Friend Xerxes raises anew the problem of evil: how can a just God be responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis?
This is not a real issue. It does not matter how one dies. The real issue is that we die. How is it that a good God kills us all?
The answer is simple. Given that God is omnipotent and good and merciful, we have a logical guarantee that, in fact, death is a good thing. It leads to a better, not a worse nor an equivalent, existence. There could be no other reason for it to exist.
|Tower of Siloam falling on the just and the unjust.|
Without positing the existence of God, we still have no reason to suppose death is a bad thing. Without positing the existence of God, we just don’t know.
Since it is itself morally neutral, there is no necessary significance to where and when a natural disaster happens. It cannot be because these people are morally worse than those. It might as well be because they are morally better. As I said, we all die. Jesus makes this clear, too, in his mention of the tower of Siloam in the Gospel.
It is equally clear in the Bible, though, that God can and does use natural disasters to change or obliterate a corrupt society. Two words: Sodom and Gomorrah. This probably happens rarely: natural disasters simply follow the laws of physics, like a vast clockwork, and happen mechanically. Why not, since they are morally neutral?
|Lisbon rocks! 1755|
But every now and then, it might be worthwhile for God to suspend the usual laws, to perform a miracle, in order to destroy or alter a corrupt system, in order to save us from its corruption. This, in the Bible, is what happens to the cities of the plain: they are destroyed as a corrupt society, and by miracle, not an ordinary natural disaster: a rain of sulphur.
Has such a thing ever happened outside the Bible? Maybe.
Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson took a lot of heat for saying at the time of 9/11 it might have been caused by America’s embrace of “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.” But this outrage is silly. God does not even need to enter into it. The radical Islamists did it, and they were quite clear: it was caused by America’s embrace of the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.
|Tangshan the morning after.|
Another possible example from history is the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This had direct effects on the thinking of the time. It tended to kill the optimism of the Enlightenment over the powers of reason, and inspired the Romantic movement. Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant were all influenced. Rousseau concluded that cities were a bad idea. It may have led to Kant’s conclusion that reason had definite limits in what it could know.
This feels reminiscent of the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. Folks had gotten too confident in the powers of human reason and human effort. God was reminding us that he was also in the equation, and beyond our ken. That is the lesson that was taken.
Another candidate is the earthquake in Tangshan, China, in 1976. The message was reinforced by a traditional Chinese idea that natural disasters expressed heaven’s dissatisfaction with the current government. It led more or less directly to the end of the Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Gang of Four, and the rise of Deng Xiao-ping and his open door policy.
|Nearer, my God, to Thee.|
The sinking of the Titanic is another. Instinctively, ever since, we have taken the lesson as that of the Tower of Babel: it was human pride, supposing we could build something unsinkable. Perhaps so. Was it the sinking of the Titanic, and not the Great War that followed, that ended Victorian confidence in human progress?
And then there is spontaneous human combu--