Natural Disasters—A Sign of the Times?
“NATION will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages and earthquakes in one place after another. All these things are a beginning of pangs of distress.” With these words Jesus Christ explained to his disciples 19 centuries ago that such disastrous events, together with an increase of lawlessness and the worldwide preaching of the good news of God’s Kingdom, would introduce a composite sign marking “the conclusion of the system of things.”—Matthew 24:3-14.
In view of that, we must ask, Are we seeing more catastrophic earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and famines than did generations past? And in spite of advances in science and technology, are proportionately more people suffering as a result?
To many the answer is yes. For example, the magazine New Scientist warns that “the world can expect more disasters in the 1990s than in past decades.” Similarly, in the UN Chronicle of June 1991, the director of the World Meteorological Organization stated: “The trend is quite clear. From the 1960s to the 1980s . . . , there has been a fivefold increase in the frequency of great natural disasters, and a threefold increase in total economic losses.” Providing a little perspective on the subject, World Health, the magazine of the UN World Health Organization, observed: “Examples of natural disasters and their devastating effects can be traced throughout history. However, as the 21st century approaches, we face a changing mix of demographic, ecological and technological conditions which make many populations more vulnerable to the impact of both natural and man-made catastrophes.”
Anyone who pays attention to current events is not surprised at such statements. The news media are never short of sensational stories, be it a volcanic eruption in the Philippines, an earthquake in California, a flood in Bangladesh, a famine in Somalia, a hurricane in Hawaii, or a tidal wave in Nicaragua. Hardly a month goes by without a report of a disaster in one corner of the world or another.
Some people dismiss this as insignificant. They argue that the apparent increase in disasters in our time is merely due to better reporting or to better record keeping. They further argue that more people are suffering from disasters simply because there are more people today. Are these arguments the whole story?
Note what is said in the New Scientist article quoted above. “There were 523 disasters reported in the 1960s and 767 in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the number had reached 1387.” It goes on to explain that “part of the apparent rise during the past decade can be accounted for by the greater openness in reporting disasters in China and the Soviet Union.” Then it adds: “Even so, the number is growing.” The precipitous rise in the number of disasters cannot be explained away by better reporting or better record keeping alone.
Further, the UN Chronicle of March 1992 reports: “During the past two decades, some 3 million people have lost their lives and 800 million more have been affected by ‘the havoc, hardship and suffering’ brought about by natural disaster.” This means that about 1 in every 7 persons living on earth has been touched by some kind of disaster or tragedy. That is truly staggering and leaves little room for doubt that ours is an age of upheaval and unrest.
Since the Bible foretells such a time of great distress, does it mean that God is responsible for the disasters and the suffering resulting from them? Many people think so. But what do the facts show? And more important, what does the Bible show?
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Cover: W. Faidley/Weatherstock
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Middle photo: Mark Peters/Sipa Press
WHO/League of Red Cross