If social security runs out, we will blame the government. If the package does not arrive on time, we blame the postal service. When the term paper disintegrates into nothingness on the monitor screen, we blame technology. But when earthquakes and floods have their brutal way with us, where will our little fingers point?
The classic pagan answer would be to angry gods. The secular intellectuals will point to seismic activity. So what about us Christians? Where will we point as believers in a sovereign, omnipotent God who caused those mighty waters to separate from land in the first place back on the third day?
After seeing the news footage, I began praying for wisdom. I wanted to know how to theologically interpret the Asian disaster. Later in the day, I casually decided to begin reading Genesis again, and some of the spiritual breath got knocked out of me when I came to chapter 6 … yeah, the chapter with the flood scene. Some have described the Asian tsunamis as the worst natural disaster ever, however death tolls have been higher in earthquakes in China and the Middle East even in our century. But the worst natural disaster happened in Genesis 6, and it was not so natural—it was divinely intentional.
How “natural” are natural disasters? This question is in the back of our heads every time a freak accident occurs, whenever a cancer diagnosis is made, whenever flood waters swell. Inside of us there is a demand for justice, for the perpetrator to be punished. But who is left to blame for in freak accidents and unsuspected disasters but God Himself? Or maybe the tragedy is God’s judgment on us, punishing us in some way in which we have served as perpetrators ourselves …
Am I saying that natural disasters are divine judgment? What about the tragedies in our lives, the personal atrocities we suffer—the nightmares that become suddenly real to us through a late night phone call?
God is not evil, yet if we were honest with ourselves, how many times do we extend the pointing finger of blame to Him in our moments of despair? But we rarely point that finger at the true culprit—a fallen humanity, a humanity that gave God another finger besides just the pointing one and decided to live a life free from divine lordship. A world that has so solidly and corporately rejected its Creator must by definition become a world that groans and tremors with sin-induced malformation. Disasters are indeed now quite natural.
Certainly, natural disasters could be related some way to divine judgment—there is clear biblical preference for this. But I am not claiming that this is necessarily the case for Southeast Asia’s unfathomable pain. I have been on some of those coastlines. I have seen the seas that recently roared so loudly. Those faces on the TV screen are real people to me.
Divine judgment is in the realm of divine mystery, and it’s not mine to dabble with. Instead, there is another judgment with which I know I am to be concerned. An ultimate judgment that will be made on the basis of whether or not I gave assistance to the hungry, the thirsty, the unclothed, the sick … and languishing on Southeast Asian shores are countless numbers of the hungry, the thirsty, the unclothed, the sick. This is the judgment that we should be concerned with.
Jesus was once asked about a natural disaster. Some tower in Siloam had fallen, killing 18. He did not allow His hearers at the time to harbor the sanctimonious they-probably-deserved-it attitude: “… do you suppose that those 18 … were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).
The eventual judgment of God that awaits the world will be much more universal than some isolated freak incidences. Our love for God and for His just ways should dictate an overwhelming response to the Asian crisis from the Church. So here is the question that must haunt us and ring with persistence in our ears: as young Christians in the service of a compassionate and sovereign God, how will we respond to the greatest natural disaster in our lifetime?
[When Andy Byers is not writing, he works as a campus minister at Gardner-Webb University.]