Earthquakes—Distress Upon Distress
“IT was horrible. We were lost. It was like an ocean, an ocean, everything moving.”
So said a survivor of one of the most lethal earthquakes on record. That devastating earthshock struck in 1976 in China, leveling the city of Tangshan and snuffing out some 800,000 lives. Amazingly, that escapee was able to struggle barefoot out of a hotel that, along with 20 square miles (52 sq km) of cityscape, had collapsed into rubble.
Such seismic events have affected more people in our time than during any other century on record, stimulating worldwide interest in earthquakes. Millions have suffered injury and loss, and millions more have been killed. Major quakes make headlines globally. The 1985 temblor that killed over 9,000 people in Mexico City shook the world emotionally, galvanizing nations to rush aid to the city.
Scientific study of earthquakes has intensified, employing modern technology. The magnitude of quakes is generally rated by the Richter scale, with larger values indicating greater release of energy. Yet, if you were caught in an earthquake, do you suppose you would be wondering about its Richter rating? Not likely. You would be worrying about staying alive. Knowing the Richter magnitude would not alter your personal experience.
Earthquakes in Bible Prophecy
In a prophecy having many features, Jesus Christ included earthquakes, saying: “There will be . . . earthquakes in one place after another.” He also predicted: “There will be great earthquakes.” Their significance was in their association with the other parts of his prophecy foretelling a generation marked by a unique combination of war, famine, pestilence, lawlessness, fear, and distress on a global scale. The fulfillment would form “the sign” of Jesus’ enthronement as King of God’s Kingdom and would mark the entry of the world system into its last days. “The sign,” including its earthquake feature, has been evident since 1914.—Matthew 24:3, 7-12; Luke 21:11, 25, 26, 31, 32.
Many seismologists believe that earthquakes are no greater or more frequent now than they were in the past. Conversely, others conclude that our generation has experienced earthquakes more frequently than did previous ones. Based on available records, the 20th century does significantly overshadow the past in seismic activity. Publications of the Watch Tower Society have repeatedly called attention to this, highlighting the Biblical significance of earthquakes occurring since 1914.*
Records of earthquakes before 1914 are not complete, however. And earlier generations did not have scientific means of measurement that would permit us reliably to compare the magnitudes of earthquakes past and present. Does this mean that we cannot recognize the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy?
No, not at all. Jesus apparently foresaw that history would not record all pre-1914 quakes and that earlier generations would not have accurate seismological instruments, just as he foresaw the other circumstances of our time. Consequently, he did not word the prophecy in such a way that recognition of the fulfillment would require earthquake records from earlier centuries or instrument readings. Jesus did not say that the number of earthquakes in “the last days” would be X times greater than the number during some earlier period, nor did he state that we would see the greatest earthquakes ever. (2 Timothy 3:1) He did not speak as a seismologist.
Jesus focused on the human experience. Earthquakes were to be part of “a beginning of pangs of distress.” (Matthew 24:8) Distress is not measured by instruments. The travail of people is the ultimate measure of a calamity, including an earthquake. For Jesus’ prophecy to be fulfilled, distress caused by earthquakes would have to be present in a significant way. Recognition of the earthquake feature of the prophecy is thus not dependent on the vagaries of human record-keeping or upon scientific measurements of energy released. Today’s reports of earthquakes graphically portray the dimensions of human distress resulting from seismic activity.
Why Earthquake Distress Has Increased
Jesus apparently knew that world population would “explode” and that man’s practices would verge on “ruining the earth.” (Revelation 11:18) In fact, world population has almost tripled since 1914. In prior centuries, an earthquake of a given magnitude usually affected fewer people than it would now.
Consider Tangshan. It was just a hamlet until the 1870’s. If the 1976 quake had struck then, fatalities could not have exceeded the small number of residents. In 1879 industrial development began. By the 1970’s the population had grown to over a million, setting the stage for grave disaster in 1976.
Furthermore, comparisons based simply on the Richter scale can be misleading. For example, the 1964 earthquake in Alaska killed 115 people and was 8.5 on the Richter scale. The Tangshan quake was rated lower at 8.2. Which one was truly greater? Measured by the human toll rather than by the Richter scale, the Tangshan event was clearly worse, the most severe of the 20th century. Instruments cannot measure the magnitude of human distress.
Relief From All Distress
Just as Jesus foretold, mankind’s experience since 1914 has been one of “pangs of distress,” with earthquakes contributing their share. He showed the significance, saying: “When you see these things occurring, know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you, This generation will by no means pass away until all things occur.” What would that mean for Jesus’ disciples? “As these things start to occur,” he said, “raise yourselves erect and lift your heads up, because your deliverance is getting near.”—Luke 21:28, 31, 32.
Soon now, no more will distress, including that caused by earthquakes, plague mankind. Under God’s Kingdom, every tear of sorrow will be wiped away forever. That is the prospect for people of this generation. And that can be your hope if you respond to the fulfillment of another part of Jesus’ prophecy, the message now being heralded worldwide by Jehovah’s Witnesses: “This good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations; and then the end will come.”—Matthew 24:14; Revelation 21:3, 4.
See “Earthquakes—A Sign of the End?” in The Watchtower of May 15, 1983.