If there is a God, why does he allow earthquakes and tsunamis?

When something like the recent earthquake in Japan inflicts destruction and suffering on unsuspecting people, perhaps the most immediate question that comes to our mind is “Why?

Why did so many people have to suffer?

For theists or those who believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God, the more disturbing question is, “Why did God allow this to happen?”  A favorite among atheists and skeptics, this question can be converted to form a philosophical argument called the Problem of Evil.  That is, it seems unbelievable that if an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God exists, He would permit evil and suffering to exist in this world.  As one  famous philosopher puts it:

"Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

Divine Judgment?

Faced with this problem, some people readily pronounce judgments on others.  One example of this is the recently re-elected Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who later apologized for his remark that "We need to use tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time… I think (the disaster) is tembatsu (divine punishment), although I feel sorry for disaster victims." [1]

Another example is Pat Robertson, an American evangelist and host of the TV show The 700 Club, who suggested, in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, that Haiti has been cursed ever since the population swore a pact with the Devil to gain their freedom from the French at the beginning of the 19th Century. [2]

Although it is true that God punishes people for their wrongdoings as He did in the past, it is too presumptuous, to say nothing of insensitive, to express such divine judgments in the absence of an explicit and direct revelation from God.  Even Jesus was careful not to readily attribute greater sin to the sufferings some Galileans experienced. [3]

Difficult but answerable

Other people, while not pronouncing judgments on others, would instead ignore the problem and abstain from giving any possible explanation at all, giving atheists a run for their claim and leaving the confused believer wanting for answers.  Although this is understandable given the difficulty of the question, this should not be the case because there are possible solutions to the problem. 

Jesus, in the above-mentioned account in Luke, gave us one such answer.  Although he refuted the assumption that greater sin necessarily results to greater suffering, he maintained that suffering can be a consequence of a creature's own choice to disobey his Creator. He warned those listening to Him that should they choose not to repent they too will suffer.  He further told through a parable that one's own decision to not bear fruit will also lead to suffering. [4]

Response of Philosophers

There are many possible reasons to why God allows suffering to happen.  One dear friend, a Christian teacher who holds a post-graduate degree in Philosophy from the Philippines' premier university, has done a great job of explaining those reasons in another article.

The reasons proposed by theist philosophers give us sufficient grounds to say that God's existence is not incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering.  The Free Will Defense, in particular, has made many philosophers accept that the logical problem of evil is already successfully solved.[5]  As one prominent contemporary philosopher explains, "a world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all." [6][7]  Indeed, I would rather be loved by a being who could otherwise freely choose to even hate me than to be loved by a robot-like programmed being who had no choice at all but to love me.

On Natural Evil

But what about natural disasters and suffering not caused by humans? Well, it is still possible that free will is involved. That is to say, other personal beings aside from man may have caused these natural events. As my friend says, it is possible that sufferings come about because of the undertakings of a tempter or devil "who delights in turning people away from God and in dragging them to miseries". [8]

It is also possible these natural events are not necessarily bad for they result from natural laws that are essential to our existence.  Scientists explain that earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes are the result of plate tectonics - the movement of the Earth's crusts or plates.  Donald Brownlee, an astronomy professor and recipient of multiple NASA awards, and co-author Peter Ward, paleontologist and professor of Biology, explain the importance of plate tectonics to human life as follows:

"Plate tectonics plays at least three crucial roles in maintaining animal life: It promotes biological productivity; it promotes diversity (the hedge against mass extinction); and it helps maintain equable temperatures, a necessary requirement for animal life. It may be that plate tectonics is the central requirement for life on a planet and that it is necessary for keeping a world supplied with water. How rare is plate tectonics? We know that of all the planets and moons in our solar system, plate tectonics is found only on Earth.... and it may be vanishingly rare in the Universe as a whole." [9][10]

In other words, if plate tectonics is removed, our planet will cease to become habitable and will become like the other lifeless planets in the Solar System.

Unseen ramifications

Just as children do not realize the great value of painful vaccination or dental extraction, we do not really comprehend how natural events entirely affect the ecosystem.  Who knows maybe these seemingly disastrous natural events can in fact have good consequences on the future history of our planet.

It may be that the recent earthquake near the Fukushima nuclear plant was the only effective way for technologically advanced nations to realize the great threat nuclear plants pose.  As what actually happened, many nations such as those in Europe started reviewing their nuclear plans.  Maybe not reviewing the nuclear plans now would cause even greater harm in the future. How do we know?

It may be that only with great suffering would creatures seek for help from the Creator.  We are witnesses to how, in an interview, a Japanese woman from Fukushima sought divine help by saying "Kamisama, onegai. Kamisama, onegai. Tasukete kudasai." (God, please! Oh God, please help me!)

Immense burden on atheists

The point is that we can never absolutely say that the events we consider harmful could not have any justification at all.  As long as it's even possible that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering, the propositions that God exists and natural evil exists are compatible.  The burden lies with the atheist to prove that unjustified natural evil exists.  The atheist has not done so and I contend that he will never be able to do so.

God’s sovereignty and goodness

Perhaps, instead of asking “why”, we should consider asking “why not”?  After all, none of us can really honestly say that we haven’t sinned and don’t deserve to suffer.  Better yet, we should contemplate on why we receive many good things in life, or why we even deserve to be given the free gift of life!

Instead of carelessly blurting out “tama na” (“stop it”) when aftershocks in life come, we should humbly accept the Creator’s sovereignty and silently pray that His will be done.  After all, we who believe in an omnibenevolent God can comfort ourselves with the thought that everything, even suffering, serves a purpose, that, though it is impossible for us to fathom the mind of God, "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him". [11]



[1] http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/03/78168.html

[2] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-12017-504083.html

[3] Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13

[4] Ibid.

[5] Meister, Chad (2009). Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Routledge. p. 134. ISBN 0415403278.

[6] Plantinga, Alvin (1974). The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-824404-5. pp. 166,167

[7] Plantinga, Alvin (1977). God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-1731-9. p. 30

[8] http://ourhappyschool.com/religion/why-are-we-suffering-if-there-were-god

[9] Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, p. 220

[10] Ibid., p. 194

[11] Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 8



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