December 13, 2017

God of storms, seas, floods and earthquakes: Some thoughts on the Tragedy

[I would encourage everyone reading this post to stop right here, go to Samaritan’s Purse or the charity of your choice, and give to relieve and rebuilt the affected nations. Then we can do a bit of thinking.]

UPDATE: Here’s how I fit all of this into an actual sermon at my church.

I have some thoughts. Nothing formal or overly organized. These thoughts may or may not be helpful to those of you who might be dialoging with skeptics about the tsunami and God’s relation to such events. I was particularly thinking of those who equate this event with God’s judgement, or relate it to the fallenness of creation. My thoughts may seem silly, but that is how my mind works sometimes.

If you are a particular kind of creationist, I would ask you to please not respond to this post with creationism, because that is a discussion that I am not going into. If you need to prove that you think more highly of the Bible than I do because you can turn it into a science book, here’s your trophy.

Apparently, it is a creationist trump card to say that there was no death before sin. I have problems with this statement, and I was greatly relieved to discover that I am not the only one to have trouble with it, and not the only one to believe that what is referred to here is death as in death/separation from God, and not the possibility of physical death.

For instance, if cells are alive, and Adam ate an apple, death occured. In fact, plants have a life/death/life cycle built into them. There is no point in most plant biology if death isn’t built into the system.

Further, without entering the discussion of whether Adam was “mortal” or was conditionally immortal, I want to say that I cannot buy the idea that Adam was without the possibility of physical death. I say that for a simple reason: I believe physical limitations are built into all that God has created and these are NOT the result of sin. Certainly not entirely.

So I do not believe Adam could have a mountain dropped on him and live. I don’t believe he could have lived without oxygen, or with his brain or blood removed. I don’t believe he could have lived in outer space. And I don’t believe he could withstand being drowned.

Further, I do not believe that all of the earth’s dynamic systems are the result of sin. The earth is a dynamic planet, and tectonic plate movement is a result of the way the earth is made up, how the planet heats and cools itself and the constant changes that are part of life on earth, changes that are necessary on a planet that was formed rotating the sun, with a particular geologic makeup and dynamism. This isn’t a static universe, and it isn’t a universe degenerating from a static state.

I do not believe the law of gravity, for example, is evil. Nor do I believe God ordained that we should fly in planes. If a plane crashes, it is a tragic loss of human life. It is also what happens when a limited physical body meets the laws of gravity and physics. If you believe God made us to withstand that fall, and sin is the reason plane and car crashes are tragic, have at it. I don’t.

I don’t think God ordained we eat foods full of chemicals. I don’t think God said we should fly in jets. I don’t think God said we should go 90 mph in cars. I don’t think God said trees would never die and fall under the influence of gravity and kill the man sleeping under it. I don’t think God planned the atmosphere to operate without storms, floods or tornados. And I don’t think God said that millions of people on beaches should expect a commitment on his part to make sure the earth’s dynamic systems don’t operate in a way that creates monster waves and earthquakes.

Now, I know….we still have questions. Why that day and time? Why those people and not others? But I just have one question and answer to offer here: These events have nothing to do with a direct expression of the wrath of God. The scriptures are always talking about the power observable in storms, seas, mountains, lightning, wind and so on. Power that isn’t God (not animism iow) but power derived from God and demonstrating the comparative power of human beings, nature and the Creator. Scripture doesn’t say these things are a result of sin. It says they are God’s creation, and our God made them all. They are an expression of God’s creative power revealed in nature. Be amazed. Be humbled. Be awed. And realize what a tiny, temporary creature you are and how silly it is to believe that you don’t need to think about your creator.

God’s speech to Job wasn’t an apology. It was a bragging session. “It’s my creation. Who are you to question me?” The Psalms repeatedly point to the awesome power of nature- often the destructive power of the sea- and says all this is nothing compared to God.

I don’t think these events have anything to do with direct expressions of God’s wrath. I think they have to do with creation. We don’t see this as something wrong- we see it as something terrible, in the “awe struck” sense of that word. We are to be put in our place by nature: in awe of what God has made, and how fragile we are. We are mortal, and death is a fact. Death that separates families and loved ones is painful. Death that separates from God is a true disaster. But death at the hands of nature is no surprise to anyone with their eyes open.

When the earth treats us as lesser bits of creation, we are allowed to weep and our grief has dignity, but we have no business saying the event is something it is not. Modern humans believe they have tamed the earth. They believe that people with cell phones and space shuttles and flat screen TVs have no reason to fear the earth.

We are wrong. Live on planet earth, and you will see incredible things. And one day, something will happen to remind you that there are facts, limits and a dynamic universe that takes no excuse notes. Hurricane. Storms. Asteroid. Volvcano. Floods. Tsunami.

Human tragedy is not made larger or smaller by numbers. The widow losing her husband in ICU and the man watching his family washed away by the sea have losses that cannot be measured. All the charity in the world will not fill the void. We have to understand the tragedy existentially and as part of the human family. Jesus was human- fully, deeply human. Over and over his human heart broke, was filled with compassion and overflowed with love. We should imitate him, if he is in us. And at the same time, we should understand what has happened as truthfully- and as free from pagan notions of God’s involvement- as possible.

Glorify God. Be in awe. Tremble. Weep. Show compassion. Build a better alarm, a stronger building and a closer hospital.

Comments

  1. It is strange to look upon something like this as an occasion for awe and worship, but I agree with you that it is. God is Lord of all things, including the oceans.

    But I disagree with your assessment that natural disasters are built into creation. If that is the case, then they should also be built into re-creation (that is, heaven). Do you think there will be tsunamis in heaven, and if so, will they kill people (again)? If there are no natural disasters in heaven, then you have a category for a creation that is good and pleasing to God that lacks these characteristics, a creation that we creationists argue was there at the beginning prior to the Fall.

    “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” — Romans 8:20-22.

    Could it be that recent events are examples of a creation groaning, longing for the day when the Second Adam will consummate his kingdom, occupying the empty throne that the First Adam left when he abdicated? If so, then they are not groans that were there from the beginning, but are the result of human failure. And since they were not there at the beginning, we have a certain hope they will not be there in the end.

  2. Aaron…I suppose we will be talking science pretty quickly in this discussion, so let me put a few things on the table.

    I absolutely don’t take any statement in the Bible as a fact of science, per se. It may be a statement of reality, but I don’t think the Bible speaks the language of science in Gen 1,2,4 or Romans 8.

    I believe the model of the creation of the earth put forward by science is reasonable: Big bang, solar system forming, earth cooling, etc.

    You have really isolated one thing- the tsunami- and not dealt with the full implications of everything at work here. Is gravity evil? Is it a result of sin? Did the human body breath water before sin? You know my answers.

    I actually think it is entirely probably that a new earth, without sin, is not the same as a new earth without physical boundaries, laws of physics, etc. If we are going to EAT in the new earth, then there are physical boundaries and death somewhere.

    But I will also tell you that eschatological language doesn’t help me at all in thinking about future states. In fact, when we start talking about heaven, etc. I want to be a Buddhist! Nothing inspires more doubt about Christianity with me than eschatological descriptions of the afterlife.

    peace

    MS

  3. Eric Rodgers says:

    Michael: I don’t know if there was death before the fall, per se. Just like a bee can make honey without killing anything, it could be possible that before the fall a tree/plant did not need to give of its life to sustain others. I know even you will say that all of creation is feeling the effects of sin. Perhaps this is the effect man’s decisions had on plant-life. If death were possible before the fall, it would not be a bad thing, for who would feel the absence of the community of other people when in the presence of Yahweh Elohim in the cool of every day?

    How would a person have died, though?

    Accident? Do you think Adam would even have stubbed his toe walking across Eden to pee in the pitch black middle of the night? I don’t think there would be accidents in an unfallen state. I believe accidents are a product of sinfulness.

    Purposefully? Whose purposes?

    Another human’s? Why? There would be no reason to kill other men. Pleanty of food for all. No bent wills. Peace.

    God’s? Possibly, but I rather see an Enoch/Elijah-like reunion with God without the mediate step of dying.

    His own? I think the absurdity of this is pretty obvious.

    Though human death may have been possible before the fall, I don’t think it’s worth talking about.

    I take this view of creationism by faith, not by evidence. In a many ways, it is a moot point and entirely unknowable, so I won’t argue, but it does make for good discussion. But I didn’t want to take BHT that direction because you seemed to want to avoid that if possible.

  4. I simply wanted to make clear that creation had physical limits by design. If Adam jumped off of a mountain and broke his leg/died/whatever, it wasn’t a manifestation of “evil.” It was the limits God placed in creation.

    So I see the dynamic operation of nature and the physical limits of humans not as manifestations of sin, but as the limtis and nature of the physical world.

  5. I think you’re right on. Creation is a marvelous interweaving of events and forces set in motion. God created a system that allows awareness to grows and evolve, and that system involves all layers of physical reality. Some cycles, once set in motion, cannot be stopped. It is neither a reflection of God’s judgement concerning a particular individual or group of individuals, nor does it show his lack of interest.

    What we physically can see and touch is always subject to change. If nothing is lost or destroyed within the divine, then its creations must be seen as changing in form, not substance.

    We should be focusing on the inner realities of those affected by the tsunami. In the midst of that which we cannot stop or control, God has left us the power to reach out and support one another. Rather than look at a natural disaster as God’s punishment, we should revel in his gift of giving us compassion.

  6. Michael, you are arguing in pure hypotheticals. IF Adam had jumped off a mountain?! What difference does it make? Adam didn’t jump off a mountain. Will we be jumping off mountains in eternity, and if so, will we die when we do so?

    Jumping off of a mountain and a naturally-occurring tsunami are two very different things. I have heard the old argument that the Bible is not a science book for years now, and you know what? I agree. Let’s get that out of the way. Nobody is arguing that the Bible is a science book.

    But that is a very different thing from saying that the Bible and science can speak to some of the same issues. For me, God interprets all of reality by his Word. If that means that some times I bump up against the claims of modern science, so be it.

  7. I’m not trying to argue here aaron. I am simply saying that creation contains physical laws and physical boundaries and these have existed from creation. I am not trying to establish some “what if?” as much as I am trying to assert the rather obvious, but overlooked point that plate tectonics is how the earth is made, and drowning is what happens when you are immersed in water too long. I’m trying to remove the skeptic’s ammo (aided by the creationists imo) that Christians say the world was a “perfect” creation, and “perfect” means no physical laws and boundaries. That Human beings die when physical boundaries are exceeded or ignored isn’t God’s “fault.” It’s the logical, and natural result of dynamic, boundaried systems interacting.

  8. Quoting Micheal: “I absolutely don’t take any statement in the Bible as a fact of science, per se. It may be a statement of reality, but I don’t think the Bible speaks the language of science in Gen 1,2,4 or Romans 8.”
    The more we learn about science, the more the bible becomes factually, accurately, scientifically true. While I agree that the bible does not neccessarily, consistantly speak the “language of science” per se. You can’t have an intelligent conversation about theology or philosophy without discussing science.
    Jane

  9. It irritates me a little bit that arguments have sprung up around this writing bringing focus to the Bible vs. Science and the New Earth vs. Old Earth debates. Do any of us argue that God is in control of the situation, no matter what His purpose may be, whether for wrath or to continue the revelation of His nature? We, as Michael says, can only respond as best we know how: by simple obedience and faith, by supporting those who are in need (no matter what their their relationship with God may be), and by praying for God’s continuing mercy and provision in our own lives. God bless you. I’ve linked to this writing on my blog.

  10. Michael, I am not aware of any creationist who argues that the pre-Fall world had no boundaries or physical limitations. Of course, Benny Hinn has said some strange things about Adam prior to the Fall, but he’s nutty. His views don’t represent mine.

    I think the failure of your argument lies in the intersection of these two propositions:

    1. The universe has physical limitations.
    2. There is death and bad stuff in the universe.

    I believe the first proposition can exist without the second, and that it did exist prior to the Fall without the second, and that it will exist again without the second. (When I use the word “death,” I am not talking about the pure scientific definition that would encompass things like individual cells or plant life. You said it yourself: the Bible is not a science book. Physical death in the Bible refers to the shedding of blood and/or the cessation of breathing).

  11. Michael, you haven’t addressed the issue of God claiming to be completely in control of the world. In the bible, God speaks as if everything happens at his command. Is it naive to take this literally?
    If we take the “nature taking its course” view, isn’t this giving us a Deist God who sits back, having wound up the universe?

    If God says that everything happens for the good of those who love him, isn’t he then saying that he is completely in control of everything? How else can he make the Romans 8 promises?

    I guess you have read what Piper has said. What do you think?

  12. Kurt and All:
    Peace this New Year.
    Kurt, though you have the right to be annoyed, people that discuss science not neccessarily neglecting compassion, generosity and prayer. Science begs the question: “Who designed this?” So scientific ponderings and study are, in my mind, incredibly and closely linked to compassion. Job was in agony and God spoke of His creation and how that reflected His character.
    When we deeply love someone and they do harmful things to themselves and others, anger can play a part in this. (I know, I have a prodical son. Please pray for Bryan, our 18 year old son. He begins a drug rehab program on the 21st.) Maybe God, the Father, feels this way about His children.
    God was angry with Job’s associates because they had not spoken of *God* in a right way (as Job had). If the tsunami was caused by God’s wrath…I better watch my sorry a**. And yet..amazingly, miraculously, undeservedly, I am not condemned because of Jesus.
    Jane

  13. These sorts of discussions about whether there was death before the fall, whether sin is resposible for volcanoes, earthquakes never really seem to go anywhere. I have really given up asking the question, why? Scripture does not give us any answers as to why. We love black and white. Sometimes, things in life are grey, and we must learn to accept it.

    What I find most comforting in these circumstances, and what seems to me the only hope of retaining any sort of grip on reality in the face of such loss is to look to the Cross of Christ. There we see an example of the most tragic, needless, waste of a life. An innocent man, unfairly tried and doomed to a humiliating and painful death. We weep with his distrought friends and family. God seems to turn his face away. Darkness descends. This is a scene that no doubt many in Asia are familiar with today. Facing the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child playing on the beach. They cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”.

    Yet three days later there is resurrection. There is new life, restoration, new hope. As Tony Campolo says, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’ “. We live in the time between Good Friday and Easter. The resurrection of Christ holds out the only possiblility of hope. The world is not out of control, despite appearances, evil and death do not have the last word. The gospel declares, Jesus Christ is Lord. There is hope.

    Let us weep alongside our brothers and sisters in Asia who have suffered the most appaling loss and hold them in prayer before the crucified God, who alone is able to heal and offer hope.

    Thankyou for this site Michael, it has been very stimulating, and asks the questions that need asking and you always inject profound, biblical insight into your comments. Thanks again.

  14. God’s judgement is taking place right now in the lives of the whole of humanity (and the angelic realm). This present world is in the throes of death – the consequence of a curse that came upon us all when our first parents chose to disobey God. The good news is that the curse (and fear of death and judgement) is broken for every individual who believes in God’s message of salvation (restored relationship of fellowship and love)through faith in Jesus Christ.

  15. I think that Luther had a good and helpful distinction here:

    1. God has a mysterious will that we cannot know.
    2. God has a revealed will that we can know.

    Scripture reveals what we can know….and what we should do.

    It also reveals what we can know about what we can’t understand perfectly. So we know that in an event like this a LOT of thing MAY BE and ARE happening: judgement, mercy, moving the nations, glorifying Christ, building faith, testing the church, shaking the foundations, demonstrating his sovereignty, etc. etc. etc.

    But we aren’t supposed to connect the dots and say SPECIFICALLY what is going on. We are to WORSHIP the Lord who is sovereign over creation, death, etc.

    Our clearest word is to work FOR LIFE and AGAINST death, disease and suffereing. We are to feed the hungry and help the homeless. That is clear and without mystery.

  16. Well said, Michael.

  17. Last night I spent 3 hours in a Bible Study with a group of women and men who are/will be/hope to be survivors of cancer and other disease. We were in Disciple I and reading aloud the book of Job. It wasn’t planned — it was on the sked. After their life experiences and the news reports of the day, they did what they understood they had to do. We held hands and prayed and wept. I think that they all have given up on understanding the mind of God — they are not looking for purpose or meaning. They just hold hands and pray and weep.

  18. Paul Whiting says:

    Michael, I’m from New Zealand and you’ve offered some of the best reflection on the tsunami that I’ve read so far. I’ve heard a lot of stupid things in the church circles I know in relation to the tsunami. One, it’s divine judgement on the “vice industries” of Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. The problem with this analysis is that you could find enough of this “vice” in Melbourne, Sydney or Auckland if you looked close enough! Why SE Asia?

    Two, the tsunami is God seeking to break the “strongholds” of Buddhism, Isalm and Hinduism in SE Asia and turn it to Christianity. Maybe, I’m a little old-fashioned, but I think the sending of missionaries and the preaching of the gospel could have been a little more effective :).

    I have really struggled thus far to think of this tragedy theologically. Part of the problem you have helped me to see is that too many fundamentalist and Evangelical views of creation and providence are just not robust enough either theologically or scientifically.

    I always enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up.

    Grace & Peace
    PW

  19. ive thought about what you wrote for a while. ive read the other ideas over the past two weeks. ive come to a conclusion based largely on how i understand creation which is what i believe you have done. so lets see how much we agree on eh?

    God made the earth to work a certain way. involved in that way are volcanos, earthquakes, tidal waves, etc. these arent random acts of God nor are they direct expressions of wrath. they are the nature of this planets existance.

    taking that a step further can very quickly reveal many things to us. one you have duly noted is our limited nature. our mortality. everyone dies – some in hospitals at 98 years old, some in tsunamis at age 3. talk of tragedy is often offered for the younger ones who lose their lives as if its a cakewalk to lose grandpa. i hear comments about living a long and full life as if thats my comfort when hes gone. having lost my dad, uncle and grandpa all within the past 3 years and all who were over the age of 60 i can say with certainty that its not any easier for me thinking they lived long lives. it still sucks all the way to the core. and its precisely bc it sucks that i can look at what happened with the tsunami and ache for them as well. this is part of being human and as you noted Jesus experienced this too – thank God for such a savior.

    so with that said let me make another point about life and death that i think needs attention. we are so very often drawn into this death as tragedy outlook that we forget that God gives life. he not only created it way back when but he actively sustains life as the psalmist records. so it is that altho i grieve with those who have lost family and friends i also realize that we do not have any right to life. its a gift. a blessing and when its over – at 3 years or 98 – we have seen Gods grace in action.

    i think of a man (i forget his name) who survived the 9-11 attacks and walked out of those buildings and back into the arms of his family. 3 years after a ferry boat crashed in NY and he was on it. he didnt survive. when that story first popped onto the news i heard people talking about tragedy and fate and whatnot and all i could honestly think was – thats Gods grace. surviving a towering inferno and getting 3 more years to be a husband and father. what a blessing!

    another thought that crosses my mind is that we all act and talk as though we deserve life or deserve to live to be 100 and die painlessly in our sleep. im taken aback whenever this thinking surfaces bc as i understand life to be a gift i also understand that it comes with no life-time guarantees. we arent promised tomorrow. when a person dies its not like they deserved more time or had a right to another 20 years. we are so quick to take for granted the wonder of what weve been given. im 33 and have a wife and 2 children. do i deserve them? do i deserve to be with them until a ripe old age? should i not rather take serious advantage of my time with them bc there are no certainties? shouldnt i stop wasting time on such trivial things as television and what-not in order to really bask in the blessing of my life as a husband and father? shouldnt i embrace every moment with them as important and worth devoting myself to fully?

    and in thinking this it follows that i should just as readily embrace all my relationships the same way? from my boss to my grocery clerk to my bank teller to my softball buddies? shouldnt i be more than casual about the relationships in my oikos?

    i believe the implications of a natural catastrophe like this tsunami expose the error in our regular way of thinking. if Paul was right when he said “to live is Christ and to die is gain” then maybe – just maybe we should take that understanding of our existence and run with it. we should re-consider how much time we waste on trivialities and the pursuit of things that have no eternal value. people have eternal value and if theres one thing this whole event has revealed to me its that i can no longer live my life so selfishly. we are told our lives are vapors – and its far past the time when we should have gotten about the business of enjoying life and living for others to the glory of God.

    sorry for the rant. your words sparked a keg in me.

    ihs
    graceshaker