First things first.
When Christians see suffering they feel empathy. We too have bodies (Hebrews 13:3). Therefore, love commands, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
Then comes aid. We want to help relieve human suffering—all of it, especially eternal suffering:
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).
And that includes enemies:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27);
If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink (Romans 12:20).
But sooner or later people want more than empathy and aid—they want answers.
Proclamation and Power
When love has wept and worked, it must have something to say about God. It doesn’t need to have all the answers. Only God does. But it has the Bible, and the Bible is not silent on this matter.
No earthquakes in the Bible are attributed to Satan. Many are attributed to God.1 This is because God is Lord of heaven and earth:
He commands even winds and water, and they obey him (Luke 8:25);
He sends forth His command to the earth. . . . He gives snow like wool; He scatters hoarfrost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before His cold? . . . He makes his wind blow and the waters flow (Psalm 147:15-18);
He looks on the earth and it trembles . . . touches the mountains and they smoke! (Psalm 104:32);
[He] shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble (Job 9:6).
Earthquakes are ultimately from God. Nature does not have a will of its own. And God owes Satan no freedom. What havoc demons wreak, they wreak with God’s permission. And God has reasons for what he permits. His permissions are purposes. That's the point of Job 1-2 and Luke 22:31-32.
God does nothing without an infinitely wise and good purpose:
He is wise and brings disaster (Isaiah 31:2);
The Lord is good (Psalm 100:5);
All his works are right and his ways are just (Daniel 4:37).
Therefore, God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heart-rending calamity in Japan on March 11, 2011 that appears to have cost tens of thousands of lives.
Indeed, he has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age:
How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33);
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Yet there are possible purposes revealed in the Bible that we may pray will come to pass:
- The end-time earthquakes in the book of Revelation (see above) are meant as calls to repentance—to warn people who deny Jesus Christ that a day is coming when unbelievers will cry to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16).
- The end-time earthquakes in Matthew 24:7-8 are meant to be interpreted as “the beginning of the birth pangs.” That is, they are a wake-up call to this world that God's kingdom will soon be born. So be alert and prepare to meet Jesus Christ.
- God's unilateral taking of thousands of lives is a loud declaration that “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). The message for all the world is that life is a loan from God (Luke 12:20) and belongs to him. He creates it and gives it and takes it according to his own will and owes us nothing. He has a right both to children (2 Samuel 12:15) and to the aged (Luke 2:29). It is a great gift to learn this truth and dedicate our lives to their true owner rather than defraud him till it is too late.
- The power felt in an earthquake reveals the fearful magnificence of God. This is a great gift since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Most of the world does not fear the Lord and therefore lacks saving wisdom. The thunder-clap summons to fear God is a mercy to those who live.
- When the earth shakes under our feet there is a dramatic sense that there is no place to flee. In most disasters the earth is the one thing that stands firm when wind and flood are raging. But where do you turn when the earth itself is unsafe? Answer: God.
And let us pray that in this catastrophe the Lord fulfills two other purposes:
- That Christians repent of worldliness. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
- That Christians in Japan and around the world would step forward with extraordinary, sacrificial love to show more clearly the mercy of Christ who laid down his life in the midst of the Father's judgment. The suffering and death of Jesus Christ for the sin of the world is the one place where empathy, aid, and answers meet. He invites everyone to come for all three.
O how fragile this life is. The world, and all its life-sustaining processes seem so sure and solid. They are not. One thing is sure and solid:
Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28).
1 2 Samuel 22:8; Isaiah 13:13; 24:18-20; 29:6; Psalm 60:2; Nahum 1:5-6; Revelation 6:12; 8:5; 11:13-14; 16:18
(This post is adapted from what I wrote August 18, 1999, in response to the earthquake in Turkey that cost 17,000 lives.)