Where is God when the earth quakes?
I’m writing this as the devastating consequences of the recent earthquake in Italy are becoming shockingly clear. Hundreds of people have died amid the shattered villages and hamlets. Mourning families grieve the loss of parents, wives, husbands and children. Amid the beautiful, mountainous surroundings of Amatrice, there are repeated stories of human devastation and loss. There is the death of an eighteen-month old child, whose mother is a survivor of the nearby earthquake in L’Aquila in 2008. There are the holidaymakers who had just arrived the previous day to enjoy a food festival in the town and the young family who were killed when the church bell tower collapsed onto their home. Amid these tragedies, I find myself asking again, where is God when the earth quakes?
Italians are perhaps more used than most Europeans to these ‘acts of God’, but is that truly what they are? If you don’t believe in a personal God, then such events are just the tragic result of blind physical forces. But as a Christian, I do find myself asking how a loving God could allow such events to happen. Is this a form of ‘natural evil’ or should God be held personally responsible? Christian responses can only be tentative, and matched with extending love and compassion to those in need. As in our own individual lives, many of God’s purposes will remain hidden. There are, however, several avenues that the Bible opens up for us in thinking and praying about these events.
First, that God is the maker and sustainer of all creation. Psalm 24 speaks about the earth being the Lord’s and everything in it. The beauty of the surroundings of Amatrice reminds us of the wonder of living in God’s world. We live in a world whose forces are incredibly nely tuned and intricately balanced. The same physical properties that led to the earthquake in the early hours of 24th August are the very ones that make all life on this earth possible. God has not suddenly become so weak that earthquakes happen beyond His grasp. Earthquakes remind us of the fragility of human life, but they’re also a reminder of the vast and complex forces which God sustains on a daily basis for our good.
Earthquakes are also a sign, however, that God’s world is marred and broken. Moses writes that the whole earth is cursed because of the slime of human sin that has contaminated creation’s relationship with God (Genesis 3:17). As a result, Jesus suggests that God has allowed disasters to reflect the consequences that sin continues to have on individuals, creation and society (Luke 13:4). Often these disasters reveal in fresh ways our human sinfulness in greed, corruption and exploitation of the poor. Paul writes that all creation is groaning in expectation of the day on which Jesus will complete His victory over sin and the world will be made new (Romans 8:22-24). The Bible tells us that an earthquake will be part of that final ‘day of the Lord’, when Jesus comes as King amid the fall of all human cities (Revelation 16:19). That last earthquake will be a sign that the brokenness of the earth will be finally healed.
Finally, the Bible shows us a God who is not absent amid human disaster, but who is very present. Every human being is known and valued by God. All people matter to Him (see Matthew 10:29-31) and He knows what it is to suffer and grieve (Isaiah 53:3). Martin Luther put it this way: When you look around and wonder whether God cares, you must always hurry to the cross and you must see Him there. In the face of disastrous events we are driven to prayer, to ask Jesus to help those in need and to bring many to trust in Him. Equally, as God gave His life for us, so we are called to give our lives in love for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16).