March 11, 2011. An ordinary day in northern Japan. Schoolchildren, in uniforms by now a bit crumpled from post-lunch play, had returned to their workbooks. Businessmen had hit that sleepy part of the afternoon when it becomes hard to stay alert before a stack of spreadsheets. Construction workers and drivers couldn’t slow down— they were moving and shaping the materials that kept the wheels of commerce turning. In factories, the first shift was glimpsing the end of their work day; happily, they would soon pass their replacements coming in as they were going out.
None of them knew—how could anyone have known?—that at that very moment something horrible was happening deep under the sea, out of sight, beyond detection. Two massive tectonic plates of earth were grinding against one another with immeasurable force. Masses of tectonic matter that were not in themselves malevolent—natural processes—nothing more.
But at about 2:45 p.m., they changed the world forever. Those vast, impersonal chunks of terrestrial material, with their thousands of years of accumulated tension, could hold their grip no longer. When the tension released, though it took but seconds, the result was devastation on an awesome scale.
Of all of the living creatures in the natural world, those who experienced it most profoundly were human beings—we odd, sometimes wise and good, sometimes astonishingly stubborn and stupid, group of mammals who have been given, by our Creator, the task of shaping and managing the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28). It’s a job we’d done well—too well, we’ve begun to realize, for we’ve occupied and built upon (and, in not a few instances, despoiled) every landmass. By most measures, the planet’s most successful creatures, we live thickly upon land, sea, and even in the air.
But here, in Sendai, Japan, on March 11, 2011, at 2:45 p.m., we, the world’s master builders, met our limitations. As you know, a 9.0 earthquake not only shook our works into smithereens; it followed up the shaking with massive waves of water that washed miles inland, sweeping away homes, cars, trees, and people. As clever and intelligent and powerful as we humans are, we were helpless when the ground gave way and the sea broke its bounds.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake will go down in history as one of the greatest natural disasters of all time. In its wake we human beings, having been designed to reflect on such things, try to understand our pain and loss. We struggle to find answers. The survivors wept rivers of tears as corpses—but minutes before alive, talking, laughing, loving— were pulled from the sea or unearthed from the rubble.
And on everyone’s mind, no matter their other occupations in the wake of the tragedy, was this question: Why?
Answers that aren’t
Designed by God with both emotions and reason, compelled to find answers, we immediately began to talk about the tragedy. Some of us expounded the scientific facts. We calculated forces and effects. We noted the height of the wall of water and the location of the fault. We calculated that the quake moved portions of Japan 13 feet closer to North America. Some parts of the Pacific Plate moved as much as 65 feet west—one of the largest fault movements ever recorded. The powerful shaking actually shifted the earth’s axis by some 6.5 inches, speeding up the earth’s rotation and permanently shortening each subsequent day by 1.8 millionths of a second. Global positioning system (GPS) directions and property boundaries in Japan will have to be recalculated as a result of the quake.
These scientific facts aren’t without usefulness. They’re part of a jigsaw puzzle of causes and effects that might help us survive some future disaster. But they are of little help to the mother who has just found her toddler dead underneath what was once the wall of her house. She doesn’t want to know why the earth shook. She wants to know why her baby is dead, why her heart is empty. No scientist can tell her.
Religious people of all stripes began to overlay their own explanations. And while God is in this as He is in all things, we sometimes veer off course. Some of us began to speak as though we knew the very mind of God—as though we knew why it happened now, and who was being punished.
We human beings had been warned early on about our limitations in explaining God’s creation. God challenged Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand” (Job 38:4). As much pride as we feel in our abilities to figure out this old earth, there’s only so much we are able to know. At some point, we hit our limits. Nor are we adept at reading God’s intentions: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” Jesus said of His Father (Matthew 5:45). And if the beneficent, why not the tragic? Indeed, some of the best people in history have suffered, through no fault of their own. Case in point: Jesus, the best Man who ever lived.
It would be safe to say that when it comes to tragedies, great or small, we, with our limited comprehension, will never completely understand why. It may be that such things can be known only to God—and, “Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor?” (Isaiah 40:13).
But there are some things God has made clear. And while they won’t immediately erase the hurt, they help us to begin healing and find peace.
Jesus told a parable about a farmer who planted good, clean wheat in all of his fields. But when the seeds began to sprout, he realized that mixed in with his wheat were harmful weeds. He hadn’t planted weeds; what farmer would? Then where did the weeds come from? “An enemy did this,” explained the farmer (Matthew 13:28).
Here is something we suffering humans must understand: God never intended the tragedy and pain we know in this world. The Bible makes it clear that He made everything, including the moral and physical underpinnings of the universe, perfectly good (Genesis 1:21). But an enemy got in, an angel turned evil called Lucifer, and ruined God’s perfect creation.
It’s tempting to blame God when things go tragically wrong. But it isn’t God’s fault. He created a perfect earth. It isn’t perfect now. The reasons why He lets it continue are complex, but it involves a rebellion in heaven, our first parents joining the rebellion, and God’s need to let sin run its course so that He might never be accused of taking away His creation’s freedom of choice.
God never intended this world to have 9.0 Richter scale earthquakes. And someday it won’t.
Once some self-righteous religious men tried to tell Jesus that a man’s blindness was someone’s fault, that his parents had sinned, or even that the blind man himself had brought on his blindness by his own sins— presumably in the womb, since he was born blind! Jesus would have none of it. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus said. “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). Then Jesus displayed the works of God in a spectacular way: He healed the man so he could see!
God won’t interrupt evil until it has run its course. But He can push back against the damage Satan does. When on this earth, Jesus healed thousands with but a touch or a word. “As long as it is day,” Jesus told the religious leaders, “we must do the work of him who sent me” (verse 4).
We may never completely understand why bad things happen to innocent people. But we do know this: He acts through us. This may surprise you, but the best response to the Tohoku earthquake wasn’t from the mouth of a reporter, philosopher, or preacher. The best response came from those who went to work to help the people who needed help. Those who manned ambulances, lifted debris, cared for the wounded, brought food and clothing to those who’d lost everything; those who comforted the grieving, or just wrote a check and slipped it into an envelope addressed to some organization that was doing those things. Through each of these acts, God’s goodness was shining. They were doing God’s work as surely as if they’d done it for Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:40)!
A world without earthquakes
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” reported John as God gave him a vision of the future (Revelation 21:1). New—and better. “God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (verses 3, 4).
And if there will be no more death, crying, or pain, then there will be no more earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, either. Not to mention the end of cancer, war, starvation, crime, and the thousands of other things that trouble our peace. We, the inhabitants of this wounded old world, will live in it, restored to the way God made it in the first place.
There’s no entirely satisfactory answer for our why questions now. But we do know that someday it won’t be this way.
Where was God?
Religious leaders have tried to give explanations for the Japanese earthquake.
We quote four of them below:
- Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good
People, said, “Natural disasters are acts of nature, not acts of God. God
cares about the well-being of good people. Nature is blind, an equal opportunity
- The Reverend Tesshu Shaku, a Japanese religious leader, said, “We don’t
think God caused this, according to the Buddhist way of thinking. . . . The
cause of this earthquake is the friction between the North American Plate
and the Pacific Plate.”
- The Reverend James Martin, Jesuit priest and
culture editor of America magazine, said, “For
the believer, there is no satisfactory answer
for why we suffer. . . . But the idea of God
suffering along with us can be very helpful.”
- And Dr. Sayyid Syeed, a Muslim religious
leader, said, “These sort of natural disasters
become the collective responsibility of
all mankind to mobilize our compassion
and resources to ease the pain of the
people who have suffered.”