Natural Disasters—Is God Responsible?
“GOD, what have you done to us?”
That was the reported response of a survivor who surveyed the destruction brought by the eruption of snowcapped Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia on November 13, 1985. The resulting mud slide buried the entire city of Armero and killed over 20,000 people in one night.
It is understandable that the survivor might react that way. Helpless in the face of awesome natural forces, people from the earliest times have attributed such disastrous events to God. Primitive people made offerings, even human sacrifices, to appease their gods of the sea, sky, earth, mountain, volcano, and other sources of danger. Even today, some simply accept the consequence of catastrophic natural events as fate or an act of God.
Is God really responsible for the disasters that bring so much human suffering and loss around the world? Is he to blame? To find the answers, we need to take a closer look at what is involved in such disasters. In fact, we need to reexamine some familiar ground.
What Is a “Natural Disaster”?
When an earthquake struck Tangshan, China, and according to official Chinese reports killed 242,000 people, and when Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida and Louisiana in the United States and caused billions of dollars in damage, such natural disasters made international headlines. Yet, what if that earthquake had struck in the uninhabited Gobi Desert, 700 miles [1,100 km] northwest of Tangshan, or what if Hurricane Andrew had taken a different course and had spent itself at sea, missing land altogether? They would hardly be remembered now.
Clearly, then, when we speak of natural disasters, we are not simply speaking of dramatic displays of natural forces. Every year there are thousands of earthquakes, large and small, and dozens of storms, cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, and other violent phenomena that do nothing more than become statistics in some record book. However, when such events cause great destruction of life and property and the disruption of the normal way of life, they become disasters.
It should be noted that the damage and the resulting loss are not always proportionate to the natural forces involved. The greatest disaster is not necessarily caused by the most powerful display of natural forces. For example, in 1971 an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale hit San Fernando, California, United States, and killed 65 people. A year later a 6.2 quake in Managua, Nicaragua, killed 5,000 people!
Thus, when it comes to the increasing destructiveness of natural disasters, we must ask, Have the natural elements become more violent? Or have human factors contributed to the problem?
Who Is Responsible?
The Bible identifies Jehovah God as the Grand Creator of all things, including the natural forces of this earth. (Genesis 1:1; Nehemiah 9:6; Hebrews 3:4; Revelation 4:11) This does not mean that he causes every movement of wind or every rain shower. Rather, he has set in motion certain laws that govern the earth and its environment. For example, at Ecclesiastes 1:5-7, we read about three of the fundamental operations that make life on earth possible—the daily rising and setting of the sun, the unchanging pattern of winds, and the water cycle. Whether mankind is aware of them or not, for thousands of years these natural systems, and others like them, involving the climate, geology, and ecology of the earth have operated. In fact, the writer of Ecclesiastes was calling attention to the great contrast between the unchanging and endless ways of creation and the transitory and temporary nature of human life.
Not only is Jehovah the Creator of natural forces but he also has the power to control them. Throughout the Bible we find accounts of Jehovah’s controlling or manipulating such forces to accomplish his purpose. These include the parting of the Red Sea in Moses’ day and the halting of the sun and moon in their paths across the heavens in the time of Joshua. (Exodus 14:21-28; Joshua 10:12, 13) Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the promised Messiah, also demonstrated his power over natural forces as, for instance, when he calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee. (Mark 4:37-39) Accounts like these leave no doubt that Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ, can fully control all that affects life here on earth.—2 Chronicles 20:6; Jeremiah 32:17; Matthew 19:26.
That being the case, can we hold God responsible for the increased havoc and devastation that have resulted from natural disasters in recent times? To answer this question, we must first consider whether there is evidence that the forces of nature have recently become dramatically more violent, perhaps even out of control.
In this regard, note what the book Natural Disasters—Acts of God or Acts of Man? has to say: “There is no evidence that the climatological mechanisms associated with droughts, floods and cyclones are changing. And no geologist is claiming that the earth movements associated with earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami (earthquake waves) are becoming more violent.” Similarly, the book Earthshock observes: “The rocks of every continent contain a record of innumerable major and minor geological events, every one of which would be a catastrophic disaster to mankind if they occurred today—and it is scientifically certain that such events will occur again and again in the future.” In other words, the earth and its dynamic forces have more or less remained the same throughout the ages. Hence, whether or not some statistics indicate an increase of some forms of geologic or other activity, the earth has not become uncontrollably violent in recent times.
What, then, accounts for the increase in the frequency and destructiveness of natural disasters that we read about? If the forces of nature are not to blame, the finger of guilt seems to point to the human element. And, indeed, authorities have recognized that human activities have made our environment both more prone to natural disasters and more vulnerable to them. In the developing nations, a growing need for food forces farmers to overcultivate what land they have or to reclaim land by clearing away vital forest covering. This leads to serious soil erosion. Expanding population also hastens the growth of slums and shantytowns haphazardly built in unsafe areas. Even in the more developed nations, people, like the millions living along the San Andreas Fault in California, have exposed themselves to danger in spite of clear warnings. In such circumstances, when an unusual turn of events—a storm, a flood, or an earthquake—occurs, can the disastrous result really be called “natural”?
A typical example is the drought in the African Sahel. We normally think of drought as the lack of rain or water, leading to famine, starvation, and death. But is the massive famine and starvation in that area due simply to lack of water? Says the book Nature on the Rampage: “Evidence gathered by scientific and relief agencies indicates that today’s famine persists not so much from prolonged drought as from prolonged abuses of land and water resources. . . . The continuing desertification of the Sahel is largely a man-caused phenomenon.” A South African newspaper, The Natal Witness, observes: “Famine is not about lack of food; it is about lack of access to food. In other words, it is about poverty.”
The same can be said of much of the destruction resulting from other catastrophes. Studies have shown that the poorer nations suffer disproportionately higher death rates from natural disasters than do the richer nations of the world. For example, from 1960 to 1981, according to one study, Japan had 43 earthquakes and other disasters and lost 2,700 lives, averaging 63 deaths per disaster. In the same period, Peru had 31 disasters with 91,000 deaths, or 2,900 per disaster. Why the difference? Natural forces may have provided the triggers, but it is human activity—social, economic, political—that must bear the responsibility for the large difference in the loss of life and destruction of property that resulted.
What Are the Solutions?
Scientists and experts have tried for many years to devise ways to cope with natural disasters. They probe deep into the earth to seek an understanding of the workings of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. With space satellites they observe the weather patterns to track the paths of cyclones and hurricanes or predict floods and drought. All this research has given them information that they hope will enable them to lessen the impact of these natural forces.
Have such efforts paid off? Regarding this kind of expensive, high-tech measure, one watchdog organization observes: “These have their place. But if they consume a disproportionate amount of money and effort—if they serve as an excuse to ignore the hazards built into the victims’ societies which make disasters worse—then they can do more harm than good.” For example, while it is useful to know that the coastal delta of Bangladesh is constantly threatened by floods and tidal waves, that knowledge does not prevent millions of Bangladeshis from being forced to live there. The result is repeated disasters with death tolls numbering into the hundreds of thousands.
Clearly, technical information can be useful only to a point. Another thing that is needed is the ability to alleviate the pressures that leave people with little choice but to live in areas particularly exposed to dangers or to live in ways that devastate the environment. In other words, to mitigate the damage done by the elements would take a thorough reshaping of the social, economic, and political system under which we live. Who can accomplish such a task? Only the One who can control even the forces that trigger natural disasters.
Acts of God Ahead
Jehovah God will not just deal with the symptoms but he will get to the root cause of human misery. He will put an end to the greedy and oppressive political, commercial, and religious systems that have “dominated man to his injury.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9) Anyone familiar with the Bible will not fail to note that throughout its pages there are numerous prophecies pointing to the time when God will take action to rid the earth of wickedness and suffering and to restore an earthly paradise of peace and righteousness.—Psalm 37:9-11, 29; Isaiah 13:9; 65:17, 20-25; Jeremiah 25:31-33; 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 11:18.
That, in effect, is what Jesus Christ taught all his followers to pray for, namely, “Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:10) The Messianic Kingdom will remove and replace all imperfect human rule, as the prophet Daniel foretold: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.”—Daniel 2:44.
What will God’s Kingdom accomplish that the nations today cannot? The Bible provides a fascinating foregleam of what is to come. Rather than conditions illustrated on these pages, such as famine and poverty, “there will come to be plenty of grain on the earth; on the top of the mountains there will be an overflow,” and “the tree of the field must give its fruitage, and the land itself will give its yield, and they will actually prove to be on their soil in security.” (Psalm 72:16; Ezekiel 34:27) Regarding the natural environment, the Bible tells us: “The wilderness and the waterless region will exult, and the desert plain will be joyful and blossom as the saffron. . . . For in the wilderness waters will have burst out, and torrents in the desert plain. And the heat-parched ground will have become as a reedy pool, and the thirsty ground as springs of water.” (Isaiah 35:1, 6, 7) And wars will be no more.—Psalm 46:9.
How Jehovah God will accomplish all of that, and how he will deal with all the natural forces so that they will no longer be the cause of any harm, the Bible does not say. What is certain, however, is that all who live under that righteous government “will not toil for nothing, nor will they bring to birth for disturbance; because they are the offspring made up of the blessed ones of Jehovah, and their descendants with them.”—Isaiah 65:23.
In the pages of this magazine, as well as in other publications of the Watch Tower Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses have repeatedly pointed out that God’s Kingdom was established in heaven in the year 1914. Under the direction of that Kingdom, a global witness has been given for nearly 80 years, and today we are at the threshold of a promised “new heavens and a new earth.” Mankind will be freed not only from the ravages of natural disasters but also from all the pain and suffering that have been plaguing humanity for the last six thousand years. Of that time it can truly be said, “the former things have passed away.”—2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:4.
What, though, about now? Has God been acting in behalf of those in distress due to natural circumstances or otherwise? Most certainly he has but not necessarily in the way that most people might expect.
[Pictures on page 8, 9]
Human activities have made our environment more prone to natural disasters
Wesley Bocxe/Sipa Press
Jose Nicolas/Sipa Press