In light of the tragic Kahramanmaras earthquake, apologist Dr Sharon Dirckx shares her thoughts on how we reconcile the idea of a good and powerful God with the presence of natural disasters
The number of deaths in the Turkey/Syria earthquake has surpassed 46,000 – a scale and intensity of disaster that is hard to comprehend from the seismically stable UK. Rescue efforts are winding down, but some are still holding on in desperation that their loved ones will be found at the eleventh hour.
For many thousands, this is merely the beginning of their journey of grief. Of coming to terms with profound loss in just a few short minutes. Villages have been reduced to rubble. Families decimated and landscapes obliterated as far as the eye can see. Children have been orphaned and mothers left childless. The tragic death of footballer Christian Atsu is a reminder that every person buried beneath the rubble has a face and a name.
‘Act of God’?
When a natural disaster strikes all kinds of questions can arise. If God exists, then why do they happen? Some argue that such widespread and needless suffering surely goes against the grain of belief in a God who claims to be good and have power over the forces of nature.
Other kinds of large-scale disaster, such as the devastation and trauma wreaked by wars and conflict around the world are no less easy to watch. But, at their heart, they are less complicated to explain. People can be cruel to each other and are capable of unspeakable violence. The approaching one-year anniversary of the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder that human beings use their freedom for good and ill.
But catastrophes such as earthquakes are different. Natural disasters seem to happen in-spite of humans, not because of them. Our insurance policies protect us against ‘Acts of God’. Is this what they are? But what kind of God sanctions an earthquake? Surely not one worth pondering? If God has the power to part seas and calm storms, then surely he could stop them happening? Or better still, create a planet without them altogether?
Geology and geography
Geologists would remind us that the Earth’s crust is segmented into tectonic plates and the same tectonics that cause earthquakes are also crucial for fostering and sustaining life on Earth. The process of subduction (one plate sliding beneath another) is known to be vital for recycling carbon and other minerals from deep within the Earth, back to the surface.
We also can’t ignore the fact that the stunningly beautiful mountain ranges that we climb up in the summer and ski down in the winter are also created by plate tectonics. Some may argue, of course, that even stunning beauty is a high price to pay for bodies crushed beneath buildings. Yet geographers remind us that mountains themselves also play a vital role in the hydrological cycle, delivering water to rivers that provide vast areas with water.
None of this helps us with the question of where God is in a natural disaster. But it does show that the question of whether there could have been a better world is more complex than it might originally seem.
What if we remove God?
What are our options for making sense of natural disasters if God does not exist? If God does not exist, then this is just the way the world is. The universe we inhabit is a closed system of cause and effect, and the laws of nature acting upon matter. Tectonic plate collisions release shock waves and where a person happens to be at that moment is just luck of the draw. Some people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Statistically speaking, there are half a million earthquakes every year, and although only 100 are strong enough to cause any damage, chance alone can explain why every so often there will be a big one.
The sciences describe events in the natural world with elegance and insight, but they don’t answer our deepest questions about natural disasters. Nor do they help us to make sense of why our inbuilt response is not simply to accept the natural way of things. In the face of disasters, we get angry, we grieve, we object, we rail against it.
To call something a ‘disaster’ is to make a moral judgment, to imply that something is wrong with the world, that things could or should be better than they are. What kind of universe makes best sense of this morality? Is it a godless universe from which moral sentience is an unexpected anomaly? Or a universe that has been moral from the beginning because it was brought into being by a good God? Perhaps unexpectedly, our grief, sadness and anger at natural disasters are not a pointer away from God, but towards him.
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God with us
Where is God in a natural disaster? And what kind of God are we talking about? My new book, Broken Planet, relays stories from those on the front line of humanitarian efforts and rescue work. Time and again they share of how God, in the person of Jesus, has been present with them as they have gone to be present with others in deep brokenness and tragedy.
There are no easy, nor neat-and-tidy answers. But the Christian story is that God relates to the people he has made, not by sending information about how to cope with disaster, but by entering human history himself. To be with us and help us in all of our pain and grief, and especially if our worst nightmares come true. The basis of humanitarian aid and helping others in times of disaster, finds its roots in the incarnation.
Jesus has come to us, but we can also choose to go to him. He is someone to whom we can take our anguish and trauma and does not ask us to ignore it, nor bury it. Jesus is all too acquainted with sorrow and grief and has suffered like us and for us on a brutal Roman cross so that we can come to him in every tragedy and know his comfort, peace and very real help even if surrounded by chaos and carnage.
Where is God in a natural disaster? He is right in the midst of the mess.
A future hope
History records that the time of Jesus’ death and the time of the stone being rolled away from the tomb three days later, were both accompanied by earthquakes. Is this just coincidence or is it pointing to the centrality of that first Easter in human history? I’m drawn towards the latter – that the death and resurrection of Jesus were Earth shattering events that command our attention.
If it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, then natural disasters and the suffering they cause are not the end of the story. The Bible speaks of a time in the future when God will make everything new and will wipe every tear from our eyes. A time in which the brokenness and disaster that we see today will be put right in ways that go far beyond anything we can imagine or that can be captured with words. And the darker the disaster here and now, the brighter that day shines. There are surely some traumas that only the unrelenting and eternal presence of God will be able to comfort.
Will there be earthquakes in heaven? Some say there won’t, and nature’s brokenness and need for tectonics will somehow be fixed. Others say that there will be earthquakes, but that people will no longer be vulnerable to and harmed by them. Either way, it will not be a ghostly, floaty existence somewhere in the clouds. The Bible speaks of a future reality that is not only supernatural, but also every bit as natural as the one we currently inhabit. Christians don’t believe they will go to heaven, but that heaven will come to Earth and that the suffering caused by natural disasters will come to a decisive end. If that is true, then there is hope for us all, and especially for the people of Turkey and Syria.
Dr Sharon Dirckx is a speaker, author and former scientist. Her new book, Broken Planet, is published with IVP: https://ivpbooks.com/broken-planet.
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