In recent years the headlines have reported catastrophic events from all over the world. Earthquakes in particular have brought devastation to Sumatra, Pakistan, China and Haiti. We wonder, “Where will the next earthquake hit?” Those who have been exposed to the teachings of the Bible understand that these events have significance. But what do they mean? Are earthquakes “signs” from God? Is God angry with men? Is God punishing people because of their sin?
In order to interpret catastrophes (indeed to interpret all life and experience), we must view the event from the vantage point of a Biblical worldview. A Biblical worldview rests upon the four pillars of Biblical reality: Creation, the Fall, Redemption and Restoration. Earthquakes must be interpreted in terms of these four foundational truths
NATURAL CATASTROPHES MUST BE VIEWED IN THE LIGHT OF CREATION
The world which God created was created very good (Genesis 1:31). It was a world without sin, without sorrow, without death. God made man, male and female, in His image and gave him responsibility for creation. Man was placed on the earth to cultivate and to keep it (Genesis 2:15). Man would determinatively influence his environment by his labor as he lived in obedience to God. God gave the man provisions for life and commanded him to obey His Law. God warned the man that disobedience would bring death into the world. The wellbeing of the entire creation depended upon the man’s obedience to God.
A world in which earthquakes and catastrophes occur is not the world that God originally made. We live in a world filled with natural disasters and death, but that is not the original order of things. Originally God created a very good world. Originally, man lived in perfect communion with God. Originally all creation was unified with its components functioning in symbiotic balance. Each component was designed to fit into the whole. Each individual thread of life’s fabric had an inherent attraction to align alongside of its designated complement both to receive nourishment and contribute nourishment. All was unified in a vibrant, throbbing, living tapestry that displayed the glory of God which culminated in His image: man. There was no death, no violent natural upheavals by a world out of balance, a world convulsing harmfully against itself. No, originally God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)
NATURAL CATASTROPHES MUST BE VIEWED IN THE LIGHT OF THE FALL
At the center of the Fall is the disobedience of man. Enticed by a fallen angel named Satan, our first parents rebelled against God, disobeyed His command and came under His judgment which brought death into the world. Through one man (Adam) sin entered into the world and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12). Adam’s original sin brought death to all his children (mankind) are born in a state of legal and actual death. His sin also unleashed death upon creation for which he was responsible to God. Death, according to Scripture, is a separation, a severing, a dividing of those things that God originally made to exist as a unified whole. Death is especially the state of being separated from God. At birth, all men are now spiritually dead: estranged from God. All men legally inherit Adam’s guilt and legal condemnation. All men are also born broken in every aspect of their humanity with a natural disinclination to God, a natural orientation to disobedience to God and idolatry. Rather than living in loving knowledge of God, fallen men are now ignorant of God. Rather than worshipping the true God, men are deceived by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) Satan, who, because of Adam’s rebellion, has usurped the place of God in the world.
The earth itself was also affected as a consequence of Adam’s sin. Death enveloped the entire creation. The components of the perfectly balanced creation became separated, disjointed, and imbalanced. The earth itself was cursed. It would no longer freely respond to man’s labor. Now man would be rewarded for his work with thorns and thistles and diminished fruitfulness. Now man’s body, formed by God from the dust of the earth, would return to the dust in physical death (Genesis 3:17-19). The world that previously sustained life would continue to do so, but as a cursed earth. Fallen man is now consigned to live on a cursed planet in which both he and his environment are visited by death. The state of the earth continues to be integrally bound up with the state of man’s relationship to God.
However, creation has not been abandoned by God to death. God immediately came to this fallen world and rescued it in grace. But before we consider God’s grace, we need to give full weight to these first two foundational aspects of a Biblical worldview. We need to understand the full integrity of Creation and the Fall. This is a good world that has been brought by man’s sin, into a bad state. When we experience death and the tragedies of things like earthquakes, we are experiencing the repercussions of the Fall. We are experiencing life in a world enveloped by death, a world tragically separated from God, a world in need of deliverance – for we are a people in need of deliverance.
NATURAL CATASTROPHES MUST BE VIEWED IN THE LIGHT OF REDEMPTION
We must appreciate that legally, as our Creator-Judge, God would have been completely righteous had He visited the disobedient couple with Final Judgment. No wrong would have been done had the Lord come into the Garden, lined the three culprits up (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent) and then and there pronounced the sentence of eternal separation from God; then and there transformed the earth into hell – a place of unmitigated punishment and wrath. Had God done that, none of us could utter a protest. No injustice would have been committed. Ponder that for a moment.
Amazingly God came to the fallen couple and this death-enveloped world in grace. Death indeed had come due to man’s disobedience. Death saturated every aspect of man’s experience. He experienced separation in his relation to God, to himself, to others, and to the created world. And into this sad situation, the Holy God came in grace. In Genesis 3 we read of how He salvaged the then disintegrating cosmos. He put enmity between humanity and Satan. He secured both the woman and the man in their respective original functions so as to sustain the original order of life on earth. In grace He rescued His creation so that it will eventually be delivered from death and share in the final eternal restoration. God’s plan to deliver man from death and restore creation was announced to Satan in the hearing of the couple. He would send One who would defeat Satan and in so doing, rescue fallen man and creation itself from death, from eternal separation from God.
As God’s purposes of grace are worked out through history, God continues graciously to sustain this fallen world. This is the world in which we live. It is a fallen world in which God’s grace is demonstrated. Jesus tells us that the Father causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45b) and that the Father Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men (Luke 6:35b). Paul tells us that God did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. (Acts 14:17). What would this fallen world be were it not for the grace of God? It would be hell.
We are shocked and dismayed at the upheavals of natural disasters that disrupt our sense of well-being and visit destruction upon us. But in a fallen world, the amazing thing is that sinful men are given rain and sunshine and know satisfaction of heart! I know that sounds jarring, but that is because we rarely see ourselves from God’s viewpoint. We do not realize just how sinful we actually are and how gracious He truly is. When we have sunshine and rain and fruitful seasons, we are not getting what we deserve from God. We are receiving His undeserved kindness. We live and move and have our being in Him (Acts 17:28) and He, astonishingly, is kind to us ungrateful and evil men.
Sadly, most men do not understand that this world was created as very good but fell through man’s sin into death. Nor do most realize that this fallen world is now being sustained by God’s grace. In many people’s thinking, their view of origins (Creation) merges with their view of sin and evil (the Fall). By not distinguishing these two foundational truths, they view the world as being inherently defective. They assume that death (evil) is simply the “natural order” of things. Most men do not understand that death is foreign to God’s original creation. By mixing their view of origins with their view of evil, many wrongly blame God for evil. An earthquake hits and men question God’s goodness and blame Him for evil. “If God is good and powerful, why is there suffering and death?” The question assumes this common mistaken confluence of Creation and the Fall. The questioner posits the goodness of God, but fails to factor in the Fall. The good God created a good world, but it was sinful man who brought death into the world and it is now a fallen world in need of deliverance. The good Creator did not stand idly by. He stepped into this fallen death-cursed world to be our Deliverer! Satan does not triumph. Death is not victorious. Man is not lost. Creation is not destroyed. God’s purposes for redemption are being accomplished. There is good news for us sinners and for our fallen planet. In grace God still sustains this created order. In grace He sent His Son Jesus Christ that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). Jesus is the promised One of Genesis 3:15. Jesus Christ has appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
NATURAL CATASTROPHES MUST BE VIEWED IN THE LIGHT OF FINAL RESTORATION
Once we view suffering and death in the context of Creation and the Fall, we are then able to perceive how it is that God is at work redemptively to ultimately restore the world. Suffering, for the Christian, is not meaningless, but is experienced in the context of God’s redemptive purpose to restore this fallen world. The apostle Paul writes: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Rom 8:18-23). Paul is referring to the Fall when he explains that this present world has been subjected to futility and corruption and now groans like a woman about to give birth: the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth. The fallen world awaits its deliverance, when it will be set free from its slavery to corruption. Until that time the world, like a woman in labor, experiences protracted periods of discomfort with episodes of intense explosions of pain. Earthquakes are explosions of pain. The best biblical metaphor by which to understand life in this present fallen but grace-sustained world is the metaphor of a woman experiencing the contractions of giving birth. The contractions, although painful, are part of a process that issues into the joy of a new life. This world writhes and groans in a birthing process that will issue into a new cosmos and the revelation of the sons of God in the Resurrection. We who are in Christ, although we also groan, we yet live in hope.Grace Covenant Baptist Church Flemington, NJ