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].