Tsunami deaths: God's wrath or man's folly?
Make no bones about it; Scripture shows that the father of Jesus Christ has periodically wiped out massive numbers of people because of their sinfulness. Look no further than the Noachian flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, or the massacre of the Canaanites in Joshua's day for confirmation of this sobering truth. Those who hate God turn this fact into a weapon against God. As the creator of mankind He stands as man's judge; we are not His judge. We act foolishly when we charge God with killing innocents. Who do we think we are to make ourselves ultimate arbiters?
What about natural disasters, so-called “acts of God”, that wipe out many thousands? Just after 9 a.m. on November 1st, 1755, a big earthquake followed by a big tsunami followed by a big fire killed over 100,000 people in Lisbon, the devoutly Catholic capital of the devoutly Catholic Portuguese empire. In late December, 2004, almost 150,000 people in Asia died from the effects of a tsunami smashing into their villages. Adherents of all religious belief systems are inclined to see such disasters as the result of divine intervention, either for the purpose of testing human beings, as a warning of impending disaster if they don't repent, or as a manifestation of divine wrath for sinfulness. Any of these is possible, but only a prophet can know for sure, and they are few and far between. (Of course, God-haters who charge Him with wrongdoing conveniently forget that man-made death and destruction of near-2004-tsunami proportions occurs on the African continent every week.)
Here we will take as our premise the position that God has made our planet subject to seismic upheavals that have the potential of reaping a huge harvest of death. Sometimes that potential turns into reality. That massive loss of life might result from “natural causes” such as earthquakes, as distinct from a direct act of God, is strongly implied in Scripture:
There are three things that are never satisfied, four never say, "Enough!": the grave, the barren womb, the earth that is not satisfied with water — and the fire never says, "Enough!" (Prov. 30:15-16).
Nothing here suggests that the grave's insatiability is linked with sin. What are we to make of this against the backdrop of divine providence? Would a God who calls Himself “love” (1 John 4:8) decree such large scale disasters that bring misery to millions? Well, this verse answers that question in the affirmative.
First, we would be foolish to rail against God for such devastating natural disasters. In His love and wisdom He has made us mortal; in His divine grace, God has given us, in our mortality, reason to seek Him and the
eternal life that He offers. Mortality requires death. Does it really matter when any of us dies, particularly when one remembers that all will be raised again? This life is the means to an end, not an end in itself.
Second, we have known for centuries that these sorts of disasters occur. Tsunamis are regular visitors of shorelines in Asia. Instead of getting mad at God, we really should question the ineptitude of governments that have allowed people to live in the danger zones, or have made no attempt to regulate building codes that accommodate predictable forces of nature.
We can take this point of human negligence further still; instead of attributing accountability to God in the face of natural disasters we should look at ourselves. The February, 2007, National Geographic has a brilliant article on mangrove forests and their role in the great scheme of things. Right where tsunamis are most likely to occur, God planted a protective shield of mangrove forests. Commenting on the 2004 disaster, the article says,
Where mangrove forests were intact, they served as natural breakwaters, dissipating the energy of the waves, mitigating property damage, perhaps saving lives. Post-tsunami, the logic of allowing a country's mangrove “bioshields” to be bulldozed looked not just flawed but reprehensible (p. 138).
Governments have allowed their protective mangrove forests to be slaughtered for the sake of quick profits. Readers are encouraged to do some research for themselves on the role of mangroves in countering the effects of undersea quakes. You will find sites that say things like,
… the continuing loss of the mangroves and their associated ecosystems, such as sea grass beds, coral reefs and mudflats, was cause for serious concern. In fact, impending disaster is sure to follow in the wake of such massive ecosystem losses. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that if a protective ecosystem is purposefully removed or degraded that there will be serious repercussions if a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or tsunami ensues (Mangrove Action Project).
One cannot help but wonder if the lion's share of the “blame” for loss of life in a natural disaster should be laid at the feet of human beings. God is good. Everything He does, including making us subject to premature death, works out for our eternal benefit. But just maybe “acts of God” should more often be characterized as “follies of men”.