The Problem of Earthquakes

1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey.  Photo Credit: USGS
1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey. Photo Credit: USGS

The problem of evil or suffering in the world has often been used by atheists to attack the idea of the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. Yet, much of the suffering in our world can be traced back to causes related to our free choices as humans. Even natural effects like birth defects in an area might be tied to hazardous waste deliberately covered up in the community, drug use by the mother during pregnancy, or to the use of lead-based paints in an older house, for example. In the first 2 cases we see the suffering was the result of malicious (or at least irresponsible) human activity, while the last one highlights our woefully finite knowledge of the future effects of our actions.

But the skeptic can turn to natural disasters and say that if God exists, these can surely be blamed on Him. We even tend to call them “acts of God” in our insurance policies. If He is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and desires the good of His creation, then surely He has either directly caused these horrible disasters, or known they were going to happen and refused to stop them. The skeptical reasoning then goes that either God is not good, or He is unable to stop these events (and therefore not worthy of being called “God”), or He simply doesn’t exist. It’s hard to see the misery and suffering in the wake of something like the Haitian earthquake of 2010 (magnitude 7.0 – 220,000 dead), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake – 230,000 dead), and not ask “Why?” But while I would agree with the skeptic that this is a legitimate question to ask, I propose an alternative response: that even as awful as things like earthquakes can be, they are actually a necessary part of human existence. Allow me to explain.

I’ve seen occasional comments about the role of plate tectonics (the process that results in earthquakes) in making earth suitable for life for a few years now (like in the 2004 book “Origins of Life” by Dr. Fazale Rana & Dr. Hugh Ross, both Christians), but the always thought-provoking blogger Wintery Knight recently shared 2 non-Christian sources that had come to similar conclusions. One was a 2013 interview with atheist paleontologist Peter Ward regarding his and agnostic astronomer Donald Brownlee’s view on the potential for life on planets outside our solar system. They had written on this in their book Rare Earth back in 2000. In the interview, Ward is asked about the common appeal to the sheer number of extra-solar planets as statistical evidence for life having formed elsewhere in the universe. He responds that “Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.” Tilman Spohn, director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, also views plate tectonics as likely being essential to the existence of complex life on any planet. In 2009, he pointed NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine readers to plate tectonics’ role in 1) the formation of granite, a necessary element in forming continents, 2) the replenishment of key elements essential for life chemistry as we know it, 3) the generation of the earth’s protective magnetic field through formation of convection currents in the molten core, and 4) the recycling of carbon to regulate temperature on the planet. On that last item, it’s worth mentioning, with all of the concern over the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and mankind’s “carbon footprint” over the last few years, that 80% of the natural capture of greenhouse gases is accomplished through plate tectonics as carbon is captured in freshly exposed silicates that are eroded and pushed under the tectonic plates to be recycled in the earth’s mantle. The other 20% is sequestered by plants and animals storing carbon in their bodies, dying, being buried, and eventually being turned into deposits of hydrocarbons (i.e. “fossil fuels”).[1]

Now what is interesting about these proposals is the significance plate tectonics is having in whether non-Christian scientists view a potential alien planet as even capable of supporting life. It seems that as we learn more about the role of tectonic activity in our own world, it becomes increasingly unlikely that simply being in a “habitable zone” of a distant star is enough. Thus, despite the odds put forward of “700 quintillion” exoplanets throughout the universe, and statistically, some other planet surely having evolved life of similar complexity to us, it simply can’t happen without the earthquakes we fear and despise. Instead of being an indication of a cruel, uncaring, or nonexistent god, we are beginning to see that these earthquakes that inflict so much suffering are actually a part of a very special (and so far, entirely unique) habitat that appears to be especially designed to allow our overall flourishing.  Rather than evolutionary chance causing life on earth and potentially other worlds, what we keep running into is very deliberate, precise, design of systems of complex interacting systems indicative of an omniscient and omnipotent Creator.

Lastly, as an engineer, I’d like to point out that the extreme loss of life in the 2 earthquakes cited above should be compared with that in some other significant quakes. Chile has endured earthquakes like few countries in the world, including the largest earthquake ever recorded. But they have also worked hard to develop seismic-resistant buildings. The magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake of May 22, 1960, the largest magnitude ever recorded, killed less than 6,000 people. Chile’s magnitude 8.8  quake in 2010  occurred only a month after the Haitian quake, and was roughly 500 times more powerful, yet less than 600 people died in Chile. Less than 20 people died in the magnitude 8.3 quake in 2015. In the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the 2nd largest ever recorded at magnitude 9.2, 139 people died. Even the devastating 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 killed less than one-tenth of the people that the 7.0 Haitian quake did. While earthquakes are serious business anywhere, their effects can be mitigated. It is good to remember that while these appear to actually be essential to the existence of life on Earth, they are also something we can design for. The experience of the Chileans, the Japanese, and Americans has shown that these major components of our planet’s lifecycle don’t have to be an obstacle to belief in God, for He has also given us the minds to work around these events, and the resources to implement those plans and prevent the suffering so often cited as “evidence” against God’s goodness. In fact, maybe the suffering caused by earthquakes is not so much evidence of God’s inadequacy, as it is our own, in our lack of cooperative development of disaster-resistant construction around the world.

[1] Hugh Ross & Fazale Rana, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2004), p. 215.

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