Reflecting on Natural Disasters: A Bridge to the Eternal

Recently, several ministry leaders and myself sat and listened to a friend of mine, Jack Munday, speak. Jack directs the Rapid Response department of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Rapid Response trains and deploys temporary chaplains to disaster areas. Since Hurricane Katrina decimated the United States Gulf Coast, Jack and his team have deployed nearly seven hundred chaplains who have served and prayed with nearly 22,000 people. As Jack gave us an update, I was deeply distressed. He helped us see that the situation is not improving and that the disaster continues to unravel despite massive governmental and church response. The devastation is beyond comprehension.  My distress deepened as I remembered that an even greater disaster continues in Southeast Asia.

I confess my own faith has quaked under the onslaught of the tsunamis and the hurricanes. Where was God? Where is God? If these questions concern me, an ordained evangelist, pastor and professor, what must the world be asking? And how are Christians answering these questions?

I’ve heard several Christian responses. One is that these tragedies are God’s judgment upon rebellious peoples and nations. This doesn’t satisfy much. Why Southeast Asia and the southern United States? Are they more rebellious than other parts of the world?  Some have argued that because New Orleans embraces Mardi Gras (where drunkenness and lust are celebrated), it deserved judgment. If that is the case, why was the French Quarter (the area where Mardi Gras was most practiced) less damaged than other areas?  Shouldn’t it have been wiped out completely? Further, if the disasters are God’s judgments, why are we rushing in to help? If they Ì¢‰âÒdeservedÌ¢‰âÂå it, why do Christians and others mercifully provide assistance? Aren’t we being rebellious by trying to alleviate the pain that an angry God in his wrath purposed? Our response to disaster makes no sense if we believe the disaster is divine judgment.

I am not denying that God is a God of justice. Judgment and justice belong to him and our Bible is replete with texts to support it. However, judgment comes to all. One day the whole world will be judged. Christians also believe that in Christ the judgment and justice of God is satisfied for all who seek forgiveness of sins. His mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).

Where is God in these disasters? He is mercifully in the midst of them, working in and through the people bringing relief. He is weeping with the lost and lonely and he is providing aid in seen and unseen ways. We have all heard amazing stories of miraculous provision from the disaster areas. God is there.

We should not neglect our responsibility to help the world understand the cosmic reality of human disaster. We must not simply say that Ì¢‰âÒGod’s ways are mysteriousÌ¢‰âÂå and beyond our capacity to understand. This is fatalistic and unbefitting for a Christian. Such a response to natural disasters only furthers the perception that Christianity is inadequate to deal with life. Many of God’s ways are beyond our ways; however, not all of them are! 

There is much to say theologically concerning human disaster. First, we must carefully present the reality of cosmic evil that pervades our world. This evil is evidenced in Ì¢‰âÒhuman nature.Ì¢‰âÂå Though Hurricane Katrina was distressing, equally distressing was the looting and crime that followed. As frightening as the 2004 tsunami was, more so were the stories of people stealing homeless children for sordid gain. Second, we must believe that evil pervades nature just as it pervades human nature. In America, we often speak of nature as Ì¢‰âÒMother Nature.Ì¢‰âÂå Nothing could be further from the truth. Mothers are kind, nurturing and loving. Nature, while beautiful, is often wild and beastly. The story of Job makes it clear that Satan has access to nature and wields it like an evil master. Even nature itself, the Apostle Paul says, groans and is in bondage to decay (Romans 8:21-22).  This does not mean God is powerless to curb nature and the evil that wields it. Jesus proved the contrary by calming storms. He even reversed the ultimate sorrow of death on more than one occasion. 

I don’t deny that when and where God chooses to stop disaster is mysterious. But even here, revelation trumps mystery. In Luke 13:1-6, Jesus warns us not to dwell too much on human disaster, for it is the way of this world. Rather, he argues, we should think every bit as much on the life that follows this earthly life. It is in this eternal picture of life that the Christian brings a message of hope and an opportunity to have eternal life that contains no natural disasters. We therefore declare that tsunamis will end and hurricanes will cease. The natural order will be brought into full subjection to the eternal power of a loving God, at his command and in his timing. We are also to mirror God in our efforts to be merciful and helpful in times of disaster. Through all, we must speak the story of hope and a new world order offered by the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Dr. Lon Allison is executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He also serves as director for the Institute for Strategic Evangelism at Wheaton College. He is co-publisher of Lausanne World Pulse.