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Unnatural disasters

Robert S White

Floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes... how do we understand God's part in our planet's devastating upheavals? Robert S White, a geologist and theologian, offers vivid observations from close to the epicentre.


Behind us the sky shimmered green with waves of Northern Lights pierced by pinpricks of stars. In front of us was a wall of deep red flames as lava fountained 300 feet and more into the sky. As it fell on cinder cones around the volcanic fissures, exploding in flashes of bright orange, a river of molten rock crept across the gravelly river plain towards us.

As scientists monitoring earthquakes caused by the eruption my team and I were part of just a handful of people allowed into the 10,000 square kilometre exclusion zone around the Holuhraun eruption in the interior of Iceland. As a Christian believer, this demonstration of the raw power and beauty of God's creation struck me as awesome in the proper sense of the word.

I was hugely privileged to experience this eruption at first hand. Yet throughout history people have feared such natural upheavals in the earth - and with good reason.



On January 12, 2010, for example, more than 200,000 people died within a minute as a magnitude 7 earthquake destroyed Port au Prince at 4:53 pm. Likewise on All Saints Day 1755, a massive earthquake in the North Atlantic shook northwest Africa and Iberia. Lisbon was destroyed. It was a Sunday morning: many candles were alight in churches, and Sunday meals were being cooked over fires. As the densely packed wooden buildings toppled, numerous fires started and soon the whole city was ablaze. People rushed to the quayside to escape the firestorm ‒ only to be drowned by a massive tsunami which swept in half an hour later. Up to one hundred thousand people died.

It was a major shock to the rational world-view of Enlightenment thinkers that such a primeval disaster could flatten one of the most sophisticated and prosperous cities in Europe. Religious platitudes were not sufficient to address such a catastrophe; but then again, neither was there a secular answer as to why devastation on this scale occurred.



What can we say in the face of such mind-numbingstatistics? For Christians they raise the insistent question of why an all-powerful, loving God allows such disasters. For secular folk and atheists they challenge the hubris of this scientific and technological age that we can control our environment.

Despite the explosion in scientific knowledge of our world, the numbers of people affected or killed by disasters is increasing relentlessly. It is likely that before long an earthquake will occur that kills over one million people1, largely as a result of the exponential increase in population and the move to large cities.

We are accustomed to calling such catastrophes 'natural disasters', as if humans played no part in them. Yet almost always it is the actions, or the inactions or neglect of humans which turn natural processes into disasters. The term 'natural disasters' is a misnomer and highly misleading.



Far from being unwelcome intrusions, earthquakes, volcanoes and floods make the earth a fruitful, habitable place where humans and indeed the whole biosphere can thrive. Without them earth would be barren. Without volcanoes the main source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be missing. The likely result is that the planet would have been frozen for most of its history. Volcanic eruptions also continually cycle to the surface huge volumes of minerals essential for life. Yet volcanic eruptions may be explosively fatal to humans caught up in them.

Floods are another example of a normally beneficial natural process. They distribute fertile soils. For millennia it was the annual flood of the Nile that enabled Egypt to prosper. When the Nile flood failed, as it did for example in 1784, one sixth of the population died.

Without plate tectonics and the accompanying earthquakes there would be no mountain ranges. The continual building and erosion of mountains provides a steady supply of nutrient-rich sediments. Mountains also trigger rainfall which in turn makes the surrounding areas fertile. The Himalayas cause annual monsoons which provide water for 1,000 million people in India.



Over the past century millions of people have died in disasters as a result of human failings. An identical earthquake to the one that killed over 200,000 people in Haiti occurred 20 years earlier in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Yet the Californian earthquake killed only 57 people. The reason for such a low death toll? California enforced building codes that meant houses did not fall down in the quake.

In contrast, people died in Haiti when their poorly built concrete slab houses situated on landslide slopes collapsed on top of them. It is no coincidence that Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. By comparison of the death tolls from identical earthquakes, you could say that 99.98 percent of the Haiti fatalities were due to human factors, largely derived from decades of endemic corruption, misrule and poverty.

A striking demonstration that earthquake-proof buildings can be built is the massive magnitude 9.1 Japanese earthquake in March 2011. It released 1,500 times more energy than the Haiti earthquake, yet only a handful of people died in the earthquake shaking. Automated systems from over one thousand seismometers gave more than sixty seconds warning of the impending arrival of seismic waves and triggered emergency braking on over thirty high-speed bullet trains. This prevented derailing and almost certain large loss of life.



In a matter of minutes on Ascension Day 1902 almost the entire population of 26,000‒36,000 people in Saint Pierre, Martinique died when it was submerged in a cloud of burning ash and gases from Mont Pelée volcano. Yet this disaster should not have happened. For two weeks there had been earthquakes, ash falls, fires, sulphurous fumes and mud flows that had already killed over 600 people.Yet despite the self-evident danger from the ongoing eruption of Mont Pelée, barely six kilometres (3.7 miles) from St. Pierre, there was no widespread evacuation. Indeed the Mayor and the Governor first discouraged and later prevented people leaving, using soldiers to block the trails. They did so because elections were due, and the Governor wanted to keep voters in town until the election was over because the demographics of those voters favoured his party.2 It was an avoidable tragedy. The Governor, his family, and the rest of the inhabitants of St Pierre paid for it with their lives. We can hardly blame God for that.

It is nowadays almost always possible to predict floods well in advance. Yet still people die. A striking example is Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans in 2005. Despite occurring in the world's richest and most technologically advanced nation, over 1,800 people lost their lives. They were disproportionately the infirm, the elderly and the poor who had no cars and could not evacuate the city as the storm approached. A report by the University of Louisianaconcluded that 'failure of the New Orleans Flood Defense System was a predictable, predicted, and preventable catastrophe'. It went on to say that 'this catastrophe did not result from an act of "God". It resulted from acts of "People."'3



The common factor in these disasters is that the poor and the elderly suffer most. That is also true for one of the most pervasive causes of disasters that humans are wreaking on the earth ‒ global climate change. Many disasters are related directly or indirectly to climate change, including heat waves, floods, droughts, landslides and changes in weather patterns that impact agriculture and may lead to famines.

Those of us in the high-income countries who have benefitted from burning cheap fossil fuels, thereby causing global climate change have a moral duty to help those in low-income countries, who largely are the people who suffer from climate change. At the very least, they deserve our assistance to help them adapt to the inevitable changes that result.4

The problem of suffering has exercised humanity from the earliest times. There are no easy answers. But there are some things we can usefully say about disasters that may help us to respond to them. For example, 'nature' is not a force separate from God. As John Wesley wrote when reflecting on the 1 755 Lisbon earthquake: 'What is nature itself, but the art of God, or God's method of acting in the material world?' Natural processes occur under the overarching sovereignty of God, and so too must natural disasters.



Although we may be tempted to think that this world was made just for humans, it is clear in the Bible that God's delight in his creation is much wider: 'God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good'(Genesis 1.31). In Job 38.26‒27 God is said to water 'a land where no man lives, a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass.' God is also sovereign over inanimate matter. He is portrayed in Psalm 104:32 as the one 'who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke'. God desires all of his creation to flourish, both human and non-human, animate and inanimate alike.

As we contemplate disasters, it is helpful to see God's response to the trials suffered by Job. Job was a righteous man. Yet he suffered grievously at the hands of Satan, losing all that was most dear to him, including his possessions, flocks, family and even his own health. Some, at least, of the disasters were due to natural processes, such as the wind that blew down his eldest son's house and killed all his ten children (Job 1.18‒19).



Job's so-called friends tried to rationalise the disasters that had befallen Job as being the result of some sin or failing on his part. Job rightly rejected those suggestions, but still he wanted an explanation from God. He wanted his day in court. When that day finally came, and God spoke to Job 'out of the whirlwind', he didn't give any tidy explanations. Instead he spoke majestically of his power over all creation, from the stars to the sea, the weather and all the animals, including all the wild animals, which were far from the domesticated environment in which Job lived.

Though God vindicates Job and indeed praises him, Job finally understands both that God's purposes cannot be thwarted and that God's knowledge and wisdom is far beyond anything to which Job could aspire. The lesson for us is that we should not and cannot expect to understand all of God's dealings this side of heaven. 'Now I know in part; then I shall know fully' (1 Corinthians 13:12). But we can, and should hold on to God's faithfulness and goodness as Job did, however dire our circumstances seem to be.



I've witnessed both humbling and encouraging responses to disasters from those you might expect to be most embittered and broken. The Rev Dr Roger Abbott, Dr Erin Joakim and myself have been studying whether and how religious faith impacts following disasters in Haiti, New Orleans, Indonesia and the Philippines, where people have lost almost everything - family, friends, homes, possessions - yet still are able to teach us about the important things in life.

One Haitian husband and father recalled for Roger Abbott the tropical storm Jeanne back in 2004: "When I saw that the waters were about to carry my family and the house away I recited a verse in Isaiah 43 which says... when you are walking on raging waters, the waters will not carry you away; when you are walking on flames, the flames will not burn you. And that's the verse that I recited when I saw the waters coming."

Later, having subsequently lost nine year old twin sons in the 2010 earthquake, he still refused to give up hope: "I feel desolate at times because I sometimes stop and think about all the things I went through… how I lost my sons and at times I feel like losing my mind… But God gives me sanity and I also took example of Job, who lost all his things yet God took care of him. And I know that God will also take care of me."

Another man lost his daughter and granddaughter, his own huge house and rental business. "Well, as long as there is breath, life continues," he said. "We are not the owner over our lives, sometimes you might think you can't do something, but by the grace of God it happens. As long as there is breath there is life, you must always tell yourself it isn't over."



Though we may not understand fully why disasters happen, or what God's plans in them might be, we can hold on to the certainty of God's sovereignty over this present world and that in the fullness of time this creation will be renewed. The kingdom of God to which Christians look forward is not just a psychological prop, a wishful 'pie in the sky, by and by'. It is a reality which ought to inform the way we live in this world now.

We live in the in-between times, the 'now but not yet' between the first coming of God to earth as the man Jesus, and his return to judge the world, when all things will be renewed in the new creation. That is when he will make this world the place he intended it to be, free from all death and mourning, free from all that has been made twisted and out of order by the rebellion of humans against their creator. The death and, crucially, the resurrection of Jesus are the seal and the proof of this reality.5



It is part of our worship of God to use our various skills and understanding, our talents, our financial and natural resources to help reduce the effect of disasters in the future and to help those affected when they do strike.

Of course we wish that disasters would not happen. But we do have the capability to construct earthquake-proof buildings, we can detect and track storms, typhoons and hurricanes, we can monitor and predict volcanic eruptions. We should be able to prevent the great majority of casualties from these natural processes. It is a sign of God's goodness to us that he has given us a stable, understandable world where we can use the fruits of science and technology for the good of others. We could prevent disasters and alleviate or mitigate the harmful effects of some of our actions, such as burning large quantities of fossil fuels.



Another biblical story which hinges around a prolonged natural disaster, a seven-year famine, is that of Joseph in the Old Testament. Yet Joseph was only on hand to oversee the storage of grain during the good years and its distribution during the bad, because of a series of evil actions by others.

From the perspective of natural disasters, there is never the slightest hint in this story that the famine was a punishment from God for any particular series of wrongdoings or sin. The scriptural account just takes the famine as a given, albeit something under God's sovereignty and knowledge. It is a warning not to rush to blame the latest natural disaster on punishment by God of some particular sinful behaviour that we choose to identify.

The story of Joseph gives a strong message that a right and proper way to honour God is to use our gifts and abilities to seek to ameliorate the harmful consequences of occurrences such as famines. Joseph was insightful, resourceful, energetic, trustworthy and an extremely good administrator and organiser. But although he wielded great power, he never failed to acknowledge that God was sovereign over both him and his circumstances. He spent his life serving others, albeit often in high ranking positions, rather than being self-serving.



This is an encouragement to Christians in whatever sphere they work: to scientists or engineers who seek to understand the natural world; to administrators, secretaries and government officials who enable society to function even when under stress; to aid workers and politicians who try to implement practical policies to ameliorate suffering; and indeed to everyone to be good stewards of resources. There is nothing 'unspiritual' about working hard at such mundane things, provided always that, like Joseph we remind ourselves that both we and our circumstances are firmly under God's providence if we are faithful to him.

The Christian perspective sees the reality of the brokenness of this world, but also the reality of God's sovereignty over it and of his ultimate plans for a new creation. That does not mean that we need not strive to improve things now. Rather it points in he opposite direction, that we should work for better scientific understanding of disasters, that we should enable communities to build resilience against them, that we should strive to remove the unjust disparities in wealth and resources that mean it is so often the poor who are most vulnerable and who suffer most.



Even though we may not be able to prevent every last casualty of the next disaster, there is an enormous amount we can do even from our present understanding of natural processes to hugely reduce the impact of disasters. This is surely what Jesus would want us to do, using our understanding of his creation for the good of others, and working to enable his creation to reflect his glory as he intended it to do.

Meanwhile, as we struggle in this beautiful, yet suffering world, we have the assurance from Jesus himself that those blessings we shall experience permanently in the new creation can sustain us now. As he says in Matthew 11:28: 'Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest'.


Fuller discussions of the issues raised in this article can be found in Who is to Blame? Nature, Disasters and Acts of God, by Robert S. White (Lion-Monarch, 2014).

Robert White is professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is also the director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, based in Cambridge (See www.faraday-institute. org).



1 R. Musson, The Million Death Quake, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 255 pp.

2 G. Thomas & M. Morgan-Witts, The Day Their World Ended, London: Souvenir Press, 1969.

3 Team Louisiana, The Failure of the New Orleans Levee System during Hurricane Katrina, Baton Rouge: Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Appendix VI, 2006; see also R. Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, London: Penguin Books, 2009, pp. 239-240.

4 Spencer, Nick & White, Robert (2007). Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living, SPCK, 245pp.

5 Jonathan A. Moo & Robert S. White (2013) Hope in an Age of Despair: The Gospel and the future of life on earth, Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, 224 pp. t