Christchurch’s second large earthquake measured in at a magnitude of 6.3. So far authorities as are around the number of about 165 fatalities; time will reveal how many there really are. Devastation to the CBD and other parts of Christchurch have been seen by many from photos and video coverage. This last Sunday saw the first Sunday since the earthquake, and here are some of the comments from those who attended Church services about God’s involvement in the earthquake. "God didn't cause the earthquake to happen," (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10709120); "Nature is no respecter of religion, but God is with us as we walk through the valleys of the shadow of death," (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10709143). So what was God’s part in the earthquake? Did He cause it, either directly by a miracle, through the agency of satan, or by overseeing the natural causes? Or did God look on helplessly, and was just another volunteer offering sympathy and presence after the earthquake? Did He know it was coming, could He stop it? Some will even say that this proves that He does not exist; for if a loving God existed this never would have happened.
Who caused the earthquake?
At whose feet do we put the blame for the huge losses and suffering that we are confronted with after the latest earthquake? Are we to blame nature for this event resigning ourselves with the slogan, ‘stuff just happens’? That there is no purpose, no design, and no personality behind this event? That blind chance has called your number? Or will we say that the devil is to blame for all the bad things? That God gets the credit for all the good and the devil for all the bad? The Bible tells us the ultimate cause behind the earthquake is God. Proximate causes certainly may include nature and the devil, but God is the ultimate cause of the earthquake. Let’s allow the Bible to inform us.
Generally speaking the Bible teaches us that all things that happen, happen according to God’s purpose, a purpose that is not informed or compelled by anything outside of Himself and His own good purposes. Ephes. 1:11 (ESV) “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,”. Everything that happens is part of His purpose and plan, otherwise known as His decree. Firstly, the tiniest events in this world are attributed to God’s will, Matthew 10:29 (ESV) “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Apparently random things like the rolling of a dice are part of His purposes, Proverbs 16:33 (ESV) “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Unexpectedly, even decisions that seem to be free are planned by God (Proverbs 19:21), Proverbs 21:1 (ESV) “The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” Those things science claims to explain by natural causes, like lightning, are said to be under His control, Job 36:32 (ESV)” He covers his hands with the lightning and commands it to strike the mark.” There is no area that His sovereignty does not reign over. There is nothing that comes to pass that He has not ordained. This includes calamity and earthquakes.
2 Samuel 22:8 (ESV) "Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Psalm 60:2 (ESV) You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair its breaches, for it totters.
Isaiah 13:13 (ESV) Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. Isaiah 24:18-20 (ESV) He who flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit, and he who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare. For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.  The earth is utterly broken, the earth is split apart, the earth is violently shaken.  The earth staggers like a drunken man; it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. Isaiah 29:6 (ESV) you will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. Amos 3:6 (ESV) Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it? Nahum 1:5-6 (ESV) The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it.  Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
There should be no doubt in your minds that God is responsible for this earthquake. There is no other teaching that can be found in the Bible. However, some will want to argue, and perhaps even quote Scripture. They would possibly point to Job and how the devil used natural disasters to destroy his property and all his children. However even in Job, although the devil is the secondary cause God is the ultimate cause. We hear this from Job’s own mouth, Job 1:21 (ESV) And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Job 2:10 (ESV) But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Notice who Job credits with the calamities, it is God.
This means that there are several ways of thinking about the earthquake that are unbiblical. Firstly, to say that God did not cause the earthquake is wrong, of course He did. Those who say this usually want to present God as good, and cannot see how crediting God with the earthquake would defend His reputation. Secondly, to skirt the issue of responsibility and speak only of God’s presence and comfort in the aftermath, but say nothing of His purposing of the act is theological cowardice. Thirdly, to say that it was the devil with no accounting of how the devil is God’s devil, and that he is God’s instrument to bring about His will, and is firmly under God’s control, is once again avoiding the issues. Fourthly, to say that it was nature, and not speak of God’s control over nature is once again failing to tell the whole truth. These answers to the questions raised by the earthquake are inadequate and dishonouring to God. I am sure that they are spoken with good intentions wanting people to believe in a good God, but they are in fact misrepresentations of God. In these wrong understandings God is portrayed as nice but unable to stop the earthquake. A God who is at the mercy of the laws of nature like you and I are. One who is no match for the devil and can do no more than a volunteer helping to comfort in the aftermath. To say that God is the cause of the earthquake naturally gives rise to all sorts of questions, it is to these questions that we will turn next.
Why does a loving God will suffering?
Now that we have established that God is the one who controls all things, and does all things according to His will, we are left with a number of questions. Why does God allow suffering? Why does He will suffering? Why does He use earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, floods, etc. to inflict mass destruction and pain? Some might want to conclude, “If God exists and He is the one who caused the earthquake, then He is someone I do not want to know”. Many do not want to give God the credit for the earthquake because these are some of the questions that naturally arise. Friends we have no need to hide from the truth, there are wonderful and glorious reasons why God does these things. We may not get to see all His reasons, but His word does give us some insight into the why questions.
Firstly, let's deal with the question that is on everyone’s mind: is God punishing Christchurch for their sins? Is an earthquake a form of punishment? The answer to this is, yes and no. The word has very clear examples of God using natural catastrophes to punish sin. The obvious examples are, the flood (Genesis 6-8); Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19); most of the 10 plagues in Egypt (Exodus 7-11), etc. The link specifically between earthquakes and judgement are also very clear, (2 Samuel 22:8; Isaiah 13:13; 24:18-20; Nahum 1:5-6). One of the visions of the final judgement is seen as an earthquake like no one has ever seen before (Revelation 16:18). So we should make the connection between earthquakes and judgement.
This is certainly one of the ways God has worked, does work, and will work. However, this thought must also be balanced out with what Christ said in Luke 13:1-5 (ESV) “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Let paint in the context. Jesus has been doing a lot of teaching, and at the end of chapter 12 he begins to talk about judgement. Firstly, in v49, then He talks about their ability to predict weather by the signs in the sky, v54-55, but then rebukes them for being hypocrites for not being able to judge what is right and speaks to them of judgement for their hypocrisy v59 (notice the word ‘you’ and ‘your’ throughout the context). Now imagine it, Jesus has just called these people hypocrites and sinners in no uncertain terms, they are uncomfortable and want to show their innocence and point to a scapegoat. So they point to some victims of a dictators actions. They share the event of how several Galileans died a cruel and unholy death at the hands of Pilate. They betray their self righteousness and they betrayed their view that all human suffering is linked to the judgement of God, and that if anyone suffers, like in an earthquake, it must be a judgement upon their sins. Since they are not suffering they think they must be good. Jesus knowing the self righteous and judgmental attitude of this people, who saw everybody else’s sins except their own, rebukes them and turns their attention away from others sins to their own. He tells them that unless they repent, they too will perish (v3, 5).
So as we try and process what the connection is between sin and the earthquake, here are our first two thoughts. 1. God does use earthquakes to judge sin 2. Don’t think that because you haven’t been in an earthquake like that, that you are not a sinner.
Yet there is more that we need to say about the connection between earthquakes and sin. Firstly, there were believers that were affected by the earthquake, and if none died in this one, there have been earthquakes where believers have died. Does this mean that they are somehow being judged? If earthquakes are judgements on Christians, what about justification? Secondly, there are thousands of earthquakes that occur in places where no people live like under the ocean, in mountains, etc. Can these be judgements when there is no one around to provoke them? These examples show that we should not make a categorical statement that every earthquake is a judgement of God. We can say that God does judge using earthquakes, and perhaps that this one, as many have been in the past, and one day will ultimately be in the future, was done in judgement. But we must acknowledge that not all earthquakes are for the same reasons. In Acts 4:31 we see an earthquake being used by God to demonstrate His power to His church. And in Acts 16:26 we see that God used an earthquake in the events leading up to the conversion of the Philippian Jailor. God’s purposes are extremely complex and He will have as many purposes as there are people, and future outcomes that He intends from this earthquake. I don’t think it is our job to untangle every purpose of God in this event, but speak of His general purposes, and use it as an opportunity to point people to Him. If we follow Christ in interpreting and using these kinds of disasters, this is how we connect the thoughts of sin and disaster. Firstly, we use them to point to the reality of the final and future judgement against sin. Christ pointed us to the final judgement from this token judgement. Secondly, we highlight the universality of sin. And that there is nobody who should not be judged in this same way. Thirdly, the need for all to repent, not just those in Christchurch. This warning is to the world not only those in Christchurch. Perhaps you may feel that my view is a little congested, and seems to vacillate. However, I am deliberately trying to avoid two extremes. The one view which Jesus Himself rebukes in His response to those who spoke of those who died at Pilates hand. It was this mindset as well that asked whether the man born blind had been born that way because of his own sin or another’s (Jn 9). The other view to be avoided is the one that does not allow earthquakes and present judgement as part of God’s plan.
Let's think of those who might object to this and what they might say. The primary objection runs along these lines: How can a loving God hurt so many good people? There is a wrong assumption in this question, the wrong thought is betrayed in the wording. The wrong assumption is that there is anyone who is ‘good’. The bible tells that there are none that are good, but all have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:10-11, 23); and that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). The initial response to this is, ‘No, the people in Christchurch were not all criminals, there were some nice people there, some who did voluntary work, and gave to charities.’ Here is how the bible responds. Yes they are criminals, they have broken God’s laws, just as you and I have. In our sin we have set up alternative governments to rule our lives ignoring His right to rule over us. In our little kingdoms we are our own self appointed kings, and we live by whatever morals suite us. If we choose to be nice or bad, the decision is ours, we do not do it for His sake. The very canvass that we paint our lives on is one of independence and rebellion against God, treating His rule and laws over our lives as optional. And as we compare ourselves to God’s standards, we see that that we are not merely a little sinful but very sinful. Every act not done for the glory of God is sin (1 Corinthians 10:31). As we examine God’s standards we see that He desires perfection of those who would seek to be in His presence (Matthew 5:48). And if we view our lives in light of what God expects both inwardly and outwardly, we are very sinful. He charges those who hate with murder (Matthew 5:21-22); those who lust as adulterers (Matthew 5:28); those who commit what we would call a ‘small’ sin coveting, as idolaters (Colossians 3:5). By these standards we have all broken all of the 10 commandments. So the ‘good’ that we do is disqualified by the default position of our rebellion, our good deeds are rejected like Osama Bin Laden’s valentine cards to the families of the victims of 9/11. Even if we could be perfect from this moment on, which we cant, we would still have the problem of our past sins which would need to be paid for. Our only hope for being accepted before God is by receiving the free forgiveness that He offers us in the person of His Son. Jesus died on the cross to pay our sin debt that all the charges against us would be dropped. On account of His death there is an amnesty offered to all who will disband their self ruling governments and repatriate as citizens of the Kingdom of God, swearing allegiance to King Jesus. If we would see our sin as God sees it we would never say, ‘Why has God hurt these good people?’, there is no one good, no not one. It is only people who see themselves as good and undeserving of judgement who look up to heaven in tragedies like this and accuse God of being bad.
It is the task of the Church to show the world that we are bad people looking up at a good and holy God, and that we should fall down in wonder at why we are not all dead, and an earthquake ravaging our lives on a daily basis. If we sue for justice from God when things like this happen then we are asking that God should stop being patient (2 Peter 3:9) with our rebellion and execute us quickly as we deserve. This earthquake is a reminder of the judgements that God has the right to bring upon us at anytime and we would fully deserve it. Now is the time for us to marvel at a God who is so Holy and so powerful, and yet who withholds His hand and does not pour out the full power of His wrath but only a 6.3. God’s final judgment against sin will be the most devastating event ever, words are not able to define the horror, the terror, and the pain. It is merciful for God to give us a small, managed, partial judgment that will cause us to fear that final one and flee to Christ from it. At a time like this we should say, ‘Why have you treated us as we don’t deserve?’ But not as the unbeliever who is blind to their own sin means it. We view it as a mercy that He has given us more time to repent, more time to find refuge in Christ, we truly are living on borrowed time.
Perhaps some might want to say that God is not very merciful, or at least He does not appear to be. Let me end this part of our discussion by talking about Christ on the cross. Jesus was born to die. When we look at Jesus dying on the cross we are looking at the only pure, raw, unrestrained, full vent of the wrath of God against sin experienced in time. The flood was not total, Sodom and Gomorrah was not total. Even those disembodied souls in the intermediate state have not had to endure standing before God dressed in their sin, before His withering and all seeing holy gaze. The next time you will see such a total and unrestrained punishing of sin will be when the devil is called to stand before God’s throne, with all who imitated him in his rebellion. God is merciful, and does not enjoy punishing sinners. He has proved His mercy by sending His Son to suffer the punishment that sin rightfully deserves so that we might not have to suffer it. When you look at Christchurch, or any other token judgment, always remember this is not all of God’s wrath. There are two times when that is poured out. In the past upon Christ, or in the future at the final judgment. God is offering us a place of refuge, an ark in the flood of His judgment, in Christ. Let all who have been awoken to the reality of their sin and God’s wrath against it seek refuge in Christ. The earthquake is not an embarrassment that needs to be explained away. It is not portraying a God who is too angry that we need to make up excuses for. No, this is a token judgment which is a mercy. It is a reminder of what is coming and point should point us to Christ as our only hope. Let this remind you of the seriousness of sin, the reality of judgment and the need to quickly accept the gift of mercy that God supplies to those who do not deserve it. God’s mercy is demonstrated in this that He stepped into time as a man, He suffered more the full vent of the wrath of God, more than any other human has yet suffered. He did this to pay for our sin that we might escape that terrible judgment. Added to this He sends painful tokens of that final judgment that looms that we might repent and return to Him, not only escaping death and judgment, but entering into His family and the enjoyment of eternal blessings. There are few that would say that this is a time to praise God, but it is! Our Christian response is with praise and adoration not embarrassment.
(I was hoping to say more about how God uses suffering in His purposes. To demonstrate, how suffering is used to take the Gospel forward; discipline the believer; sanctify the church, wean us from this world, etc. But I think we have answered the biggest questions. I would also liked to have outlined a right response on the part of Christian’s in terms of loving our neighbour; evangelising; weeping with those who weep; our part in ecumenical efforts to help in the rebuilding, etc. But time and space will not allow.)
Pastor Nick Clevely