Disasters and God’s sovereignty
Recent years have brought wave upon wave of natural calamities. The Asian tsunami on 26 December 2004 killed 230,000, in more than ten countries.
The floods in Vietnam (2005), China and Thailand (2011) killed many people. Then there was the category five Hurricane Katrina in the USA; the Chilean and Sichuan earthquakes; the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand; and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, with resulting nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan — all bringing huge devastation and great loss of life.
When the September 11 terrorist attacks happened and 3000 died, many asked the question, ‘Where was God?’ Some open theists argue that since God is good, and such things happen, therefore God is unable to stop them. But God forbid that we should entertain such vain thoughts!
We believe in a sovereign, omnipotent God, who rules and sustains all things by his power. Natural and human disasters, pestilences and calamities cause many people to question God’s goodness and blame him. These events are often termed ‘acts of God’, yet no ‘credit’ is given to the God who for decades or even centuries has protected many communities from such disasters.
God created the universe and the physical laws that govern it (Genesis 1). Humanly speaking, disasters are a result of these laws at work. Hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes result from divergent weather patterns colliding; earthquakes arise from collisions between the earth’s tectonic plates.
Tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes releasing hydrodynamic forces that cause great destruction, as huge masses of water hit the shores. But, always, a holy and good God is in control of all things.
During Israel’s famine the godless King Ahab confronted Elijah, saying, ‘Art thou he that troubleth Israel?’ (1 King 18:17). Ahab blamed God’s servant for the famine. But the prophet replied, ‘I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim’ (1 Kings 18:18). God is never the author of moral evil.
Human sin, ever since the fall of Adam, is the ultimate explanation for all moral and physical evil. Man often denies or chooses to ignore this, but God knows the human heart that it is ‘deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’ (Jeremiah 17:9).
The Bible proclaims that our Lord Jesus Christ holds all of nature together (Colossians 1:16-17). Could God have prevented natural disasters? Absolutely! Does and can God influence the weather? Yes (see Deuteronomy 11:17 and James 5:17)!
Does he sometimes cause these disasters to be a judgement against personal sin? Yes (see Numbers 16:30-34)! Are then these disasters always to be seen as personal punishments from God? The answer is that, in each situation, it depends on God’s sovereign and good purposes.
There was an occasion when the disciples asked the Lord Jesus why a man had been born blind, and he answered: ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him’ (John 9:1-3).
Often disasters and afflictions are not direct, personal punishments for our sins (even though we may deserve them), but they are sent by God for other reasons. So when catastrophes impact us, we are to respond like Job who said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21).
We are alerted by the warnings in Matthew 24 that ominous signs will precede the second coming of our Lord. As Christians living in the end times, natural disasters, pestilences and wars are clear signs that our Lord Jesus Christ is returning soon; and we are to be vigilant and prepared (Acts 1:11).
Nor should we lose sight of God’s miraculous providences during many catastrophes, that cause people to be rescued from great danger as a result of human courage and ingenuity, and thereby prevent even greater loss of life.
Tsunami, earthquakes and hurricanes have caused many thousands to reevaluate their priorities in life. Some have been saved from sin, by the grace of God, as a result. Faithful Christian ministers have been used by God to strengthen, comfort, counsel and pray in troubled times, and share the gospel to the saving of precious souls.
Sometimes, it is at a funeral of a loved one that someone is awakened and brought to faith in Christ. God can bring great good out of a terrible tragedy (Romans 8:28). As Joseph said, ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive’ (Genesis 50:20).
We are reminded that God is good and we are to look forward expectantly to the coming again soon of our gracious Lord, in the midst of all these calamities, wars and pestilences (2 Peter 3:9-14).
God allows personal calamities to humble the arrogant pride of man and awaken and bring him back to the Lord in repentance. Jesus warned, ‘Except one repents, we shall likewise perish and suffer the consequences of our sins’.
Disasters, mishaps and misfortunes, whether personal or national, are wake-up calls shouting to our slumbering souls and bringing us to reflection and self-examination.
What would become of any one of us if the Lord were to take us home one day in a sudden accident? How would we fare before the great white throne, the judgement seat of Christ? Let us take a serious audit of our lives; let us humble ourselves and seek the Lord (Isaiah 55:6-7).
I have just attended a funeral service for a 25-year-old boy who died of kidney failure, and am humbled to be reminded of the frailty of life and nearness of eternity. It is more important to know the God who knows the answers, than to know the answers themselves. The prophet said, ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ (Amos 4:12).
Dr Jack Sin
Maranatha Bible Presbyterian Church, Singapore