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As the tragic events in Japan become “old news” and no longer make headlines, it’s good for us, as God’s people, to make sure we have a biblical handle on what happened, where God fits into the picture and how believers ought to respond to this crisis. The death toll is tremendous to be sure, but remember that just a few years ago 200,000 perished in a tsunami that slammed into the Indonesian basin. Then there are the many wars, and rumors of wars that seem to be a constant in our world. How should we respond to all of this? In other words, how should we think biblically and share our thoughts with others? Al Baker’s latest article will be of help to you in answering these questions. I encourage you to take a few moments to read his Scripturally based commentary below.
FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS, volume 10, number 12, March 24, 2011
If a trumpet is blown in a city, will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it? Amos 3:6.
The Ways and Whys of Almighty God
The mammoth earthquake, 9.0 on the Richter scale, that struck northern Japan on March 11, and the ensuing tsunami, captured so dreadfully and spectacularly on video, has, as of March 19, wrought at least 18,000 deaths, not to mention the potential meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, which could cause many thousands more to die.
How are we to view these things? Are they mere accidents? Is it, well, just an earthquake, a natural phenomenon explained only in scientific terms? Is this a judgment of God on Japan, a proud nation where only one percent is Christian? Are we, as a Buddhist may do, merely to accept it as fate, knowing no one can control it, so we ought merely to let it go?
As in any circumstance of life, our only source of truth is the Bible; and what does it say about catastrophes? John Calvin, in commenting on Amos 3:6, notes that the sound of a trumpet reminds Israel that God does nothing without first revealing His secrets to His prophets. As Calvin puts it, “The people of Israel were extremely stupid for not having repented after so many warnings. They remained in their perverseness, though they had been constrained by the most powerful means.” Calvin goes on to say that Amos reminds us that calamities happen not by chance . . . that the government of this world is administered by God, and that nothing happens except through His power. The word (in Hebrew rah) translated here as calamity means anything adverse to us. It is the same Hebrew word used in Isaiah 45:6-7 where the prophet says, “I am the Lord and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” The King James Version translates rah in both cases as evil, and rah is translated in the New American Standard Bible in many other places as evil—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9), woe to those who call evil good, and good evil (Isaiah 5:20), then you will be comforted for the evil which I, the Lord, have brought against Jerusalem for everything which I have brought upon it (Ezekiel 14:22).
So we can rule out several possibilities as to the why of the terrible devastation in Japan. First, this was no mere accident. It was not just an earthquake to be explained in mere scientific terms. Of course there is a scientific explanation for what happened. In no way should Christians diminish the means or secondary causes God has ordained. He works through the way He created and now sustains all His creation (Acts 17:26). And the ultimate reason for natural catastrophe and death is the fall into sin by Adam and Eve. This rendered the world as broken and in need of redemption, something God promises repeatedly in His word (Isaiah 66:22-24, Romans 8:20-23, 2 Peter 3:13). Second, we of course reject the Buddhist’s explanation and his consequent, rather stoic response. Surely we ought to weep and grieve for the loss of life, and surely we ought to pray for the people of Japan and the relief workers. We ought to give financially for relief work.
But was it a judgment of God on a hard-hearted and proud people? It is clear from Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all the other prophets that God brought judgment on the nations of their day because they were far from Him, engaging in all manner of licentious, ungodly, and destructive behavior, setting themselves up against God. We also know Paul declares that the wrath of God is being revealed (present tense, passive voice, indicative mood of apokalupto, our word for apocalypse) from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). In other words, God is always bringing down His anger on the world because we persist in ungodly living. But can we say without equivocation that God is judging Japan for a perpetual rejection of the overtures of grace by so many Japanese believers and missionaries who are working daily to lead Japan to Christ?
To answer that question we need first to consider a similar situation brought to Jesus’ attention. In Luke 13:1ff Jesus was told of some Galileans whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices by wicked Pontius Pilate. And for good measure these questioning Jesus wanted to know what He thought of the recent construction accident where eighteen were killed when a tower fell on them. The question was, “Do you suppose these Galileans were greater sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this fate? And were those killed in the construction accident worse culprits than others in Jerusalem?” To fit this question into our modern context—is the nation of Japan more wicked and deserving of God’s judgment than we are in the United States or Britain? Are those who died in the earthquake, tsunami, or radiation exposure more wicked than we? The way Jesus responds to these questions gives us the answer we need in our particular situation. Jesus says to His inquirers, “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” What is Jesus saying? He is answering these questions by focusing on what He considers most important. The issue is not how wicked these people may have been. They were no more wicked than anyone else. When stacked up against God’s law we find none are righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10ff). We have a natural, inherent tendency to speculate about such things, but these are not the burden on Jesus’ heart. He turns the issue directly back upon His questioners, seeking to impress upon them the truth that unless they repent they will likewise perish.
So, we ought to see any catastrophe or tragedy as a divine and gracious “wake up” call. We must “see” God in all these things. These calamities serve as warnings for all people who should stop and ask themselves, “What if my car with my dear children inside, was washed away by a fifteen foot high tsunami wave, as the back windshield wiper is sweeping away the mist? What would happen to us? Where would we go after death?” These are the questions we and all people should be asking our selves! We cannot say with certainty that God is exacting vengeance on Japan. Clearly God did this to nations in the Scriptures and surely this makes clear the Biblical principle that He is continually revealing His wrath in the world. We are better off leaving these questions to the secret things of God (Deuteronomy 29:29).
And why does God show His mighty and awesome power in dreadful ways? Ultimately He does everything for the praise and glory of His grace (Ephesians 1:3-14), and often His mighty and dreadful ways humble people and nations, drawing many to Christ for eternal salvation. I remember praying for Nicaragua after the 1973 earthquake, asking God to bring these dear people to Christ as a result of the devastation. Almost immediately after the earthquake millions of Nicaraguans began coming to Christ and the movement has continued to this day. May God do such a work in Japan, and please pray for the Japanese church, her indigenous pastors and missionaries who have labored faithfully for so many years with so little fruit. Perhaps these things have happened for a time such as this that a great harvest of souls may come to this nation that has accomplished so much economically but which has remained in the darkness of Shintoism and ancestor worship.
The Geneva Series of Commentaries, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, page 209, published by Banner of Truth