Tag Archives: problem of pain

Tsunamis and the Problem of Evil

The Wave, or My Destiny, by Victor Hugo, 1857

Last time, I mentioned something I came across while researching new design provisions for tsunami hazards that helped explain why the biblical manuscripts are reliable. But tsunamis often play a more adversarial role as a common objection to the Christian conception of God being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. And it’s easy to see why: tsunamis are natural disasters that typically occur with little warning and can cause massive loss of life. The Indonesian Ocean earthquake of December 26, 2004, and its ensuing tsunami killed over 200,000 people. That’s more people than the entire population of the city where I work. Gone, mostly in that first day. The thought is staggering. But it doesn’t stop there. Those who survive a tsunami are often left homeless, destitute, with nothing more than the clothes on their back. No shelter, no transportation, no food, and no way to purchase any of those things. While many are killed, several times that number are adversely affected, many for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to see that situation and ask, “Where was God then? How could He allow all this suffering?”

That’s really the heart of the so-called “Problem of Evil”: How could a good God let tragedies happen if He is in control, powerful enough to stop it, and not evil Himself? Other cases of human suffering used to exemplify the problem of evil can often be traced back to human malevolence or irresponsibility, both the results of free choices made by humans. Think of the suffering caused by Hitler, or of birth defects caused by someone dumping toxic chemicals into a river feeding a community’s water supply. To eliminate those kinds of evil would seem to require either constant direct counteraction of human free will to negate the effects of our choices, or elimination of our free will altogether. But “natural evil” – events that do not appear to be traceable to humans, but still cause suffering – would seem to lead back to God. Do they incriminate God? Not necessarily. Let me give 3 reasons why I think not.

  • I’ve previously written (here) about how earthquakes actually appear to be a necessary part of the life cycle of earth and how astrobiologists searching for extraterrestrial life are theorizing that plate tectonics would be a requirement of any other planet for it to support complex life. Tsunamis are a necessary byproduct of certain types of earthquakes. The good news is that only subduction zones where  one tectonic plate dives under another (or is subducted) appear capable of producing tsunamis; the bad news is that when one of those faults suddenly displaces a large volume of water, a wave results that will become a tsunami as it nears shore. That’s just the conservation of energy at work. This subduction is part of the continuous recycling of our planetary crust, but thankfully, the resulting earthquakes and ensuing side-effect of tsunamis are not a continuous effect.
  •  God has given us intelligence, creativity, and skills to devise protection from natural disasters. A webinar I watched recently for continuing education was explaining how to design buildings for the severe loadings from waves and debris that occur in tsunamis. We engineers tend to think we’ve covered all our bases when we design a building for wind, rain, snow,  seismic, and maybe even flood loads (besides the normal occupancy loads). But then in a tsunami, your building might actually get assaulted by other buildings swept off their foundations, a flotilla of shipping containers, a small fleet of cars and trucks, or a yacht or two. Objects tend to not stay put, and instead become very heavy projectiles. But the engineer presenting the webinar pointed out that some buildings in the well-documented and analyzed 2011 Japan Tsunami actually did remarkably well. While the economic impact of the Japan tsunami was enormous, the death toll was less than 1/10th of the that of the 2004 tsunami. Well-designed buildings can contribute to reducing the effects of these events. We could take that rather expensive lesson learned and start designing for tsunamis like we do for earthquakes and hurricanes. And while the earthquake-induced wave that will become a tsunami as it nears shore can cross the deeper ocean at speeds of over 500mph, we now have an early warning network established to warn distant areas. This can help provide critical time for people to utilize the best option: evacuation to higher ground. Interestingly, even without advanced technology, one community in Japan was safe from the 2011 tsunami because, after getting decimated by 2 previous tsunamis in the last 120 years, they permanently moved the town to higher ground and erected a stone monument instructing residents to not build below that elevation.  That may not be an appealing option to some, but it was one decision that people could make that saved their lives.
  • Lastly, there are simply some virtues that cannot exist without adversity. Bravery, courage, compassion, empathy, mercy – these are not possible in a perfect world. Isn’t it interesting how people can come together and set aside their differences to help others when a tragedy strikes? We see some of the most beautiful stories of love and compassion and unity come out of disasters. Good times seem to magnify even petty differences and inconveniences in our minds. We focus on our different skin color and culture and language and politics and whatnot so much of the time. But then in times of disaster, we gain an all-too-brief moment of  perspective and are reminded of our similarities. That grieving man holding his dead son,  that woman searching the lists of the dead for her husband, that little brother and sister orphaned and doing the best they can to look out for each other – those could be our family, our friends, us. And strangers become friends in need, and we give money, and blood, and blankets, and clothes, and food, and medicine, and our time, and whatever else we can, to help people a half a world away that we’ve never met. Rescuers work with seemingly superhuman endurance to save just one more person, because every life matters. Many share what resources they can to help; some travel to these places and are changed, and spend the rest of their lives helping others, and inspiring the rest of us. But virtues like these have no outlet where there is no need.

Are tsunamis an indictment against God? I don’t think so.  They are an unpredictable (so far), but necessary, part of our world’s life cycle. Nevertheless, they are also one we can use our God-given minds to mitigate. They put our daily pettiness in perspective, reminding us in graphic terms of the urgency to tell the world the good news of the gospel and eternal life [Rom 10:14-15], and of the command to “love our neighbor as ourselves” [Lk 10:25-37].

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 Forbes.com 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.