because it is.
But while we can’t really know for sure if a natural disaster is a specific judgement by God against people we can say for certain that natural disasters are one way that God warns us of a coming judgement and disaster that will be universal, terrible and unavoidable.
Now in 2005 Philip Jensen the dean of Sydney caused an absolute storm by suggesting that the Tsunami was a warning from God that judgement is coming. I know that Philip Jensen is famous for making bold provocative statements (he is after all Australian) but I have to say that what he said is not nearly as shocking as other things he has said and merely echoes exactly what Jesus says about death and disaster.
Jesus says death in this world is a stark warning to us that we will all die and face God’s judgement.
If you want to hear something more on this point I am going to suggest you listen to Ben’s excellent sermon on Joel chapter 1. It’s on the church website on the sermons page and you’ll find it listed under June the 8th. There Ben helpfully explains what Joel is about and rightly tells us that it is a warning of God’s coming judgement. Joel 1 is not the only place in the Bible where such language is used and whether we like it or not we are foolish to ignore it.
Please listen to me:
There is a day coming when the destruction and ruin that God will bring will be terrible. I don’t want you to be caught out by that, I don’t want you to be unprepared. Disaster is coming and every time we read about, see, encounter death we are getting a warning siren blaring out at us “Be ready, you too are going to die and the judgement to come will be terrible”
The world for the most part thinks that’s mad. It’s just crazy to believe in a God who is going to judge the world but I think the issue is that the world has redesigned God to be weak and pathetic.
As someone I was reading has said:
The two false ideas that i think is shared by a lot of people about God is that he:
1) his love is such that he will bend to the whims of our desires - because god loves us he'll always give me what I think is good.
2) his love is such that regardless of how I behave - good or bad, towards him or other people in the world, he is still going to treat me favourably.
As much as we block our ears and shout “no no no” it wont change the fact of God’s coming judgement. And all death is a wake up call to that.
That doesn’t mean I like it, and it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t feel for the people caught up in it, but I am silly to think that I can ignore the warning.
Point 3 – Death in Natural Disasters does not point to people being worse sinners
Luke 13:1-4 ESV
13 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?
We don’t know much about the historical situation here other than the fact that for some reason some people were killed, probably in the Temple, and their blood was either deliberately or as a consequence of fighting in the temple spread where the temple sacrifice blood was spilt.
Now it is most likely that Pilate is seen as the enemy here and as these people tell Jesus about this terrible atrocity they are expecting him to say something about the evil blasphemy of Pilate and his desecration of holy things. How could he do such an evil thing?
What does it mean when such evil can be committed?
So the first part of the question here is about the evil acts of men in the world.
But connected to that is a second question. What about these 18 who died when the tower fell on them in the southern part of the Jerusalem, the Siloam part?
Who is to blame there? Who is guilty and who is innocent?
What does this all mean?
Why did they die?
What happened to make it like this?
Now, I need to point out a fundamental difference between the world in Jesus’ day and our own. It is a difference that has a profound effect on the way that people see disasters and trouble and it affects the way we ask our questions.
In Jesus day, these people are asking “What did these people do that made God judge them so harshly?” What kind of people were they that God made them die in the temple or decreed that a tower should crush them?
You see, for these people, the question of guilt was answered by the fact that they suffered such a violent and gruesome death. Obviously God judged them because they died in such a horrible way.
How is that different to today?
Well not many would suggest that the deaths in New Orleans or China or Indonesia were God’s judgement on those people because they were sinners: their innocence is upheld without question. No one asks about the guilt of these people because that is seen as such a stupid question. These people were not guilty in anyway: they are innocent.
The question of guilt we are asking is about God. “How can God get away with allowing this?” “Surely God is guilty in some way for allowing this to happen.”
Now Jesus’ answer first of all to his immediate situation is this.
“They were not worse sinners”
Luke 13:2-3 (ESV)
2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you …
So first of all we need to completely throw away the idea that violent and sudden death is always connected to gross personal sin.
That is to say Jesus is rejecting the stupid idea that God watches from heaven and zaps people because they are worse sinners than everyone else.
Yes, there are occasions in the Bible where God does strike people down for gross sin but that is the rare exception.
In the two incidents that Jesus speaks about the issue is nothing to do with a greater guilt on the part of those who die.
So now applying that to natural disasters we can say this.
The reason these people died in such a horrible way has NOTHING to do with them being worse sinners than everyone else.
But… what Jesus says cuts the other way too. The fact that they are not worse sinners than other people does not make them innocent in the absolute sense.
Jesus refuses to use the word innocent here because no one is innocent. People who die in disasters or wars are not necessarily worse sinners than other people but they are still sinners.
We all are, and that is why there is death in the world.
You see if you want to ask why did these people die you also need to ask why does anyone die? Why is there death at all?
The Bible makes it clear that death is the just punishment on a world in rebellion against God.
And whether that death comes through a tower collapsing or through pneumonia in bed the fact is that death is a universal reality because no one is innocent.
And the answer to death is not to bury our heads in the sand and say, “well, it doesn’t matter does it? It’s the turning off of a light.”
We need to face up to the fact that death happens to us all because we are all fallen.
We in our age have done something terrible.
We have made death and suffering a mark of God’s guilt.
We have completely turned the Word of God on its head and said that the punishment in the Garden of Eden is unfair and that we deserve to be happy because we are all basically innocent.
While the people in Jesus’ day go too far one way and say disaster proves extra guilt, we have gone too far the other way and said, everyone is basically innocent and so death becomes a fault of God.
And how do I know that is not right?
Well Jesus makes it clear
Luke 13:2-3 (ESV)
2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Why will we all perish or die as Jesus says?
Because death is the punishment on a world in rebellion, not just on one or two but on a world in rebellion!
If we use the word “innocent” too freely we end up misunderstanding death itself.
But that brings us to the second thing we need to notice here and this is much more personal.
Luke 13:4-5 (ESV)
4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
When approached about the issue of these people dying in Jerusalem, an issue that was obviously on everyone’s mind he refuses to be drawn on blame or explanations because they too quickly blunt us to the real issue. The real issue for Jesus is that we are all headed for death because we are sinners.
We need to understand that these deaths in Jerusalem were painfully contemporary. These were not just interesting discussion starters they were real and hard issues. And for Jesus to take this opportunity to talk about further death was not an act of cold and unfeeling hardness but an act of love designed to wake his listeners up.
Do you and I think we are so invincible or so innocent that death will not be our experience too?
We hope and pray it will not be for many years but do we think we will escape it?
And if that is the case, that we will not escape it, what is the answer?
Well this is what Jesus is talking about, not just an answer but THE answer to death. What is THE answer?
Not religion as such, not trying to live a better life but repentance.
We just can’t get away from that.
We would like Jesus to be more PC but he just won’t.
He will not allow us to get away from it.
You see the death these people were talking about and the death we see around us should lead us first and foremost to repentance ourselves.
Death is a powerful reminder to all of us that both this world and we ourselves are not what they should be. And raging against it will not help. The only effective answer to death is to get right with the God who made us and on whom we have turned out backs.
And repentance, that is humbly saying sorry, is something we desperately need to do.
Point 4 – Natural Disasters are birth pains for something better
Matthew 24:3-8 ESV
3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Jesus, when asked about the end of the world by his disciples he gives them this chapter of amazing insights into things that will happen.
One of the key things that Jesus says is that famines, earthquakes wars are all signs that the end is coming and that a new world is around the corner.
There are other places that suggest that the frequency and intensity of these things will increase as we get towards the end too. And one thing it should make us do is actually look up for his coming.
Now think about the picture that Jesus uses here.
Pregnancy and birth:
As Claire went into labour with our children the pain was excruciating. In many ways it would have been wonderful to have been spared all of that and not to have felt it, but it was not only the sign of something truly wonderful to come but also the necessary path along which we had to go for the good thing to happen.
So when I see natural disasters and see the results of it, yes I am moved to help, yes I am appalled at the devastation, but I am also told by Jesus to look forward to a new day when all that will be gone and a new world will be ours to enjoy.
That is never meant to make me callous to what happens, nor to ignore my responsibility to help those in trouble, but it is meant to encourage me that this is the beginning of a process which will take us to a new world.
Point 5 – Natural Disasters: We just don’t know enough to make decisions about why in each case it happens
Job 38-41 are 4 of my most favourite chapters in the whole Bible. They come at the end of a long book where Job, the man of the title, has been tested and afflicted in every way you could think of. The natural disasters that have come his way have been unrelenting. And he has been left without a family, without a home, without his business and without his health.
At various points in the book Job while debating with his friends talks about his innocence and basically says he has no idea why all this is happening and he would like to have it all out with God. He wants to speak face to face with God about it because he doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment.
And right at the end of the Book God speaks and for four chapters has one main thing to say to Job “You just don’t know enough to know why all this is happening Job”
Job 38:1-4 ESV
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
In answer to the question “Why did this specific event happen? What is God’s specific purpose behind this natural disaster?” I think we have to say we don’t know enough to answer.
I can think of a number of occasions where I have jumped into a conversation and made some ill judged comments about the topic and then later found out that I just didn’t know enough to have made those comments and to be honest I looked a bit of a fool.