Why Does God Allow Tsunamis and Massacres?

In recent days the headline news has been about governments killing their citizens and an earthquake and tsunami taking thousands of lives. These tragic events naturally raise the question, How can God let such things happen? What does Scripture say?

Luke 13:1-5 reports that Jesus was asked a similar question. When people came to him troubled by tragedies of the time, he answered in a way that is at once surprising and disturbing:

“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'”

Although we have no information about these events other than what Luke tells us, Josephus reports other acts of violence by Pilate against subjects who resisted his will.  The fall of the tower of Siloam may have been due to an earthquake, faulty construction, or both.  In principle, if not in magnitude, these incidents resemble Qaddafi’s violence in Libya and the disasters in Japan.

Why would God permit such disasters?  Jesus rejects the explanation that probably came first to the minds of his hearers.  These victims were not worse sinners than anyone else.  Superficial biblical interpretation might have led to this conclusion.  The Old Testament clearly teaches that sin will be punished and it was expected to occur in this life.  For example, King David’s adultery and murder of Uriah brought terrible consequences to him and to his family (2 Sam 12-20).  Israel’s idolatry and injustice eventually brought military defeat, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and exile from the promised land in 586 BC, just as Deuteronomy and the prophets foretold.

While Jesus’ audience assumed that the victims must have specially deserved the fate that befell them, modern audiences might assume the opposite, that the victims are innocent.  But Jesus does not say that the victims were innocent.  Rather he warns, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  The anomaly, Jesus implies, is not that they were judged, but that so far you have been spared.  Repent, while opportunity remains!

In saying “you will all likewise perish,” Jesus speaks figuratively as he often does. He does not literally mean that all who do not repent will meet an untimely death.  Rather Jesus identifies these tragedies as signs warning of a far greater disaster that could overtake anyone of us, judgment and the loss of eternal life.

Jesus doesn’t address some of the questions that bother us.  What about the innocent children who may have been among those who died?  What about those who already repented? When will unjust rulers be held accountable?

But Jesus has implicitly answered these questions, when he teaches in the preceding chapter “do not fear those who can kill the body” but rather fear the one “who has the authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:4-5).  Unlike many people today who measure everything in terms of this life, Jesus presupposes the eternal perspective, the resurrection of the dead, and the justice of God.  The repentant who have died tragically will rise again and receive their reward. Everyone else who has survived to the present will not escape punishment, unless they repent.

The message of these tragedies, Jesus says, is to summon all to repent.  Every human being must be converted or suffer eternal loss.

What does it mean to repent? The Greek term for repent, metanoeō, means to change one’s mind. Jesus refers to the fundamental decision to do God’s will rather than one’s own.  Luke’s Gospel makes the meaning more concrete through examples.  For example, in Luke 3:8-14 John the Baptist insists that repentance entails right conduct or “fruits in keeping with repentance”—specifically, renouncing wrongdoing and sharing one’s goods with the needy.  The woman who wept on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair shows that repentance entails faith and receiving forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50). Zacchaeus shows that repentance is marked by celebration, making amends, and extraordinary generosity, and that it results in salvation (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus teaches that it causes the angels to rejoice (Luke 15:7, 10). It is what the prodigal son does, but the elder brother refuses to do (Luke 15:18, 28).  It is what the tax collectors and sinners do, but the scribes and Pharisees do not. It is what one thief does and another does not.

Jesus does not say that God directly causes these tragedies.  In the case of political violence, the sinful choices of human beings are obviously responsible.  In the case of natural disasters, the fallen created order that results from human sinfulness malfunctions to harm rather than serve human life (Gen 3:17-19; Rom 8:20).  Nevertheless, God makes use of these evils to announce a warning that can lead to salvation.

An immense wave far greater than the one that struck Japan is rushing toward the whole human race and all that we hold dear.  According to Jesus, for every person the difference between eternal salvation and eternal loss is repentance.  May the tragedies in Japan and the Middle East lead us repent.  May they lead us to pray for, and insofar as we are able, to persuade others to repent as well.

POSTSCRIPT

It’s one thing to know repentance is necessary, the point of Jesus’ warning and today’s post.  It’s another to show someone the way to repentance.  To see the gracious way that Jesus did it, see next Sunday’s Gospel from John 4, the subject of the next post by Dr. Mary Healy.  Or read the rest of Luke!

16 Comments

Filed under current events, Peter Williamson, Uncategorized

16 responses to “Why Does God Allow Tsunamis and Massacres?

  1. patt

    We are always directed to keep our souls in the state of grace. for we know not the hour that we’ll be called for an accounting..

  2. Pingback: TUESDAY MORNING EDITION | ThePulp.it

  3. Shelley

    God gives us the choice to follow Him and choose Him, or choose the Devil. You cannot serve two Gods. Japan worships Budah (sp?) and they worship and cherish some of their volcanoes. They have done wrong by all accounts.

    Please do not think I am judging them or any other country or person that chooses to worship idols and the devil. This is their choice, they made their bed and now they will have to lie in it. They made the wrong choices.

    Plus, if anyone decides to pick their Holy Bible and actually read and study it, they will find that everything I am saying is correct. NOW is the time to get your act together and choose where your going and who you will follow. There is not an “afterlife via re-incarnation”, YOU ARE GOING TO HEAVEN OR YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!!!!! These two things are YOUR choices. There isn’t anything else. You all need to change your ways and follow Christ! Otherwise, you will spend eternity in Hell. Why would you gamble your life to end up in hell??????

    We ARE living in the end times…read Revelations in the Holy Bible and have someone explain it to you if your Bible doesn’t offer explanations. Time is running out before the rapture comes, and you had better be prepared and ready!

    I hope that you all turn to God, become a TRUE Born Again Christian, start following Him and worshiping Him, confess every sinful thing you’ve ever said, done and thought and ask Him for His forgiveness. Invite Him into your heart as your Lord and Savior and thank him for dying (after being tortured) on the cross for YOU and that you believe he was raised from the dead 3 days later! PRAY AND PRAY TO HIM NOW, YOU MAY NOT HAVE TIME LATER ON TODAY!!!!!!

    No matter what you’ve done in your life, God loves you so much and he will forgive you for ANYTHING! A sin is a sin, one is not worse than other!! God created you in His image and he does not want you to suffer in hell for eternity! YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL AND YOU ARE SPECIAL!!!! Pray, pray to Him now!

    Reverend Shelley

    • John Campbell

      “Rev. Shelley”
      Suggest you consider learning some basic Catholic theology.

      • nica

        so…New Orleans and other coastal areas affected by katrina have same GODS as Japan??? and Shelley seems to be so judgemental !! before Jesus wa born Japanese people and other civilizations already existed…many didn’t hear EVER about Jesus or OUR GOD…so…they all are bad??? I don’t understand that….also my first daughter died right after birth, never baptized…where is her soul now??? I have prayed to get more faith….but I am too confused !!!
        HELP!!
        granny Nica

      • Peter S. Williamson

        Dear Nica,

        Shelley seems not to have understood Jesus’ explanation in Luke 13 that the victims of such disasters are no worse sinners than the rest.

        Furthermore, we know that God who desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4) doesn’t leave anyone deprived of the chance for salvation. There are some who respond to the light they have been given, incomplete as it may be, and live according to conscience, whom we may confidently hope God will save through the grace that is in Jesus, even if they do not yet know him.

        The same goes for your unbaptized daughter. The Lord has undoubtedly heard with mercy the prayers you have offered for her. In accord with the practice of Jews before the time of Christ (2 Macc 12:42-46), the Catholic Church has always believed in prayers for the dead. St. Paul also taught that the children of believers are consecrated (1 Cor 7:14), and even though the Church has not continued the practice, Paul did not criticize baptisms for the dead (1 Cor 15:29). How much more hope is appropriate in the case of a child who never personally committed a sin?!

        May God bless you and your family.

      • Mike Kelley

        Dear Granny Nica in compassion for your love for your baby here is a new idea about that mystery of what happens to newborns who soon die. Jesus says Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Who is more poor in spirit than a new born not yet capable of yes or no to God? that’s why Catholics baptize their infamts as their parental representatives like they take a baby to a doctor rather than waiting for the baby to go to a doctor on their own.
        I think you can trust your baby’s all good Creator to accept your desire and intention to baptize your child when possible as equal to doing it. With no proof ot it I think your child’s Savior likes you to have faith in his goodness that he is able to save your child while not being subject to human interpretations of his word. Figure God has figured out a way to give eternal life to babies incapable of saying yes or no to God.He does it for the aborted.Is God a mean giant who sends babies to hell or to some nether world playground? Or is he a God like Jesus who says Let the children come to me for of such is the kingdom of God. Those kids listening to his stories probably were not baptized yet. So trust our Lord’s mercy that he is still taking care of your now perfectly healed baby who now takes care of you prayerfully in love.for you.

  4. greenwasabe

    “…so that we may be happy with him in the next.”
    This weekend, I attended the Los Angeles Archdiocese Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, CA. I heard that death is a promotion (for the faithful), not a punishment. “Not so for the wicked, not so…”

  5. Thank you for your article…it really helps see deeper into an issue that is far too vast for us to really comprehend. I posted a similar blog a little while back (but from a slightly different angle). Here it is if you are interested:

    http://justingridveritasluxmea.blogspot.com/2011/03/christian-response-to-natural-disasters.html

  6. Mary Pat Coatsolonia

    Where can I go for more information on “fallen created order that results from human sinfulness ” from Scripture or anywhere? I suppose it goes back to the Fall. Any verses refer to it specifically? At the flood?

    • Peter S. Willliamson

      Hi Mary Pat,
      The two texts I point to in the blog are the foundational ones: Gen 3 and Rom 8:20. The Catholic Catechism speaks of this connection in paragraphs 400 and 1608, and there are some additional biblical texts there.
      I’d also recommend the link by Justin, the person who commented before you. His excellent post addresses this subject.
      Finally, I’d point to the fact that Scripture speaks of “a new heavens and new earth” that God intends, indicating that something needs to change with the creation that we’ve got. See Isa 66, 2 Pet 3, and Rev 21-22.
      Hope this helps!

  7. Thank you for this article, Dr. Williamson. Many young people in my religious education class were asking about this very topic. One young man was so sure that it was God’s way of punishing the people of Japan. Reading Lk 13:1-5 to the class and talking about the points in your article really helped them (and me) to see that it’s not up to us to judge (period). Before we speak a single word of judgment, Jesus is telling us to look at ourselves. Atrocities and natural disasters help the rest of us in the world to refocus our lives on what is truly important. They serve as incredible reminders that we need to be prepared – there’s no time to waste. I pray for God’s mercy on ALL those who have died in the recent disasters and in battles …and I thank Him for this very moment in life where I have a chance to repent.
    May God bless the authors and commentators on this blog…

    • Peter S. Williamson

      Thanks for your excellent comment emphasizing (1) it’s not up to us to judge others but to examine ourselves, (2) we’re called to pray God’s mercy on all who have died and who suffer as a result of recent events (and help in any other way we are able), and (3) to thank God for the present when we have a chance to repent.

      Thanks for your encouragement and blessing.

  8. I have had many disasters in my life, and I used to blame them on God. However, now I know that God didn’t really want us to live on Planet Earth, but rather in the Garden of Eden and Heaven. Our sinfulness is what makes us have to live on Earth. Nature can be a friend or a foe; natural forces act the way they do because of the laws of physics. My attitude is not to worry too much about the circumstances of our lives, but rather give thanks to a God who is making it possible for us to live in a perfect place: Heaven. If we just bear with whatever misfortunes we may have, and realize that it is only the Kingdom that God reigns over, and not Earth, we would change our attitudes and be happy. Life is short and then, if we are decent people, we go to Heaven. Heaven is our forever home, not Earth. Who cares about Earth when the gate of Heaven is now open?

    • Peter S. Williamson

      Dear Victoria,

      Don’t give up on earth so fast! The Garden of Eden was on earth. And according to Isa 66 and especially 2 Peter 3:13 and Rev 21:1-3, God’s plan is to recreate (renew) the earth and bring the New Jerusalem down from heaven to earth!

      In other words, heaven–if we define it as the place where God dwells–will be forever joined to earth. Our final destination will be a renewed earth where God dwells with his people, heaven on earth.

      Bottom line: earth matters. It’s suited to us human beings who are embodied spirits. But it is certain that the law of physics in the new earth will bring none of the sorrows of this present earth, temporarily subjected to frustration according to St. Paul (Rom 8:20, NIV).

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