The following is a revised version of my original post about a little over a year ago: "A Biblical Perspective on Haiti." Much of the same questions and comments we saw over the current situation in Japan resemble those formerly discussed with Haiti.
Everyone is aware of the tragic earthquake that has ravished the nation of Japan and left mass amounts of destruction in its wake. The number of losses are still coming in. Several agencies and organizations have already begun to send aid to the country. The responses to the news of the disaster have varied. As with every major catastrophe witnessed, various questions have emerged with endless answers given. As with the tsunami in India, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the earthquake in Haiti a little over a year ago, many question God's role in this situation and His purpose if any. Some are tempted to claim this as a sign of God's judgment. Others do not believe that God was even in control of the earthquake at all. How should we understand the massive event that occurred just a few days ago? Following are some things I believe we would be wise to avoid in forming our perspective of the earthquake and its aftermath.
We must be careful not to err by failing to recognize God's sovereignty in the event.
The Bible cannot be clearer that God is fully sovereign and in complete control over all things, including natural disasters such as earthquakes. Paul tells us that God works all things after the counsel of His will. This all things would include the earthquake that devastated Japan. In fact, Amos points out that If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it? (Amos 3:6). This is part of a series of questions posed to get the people of Israel to see that God's judgment was certain. Just as no calamity or natural disaster can occur in a city without God doing it, God will not promise judgment without bringing it about as Amos has proclaimed (v 2). To say that God was not in control of the earthquake would be unbiblical. It would mean that the earthquake exerted power over God and He could not stop it. Instead, God is described as actively in control of all nature. He is the one who rained hail down upon Israel's enemies in Joshua's battle at Gibeon (Joshua 10:11-12) and has the power to both give and withhold rain (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1; 2 Chronicles 7:13; Matthew 5:45). God is in control of all the weather and orchestrates it as He sees fit. A single rebellious molecule cannot be found in existence.
We must be careful not to err by declaring a purpose that God has not explicitly revealed.
One of the first things that many people do when such a natural disaster strikes as what we are witnessing in Japan is to declare it to be God's judgment. We saw this with Haiti when Pat Robertson claimed that the earthquake was God punishing the nation for a "pact with the devil" that they had made. While it is true that God does judge both individuals and nations, both in ways currently as well as ultimately in the future, we need to be careful in being presumptuous in regard to this recent disaster. This could be God's wrath upon the nation of Japan for their sins but He also could have other purposes for the turmoil. Ultimately, we do not know for certain God's plans in bringing about this disaster as well as how He intends to reveal Himself in the earthquake's aftermath. After all, God states through Isaiah that "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, / Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / So are My ways higher than your ways / And My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). Scripture counsels use to be careful in proclaiming something that God has not explicitly revealed. The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29). God clearly brought the earthquake about for His intended purpose, whether that be for judgment or other wise reasons. We cannot say with certainty God's purpose without a direct word from Him and God has not specified the reason for this specific occasion in His revealed Word.
We must be careful not to err by failing to recognize that we deserved this calamity just as much as the people of Japan.
The major question asked in the wake of this earthquake has been "Why Japan?" A similar question was asked pertaining to Hurricane Katrina in regard to the people of New Orleans as well as India with the tsunami and just last year with the people of Haiti. What did they do that deserved such a disaster? In fact, Jesus was asked a similar question about 2000 years ago recorded in Luke 13:1-5. While speaking to a large crowd, a group informs Jesus about an atrocity which Pilate had committed. The exact situation is unknown to us today but we can infer that it had something to do with a slaughter of Jews during their sacrifices. Not only was this a terrible occurrence, but it took place during worship which made it even more horrendous. Jesus realized right away the question that they had concerning this issue. They thought that this plight was the result of them being greater sinners than all others. However, Jesus sought to turn their perspective completely around.
Instead of agreeing with their assumption, Jesus took the focus off the victims and placed it on the questioners. The reason this group was slaughtered was not because they were greater sinners. The ones who were killed were no more sinners than the ones commenting concerning them. (Note: This does not necessarily mean that the events God permits or causes to occur are always punishment for specific sins. John 9 makes it clear that, while a result of the curse of sin, not all infirmities and incidents are due to specific sins.) Those who died in the tsunami, in Hurricane Katrina, as a result of the earthquake in Haiti, and now those in Japan were no more sinners than those of you reading this note as well as the one writing it. We deserved the same! I will never forget a powerful sermon my pastor preached right after the tsunami a few years ago. He told us that the question is not "why them?" but should be "why not us?" We didn't deserve God's mercy to not have the tsunami happen in America, or not have a massive earthquake wreck havoc on the West coast. As Scripture tells us, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We get so used to God's mercy we have problems when He shows us His wrath.
Jesus actually warns the crowd of an even greater fate, much worse than what happened with Pilate and the latter example of the falling of the tower of Siloam. Unless they repent of their sins, they will perish (Luke 13:3,5). This is Jesus' urgent plea to those who are lost in sin. Repentance means a turning from sin. It is the flip side of faith. One turns from sin in repentance and then turns toward Christ by placing their faith in Him due to the work of God's grace. The likewise may refer to the sudden and unexpected death of those in the Temple and at Siloam. Those who went to the Temple that day to offer their sacrifices did not realize that they would not be returning home. The possibility of the tower falling on the group in Siloam probably never occurred to them. Likewise, if the crowd does not turn from their sins and turn to Christ they will suddenly and unexpectedly (to them) experience the punishment for their sins. The author of Hebrews tells us that it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). We must not focus more on Japan's sins and forget the many sins that plague our nation but even more importantly, our individual lives. We deserve God's wrath just as much as Japan and anyone else.
We must be careful not to err by failing to pray for all those involved and affected by the devastation that occurred in Japan and helping them out in any way possible.
Even if this is God's judgment upon the nation of Japan (and we have no way of knowing this apart from a direct word from Him) we must not neglect to help them in their time of need. The Bible does call us to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18). In fact, it is referred to as the second greatest commandment, next to you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind (Luke 10:27). Jesus describes His true sheep as the ones who "fed," "clothed," "cared for the sick," and "visited those in prison" (Matthew 25:31-46). While none of these actions saved these He will gather to His right, they do show evidence of His saving work in their hearts. I praise God at the amount of aid that is currently being sent to Japan right now and pray that God will provide them with enough if it be His will. Of course, the most loving thing that can be given to the people of Japan who have been granted the privilege to survive this earthquake is the blessed good news of salvation found only in Christ. Many of those who were spared death would have wound up in Hell because of their sins and failure to embrace the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The greater need is spiritual and while God can and often does use the means of meeting physical needs to show people their greater spiritual need, the spiritual need must not be neglected. Otherwise, it would be like I heard a pastor once describe it as "giving cough drops to someone with tuberculosis." They are only dealing with the symptoms of the disease and not the disease itself. I pray that God would use this earthquake to reveal Himself to many and bring them to a recognizance of their sins and need of a Savior. May He open their eyes to Who the Savior is and move them to turn from their sin and embrace Him.
May we not err in any of these ways in our own continual evaluation of Japan but instead remember that God is sovereign and in control, has a purpose we may not understand nor be sure of, reminds us that we deserved His wrath just as much, and go out and minister to the people of Japan in any way the Lord may give opportunity. May God use this disaster to show His glory and accomplish His purpose!
Soli Deo Gloria!