Q&A 0817 - Where Was God During the Tsunami?

Guest article by John Clayton (Does God Exist? Vol. 32, No. 3, May/June 2005), adapted and used with permission.

Every time there is a natural disaster of any kind, our website (www.doesgodexist.org) is inundated with nasty letters from atheists and skeptics as well as genuine questions from all kinds of people concerning the role of God in a disaster like the recent tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia. There is no doubt that this issue raises massive questions about the ongoing problem of human suffering. There is a danger in any discussion of the issue of appearing callous or flippant or unkind when any kind of explanation is given. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered the loss of family and friends in this horrible situation, but there are so many misconceptions out there on this event that we feel it is necessary to talk about it a little. Rejecting God because these kinds happen is an ignorant thing to do, and though we make no pretense to have all the answers, there are some things that need to be understood about issues like this. We ask our readers to understand that we share the grief, frustration, sadness, and awe at what has happened, and yet we also suggest that there are some understandings that need to be made scientifically and biblically about this issue.

Tsunamis are a Natural Product of the Design of Planet Earth
In order for life to exist, there has to be water. The importance of the oceans for the existence of life is becoming more and more obvious as science comes to an understanding of how our planet works. The oceans not only provide water to us, but they control and stabilize our weather systems and climates. The oceans provide food and minerals to us and they control the absorption of solar energy. In places like Southeast Asia, large numbers of people live near the ocean because of the things the ocean provides.

Another necessary part of the earth's design is the internal activity of the planet. The earth is not a dead hunk of rock, but a moving, active device that shifts resources around and rejuvenates land areas. New land and resources are provided for man by volcanoes, and the richness of volcanic areas can be seen all over the globe as areas surrounding volcanoes are familiar to most of us. In addition to volcanoes, there are uplifting forces in the earth that raise the continents. Erosion would wear the land down to sea level very quickly if it were not for this uplifting force. As liquid rock moves around inside the earth -- floating continents, lifting land masses, and producing volcanoes -- it provides mankind with a constant flow of essential minerals and materials that are carried to the surface of the earth. The problem is that all of this activity produces volcanoes that can be quite violent, and sometimes the earth cracks and buckles under these forces, producing earthquakes. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are natural products of the earth's design. A tsunami happens when an earthquake occurs under the sea. If you put your hands into a dishpan of water on the bottom, let the water settle down and then suddenly lift your hands five or six inches you can see what happens. There is nothing evil or malicious about this; it is a natural product of the motion of the land under the sea.

When people call a tsunami, an earthquake, a volcano, or a hurricane "an act of God," they are incorrectly portraying what is going on. Most interpretations of such a statement imply that God decided to do something, and miraculously did it. God did not say, "I am bored today; I think I'll send a tsunami to Indonesia." This mystic approach to natural processes was a product of pantheistic thinking, and the Bible and common sense show us it is not true. When you have to change a flat tire on your car, does this mean that the car manufacturer did something to you to make you uncomfortable? A flat tire is a natural consequence of driving a car. If you do not want to change a flat, never take your car out of the garage.

Much of the Tragedy of Natural Disasters is Due to Human Stupidity
If you build your house in the mouth of an active volcano, have you been treated unfairly when it erupts and destroys your house? Is it unfair for a skyscraper to fall when it was built directly over an active fault? In Matthew 16:2-3 Jesus commented to the Pharisees and Sadducees that they knew how to predict the weather on the basis of sky conditions. Mankind has known how to read the conditions of nature for a very long time, because natural disasters like storms, volcanoes, and tsunamis have been around from the earliest of man's experiences. We know about all of the phenomena that take place on the earth, and the fact that we have a name for them in all languages indicates that it is not as though we do not know that these things will happen.

Southeast Asia is a geologically unstable area. There are large numbers of volcanoes, and earthquakes are a daily event in the area. Most quakes are very small, but because there are few tall buildings and the construction materials are lightweight, there is rarely any consequence from what happens. When the earthquakes occur under the ocean, there are tsunamis -- formerly (incorrectly) called tidal waves -- and these are well recognized by the local population. Right before a tsunami takes place, the sea flows outward away from the beach as the water is drawn up to make the large wave. There are videos of tsunamis that show this.

The media has made it appear that this whole event was totally unknown to the populations living around the Indian Ocean. The fact of the matter is that over the centuries tsunamis have taken place many times, and in fact both animals and humans know about them and react to them. The problem with the tragedy in Indonesia (and other countries) was the magnitude of the quake. The earthquake was huge, and the effects of it were felt all over the area. Animals that sensed the earthquake fled the beach area, as did many of the old-timers who knew what was coming. When the water receded from the beach there was adequate time to flee. Rather than heed the warnings, many people went to the beach to watch. People have never been so preoccupied with political events, and no instruction had been given to children or visitors to the area, and they were the primary victims. What happened in Southeast Asia was preventable. There was plenty of warning on both a long-term and short-term basis.

I am personally appalled at the incredible tragedy of the war on terrorism. My heart goes out to our friends in Iraq and to families in the United States who have lost sons and daughters as the stupidity and cruelty of humans bear fruit. It could all be avoided if people would heed the call of Jesus to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, do good to those who do evil to us, and live at peace as much as it depends on us (Matthew 5-7, Romans 12:18). It is human sin and error that caused and allowed the tragedy of September 11th. Does the knowledge remove the pain and loss of those of us who have suffered the death of someone we love due to terrorism? Those who have been victimized by the tragedy of the tsunami are not going to be helped by knowing it was avoidable. The point is that this was not a malicious act of God who deliberately brought a tragedy to humanity.

The Christian Response to the Tsunami is Positive
Atheists are calling the tsunami a final proof of the validity of atheism. I would suggest just the opposite. The atheist has no answer for what has happened. If your creed is "survival of the fittest," then you are likely to view the tsunami as one of multiple natural forces that facilitate natural selection. Only the fittest ran fast enough to avoid the wave, and it all comes down to a matter of strength. Such a view does not suggest on a mechanical level that there should be any help given to combat the forces of the natural world. Jesus dealt with issues like this in a very different way. In John 9 Jesus is confronted by a man born blind. His disciples explained the blindness on the basis of sin, but Jesus said, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, to cause him to be born blind." What Jesus is saying is that there are some things that just happen as natural effects of the physical world. God did not create a Disneyland theme park when he created the earth. Life is not fairy tale. Man was created for a purpose that involves the struggle between good and evil, and for a man to be human and to be able to choose between good and evil, there have to be consequences to his actions. These consequences may also be the consequences of sin -- such as STDs or human violence -- but there are also consequences of the natural world such as storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes. The blind man was not blind because of anything anyone did. His blindness, according to Jesus, was something that would enable "the works of God to be seen in him."

As the story unfolds, the blind man confronts human tradition as the religious rulers of the day want to kick his family out of the synagogue because they are associated (indirectly) with Jesus. The beauty and power of Christ stand out clearly in the aftermath of the blind man's contact with Christ -- even though when he was healed the blind man did not know who Jesus was, or understand the teachings of Christ. Romans 8:28-39 tells us the lessons to be learned from all of this. The first statement is that God can take any tragedy that comes and make good things come from it. I am the father of a son born blind, mentally retarded, and with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. Even to this day, some 43 years after my son's birth, I am not able to say that I am happy that my son was born with these problems. I have missed a great deal because of the tragedy affecting my son, and so as I watch my grandchildren I understand that more and more. In spite of that, I have seen good things come from what I have endured. I am not the same man I would have been if I had not gone through the agony of a multiply handicapped child. I have been able to help others in ways that would not have been possible had I not walked in their shoes before them. I am not happy about what has happened, but good has come from it.

Later in Romans 8:35, Paul tells us that nothing happens to us that can separate us from the love of Christ. The things listed are both natural and manmade. As I write this article, there are Christians working throughout Southeast Asia to relieve suffering. The attention of the world turned from Iraq for a few moments to the outpouring of concern and love for suffering human beings. Good will come out of this horrible tragedy, and that good may be seen years down the road.

I have not seen any atheist relief agencies sending people in with food, medicine, and medical help. I have however seen atheists complaining about charity scams and the unfairness of God, but not doing anything positive to alleviate the situation. The Christian response has been universally positive, and the atheist response has been universally negative. Jesus put it best when he said, "By their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:16).

This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 2005. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.