Hundreds dead after an earthquake in Mexico, countless homes obliterated by hurricanes across the Caribbean, 1,200 lives lost and millions displaced by monsoon flooding in south-east Asia. It’s been a grim few weeks.
Is it possible to make sense of such awful events? Philosophers refer to this kind of suffering as 'natural evil' – evil that impacts the natural world itself, as opposed to 'moral evil', which results from human behaviour. Why does God let disasters happen?
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers on this sobering topic, but let me offer some broad thoughts.
If there is no supernatural dimension then we are left with a closed system of physical forces, and earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes are merely the outworking of the laws of nature. 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 we raise these very questions points us towards God not away from him.
Are natural disasters God’s judgement?
On hearing of a natural disaster, some are quick to pronounce this as God’s judgement on a particular region for a particular sin they have committed. Jesus made it clear this is not the case. In Luke 13, Jesus responds to suffering of some Galileans caused by Pilate’s brutality, and also due to the collapse of a tower on innocent people.
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.
Some natural disasters sustain life
Some of the mechanisms behind natural disasters are also 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. Volcanic eruptions release excess pressure and gas back into the atmosphere, and volcanic ash releases minerals into the soil. Even flooding can be beneficial because the influx of water delivers nutrients to the soil.
So, the question 'Why natural disasters?' is not straightforward. We will refer to them as 'natural events' for now. There are a number of positions held, and two will be highlighted here.
Natural events are not bad in themselves
One view is that natural events are not intrinsically bad. They are mentioned in scripture and point to the sovereignty of God over the natural world. In Psalm 104:32 God "looks at the earth and it trembles", and "touches the mountains and they smoke". In Psalm 97:5 "The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth." Are these references to earthquakes and volcanoes?
According to this view, natural events existed before the fall and will exist in heaven. The impact of the fall is we have become vulnerable to them in several ways.
One way we’ve become vulnerable is through poverty and injustice. The number of deaths in developing countries is generally an order of magnitude higher than in developed countries. Natural events are so much more devastating in poorer countries because of the lack of infrastructure and poor-quality, high-density housing that cannot withstand the impact.
Although people are not responsible for the natural event itself, poverty and injustice, caused by human greed and corner-cutting, undoubtedly add to the death toll.
A second area of vulnerability has come through changing weather patterns. During the 20th century, the earth’s global temperature has notably increased, causing polar ice caps to melt. Some scientists also believe global warming has also caused changes in local weather patterns leading to increased numbers of hurricanes, tornadoes, severe flooding and landslides.
There are competing explanations for these changes, but at this stage it cannot be ruled out that increased carbon emissions from excessive 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.
Nature is broken
A second possible position holds that nature is incredibly beautiful but something is also wrong. Nature itself is broken.
Theologians differ on when they think the breakage occurred. Some believe it happened before the fall. Natural evil was introduced before moral evil. Others would link the breakage to the fall itself, and believe the human decision to turn away from God dragged the whole of nature along and introduced (or made worse) these cataclysmic events.
Either way, this view holds that spiritual events are linked to natural events, and we see this most notably in the death (Matthew 27:50-54) and resurrection (Matthew 28:1-2)of Jesus. Both were accompanied by an earthquake. Could it be 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?
How should we respond to natural disasters?
The Christian story tells of a God who does not leave people to suffer alone. He has intervened in the person of Jesus Christ and continues to come alongside hurting people today in direct and indirect ways. Medical professionals and disaster relief organisations are God’s very 'hands and feet' in rescuing and helping 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. Everyone has a part to play.
It is easy to feel powerless and become compassion weary at times. But our prayers and our generosity through charitable giving do make a difference. We cannot pray enough. Pray that survivors would be found. Pray that food and aid would arrive. Pray that new homes would be found and old homes rebuilt. Pray that communities would pull together. Most of all, pray that each person affected would come to know the love, comfort and strength of God as they rebuild their lives.
Sharon Dirckx is a tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. She has a Ph.D. in brain imaging from the University of Cambridge and has held research positions at the University of Oxford and in the USA. Sharon is interested in the interface between science and faith, and suffering. Her book Why?: Looking at God, Evil and Personal Suffering won the prize for best book at the 2014 Speaking Volumes UK Christian Book Awards.