Natural Disasters and the Character of God

Harvey, Irma, and Jose are the latest in a long list of recent disasters inflicting widespread violence on man and nature.

In 2011, a super outbreak of tornadoes claimed the lives of over 340 people in the Southeast. In Alabama whole communities were wiped off the map. Within a few miles of my home in Tennessee, one family lost relatives from four generations. Only a few weeks earlier, a Japanese tsunami claimed 15,000 lives, and seven years before that 200,000 people were killed in an Indonesian tsunami.

No respecters of property or persons, these disasters decimated trailers, brick homes, shopping centers, and churches, killing people who were young, old, rich, poor, religious, and unreligious. To some people it is evidence that we are alone in a hostile, unsupervised universe that is deaf to our cries and indifferent to our pain. For others, it raises again the question of “why.”

The standard Christian answer, “it’s the consequence of sin and the fall,” can come up short, especially for the victims of nature’s fury. While it is easy to draw a cause-and-effect relationship between man’s moral choices and much of human suffering—diseases, plagues, poverty, and war—man’s culpability for tornadoes, earthquakes, and volcanoes is less than apparent.

So the question remains: Why in a world created by an all-powerful, all-good God, are natural disasters, which cause so much devastation on his creation, permitted to exist? Is God a monster, a klutz, or just an ill-conceived human invention?

Over the last several decades, one of the most striking discoveries in science is the integrated complexity of the universe. The array of physical constants and relationships that give structure to the cosmos are so precise and interdependent that if any were varied but a smidgeon, life as we know it would not exist.

Even bristling atheist Steven Weinberg who is a theoretical physicist admits that the host of delicately balanced parameters is “far beyond what you could imagine just having to accept as a mere accident.” That the scientific evidence points to a cosmos of intention, rather than chance, is unsettling for Weinberg and his ilk of scientistic peddlers—so unsettling that they have had to conjure up stories of parallel worlds and multiverses to keep their thoroughgoing materialism from collapsing like a dying star.

Imagine driving cross-country and stopping in a town you’ve never been. Tired and hungry, you look for a motel, and then,

“There’s one! Just beyond that stop light.” The sign flashes, “VACANCY.”

You pull up, check in, and take the key card.

“Room 1028. Interesting; that’s my birthday, October 28.”

 Opening the room door, your jaw goes slack.

A copy of your favorite painting, Van Gogh’s “Avenue of the Poplars in Autumn,” is hanging on the wall; your favorite aria, “Mio Babbino Cara,” is playing on the radio; there’s a basket stuffed with all of your favorite snacks; the complimentary toiletries are the exclusive brands that you buy; and spread out on the coffee table are the latest editions of Golf Digest, Numismatist News and Skeptic—periodicals that you had been waiting anxiously to read back home.

The set of coincidences is so unlikely that any reasonable person would assume that the motel staff knew you and that you were coming. And yet the coincidences in our cosmic home are far greater in number and in precision. Indeed, researchers have identified dozens of features that have to be just the way they are for life to exist.

By all appearances earth is a place thoughtfully designed for us, except for those sporadic hostilities of nature. But maybe those hostilities were not part of the original creation.

In the biblical record, at each stage of creation God pronounced that what he had made was “good.” The divine utterance suggests that, in its original state, the world was a hospitable place for man and that nature was responsive to man’s nurturing touch.

But after the fall, the world became less hospitable and nature less responsive. According to the account in Genesis, man’s sin led not only to his removal from God’s presence, but to an accursed ground. As the apostle Paul later put it, “the creation was subjected to frustration.”

In a real sense, you could say that sin loosed a moral virus on creation that corrupted it with new limitations: the laws of thermodynamics, which British scientist C.P. Snow summarizes this way:

Law of conservation: You cannot win (that is, you cannot get something for nothing, because matter and energy are conserved).

Law of entropy: You cannot break even (you cannot return to the same energy state, because there is always an increase in disorder; entropy always increases).

Law of absolute zero: You cannot get out of the game (because absolute zero is unattainable).

The laws of thermodynamics make dysfunction, decay, and death a universal condition. Another outcome is that every system, no matter how well designed and engineered, involves trade-offs to achieve its intended function.

For example, the design of high performance bicycle must balance the competing requirements for aerodynamics and light weight with the needs for structural integrity and rider comfort. The features that make a racing bike fast also make it prone to flat tires, bent rims, broken spokes, and its rider more prone to saddle sores.

Likewise, the combined influences of the gravitational, geological, and meteorological conditions that are necessary for the flourishing of biological life make the earth more prone to floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes than a planet not suitable for life. Consider just one of the earth’s features: its 24-hour rotational cycle.

Among other things, the earth’s rotation 1) stabilizes the earth’s temperature, 2) provides global coverage of solar radiation for photosynthesis, and 3) generates a magnetic field that shields the earth from the lethal effects of cosmic radiation. Each of those functions is essential for the fecundity and wellbeing of biological life.

But the earth’s rotation is also what causes curving weather patterns that organize into the spinning air masses of tornadoes and hurricanes. What’s more, as the earth turns it causes friction in the viscous regions of the earth’s core that generates subsurface heat that gives rise to volcanoes and earthquakes.

Birthing pains
St. Paul writes that we groan, yearning for the “redemption of our bodies” so that mortality “may be swallowed up in life.” The universal human desire to transcend the limitations of the present world is a sign that the present world is not what it once was or will one day be. Paul suggests that, like a woman in labor, the whole creation is in the throes of childbirth waiting for redemption.

Thus, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and earthquakes are not the evolutionary products of a godless universe; they are the wails of a creation longing to be “liberated from its bondage to decay” and “for the sons of God to be revealed.”

Regis Nicoll

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Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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