Is God Responsible?
“GOD is love,” states the Bible. (1 John 4:8) He is also just and merciful. “The Rock, perfect is his activity, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice; righteous and upright is he.”—Deuteronomy 32:4.
As Creator, Jehovah God has the ability to foresee all potential causes of harm, and he has the power to intercede. In view of these facts and the qualities attributed to God in the Bible, many rightly ask, “Why does God allow natural disasters to occur?”* As millions of sincere inquirers have found, God himself has provided a most reasonable answer in his written Word. (2 Timothy 3:16) Please consider the following.
They Rejected God’s Love
The Bible tells us that God gave our original parents all they needed to enjoy a happy and safe life. Furthermore, as they and their offspring obeyed God’s command to “be fruitful and become many and fill the earth,” the growing human family could count on God’s ongoing care.—Genesis 1:28.
Sadly, though, Adam and Eve deliberately turned their backs on their Creator by willfully disobeying him and choosing a course of independence from him. (Genesis 1:28; 3:1-6) By far the majority of their descendants have followed in their footsteps. (Genesis 6:5, 6, 11, 12) In short, humankind as a whole have chosen to be masters of themselves and of their home, the earth, without any guidance from God. Being a God of love who respects the principle of free will, Jehovah does not force his sovereignty on humans, even though their course may lead to harm.*
Nevertheless, Jehovah did not abandon the human family. To this day “he makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) Additionally, God gave mankind the ability to learn about the earth and its cycles, and to varying degrees this knowledge has enabled humans to predict extreme weather and other potential dangers, such as volcanic eruptions.
Humans have also discovered which parts of the earth are more prone to seismic or atmospheric extremes. In some lands this knowledge has helped to save lives through education as well as the development of better construction methods and warning systems. Still, the number of natural disasters reported annually has been rising steadily. The reasons for this are many and complex.
Living in High-Risk Areas
The severity of a disaster does not always relate to the power of the natural forces involved. The concentration of humans in the affected area is often of greater consequence. According to a report published by the World Bank, in more than 160 countries, over a quarter of the population live in areas of high mortality risk from natural disasters. “As you put more and more people in [harm’s] way, you make a disaster out of something that before was just a natural event,” says scientist Klaus Jacob of Columbia University in the United States.
Other exacerbating factors are rapid, unplanned urbanization, deforestation, and the extensive use of concrete to cover ground that would normally absorb runoff. Particularly the latter two can cause destructive mud slides and excessive flooding.
The human factor can also turn an earthquake into a major disaster, for it is not the shock wave of energy that causes most deaths and injuries but collapsing buildings. For good reason seismologists have the saying: “Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings kill people.”
Political incompetence can add to the death toll. In one South American land, earthquakes have demolished the capital city three times in the past 400 years. And since the last quake, which took place in 1967, the population has doubled to five million. “But building codes that could protect the population are either lacking or not enforced,” says New Scientist magazine.
That last statement well applies to the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A., which was built in a low-lying, flood-prone area. Despite the existence of levees and pumps, the disaster that many had feared finally occurred in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck. “Longstanding warnings” were either ignored or “met with a halfhearted response,” said a report in USA Today.
A similar halfhearted response has been manifested toward global warming, which many scientists believe may intensify weather-related disasters and raise sea levels. Clearly, political, social, and economic factors—things that are not of God’s making—must be taken into account. These human factors call to mind the Biblical truth that man is unable “even to direct his step.” (Jeremiah 10:23) Another human element is the attitude of people toward warnings—natural and official.
Learn to Recognize Warning Signs
At the outset it must be acknowledged that natural disasters can strike without warning. “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall [us] all,” says Ecclesiastes 9:11. Often, though, there is some indication—natural or official—that trouble is looming. Hence, when people know the signs, they can improve their prospects of survival.
When a tsunami struck the Indonesian island of Simeulue in 2004, seven people out of a population of many thousands died. Knowing that abnormally receding tides can precede tsunamis, most people fled when the sea retreated. Likewise, people have escaped violent storms and volcanic eruptions by heeding warnings. Because nature’s warnings sometimes precede official warnings, it is wise to be familiar with both, especially if you live in a disaster-prone area.
Sadly, however, there is a “tendency for people to deny danger even when it is obvious,” said a volcanologist. This is particularly true where false alarms are common or where a previous disaster occurred a long time ago. And sometimes people just do not want to abandon their possessions, even when disaster is staring them in the face.
In many regions people are simply too poor to move to a safer area. But instead of reflecting badly on our Creator, the realities of poverty point to human failings. Governments, for example, often pour vast sums of money into armaments but do little to help the needy.
Nevertheless, a measure of help is available to most people, no matter what their situation may be. How is that so? In that God, by means of his written Word, the Holy Bible, has given us many fine principles, which when applied can save lives.
Principles That Save Lives
▪ Do not put God to the test. “You must not put Jehovah your God to the test,” says Deuteronomy 6:16. True Christians do not have a superstitious outlook on life, thinking that God will always protect them from physical harm. Hence, when danger threatens, they heed the inspired advice: “Shrewd is the one that has seen the calamity and proceeds to conceal himself, but the inexperienced have passed along and must suffer the penalty.”—Proverbs 22:3.
▪ Value life more than material possessions. “Even when a person has an abundance his life does not result from the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15) Yes, material things have their place, but they are of no value to the dead. Therefore, those who love life and who cherish the privilege of serving God do not take needless risks in order to protect property.—Psalm 115:17.
In 2004, Tadashi, who lives in Japan, evacuated his home immediately after an earthquake hit and before official direction was given. His life meant more to him than his home and belongings. Akira, who lives in the same area, wrote that “the real degree of damage depends, not on the material loss, but on one’s viewpoint. I viewed this disaster as a good opportunity to simplify my life.”
▪ Listen to governmental warnings. “Be in subjection to the superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1) When an official order is given to evacuate or to follow some other safety procedure, it is wise to take heed. Tadashi stayed away from the danger zone in obedience to an evacuation order and thus avoided injury or death from aftershocks.
When there are no official warnings of a threatening disaster, people have to decide personally when and how to respond, taking into account all the available facts. In some areas local governments may provide helpful guidelines on disaster survival. If such information is available in your area, are you familiar with it? And have you discussed it with your family? (See the accompanying box.) In many parts of the world, under the direction of the local branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, congregations of Witnesses have in place emergency procedures to follow should a disaster threaten or occur, and these procedures have proved to be extremely helpful.
▪ Show Christian love. “I am giving you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another . . . as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) People who show self-sacrificing, Christlike love do all that is humanly possible to help one another prepare for or survive a natural disaster. Among Jehovah’s Witnesses, congregation elders work tirelessly to make contact with all members of the congregation to ensure that they are safe or can get to a safe place. Also, the elders check to be sure that each one has life’s necessities, such as clean drinking water, food, clothing, and essential medication. Meanwhile, Witness families in safe areas open their homes to fellow Witnesses among the evacuees. Such love truly is “a perfect bond of union.”—Colossians 3:14.
Will natural disasters get worse, as some predict? Perhaps, but only for a time. Why? Because mankind’s tragic era of independence from God is about to end. Thereafter, the entire earth and all its inhabitants will be fully under the loving sovereignty of Jehovah, with wonderful results, as we shall now see.
Earthquakes, extreme weather, volcanic eruptions, and so on are not disasters in themselves. They only become such when they adversely affect human life and property.
For a more detailed discussion of God’s temporary permission of suffering and evil, please see the series of articles entitled “‘Why?’—Answering the Hardest of Questions,” in the November 2006 issue of this magazine, as well as chapter 11 of the book What Does the Bible Really Teach? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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ARE YOU EQUIPPED TO FLEE?
The New York City Office of Emergency Management recommends that households plan for evacuation by assembling a “go bag”—a durable, accessible, easy-to-transport bag containing important emergency items. The following may be included:*
▪ Copies of important documents in a waterproof container
▪ An extra set of car and house keys
▪ Credit or debit cards and cash
▪ Bottled water and nonperishable food
▪ Flashlight(s), AM/FM radio, cell phone (if you have one), extra batteries
▪ Medication for at least one week, a list of dosages, prescription slips, and doctors’ names and phone numbers. (Be sure to replace medications before their expiration date)
▪ First-aid kit
▪ Sturdy, comfortable shoes and rainwear
▪ Contact and meeting place information for your household, as well as a regional map
▪ Child-care supplies
Although based on the official list, the above includes minor changes. Not every item listed may be suitable in your case or in your part of the world, and some items may have to be added. For example, seniors and the disabled have their own special needs.
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USGS, David A. Johnston, Cascades Volcano Observatory