In the last couple of weeks, our news has been dominated by the incredible devastation of the Asian tsunami, with death tolls far exceeding 100,000 people. Vacationers were harmlessly seeking the comforts of the beach and villagers were going about their daily chores when an earthquake rumbled offshore and sent a wave of natural fury that destroyed all in its path.
Commentators have noted that this serves as another reminder that Mother Nature cannot be tamed. Christians, however, do not believe in Mother Nature, which is why this tsunami and other natural disasters pose a challenge to Christianity that does not exist for other religions. Our faith in a good, personal, sovereign, Almighty God does not obviously coincide with the reality of this world.
Christians should not shrink from giving biblical answers to the question, How can this be if what you preach is true? One place to begin is that these disasters prove that something is terribly wrong with our world. The world was obviously made by someone good the sun shines, plants grow, and gorgeous beaches line the ocean like emeralds. But there is a terrible flaw a crack, if you will that manifests itself in both daily frustrations and epochal disasters. The Bible explains this by pointing to the terrible intrusion of sin in this world. Mans sin has defaced the world. Adams entire world was a garden until he sinned. But then, God said, Cursed shall be the ground because of you (Gen. 3:17). Paul explains, The creation was subjected to futility (Rom. 8:19), and it awaits its rebirth in the coming resurrection. We may point our fingers at God, but the reality is that we are to blame: it is sins profound effects that have caused the very fabric of nature to be cursed. This results in rust on metal pipes, in weeds growing in gardens, in little boys and girls growing old until their bodies become lifeless, and in great, violent waves tragically silencing voices by the thousands. The wages of sin is death, Paul wrote (Rom. 6:23), and we should respond to disasters not by hating God but by hating sin.
Another way to answer is that, given the fragility of life and the violence of this sin-cursed world, the most important thing for us is to secure a life beyond death. This was how Jesus responded to a disaster in His time. Pilates Roman troops had murdered a group of Galileans while they were sacrificing in the temple. About the same time, a tower in Siloam fell and killed 18 people. Jesus asked if these people died because they were worse sinners than others, and answered that they were not. What happened to them could have happened to anyone. Jesus might have gone on to defend God for permitting these tragedies, but instead He said something significant for us. Jesus said, Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Lk. 13:3).
Jesus point was that all of us are guilty before Gods justice. According to Gods Word, everyone who died at the temple and in the tower and also in the recent tsunami were not innocent bystanders but guilty sinners before God. This does not mean the tsunami was sent by God for judgment. We have no right to make such harsh statements. But it does mean that if we ask, Why do bad things happen to good people? we need first to recall that there are no good people in Gods sight (Rom. 3:12). God is not guilty of injustice to any human being. Our sin has ruined this world and our sin has condemned us before God. Whatever happens to us in this world, in the life to come we will all stand before God and then we will be judged unless we are forgiven through repentance and faith in Christs blood.
The wonder is not how bad things happen to good people. The wonder is how good things can happen to bad people in a rebel world owned by a holy God. The wonder is not that disasters happen, but that God did not long ago wipe out the entire earth. The explanation for this and for every question about God and his goodness is the cross of Jesus Christ. The one person who did not deserve to die Gods perfect Son who became man knowingly and willingly and intentionally took up the most tortuous death so that all who look to him would be saved. Jesus is the Answer, not the Problem. He is the Savior, who delivers us from a world broken and tortured by the effects of sin personal effects in our lives and cosmic effects in the very fabric of our world. Jesus died so that sin will not cause us to be condemned by God and so that we might be freed from all the effects of sin including hatred and anger and greed and perverted lust, and including disasters like this tsunami. None of these will exist in the new world after the return of Christ. Behold, I am making all things new! Jesus declares (Rev. 21:5). And his resurrection is not merely an answer but is the final remedy for sin and its brokenness in this world, if we turn to Him in faith. In the end, when Jesus reign is established over all the new heavens and the new earth, no one will complain about Gods goodness and mercy. What they will say is I wish I had come to Him in faith, or I wish I had praised Him more while living in the old world.
Disasters like this tsunami remind us our need for Gods grace. The cross of Christ tells us that this grace is offered to all who will come to God through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. The cross where God offers salvation to the very world that violated his justice and crucified his own Son is the pulpit from which Gods message of grace and love and peace provide their answer to the world. In the end the cross will silence every accusing tongue, but now it preaches salvation to all who will believe.
Rev. Richard Phillips is the chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church Coral Springs, Margate, Florida.