Ignoring Warnings and Testing God
“Not even with the water up to their ankles did they want to escape.”—El País, Colombia.
THAT headline from a Colombian daily newspaper highlighted one of the reasons for the terrible loss of life in the Armero avalanche disaster of November 1985. Dora Elisa Rada Esguerra, a telephone operator in Armero, alerted by the falling ash and overflowing river, decided to flee. Then she warned her fellow workers at the telephone exchange of the oncoming tragedy. She later explained: “They saw the water, that was . . . flowing strongly, very strongly, but even then they did not move.” Dora escaped from the doomed city.
The other telephone operators died along with some 21,000 other victims in a torrent of volcanic mud, ice, and boulders that roared down from the volcano Nevado del Ruiz. Among those swept away were the mayor of the town and most of the local police force, which indicates that hardly anybody took the threat seriously—until it was too late.
Why Did They Not Flee?
There were signs and warnings of the impending disaster. Why did so many people in Armero ignore them? In the first place, official warnings came late, when disaster was already striking the city. Prior to this, the people had been told to be calm, that there might be flooding but that it would be nothing serious. Instead, the city was wiped off the map by a vast wall of death that poured down the river Lagunilla.
Likely, some did not want to abandon their homes and their possessions, knowing that pillagers would soon sneak in and steal. This turned out to be a real threat. A few looters were shot by the army. Some who survived the disaster came back to their flooded homes to find that locks had been shot off the doors and valuables had been stolen. But the majority of the townspeople never lived long enough to come back to their homes. And in most cases, there were no homes to come back to.
Perhaps others felt that God or the Virgin Mary would intervene in their behalf. Yet, is it reasonable to expect God to intervene today in behalf of certain persons when natural disasters occur? Why should some be saved by divine intervention and others, in similar conditions, be allowed to perish?
Is there a solid basis for a person to believe that he can lead a charmed life with special protection from God? For example, can a car driver trust in his “guardian angel” or favorite “saint”? Too many sincere Catholics with “Saint” Christopher medallions have died in car accidents for that to be credible. Or should a Christian believe that he has God’s special protection when traveling in an airplane? What about special protection when sharing in some dangerous sport? Is it reasonable to test God in those circumstances?
Jehovah’s Hand Not Short
The Scriptures help us to see that there are situations in which Jehovah God might intervene in behalf of his people when the preaching of the Kingdom good news is affected or when his congregation is threatened. The prophet Isaiah assures us: “Look! The hand of Jehovah has not become too short that it cannot save, nor has his ear become too heavy that it cannot hear.”—Isaiah 59:1.
The Bible gives clear examples of Jehovah’s protecting hand in relation to the apostles. King Herod, out to gain favor with the Jews, had Peter imprisoned under heavy guard. The congregation in Jerusalem prayed intensely in his behalf. What happened? Jehovah’s angel came and released Peter from jail. Even Peter was astonished by what was happening. Eventually he realized what was going on and said: “Now I actually know that Jehovah sent his angel forth and delivered me out of Herod’s hand.”—Acts 12:1-11.
The same account tells us that Herod had already done away with the apostle James, the brother of John. Jehovah allowed that martyrdom to take place. Therefore, it is evident that while Jehovah can give protection and deliverance, he may permit events to take their course, and so allow some of his devoted servants to prove their integrity even to death. The words of James, the half brother of Jesus, are appropriate: “You do not know what your life will be tomorrow. For you are a mist appearing for a little while and then disappearing. Instead, you ought to say: ‘If Jehovah wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’”—James 4:14, 15; compare Job 2:3-5.
One thing is sure, in times of natural disasters and accidents, the Bible principle applies equally to all people: “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11) And while it is appropriate to pray for help and protection in times of persecution, we have to recognize that “persecution is inevitable for those who are determined to live really Christian lives.”—2 Timothy 3:12, Phillips.
A Spirit of a Sound Mind
While it is true that in times past Jehovah has acted to protect his people, as when he saved Israel from Egypt and from Pharaoh’s armies, it would be presumptuous to think that God must protect each Christian from the results of ‘time and unforeseen circumstance’ or from the consequences of his own imprudence. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, some of whom perhaps died later in the arena as martyrs, has a bearing on this: “I tell everyone there among you not to think more of himself than it is necessary to think; but to think so as to have a sound mind, each one as God has distributed to him a measure of faith.” (Romans 12:3) J. B. Phillips’ translation states: “Try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities.”
The counsel expressed here has equal application today, although in a different context. If a Christian imagines that he can drive carelessly or under the influence of alcohol and get away with it because he has God’s protection, does that display “a sound mind”? Does the Christian have ‘a sane estimate of his capabilities’? Also, if he puts his fellowman in jeopardy, does he really ‘love his neighbor as himself’?—Matthew 22:39.
Now let us apply the spirit of a sound mind to the situation where man has established communities in earthquake-prone areas or where active volcanoes represent a latent but real threat. A good example is the already cited area around the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia. According to the Colombian daily El País, architect César Zárate prepared a study in 1982 that indicated that the Lagunilla River had flooded Armero in the past and that the city was still without adequate defenses. It was also known that the Nevado del Ruiz volcano had erupted six times since 1570. According to historical sources, the volcano has a regular cycle of activity that alternates between 140 years 9 months and 110 years 2 months.
This information was sent to the Sunday edition of the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo some weeks prior to the Armero disaster. It stated categorically: “The next flood . . . will take place about the middle of November of this year. The characteristic signs have already been observed: smoke from the ‘Arenas’ crater. A rain of ashes and gases. Contamination of the water and the crops. Nauseous smells. . . . A roaring sound originating in the volcano on September 11. Progressive thawing of the snowcap . . . Consequently, it is time to act.”
However, the article was not published. Perhaps it was viewed as unnecessary calamity howling. El Tiempo’s editors later put it down to “a lack of foresight, a lack of intuition, or the naive belief that nothing would happen.”
Right on schedule, though, Nevado del Ruiz blew its top on the night of November 13, 1985. More than 20,000 people lost their lives in Armero, and there were thousands of victims from Chinchiná and other nearby towns. Among those who died in Armero were 41 of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their associates. Some inadvisably had fled to the Kingdom Hall, which was on lower ground. They were swept away and entombed with it. Happily, other Witnesses were able to flee to higher ground and were saved.
Obviously, wisdom after the fact is easy. But at least lessons can be learned from those terrible events.
Ancient Warnings Ignored
The Bible offers examples of some who ignored timely warnings or thought ‘it couldn’t happen in their time’ or in their area of the earth. One clear case is when Lot was warned to flee from Sodom and Gomorrah. He alerted his sons-in-law, saying: “Get up! Get out of this place, because Jehovah is bringing the city to ruin!” How did they react? “In the eyes of his sons-in-law [Lot] seemed like a man who was joking.” The “joke” was short-lived. Jehovah made it rain sulfur and fire upon the doomed, perverse cities. The sons-in-law died along with the immoral inhabitants of that region. Lot’s wife evidently fled from Sodom with doubts and misgivings. She “began to look around from behind [Lot], and she became a pillar of salt.”—Genesis 19:12-26.
Over 1,900 years ago, Jesus prophesied that ancient Jerusalem would undergo a terrible destruction. He gave specific details of events that would take place before the city’s desolation, saying: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near.” He added the warning: “Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of her withdraw, and let those in the country places not enter into her.”—Luke 21:20-24.
When the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in the year 66 C.E., the Christians in that city recognized the sign that Jesus had given. Then, with total conquest within his grasp, General Cestius Gallus inexplicably withdrew his troops. That was the opportunity the Christians were waiting for, and they fled to the other side of the Jordan. In 70 C.E. the Romans returned under General Titus and destroyed Jerusalem. Hundreds of thousands of Jews who stayed on in the doomed city died during the siege and the fighting.
True, in these cases divine warning was given. But the point is that only a few heeded the message and escaped. The majority took no note. They refused to take God’s warning seriously.
In What Way Can We Rightly Test God?
Even with natural disasters, there are often warnings—the previous history of the area, recent signs, or scientific data—that indicate a strong possibility of danger within a certain time period. Perhaps an area is prone to flooding. Then a reasonable person must weigh all the factors to decide if a move to another district is necessary and viable. Of course, it is impossible to predict the time and place of every natural disaster. Still, the law of averages can be taken into account and also the margin for safety if the worst happens. But it is not reasonable to expect special protection from God. To do so would be to put God to the test in a way that is not licit or balanced.
However, in a different sense, Jehovah does invite us to test him. Back in the time of the prophet Malachi, Israel was wrongly testing God by presenting shoddy sacrifices on the altar. By their polluted bread and lame animal offerings, they showed that they despised Jehovah’s table. Through Malachi, Jehovah invited them to turn around and rectify their course of action. “‘Bring all the tenth parts into the storehouse, that there may come to be food in my house; and test me out, please, in this respect,’ Jehovah of armies has said, ‘whether I shall not open to you people the floodgates of the heavens and actually empty out upon you a blessing until there is no more want.’”—Malachi 3:10.
Yes, in regard to spiritual blessings, we can “test,” or prove, Jehovah’s faithfulness. If we seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, then, as Jesus said, all ‘other necessary things will be added to us.’ Jesus also said: “Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you.” If imperfect men give kind gifts to their children, “how much more so will your Father who is in the heavens give good things to those asking him [in accordance with his will]?”—Matthew 6:33; 7:7-11; 1 John 5:14.
At this very time, a warning is being given to the nations to the effect that soon Jehovah will initiate his act of retribution against all parts of Satan’s system of things. (Revelation 16:14, 16; 18:20) Millions of prudent people are heeding this message preached by Jehovah’s Witnesses and are separating themselves to the side of God’s Kingdom rule. They are getting out of the corrupt political and religious alliance before it is too late. (Revelation 18:4) By so doing, they are preparing for everlasting life under Christ’s rulership of our earth, which will be transformed into a paradise of justice and equity. Are you heeding this warning?—2 Peter 3:13; Titus 1:2.
[Picture on page 21]
A diploma found in the ruins of Armero is a grim reminder that thousands did not heed warnings
[Picture on page 22]
Do your driving habits reflect Christian soundness of mind?
[Pictures on page 23]
The now-desolated site where Armero stood. Over 20,000 persons perished here
This demolished automobile epitomizes the disaster that struck Armero