The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 changed everything. In minutes this thriving, affluent city was brought to its knees. Roughly 50,000 people died. The sky turned black. Fires raged. Then tidal waves washed over the port, drowning hundreds more.
Later, Voltaire wrote a poem challenging the prevailing view that this was a divine act of judgment. “Whilst you these facts replete with horror view, will you maintain death to their crimes was due?” he penned, adding, “Can you then impute a sinful deed, to babes who on their mother’s bosoms feed?”
Voltaire did not challenge the existence of God. He simply asked what kind of deity would create a world with such design flaws. It’s a question other great thinkers of his day dared to ask as well – a question taken up by today’s angry atheists and carried to the extreme conclusion that God does not exist.
The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in 2004, and a similar disaster that struck Japan in 2011, are more recent examples of what may be described as natural evil. While many atheists concede that moral evil exists in the world, the idea of natural evil seems to prove either that God does not exist or, if He does, He is not a compassionate, all-powerful God worthy of worship.
Not so fast.
It is only in the last century that modern science has discovered the cause of earthquakes: plate tectonics, or the movement of giant masses of rock beneath the surface of the earth and the ocean floor.
As these colossal plates move and bump into each other, they sometimes rupture the surface of the earth, causing earthquakes. When these collisions take place beneath the ocean floor, the result is seaquakes followed by tsunamis.
In their book Rare Earth, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee observe, “ours is still the only planet we know that has plate tectonics.” They further show that plate tectonics is a “central requirement for life on a planet.” It’s also largely responsible for differences in land elevation that separate the land from the seas.
But there’s more. Plate tectonics recirculates carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and without carbon dioxide we would not have life.
Dinesh D’Souza writes in What’s So Great About God?: “The whole tectonic system serves as a kind of ‘planetary thermostat,’ helping to regulate the earth’s climate and preventing the onset of scorching or freezing temperatures that would make mammalian life, and possibly all life, impossible.”
Plate tectonics also aids the formation of minerals deep in the earth and their availability near the surface.
Finally, the tectonics system makes possible the earth’s magnetic field, without which earth’s inhabitants would be exposed to cosmic radiation.
So, in a sense, we owe our existence to plate tectonics and the earthquakes it produces. Of course earthquakes often cause great destruction and claim the lives of many people. These are real tragedies that must not be minimized.
Creation’s labor pains
However, to make the leap from tragic consequences of natural disasters to accusations that God is aloof, petulant, or non-existent isn’t fair. People die of heatstroke and skin cancer but that doesn’t make the sun – or its Creator – our enemy. Fires often devastate property and take innocent lives, but without fire many technological advances such as smelting metals would not be possible.
In addition, floods and hurricanes cause tragic death and destruction, but these natural disasters would be impossible without water, without which no living creature could survive.
The point here for Christians is not to concede the atheist’s viewpoint, or to admit that God is fallible simply because natural disasters occur with great force and frequency.
It’s true that something is wrong with the created order – and this has been the case ever since the Fall. Paul writes, “the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now” (Rom. 8:22).
But it’s also assuring to know that God works through our unbalanced world – and its tragic outbursts – to protect and preserve life. He may choose to use nature as an instrument of judgment, as with the sons of Korah (Num. 16:32). But mostly he works through the sinful and fallen world in which we live to keep it in check for our benefit.
This column first appeared April 22, 2014, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.