Three weeks on, the Haiti earthquake has begun to drop out of the news. the UN is beginning to get its act together and aid is starting to get through. A litle distance also gives the opportunity to think further with a bit of perspective.
The first thing is to put the event into some kind of context. Despite the tragedy, this is no unique event unheard of before, but just one of many natural disasters which occur with some regularity.
The earthquake that led to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed 230,000 people. The earthquake in northeastern China in 1976 took 240,000 lives and left 164,000 injured. This is not the worst earthquake in recent history either. A quake in Chile in 1960 measured 9.5 on the Richter scale, whereas this one reached only 7.
Although such a disaster makes us feel vulnerable, under threat and at the mercy of forces beyond our control, a wider perspective like the one we’ve just noticed is significant. When devastating events like this happen, we are shocked, because into our quiet, secure, relatively controlled lives comes this invasion of deadly havoc. It seems as if things are out of control, chaotic and random. And yet even though it may sound harsh, while nearly 200,000 died, 10 million Haitians didn’t. The earth shook a few millimetres on its axis, but it didn’t crumble into space. 240,000 died in China in 1976, but the other 5 billion did not. Now this isn’t an exercise in compensatory theological maths, nor (heaven forbid) an attempt to justify the disaster, but it is simply to point out that from a theological perspective, while there is a measure of instability to nature, there are also limits on it. The stories of survivors are not just heartening – they are theologically very significant.
We find this theme in the book of Genesis. The flood (as it does in other ancient myths) wipes out most of the known world, but not entirely – Noah, his family and their animal crew represent those who survive and God’s refusal to give up on his creation. Moreover, God promises never to allow such a drastic flood again. Despite ongoing natural disasters, the rainbow becomes a sign of the ultimate stability of nature (Gen. 9.13-16). Although nature threatens to destroy us, it is held back, held in check by an even more powerful God.
A world with no moving tectonic plates means no mountains, no variety of landscape and no continents on which to live and plan a future. A world with predictable weather means a world without the majestic beauty of an Atlantic storm, the imposing power of glaciers or the vastness of deserts. The balance of climate and conditions needed to sustain life and variety on a planet such as this is very, very fine indeed. A little colder and we descend into an ice age. A little hotter and the planet burns up. Disasters like this alert us to the awesome power of nature. They also remind us of how in the grand scale of things the world is a remarkably stable and finely tuned place in which to live. Even though it can sometimes seem so, nature is not ultimately out of control. God remains faithful to his world and the people in it, by not allowing the earth to be destroyed and his creation undone.
But although earthquakes don’t make the earth break into a million meteorites, they do still cause death and heart-wrenching destruction to some on our planet. Nature is not out of control; neither is it completely benign. The question nags at us again: why?
In the world of the Bible, nature is not a part of God, an extension of his being and so worshipped as divine, as most ancient near eastern religions suggested. Instead it exists independently of God, simply because God chose to create something different from himself. Nature is not God and while we respect it, we certainly do not worship it. Moreover, it begins as something ‘formless, empty and dark’ (2.1) and the process of creation is described as God shaping, moulding and bringing something good & beautiful and life-giving from that empty darkness. The world exists against a background of nothingness – of destruction - which always threatens to undo what God has made, and return it to the chaos from which it came. The author of Genesis doesn’t try to explain the nature or origin of chaos, he just assumes it. And he presents God as the one who brings order out of disorder, something out of nothing.
Disasters like this remind us of the chaos. The destructive power of the earthquake took communities, lives, businesses and families and reduced them to nothing. It was destructive, not creative. It reminds us of the nothingness from which God has created life and beauty and order. It reminds us paradoxically of the miracle of life and existence, the very goodness of being here at all.
When Jesus was asked a question, he often replied with a question. And the Christian answer to the question of ‘why does God allow suffering’ is another series of questions. Why is there anything here at all? Why does the planet and the life upon it survive? Why is life so precious to us? Why is the world in fact a remarkable stable and finely balanced place to live? And why is God apparently still so concerned with it despite its pain, he sends his only Son that we might have the life he intended for us?
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