Recently, Sight Magazine asked me to post a response to a reader’s question about how the Fall cracked the tectonic plates that caused the Haiti earthquake. Myself and Mick Pope were asked to provide a 200 word response. Such a brief response was quite a task for such a major question, and a couple of days ago I mentioned that I would be putting up a more detailed response. Well here it is. I started off by suggesting that the question is based on a wrong premise, that is, why must we assume that it was the Fall that cracked the tectonic plates?
I recently came across a book called Creation Untamed by Terence Fretheim which puts forward a convincing argument about how we can reconcile natural disasters with a loving God. The book starts by suggesting what Genesis really says about the creation.
The automatic assumption by the vast majority of Christians is that the world was perfect before the Fall, and that when the earth is renewed at the end of all things, creation will be restored to its pre-Fall state. However Genesis does not say that at all. It says that God created the world ‘good’; nowhere does it say that the world was created perfect (and what is ‘perfect’ anyway?). Even when God made humans He said we were made ‘very good’ but again we were not made perfect. For instance, God told Adam to name the animals and to subdue the earth. The fact the earth needed subduing suggests that it was not made perfect. As well as this, after the Fall, God said to Eve that her labour pains would increase, not begin; the implication being that the birth process was already a painful one.
If we take it that natural disasters occurred as a result of the Fall, then we are faced with only two possibilities that I know of to explain why God would allow these to happen:
1. The earth really is only about 10,000 years old. This would correlate with the idea of the Fall being the cause of all natural disasters. With this idea you could also say that the Fall had cosmic consequences which would explain events such as meteors crashing into the earth.
The problem with this proposition though is that the idea of a young earth flies in the face of the opinions of the vast majority of the world’s best scientists. I am totally committed to the authority of the Bible, but I am convinced that it is not meant to be used as a scientific text book. There is overwhelming evidence that evolution over many hundreds of millions of years is the process by which life developed on earth. When we are presented with such evidence, it is our interpretation of the Bible which must adapt. Please understand that I am not questioning the authority of the Bible; what I am questioning is our interpretation of it.
2. God is not loving. If we accept that the earth is indeed about 4 billion years old and that humans came onto the scene relatively recently in comparison, then we have to deal with the problem of natural disasters happening before humans appeared. It is widely accepted for instance that the dinosaurs were wiped out as a result of a giant meteor crashing into the earth. If this is indeed what happened, then, as an atheist colleague said once, what did the dinosaurs ever do wrong that God would destroy them? You could say that God destroyed them as part of the whole plan of preparing the world for humans. Maybe, but we are still faced with the problem of explaining why natural disasters occurred before the Fall.
The inevitable question that arises from all this then is that of why an all-powerful, good and loving God would create the earth without it being perfect. The answer as I see it goes to the very heart of who God is. What if God wanted us to participate with him in the creation? God is a relational God and his greatest desire is to be in relationship with us his creatures. This approach makes a whole lot of sense and explains some of the difficulties faced when dealing with issues like natural disasters.
I wonder if our struggle to reconcile the fact of natural disasters with our belief in a loving God is misplaced. I wonder if our penchant for believing that the universe must have been made perfect in terms of everything being in proper order comes not from a proper belief about God but from a post-Enlightenment idea that is based on a scientific and mechanistic view of the world. Biologist Darrel Falk, in his book, Coming to Peace with Science, suggests that God is more of a creative artist with a passion for relationship than a designer or some sort of engineer.
The main passage in the Bible that is used to explain the consequences of the Fall is Romans 8. This is the passage in which Paul speaks of the creation groaning as in the pains of childbirth.
Having read it a number of times, I don’t see anything in Romans 8 which explains that the creation’s groaning is a result of the Fall. Rather, this passage sees Paul alluding to the anticipation of the new creation. The creation is eagerly awaiting being set free from its bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children (Rom 8:19-21).
As well as this, Jesus’ resurrection is the forerunner to the new creation to come. Therefore everything we do now matters. Our acts of care, for both people and the rest of creation, will have their place in the new creation at the end of all things. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 8, not the consequences of the Fall.
Having said that natural disasters are not a consequence of the Fall, I do believe that our human sinfulness nevertheless can contribute to such disasters in a significant way. With the effects of climate change, we can even say that, as the IPCC has declared, there is a 90% likelihood that our human activities are contributing to some of what are still called ‘natural’ disasters. I would now call many events such as extreme floods and bushfires both natural and man-made disasters, due to the detrimental effects our pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is having on the earth’s climate.
Our human sinfulness, brought about by the Fall, also contributes greatly to the effects of natural disasters. I would presume that we would generally only call such an event a disaster if there were human casualties. For instance, if there was a major earthquake in a region of the world where there was no human habitation, then there is less likelihood we would call it a disaster. In fact, if we take earthquakes as an example, many scientists argue convincingly that plate tectonics are essential for the continuation of life on earth, and that life would probably not have originated without plate tectonics. This is a far cry from them being a result of the Fall, and shows that they don’t necessarily have to lead to a disaster.
Regarding Haiti, which was a major disaster as a result of an earthquake, a link could be made between the huge death toll there and the fact of human sinfulness in that it is often the poor who are forced to live in such vulnerable places. If you think of the vast majority of natural disasters that happen, it is overwhelmingly people in poor regions of the world who are the victims. For example, the Christchurch earthquake was just as powerful as that in Haiti but no one died in Christchurch, probably in part because they had better infrastructure. The only natural disasters I can think of in recent memory which inflicted heavy loss of human life in affluent areas were Hurricane Katrina and the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. And you could say that the majority of victims of Katrina were low income African-Americans.
The issue of God and natural disasters is a difficult one for those of us who believe in the loving God of Jesus. I don’t claim to have answered it here, and some readers will probably find flaws in the arguments I have put forward. Part of the life of faith is accepting that ultimately there is mystery. But two things we can say. One is that, as C.S. Lewis once said, when we face God on that final day, one of the things we will say is “oh, now I understand”. The other is that, as N.T. Wright has said in response to the question of why God doesn’t seem to intervene, He already has in the resurrection of Jesus. Through Jesus’ bodily resurrection we have the hope that one day there will be no more disasters that cause untold suffering for millions of people. We have the hope that there is coming a day when there will be no more tears and no more pain (Rev 21:4). Until then we can respond with the compassion of Christ when such events happen, following Him into the place of pain to bring healing and the hope of a new tomorrow where all is well and we will thank God for all He has done.
Thank you for this clear explanation and thought-provoking article. I particular like your challenge regarding the post-Fall human activities’ contribution to damaging God’s creation. I also agree that the creation account in Genesis is not intended to answer our scientific questions today. But I have questions around this statement:
“If we take it that natural disasters occurred as a result of the Fall, then we are faced with only two possibilities that I know of to explain why God would allow these to happen.”
The “two possibilities” you mentioned are around the age of the earth, and in the latter you state that “God is not loving” if the first is not true.
My question is: Given the fact that Genesis 1-3 has nothing to say about science (ie. it does not say anything about the age of the earth – and I agree with it), then it seems to me that the age of the earth simply does not have anything to do with the question of why God allow disasters to happen.
In other words, the question regarding the age of the earth contributes nothing to the question of why God allows disasters to happen. (And so, why do you bring this issue out?)
I am no expert on the issues around climate change and I certainly am not an expert on the Old Testament. But my sense is that people in the ancient world didn’t worry about the age of the earth (which I assume you will agree), and hence they would have answered the question without considering the age of the earth either.
The Old Testament does refer to earthquakes, famine, plagues, and even a flood. Some of these references are found in passages concerning Israel, and some concerning other nations (and some concerning all humankind). I think we should take a good look at those passages. (And I haven’t done that yet.)
Regarding Romans 8, it is true that Genesis 1-3 are not mentioned directly. But I wonder what happens if we are a devout Jew like Paul, or if we were very familiar with the Old Testament like Paul? When the word “creation” is mentioned, would we have linked it to other references to the creation in the Old Testament? We need to remember that the ancent people lived in an oral culture. What we can’t see (by reading) in Romans 8 may well be something that is easily invoked in the mind of people in an oral culture (when they heard the letter sent by Paul).
Going back to the question regarding why God allows disasters to happen. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that even the original creation was not perfect (which is a good observation, I think). But then do you mean that God created an imperfect world in which earthquakes and other disasters would have happened anyway? If that is the case, God designed the original creation in such a way that people would have died innocently of disasters anyway. Why does God allow that to happen? Your answer seems to be that humans are to participate with him in creation. I agree with this as a matter of fact – ie. God does want us to participate with him in creation. But still it seems that innocent people do die innocently because because the creation is not good enough. Do you mean that we have to accept that God is in a way not loving enough to ensure that no innocent humans have to die?
Sorry if I haven’t read your post carefully and hence have missed something or misunderstood something. Please let me know what you think.
But I am in fundamental agreement with you on most points, especially the fact that there is a mystery. “I don’t understand” is often better than forcing an answer from the Bible.
My sense is that Romans 8 does invoke memories of the Genesis account of creation. (Many scholars who believe in caring for the earth would agree with me here.) But it does not have to imply that it is the Fall that brings about disasters like earthquakes. What we do know is that the creation groans and we groan in our present sufferings, according to Romans 8. We all await the final renewal of all things. My sense is that people in the ancient world were deeply aware of the connection between God (and the gods), human behaviour, and the so-called natural disasters. It is our post-enlightenment and scientific thinking that finds it hard to link sin with suffering. But at the same time the Jewish people realised that innocent and righteous people did suffer. The fact that there are 42 chapters in Job is significant! It is one of the longest books in the Bible! Likewise Habakkuk called God’s justice into question. And at the end of the book the prophet embraced suffering and disasters.
Both these books are cited by Paul in Romans. Isn’t it amazing?
My sense is that Paul finds answers in Christ himself – and at the same time he still sees God’s working as amazing and hard to understand – and he says that by citing Job in Romans 11.
If any Christian thinks that disasters are a result of non-Christians’ sin against the Creator, they must read Romans 2 again – God is impartial and Christians cannot claim moral superiority. Yet at the same time I wonder whether we can claim that we can categorically say that there is no connection between sin and disasters. I would have thought that all ancient people – including ancient Jews in the Bible and in the inter-testamental period – would make such a connection. And only modern Westerners find it hard to make such a connection. (I know that others today make a very rigid connection, which is equally problematic.) Having said all that, as followers of Christ we only have one option when we see people suffer from disasters: To love them rather than judging them. None of us should judge, and only God is the Judge. All of us should love without judging.