Thursday, March 17, 2011

God and the Tsunami

It had to happen sooner or later. Someone, somewhere was bound to tie the tsunami to God's wrath or judgment. But I was surprised at the source. A governor in Japan said that the tsunami was divine retribution for Japanese egoism. Not surprisingly, he has since apologized, largely because he wants to be reelected next year.

I have not heard of anyone in the USA making similar statements, but I am sure it is only a matter of time. I did, however, run across this on facebook.

Sept 11 (NY) Jan 11 (Haiti) and March 11 (Japan)....Luke 21:10-11 Then Jesus said to his disciples: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines & pestilences in various places, & fearful events & great signs from heaven. Jesus says for behold I come quickly, so ask yourself are you ready? Sad to say many won't broadcast this message

It is a rather strange linkage made by the 11th day of the month. September 11th was a terrorist attack and Haiti and Japan were natural disasters. I suppose if they were consistent they should also include the Madrid bombings which happened on March 11th, 2004. At least then they would have two terror attacks and two natural disasters. But what about the 2004 tsunami that hit on December 26th? Does this one not count since it did not happen on the 11th day of the month? This type of reading and use of the Bible is less than helpful and suggests a lack of appreciation for how we read scripture.

At this time I think it is helpful to recall some of the points made by Terence Fretheim in his book Creation Untamed: The Bible God and Natural Disasters, which I reviewed on this blog in the fall.

The first thing that Fretheim reminds us is that God created the world good, not perfect, if by that we mean finished, free from suffering and without need of improvement. Fretheim points out that the command to "subdue" the earth (Gen 1:28) suggests that there is an inherent lack of order that needs to be constructed within creation, and God expects the creatures to do it (p. 31). In conjunction with this is the need for creation to participate in the act of creation. The earth is to bring forth plants, seed and vegetation (Gen 1:11-13). Creatures, human or otherwise, are to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:22, 28). Thus, although creation is "good" it is not perfect in that there is nothing for the created to do. The process of creation continues through the created.

At the same time, natural disasters are a part of the order of creation and sometimes they are made even worse by humans. Fretheim outlines a view of creation that understands everything as interconnected. Natural disasters are not a result of sin, he argues, but are part of God's creation. But when sin is introduced into this equation, it generates "snowballing effects" (p.53). While Fretheim is careful not to absolve God of all responsibility for these disasters, he does suggest that God's world is "unpredictable, random, and wild." Human suffering may sometime come because of the reality of that world. On the other hand, human wickedness can make those disasters even worse (p. 64).

Of course, as humanity continues to "advance" we tend to build things on fault lines, and nuclear power plants and other aspects of human creation then come into conflict with God's good but less than perfect creation. When that happens the disasters are magnified. We live in a less than perfect world and the human propensity to think we are invincible makes us think that we can overcome all the elements of nature. Then something like Friday's tsunami reminds us that we are the created and not the creator.

I think it is fair, as does Fretheim, to ask where God is in the tsunami. But we certainly can't cast blame upon God. Nor should we be so eager to see such disasters as God's judgement. If we are going to suggest that the tsunami is God's wrath we need to ask why God did not, for instance, send a tsunami against Nazi Germany or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Or why God has not wiped us out for some of the evil that we have helped to perpetuate in the world.

During such times of disaster, natural and human made, it is important that the answers we seek are to questions of how can we relieve the suffering of those affected. Rather than scouring the Bible for verses that seem to create a mystical road map to the end of the world marked by disasters, we should instead be asking what God would have us to do.

For a people who claim to be "of the book" we pay remarkably little attention to what it is the book and the God behind the book asks us to do.


  1. Thanks for this perspective. I too have seen that posting on Facebook. And actually, I have had conversations with people that all these disasters that are taking place, and the things taking place in the Middle East are ushering in the endtimes. The Rapture is just a heartbeat away...(seriously just heard that again the other day)

  2. "It had to happen sooner or later. Someone, somewhere was bound to tie the tsunami to God's wrath or judgment."

    No surprise Glenn Beck did

  3. Associate Professor of Theology, you should listen to great philosopher OSHO's philosophy about life. I am sure your perspective will widen.