Where is God when the Earth shakes?

Over the past week, the reports, pictures, and videos following the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 have overwhelmed us. Since the initial earthquake, dozens of aftershocks have continued to shake the island nation including an aftershock with a preliminary magnitude of 6.1 that struck Tuesday in the eastern part of Honshu, Japan. Thousands of lives have been lost. Millions of people have been displaced or are without electricity or water. Explosions at the quake-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant raised more concerns about possible radiation leaks.

The fears of living on Planet Earth are not limited to the Japanese. Over the last several years, we have seen several earthquakes that have rocked our planet and our world. The people of China, Haiti, and Chile have witnessed how quickly an earthquake can change lives and take lives. Many around the world are living in fear of the natural, physical, and economic disasters looming ahead. In the Bible, we are told that earthquakes are ultimately from God. God does nothing without an infinitely wise and good purpose. “He also is wise and will bring disaster” (Isaiah 31:2). “The LORD is good” (Psalm 100:5). Therefore, God has good and all-wise purposes for the heart-rending tragedies that are both public and private.

Every time a disaster happens anywhere in the world someone recklessly tell us it’s the judgment of God being poured out on sinful people. It has become increasingly difficult for me to think in those terms. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sin entered the equation the entire creation was impacted. All creation fell and “has been groaning together with labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22). Since fallen humans live in a fallen creation we can expect disasters like the Japanese earthquake to happen from time to time. We use the term “natural disasters” because can be expected to occur quite naturally in a fallen world.  There are specific instances in the Old Testament where God used natural disasters to express His judgment on a nation or people. However, this was not the norm in ancient history. They too had their share of disasters occurring naturally in the context of a fallen world. In Luke 13:15 Jesus clearly teaches that tragedy is not necessarily the consequence of greater sin for then none of us would escape. To begin with, He made it clear that human tragedies are not always divine punishments and that it is wrong for us to ‘play God’ and pass judgment. Rather, tragedy should be seen as a warning to all that unless they repent, a similar doom would come upon them. Job’s friends made this same mistake when they said that Job’s afflictions were evidence that he was a sinner. If we take that approach to tragedy, then we will have a hard time explaining the sufferings of the Prophets and Apostles, and even of our Lord Himself. So the earthquake in Japan or other natural disasters yet to come do not need to be placed in the context of a judgment from God. If earthquakes are not God’s specific judgment on a specific people, then what is God’s purpose?

Indeed He has hundreds of thousands of purposes for all things in life (Romans 8:28), most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?”(Romans 11:33-34). “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Here are a few possible purposes for earthquakes revealed in the Bible that believers in Jesus Christ may pray will come to pass.

  1. Earthquakes are God’s patient calls to repentance. “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The end-time earthquakes in the book of Revelation are meant as calls to repentance to warn people who deny Jesus Christ that a day is coming when unbelievers will cry to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16).
  2. The end-time earthquakes in Matthew 24:7-8 are meant to be interpreted as “the beginning of the birth pains.” That is, they are a wake-up call to this oblivious world that God’s kingdom will soon be born; so be alert and prepare to meet Jesus Christ.
  3. God’s unilateral taking of thousands of lives is a loud declaration that He is sovereign over all of His Creation. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21). The message for all the world is that life is more than our physical possessions — life is a loan from God (Luke 12:20) and belongs to Him. He creates it and gives it and takes it according to His own will and owes us nothing. He has a right to children (2 Samuel 12:13-18) and to the aged (Luke 2:29). It is a great gift to learn this truth and dedicate our lives to our Creator and Savior rather than ignore Him till it is too late.
  4. The power felt in an earthquake reveals the fearful magnificence of God. This is a great gift since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, 15:33 ). Natural disasters and the suffering that follows either pushes us away from God or pulls us toward Him. A fear of earthquakes can lead to a healthy fear of God involving worshipful submission, reverential awe, and obedient respect. Most of the world does not recognize the Lord God of Creation and therefore lacks saving wisdom.
  5. The suffering and pain that comes from earthquakes is incomparable to the eternal suffering of those who reject Christ (Matthew 8:12, 25:46; John 5:29; Romans 2:8-9; Revelation 20:11-15).  Patrick Fuller, a Red Cross Spokes person in Japan, says what he’s seeing is “a scene from Hell.” Without a taste of Hell on earth, we would not see its horrors or feel much motivation to do everything possible to avoid it. Earthquakes serve as a warning and foretaste of eternal suffering that can get our attention and prompt us to turn to God by faith.

When the earth shakes under your feet there is a dramatic sense that there is no place to flee. In most disasters the earth is the one thing that stands firm when wind and flood are raging. But where do you turn when the earth itself is unsafe? The Answer: God Himself.

The psalmist proclaims:  “God is our refuge and strength, a Helper who is always found in times of trouble. Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil” (Psalm 46:1–3).

May the Lord fulfill at least three other purposes from this painful catastrophe.

  1. Pray that Christians would turn to the Lord Jesus in the last days and be prepared to serve Him. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned, and that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14-17).
  2. Pray that Christians, around the world, step forward with extraordinary, sacrificial love to show more clearly the mercy of Christ who laid down his life in the midst of the Father’s judgment. As followers of Jesus, we have hope knowing that the temporary sufferings are not worth comparing with the eternal glory of living with Christ in heaven (Romans 8:18, 24-25). To live well, suffer well, and die well, our eyes must lock on the invisible God. When they do, God makes Himself visible to us and to others through us. They will know Christ by our Chrsit-like love (Matthew 22:37-40; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8, 14-17).
  3. Pray that unbelievers in Japan and around the world would examine their hearts, repent of their rejection of Jesus Christ, and turn to Him by faith. Operation World notes that in Japan, Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population. May the temporary suffering from Creation’s groanings draw mankind’s attention to eternal life-and-death realities far greater than natural disasters.

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