Making Sense of Natural Disasters

All Things Examined

Three days after Easter Sunday, 288 tornadoes churned through a section of the southeast, claiming the lives of over 340 people. By the numbers, it is the worst outbreak of twisters since 148 tornadoes caused 304 deaths in 1936.

In Alabama, whole communities were wiped off the map. One aerial photograph shows a mile-wide swath of destruction stretching out as far as the eye can see. A marine with two tours of duty in the Mideast called the devastation “worse than Iraq.”

Survivors tell of loved ones snatched violently from their clasp, swept up and disappearing into a black vortex of debris swirling in excess of 175 miles per hour. Within a few miles of my house in Tennessee, one family lost relatives from four generations. In Alabama dozens of people are still missing. Hundreds have been left homeless in a six-state region.

And yet the human tragedy, so crushing, so heartrending, and so close to home barely registers on the same scale with the recent tsunami in Japan, much less the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. Those disasters claimed in excess of 15,000 and 200,000 lives, respectively.

A recurrent question

Young, old, rich, poor, religious, unreligious; trailers, brick homes, shopping centers, churches. This storm was no respecter of persons or property. For some people it is further 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 claim hundreds to hundreds of thousands of lives, permitted to exist? Is God a monster or merely a klutz?

A striking discovery

Over the last several decades, one of the most striking discoveries in science has been 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.

Theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg is a bristling atheist who admits that the host of delicately balanced parameters is “far beyond what you could imagine just having to accept as a mere accident.” Stated differently, the scientific evidence points to a created rather than a chance cosmos. And that is an unsettling fact for Weinberg and the peddlers of scientism, so unsettling that they have had to conjure up fictions of parallel worlds and multiverses to sustain their commitment to materialism.

By all accounts, our cosmic home appears to be a creation intentionally 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 put it thousands of years later, “the creation was subjected to frustration.”

In a real sense, it was a matter of cause and effect. Adam and Eve’s rebellion loosed a moral virus into the world that corrupted everything it touched. Once infected, the creation was “frustrated” with a new limitation: the laws of thermodynamics. British scientist C. P. Snow summarized the laws 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.

A balancing act

The design of a 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, as compared to a leisure bike, more prone to flat tires, bent rims, and 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 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 harmful effects of cosmic radiation. Each of those functions is essential for the fecundity and well-being 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 cyclones. What’s more, as the earth turns, it causes friction in the viscous regions of the earth’s core, which generates subsurface heat, whichgives rise to volcanoes and earthquakes.

Birthing pains

Paul writes that we groan, longing 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.

Tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and earthquakes are the wails of a world that longs to be “liberated from its bondage to decay” and “for the sons of God to be revealed.”

Easter, the central event of history that Christians around the world recently celebrated, is a declaration that the longings of creation and the human heart will be satisfied. He who foretold His death and resurrection promised, “Because I live, you also will live.”

Eyewitness reports of the tomb that contained grave clothes that were orderly, intact, and body-less testify that His prediction was valid and true, and because it was, we have every confidence that He will make good on His promise. But in the aftermath of the South’s devastating storms, perhaps it is the Incarnation, rather than the Resurrection, that offers the most immediate comfort to the victims of nature’s groanings.

For over three decades, the Creator subjected himself to the same “frustrations” suffered by his creation. During that time, Jesus experienced the full range of human need and emotion: hunger, thirst, fatigue, fear, sorrow, loneliness, alienation; and at the end, he was brutalized by his enemies and abandoned by his closest companions.

Because He lived among us as one of us, not excepting himself from our frailties, we know that He understands us, and walks with us. While the universe may be deaf and indifferent to our plight, its Maker is not. His parting promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” assures us that he is with those who suffer and those who mourn and those who are afflicted and persecuted.

To people who wonder where God was during the tornado outbreak in the South: He was in Tuscaloosa, Cherokee Valley, Apison, Ringgold; He was and is in every corner of the world where tears are shed, blood is spilt, and hearts are broken. Such is the Good Shepherd who walks with his sheep in the darkest valleys of human experience.

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at centurion51@aol.com.

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