The tragedy that befell Japan with the terrible earthquake of great magnitude followed by the devastating Tsunami should lead us to elevate our prayers to God for all those in this country. Let us pray to Divine Providence to lessen their suffering as much as possible and to give them the strength and confidence to deal with this disaster with supernatural spirit.
Trying to Understand the Tragedy
We naturally feel compassion for the victims of any natural disaster. However, man, as an intelligent being, also has the need to understand what happened both in the sense of the immediate natural causes of the disaster as well as its deeper meaning. In other words, every natural disaster raises the problem of the existence of God and of His goodness and wisdom.
The Secularist Viewpoint
For secularists, what happened in Japan was nothing more than a combination of material causes which, by virtue of nature’s inexorable laws, caused the earthquake and a huge tidal wave. They see the disaster as if God has nothing to do with establishing or the governing of these laws.
It was also a mere coincidence that tens of thousands died, millions were hurt and so many others lost their homes. The fact that it affected people from all walks of life, many of them poor fishermen, was just random chance they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rehashing Old Arguments Against God
Thus, for secularists this new catastrophe is just another occasion for venting the old atheistic objection against God: If God allows so many people to die, and, even worse, punishes both the innocent and sinful together, He cannot be a just God. However, since the idea of an unjust God is absurd, and since such catastrophes must be either permitted or wished by God, the necessary conclusion is that He does not exist. The only other alternative is a deist vision that God exists only as described in Voltaire’s “watchmaker” metaphor: He makes the clock, winds it up, and then forgets about it.
Considering the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 as divine punishment, Voltaire asked what kind of God could permit such a thing to occur? Did Lisbon really have so many more vices than London or Paris that it should be punished in such an appalling and indiscriminate manner?
Voltaire’s eighteenth-century question to Christians – why Lisbon? – ought to generate a whole series of twenty-first-century equivalents for all the religions of the world.
Natural Laws and the Author of Nature
It is obvious that the tsunami did have natural causes like any other natural catastrophe. While this may explain how it happened, it does not fully explain all the reasons why it happened. The human soul has a natural need to understand things according to their ultimate causes, which transcend the proximate and immediate circumstances surrounding events and looks for their more profound meaning.
To obtain such an understanding, one needs to know the role of God in governing creation. One must overcome the confusion that is often made between God directly acting in nature and the laws He puts in nature itself.
The very fact that man discovers the laws of nature that guide the workings of the material universe and understands their complexity and wisdom, cannot fail to make him think about God, the intelligence that conceived this universe and the power that created it all.
God, the Cause and Sustainer of Nature and its Laws
Voltaire’s image of a “Watchmaker God” is false. In fact, the artisan does not “create” the clock absolutely speaking, but only with the intelligent use of his skills gives shape to pre-existing material elements. Once he finishes its work, the object becomes totally independent of him. God’s creation is different: all things that exist, and the laws that govern man and the universe, being created from nothing, do not have an existence totally independent from the One that made them. They exist by His will. Thus, God must be seen as the cause and sustainer of nature and its laws.
How God Governs the Universe
Divine Wisdom could not have created a universe without meaning or finality, blindly governed by laws that escaped Divine control.1
The fact that God normally governs the universe through secondary causes does not mean they are not under His power. Being the primary Author of all that exists, He is also author of the substances that make up the secondary causes and the laws of nature. Thus, He can produce effects directly, unaided by these secondary causes.2
Therefore, a “natural” explanation of the tidal wave does not oppose a “supernatural” view of the phenomenon which can interpret it as a Divine intervention or a manifestation of God’s power in accordance with His unfathomable designs.
Why God Allows Catastrophes
Just as the movement of an arrow towards its target is caused by the impulse given by the archer, likewise at the root of any natural movement is an impulse set forth by the Creator of all things.
With his ordaining wisdom, God brings all things to a good end, which is His extrinsic glory. However, just as it would be opposed to good human governance to intervene constantly in the activities of subjects, so also Providence or Divine Government normally lets natural causes follow their course even if, occasionally, this could give rise to some evil. Like a human governor, God rarely intervenes directly by preventing or modifying the action of natural causes, save for extraordinary reasons.
Toward a Greater Good
Just as excessive intervention by human government would place excessive constraints on social life, so also continuous and extraordinary intervention of God impeding the normal course of nature would avoid some evils but also preclude some good. For just as the same fire that is fundamental to human life can cause devastating fires, so can rain, indispensable for agriculture, cause floods and so forth. Likewise, if the Creator were to prevent men from using their liberty in order to avoid their abuse of it, He would be infringing upon the rationality of their nature.
Thus, God allows catastrophes to happen knowing that the suffering caused by them, be it from natural or human causes, can be trials that give rational creatures an occasion to gain merits through acts of patience, charity, dedication and even heroism.
Likewise God also can make use of natural calamities and even of people’s misdeeds to punish humanity for its sins and set an example for men.
That is exactly how He acted during the Deluge and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were established as warnings for men which are to be remembered until the end of time.3 God also used the fury of Nebuchadnezzar to punish the Chosen People for their prevarication.4
Just as God rewards peoples on this earth for the good they do, He likewise chastises them for their vices.
“If There is Evil, There Must be a God”
General punishments, however, do not fall only upon the evil, just as rewards on this earth are not given only to the good. Only in the future life will each one be judged individually according to his own merits or faults. By allowing the good to suffer calamities, God gives them an occasion to practice virtue. When God takes the life of an innocent child, he may be sparing the child from future tribulations known only to Him and giving the child the crown of life eternal.5
In sum, the frequent objection – If there is a God, why is there evil? — must be answered by reversing the phrase: If there is evil, there must be a God. For since evil is the absence of good, it only occurs because good exists. Without the existence of a supreme good that is the Cause of all created good, the latter would not exist and therefore its accidental absence – evil – would also not exist.6
Are There Reasons for God to be Displeased?
Only a person without a sense of sin would affirm that there are no reasons for God to be displeased with men.
Immorality and amorality have reached unparalleled levels. Even ancient pagans had greater notions of modesty, fidelity, honor and honesty than men today.
There is the breakdown of morality which has resulted in an incalculable number of divorces, abortions, and sexual deviations of all kinds, including an orchestrated campaign to favor and foster homosexuality.
Even worse, there is an unrelenting campaign of blasphemies and ridicule against God and all things sacred. It is an onslaught so crude and violent that the radical European anticlericalism of the nineteenth century pales into insignificance.
Judicial fiats are slowly but inexorably taking all references to God or religion out of public life and education.
Even Christmas, the most symbolic date in Christianity, is not kept sacred. Secular activists are accelerating their longstanding efforts to destroy the essence of the celebration by turning it into a merely commercial “holiday season.”
Many more reasons for the manifestation of God’s just ire could be given but are unnecessary for those who still preserve a sense of sin.
We are in a globalized world. Catastrophes that befell one region or country affect the entire world. However, we cannot penetrate the unfathomable designs of Divine Providence. Let us respect the mysteries of God and adore His wisdom. And pray not only for the people directly hit by the present catastrophe, but for our entire sinful world.
The Fatima Connection
Facing the tsunami and the so many other recent natural disasters, one cannot but recall the warning of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917 about the chastisements that would befall humanity if men did not convert.7
However, God is merciful even when He punishes. The Lord “desires not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way, and live.”8
This is the message of conversion that can be drawn from the terrible tidal wave that rocked our increasingly materialistic and neopagan world.
- This does not mean that no form of happenstance or chance exists and that things often do happen for fortuitous reasons. However, this is a “relative” happenstance allowed and wished by God, rather than something that totally escapes His will and governing of the universe. Indeed, God disposes that some things will necessarily happen according to certain immutable laws of nature; and He makes other things depend on contingent causes, so that they may or not come to pass. In the case of intelligent beings, He respects human free will (Cf. Saint Thomas, Summa Teologica, I, q. 19 a. 8; Summa Contra Gentiles, I, n. 86).
- Cf. Saint Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III, nn. 94-102.
- Saint Ambrose points to the sin of the flesh as the cause of the Flood and comments that, just as Noah saved himself by entering the ark, so also he who masters his concupiscence is freed from the danger of drowning in the torrent of passions. (Cf. Cornelii a Lapide, Commentaria in Scripitoram Sacrum, I, In Pentateuchum Mosis, Paris: 1831 p. 136). On Sodom and Gomorrah, John McKenzie writes: “The story of Sodom and Gomorrah … it becomes a proverbial example of the anger and judgment of Yahweh (Dt. 29:22f; WS 10:6: Am 4:11; Zp 2:9; Lk 17:29; 2 Pt 2:6; Jd 7” (John L. McKenzie, S.J, Dictionary of The Bible, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1965, p. 827.
- McKenzie, p. 609, Jer. 25:27-29.
- Non-baptized infants, according to the most common opinion of theologians, are given eternal natural happiness in limbo.
- Of God and His Creatures – An Annotated Translation of the Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas, by Joseph Rickaby, S.J., The Carrol Press Westminster, Maryland, book III, n. 71, pp. 24-243; Cf. ibid. I, nn. 39, 95-96; Summa Theologica, I. q. 14, a. 10; 1 q. 48; I, q. 19, a. 9; (for Summa Theologica see http://www.newadvent.org/summa/) St. Augustine, The City of God, book VI,
- Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words (Fatima, Portugal: Secretariado dos Pastorinhos, 1998) pp. 170-174.
- Ezech. 33:11.