The “good side” to natural disasters

For all the chaos that natural disasters like earthquakes cause, we get a glimpse of something wonderful too – of people tearing at the rubble to free those trapped, of help pouring in from all over the world, and of deep compassion for those who’ve suffered.

It’s amazing how people who don’t normally mix together are suddenly willing to do anything to help each other. It’s as if we’ve been waiting for such a moment, the chance to step out of our selfish, closeted little worlds and become a community. Terrible though disasters are, they have a good side. They break down the barriers that separate us and we act like brothers and sisters. And we do it so naturally it’s as if we’re wired this way.

It is the way we’re wired, too. God designed us to be like himself so that one day we will be brothers and sisters in one huge happy family forever. That’s the plan, Romans 8:21, that out of this futility will come liberation, the freedom to be the family that God created us to be, not only in loving relationship as humans together, but in loving relationship with God as well.

And there’s real evidence of that verse being true because we see and feel a completely different spirit emerging when disasters strike and we’re given the chance to help each other. It’s wonderful to behold. It’s interesting to note, then, that Romans 8 also talks of a Spirit emerging in this age of ours that fits in exactly with our desire to help each other. It “testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children,” verse 16, which is very enlightening because isn’t that exactly how we treat each other in disasters, as fellow children of God and as equals in need? It’s a wonderful glimpse that God and his plan are real and he’s on the job making it happen, giving us good reason to hope that one day the whole world will be driven by love.

In disasters we can actually see it happening already. In the midst of heartache and futility we see our potential, not only in our own “spirit” but also the potential of our spirit combined with the Holy Spirit. And what a combination that is. To think that even with just our own spirit we’re out there in an instant after a disaster scrambling through the rubble to free the trapped, regardless of the cost to us – so imagine the power and love that all humanity could have, and will have, when inspired by God’s Spirit as well.

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Do we have it in us to solve our problems?

Natural disasters just keep on coming, floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, plus all the misery that accompanies them. But never does human goodness stop happening either. Out goes a cry for aid and look at the response – money jars in stores and coffee shops, telethons on TV, and school kids collecting small change. Along with all these awful disasters we also see humanity at its shining best.

It never ceases to inspire, but there’s a cold reality that sets in too, when tons of aid and money are poured into a devastated area and years later there’s little sign of improvement. Living conditions may have improved somewhat but the underlying problems that existed before the disaster struck haven’t improved at all. The old problems have returned, of the vast gap between rich and poor, corruption by officials at all levels, criminals exploiting the poor, initiative stripped by ridiculous regulations, and neighbours ripping each other off. We try our best to help people but they cannot stop themselves, it seems, from reverting back to their old habits and cultural oddities.

Human goodness has its limitations, therefore, and there’s nothing like a natural disaster to make that obvious. No matter how much compassion we show or how much practical help we offer, it is beyond us to make this earth permanently better. Vast areas of this planet are still in miserable condition, despite years of foreign aid and fund-raising. Clearly, then, we need more than the best that we have to offer, because corruption and misery continue unabated, despite our noble motives.

I’m glad, therefore, Christianity does not promote human goodness or human ability as the solution to our global problems, nor does it offer the promise of a better world if we all band together. It doesn’t put that kind of pressure on people – which is a huge relief to people like me who don’t have much to offer – but hopefully it’s a great relief to everyone else too, that the responsibility of coming through with solutions in our troubled world isn’t ours. That responsibility was given to Jesus (Colossians 1:15-20), not to us.

And how he goes about it is what I’m discovering Christianity is. It’s not about us and our goodness, it’s about Jesus and his goodness. And disasters face us with that, because the best we can do in our human goodness is alleviate some suffering for some people temporarily, but nothing we’ve done yet has shown any sign of improving this world permanently for everyone.

Do we have it in us to solve our problems? No, because God didn’t give that ability to us, he gave it to his Son.

Suffering and death: the magical doorway to salvation

So, why do we have devastating natural disasters? Because, Paul writes in Romans 8:20-21, God subjected the entire creation to “futility” and “bondage to decay.” For now life on this planet is a brute. But why would a loving God do that to us – leave us stranded in a mess of suffering and death?

Because that’s the life we chose from the beginning. God told Adam and Eve not to take the way of death but they took it anyway, and so do we, because we don’t trust God any more than they did. So God lets us experience the futility of our choice, including having to live as fragile humans on a volatile planet. If we’d trusted God instead, would we have been touched at all by suffering and death and natural disasters?

For now, though, we’re stuck with them, but as Paul explains, suffering, death and disaster are not our lot in life forever. “Deliverance” is coming, he writes in verse 21. One day, Paul writes, God will lift us into the freedom of his family for ever. That’s his ultimate plan of salvation, but to get us there it takes suffering and death first.

And not just our suffering and death either, because God also suffered and died. He came here as a human being to live the consequences of our choice, but with one remarkable difference. His suffering and death became the doorway to our salvation. “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” Hebrews 5:8-9.

God took upon himself the futile life of suffering and death we’d chosen and transformed it into our salvation. Suffering and death now became the doorway to his ultimate plan for us – so instead of suffering and death being our lot in life forever, they became our escape, our deliverance, the doorway to our salvation. That’s the brilliance and love of God. He transforms the suffering and death we deserved into the very means of our salvation. What other god does that?

Because of Jesus’ suffering and death, salvation from our suffering and death is guaranteed. We have to wait a bit first, though. This futile world, including natural disasters, has to continue a while longer yet to convince us stupid humans that not trusting God was the dumbest thing we could have done.

There comes a point, though, when God says “that’s enough,” and he puts an end to this agony forever. At which point he clanks open the doorway to his amazing world, and the life he’s always had in mind for us begins.

Were natural disasters in God’s original plan?

The Bible is sketchy on how our planet formed and whether natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and hurricanes were part of the original plan, or not. Disasters certainly became part of our history because the earth was reduced to a dark mass of water, Genesis 1:2, and our pockmarked moon and cratered earth are visible witness to something dramatic happening.

But the beginning of our human history was very different, because everything was “good,” the Bible says. Adam and Eve lived in a paradise setting. All they had to do was eat, sleep, tend to the garden and reproduce. There was no fear, no need to head for cover and no hint of danger. Even the animals were friendly.

But things changed dramatically when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They were kicked out of their paradise setting and into a world of weeds and hard grind, Genesis 3:17-19. Their world was a much nastier place to live in.

Had this world always existed outside Eden, though, or did God now make it that way in response to human rebellion? Had the world always had hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes, or did they only begin after Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden?

Either way, Adam and Eve found themselves in a world that God had deliberately made “futile” and “subject to decay,” Romans 8:20-21. And whether God made it that way from the beginning, or only in response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the question that begs answering is “Why?” Why would God create a world of futility, hard grind, obsolescence and natural disasters? What useful purpose do they serve?

A very obvious purpose, I would think, because at the heart and core of everything bad happening on this earth is pride – first the devil’s pride, and then ours. What wrecked everything “good” in Adam and Eve’s lives, for instance, was thinking they could do without God. They loved the serpent’s idea that they were invincible and masters of their destiny. Well, there’s nothing like a natural disaster to jolt us out of that illusion. We are, in fact, extremely vulnerable. One massive meteor strike or prolonged volcanic eruption and we’ve had it.

And in the meantime we have no control whatsoever over earthquakes and hurricanes. At what point, then, do we recognize God made things this way on purpose for our sakes, to wake us up to why he created us in the first place? Which is? To live in the freedom of having him take care of us, Romans 8:20-21. Because when we get to that point, natural disasters end, Revelation 21:4. We won’t need them anymore.

Does God protect us?

Does God protect us? Yes, 1 John 5:18 (The Message): “The God-begotten are also the God-protected. The evil one can’t lay a hand on them.”

Does that mean we’re safe from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, volcanoes, accidents, terrorists and pandemics? Or that we’ll never break a leg skiing, never choke on a chicken bone, or never fall down a sinkhole? Or that all Christians will never be hit by lightning strikes, bad investments, mental breakdowns, Alzheimer’s, muggings, burglaries, scams or hijackings? Does God guarantee us a life of invincibility, of everything turning out right, and of never failing an important exam? Can I know for certain that when I get on a plane I will be safe?

But what did John mean when he says the “children of God” (verse 19) are “God-protected”? He explains himself in verse 20 – that God protects our “understanding”. And why is that far more important than protection from all those things mentioned above? Because, verse 19, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one,” and under his control the world does not “know him who is true,” verse 20, nor that “we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ,” or that “HE (Jesus) is the true God and eternal life.”

When we understand that our lives are already safe and sealed in God’s keeping for eternity because of Jesus Christ, it frees us from the worry and fear of what might happen to us in this life. The evil one, however, wants people putting all their hopes and dreams into this temporary physical existence, as though this life is all there is, the result of which is the world makes “idols” (verse 21) of useless things that totally absorb their lives until they die.

Jesus came to offer us protection from that, from wasting our precious lives on useless idols that die when we die. He wants us experiencing instead “How bold and free we become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening” to the point “we know what we’ve asked for is as good as ours,” verses 14-15.

Jesus becomes so real we feel completely safe in his care. We don’t need the evil one’s idols to make us feel safe, like the security of money. But none of the evil one’s idols offer security anyway. A major financial crisis or a huge natural disaster, and all that security vanishes.

There’s no guarantee of safety for anyone in this world – except for the safety that Jesus offers, that no matter what our circumstances in this ridiculous world, our lives are never in eternal danger. And God protects our understanding of that.

If God cares so much, then why earthquakes?

Why would God create shifting tectonic plates when they’re so dangerous? They cause massive tsunamis that drown people. They knock buildings down and bury people. Children are left without parents. Badly injured people never recover.

And God wasn’t aware that all this might happen?

He had to be. He knew about the explosive energy released when tectonic plates shift. He watched silly humans build cities on fault lines, erect buildings that would easily topple when the earth shakes, causing lots of people to die, and he allows these things to happen too. But why, if he truly cares for us?

Well, for a start, he did tell us that death and disasters are only temporary. One day there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” Revelation 21:4, and he’s going to make “everything new” (verse 5).

What we’re experiencing now, therefore, is an “OLD order,” in which God “subjected” the creation to futility (Romans 8:20). It’s futile because everything in this world dies. Every plan and dream we have as humans dies when we die. Even the universe is dying. This old order, therefore, has but one purpose: to make the awfulness of death real.

But when God warned Adam and Eve about death they didn’t take it seriously at all. Why not? Because the serpent deceived them into thinking death was a lie, it wouldn’t happen, and it was nothing to be afraid of. And humans ever since have treated death just as lightly, demonstrated clearly in how frivolous and stupid we are building cities in well-known quake zones.

But then a terrible earthquake happens, and suddenly death and loss of life are real and horrible. Now we take death seriously. Now we wake up to how futile this old order is, where no one is safe from death. Now we wish for a world where death and terrible suffering don’t exist, and fortunately for us that’s God’s wish too, because he made sure through Jesus’ death that a death-free world would exist one day.

In Jesus’ death we see that God takes death very seriously, but the problem has always been, from Adam and Eve on, to get US to take death seriously too. Death is our worst enemy but we treat it so casually, until, that is, it stares us in the face in all its horror and tragedy in a terrible earthquake. But for now, in this old order, that’s what it takes to wake us up to the awfulness of death, in the hope that we too come to hate death as much as God does.

How can an atheist claim insurance for an Act of God?

So who’s to blame for natural disasters? The current culprit is God. Anything awful happening on the planet and it’s an “Act of God.” Meaning what exactly? Meaning God caused an earthquake to happen? Or that he made the river burst its banks, or that he blew the lid off a volcano?

So he’s that personally involved, is he? Not that we believe he’s personally involved in anything else going on in our lives, it seems, but disasters, oh yes, God’s suddenly very real, directly involved and totally to blame.

Imagine being an atheist, then, when he makes an insurance claim for damage to his property by an Act of God. The insurance agent says, “I hear you’re an atheist; is that right?”

The atheist replies, “Yes, I am.”

So the agent says, “You don’t believe in God, then, do you?”

Well, as a committed non-believer the atheist has to say, “No I don’t.”

“In that case,” the agent continues, “why, if you don’t believe God exists, are you making a claim for damage that he caused? You can’t blame God for damaging your property and expect a refund for it if you don’t believe he exists, can you?”

But, the atheist argues, the phrase “Act of God” is just a legal term for describing a disaster not directly caused by humans. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether you actually believe in God, or not. But yes it does, the agent replies, because atheists aren’t against the use of God’s name in connection with disasters, are they? Clearly, it’s very acceptable to atheists to blame God for disasters.

Atheists get all kinds of support from Christians on this point too, because when disasters happen Christians are also quick to blame them on God. A terrible earthquake kills thousands of people, including innocent children, and up pops the usual crop of Christians who squawk and screech that it’s “punishment from God,” or that damned sinners are only getting what they deserve.

But that raises another question – for Christians this time. How can a Christian make a claim for damage to his property due to an Act of God if God meant the damage to happen, and included the Christian’s property in it?

“You believe this is an Act of God, right?” the agent asks the Christian.

“Yes I do,” the Christian replies.

“So,” the agent asks, “why would you as a Christian be claiming a refund for what God did to you, when you believe it was God’s will that it happened?”

So if atheists and Christians can’t claim damage for an Act of God, who can?