“It was as if God had unleashed his anger on the people,” said an eyewitness of the tsunami that devastated the coastlines of eleven countries in South Asia and even East Africa.1
This lively impression of God’s wrath in action was precisely the point that most news reports and commentaries sought to downplay and even smother.
The event supposedly was nothing but a combination of material causes which, by virtue of nature’s inexorable laws, caused the seaquake and the huge tidal wave.
It was a mere coincidence that the event took place the day after Christmas, a Sunday when thousands of Western tourists were lounging in the sun on paradisaical beaches, more concerned with bodily pleasure than with the birth of Christ.
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 because they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rehashing Old Arguments Against God
The catastrophe was an 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.2
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British journalist Martin Kettle summed up this rationalist position well in an article that appeared in London’s The Guardian a few days after the event. The title says it all: “How can religious people explain something like this?”3
Having shown how difficult it is to explain natural catastrophes from the religious and even scientific standpoint, Kettle asks where the “creationists” stand on the tsunami. He recalls how believers tried to explain away other natural disasters, like the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, as divine punishments. He continues: “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?”
Kettle concludes: “Yet it is hard to think of any event in modern times that requires a more serious explanation from the forces of religion than this week’s earthquake. 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.”
Is the Voice of God Resounding in the Recent Catastrophes?
Kettle’s question apparently resonated in high places. Both Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, England, and Montreal’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte rejected the idea that the tidal wave could be a divine punishment and found it normal for people to raise doubts about Divine Providence when such catastrophes happen. Much like Voltaire, they seem to believe that natural causes suffice to explain the event and that God leaves such incidents completely to natural laws without intervening.4
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.
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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.
However, man has a somewhat childish tendency to think that, since he has discovered such laws and at times can replicate them or artificially control their effects, he acquired the same or equal power as that of the Creator.5
Actually, in such cases, man is only exercising gifts received from the Creator: intelligence, inventiveness or will power. To discover is not to create but to understand. Taming a turbulent river by making dams or canals or tapping its power to generate electricity does not make man equal to the Creator but his humble and loving cooperator in the work of creation.
Furthermore, God is not only the author of nature and its laws but also their sustainer. Unlike a clock or a violin which, once made by an artisan have an existence of their own, the laws that govern man and the universe do not have an existence totally independent from the One that made them. In fact, the artisan does not “create” the clock or the violin absolutely speaking, but only gives shape to pre-existing material elements. The subsistence of these objects does not depend on him but on the nature of the materials he used.
Attributing Divine Characteristics
Thus, God must be seen as the cause and sustainer of nature and its laws and here is where the confusion enters into the debate. Nothing in the universe existed before Creation. The laws of nature regulate activity in the universe according to the particular essence of each being.
However, absolute evolutionists believe that everything came from pre-existing matter. If this were true, such “primal matter” would have the characteristics of God since it would be eternal, intelligent, omnipotent and infinite.6
Likewise, when evolutionists explain the evolutionary process by inserting the “chance” factor into the equation, they only transfer to chance the same “divine” powers they attribute to “primal matter.”
The same happens when the laws of nature are made the ultimate cause of all that exists. In short, if the ultimate explanation for natural phenomena is found in the laws of nature, either these laws are divinized — a form of pantheism7 — or God is turned into a totally unnecessary being like Voltaire’s watchmaker.
How God Governs the Universe
Such possibilities are clearly absurd. Divinizing nature, its laws or agents cannot explain the intricate workings of the universe. At the same time, Divine Wisdom could not have created a universe without meaning or finality, blindly governed by laws that escaped Divine control.8
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.9
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.
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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 Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were established as warnings for men which are to be remembered until the end of time.10 God also used the fury of Nebuchadnezzar to punish the Chosen People for their prevarication.11
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.12
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.13
Are There Reasons for God to be Displeased?
As the news reports have made clear, the catastrophe that struck the coastlines in South Asia did not only affect the immediate area. A large number of tourists from all over the world were also killed. In this era of global and instant communications, news and images reach and touch people in the most isolated corners of the planet. Thus, this disaster can properly be called a planetary catastrophe.
Prof. Ernesto Galli Della Loggia of the University of Perugia in Italy went so far as to compare the tsunami with the biblical Flood because of its planetary dimension.14
Thus, the aforementioned exclamation of the Indonesian survivor that “it was as if God had unleashed his anger on the people,” refers not just to a people but to all humanity.15
Only a person without a sense of sin would affirm that there are no reasons for God to be displeased with men.
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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 sacred. Secular activists are accelerating their longstanding efforts to destroy the essence of the celebration by turning it into a merely impersonal “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.
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.16
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.”17
This is the message of conversion that can be drawn from the terrible tidal wave that rocked our increasingly materialistic and neo-pagan world.
Updated on March 6, 2017.
- “Indonesian villagers tremble before ‘God’s wrath’ as tidal waves wreak havoc,” AFP, December 27, 2004, at http://asia.news.yahoo.com/041227/afp/041227045658asiapacificnews.html, and http://www.terradaily.com/2004/04 1227025320.97m1qlyq.html (accessed January 31, 2005)
- Voltaire is the pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, (1694-1778). He was one of the most implacable enemies of the Catholic Church, which he combatted with a bitter and irreverent sarcasm. A libertine and practical atheist, his concept of God conveniently justified his immoral lifestyle. He claimed that the existence of God is necessary to explain the existence of the universe, since there is no effect without a cause and therefore creation calls for a Creator. However, this Creator, like a craftsman, makes an article that ceases to have any continuity in regard to its author. In one of his writings is found the famous statement that summarizes deism: “The world embarrasses me, and I cannot dream / That this watch exists and has no watchmaker.” This “watchmaking God,” however, has nothing to do with the God of Revelation and Christianity. Like all deists, Voltaire denies Divine Providence and the Incarnation, Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Martin Kettle, “How can religious people explain something like this?: Earthquakes led 18th-century thinkers to ask questions we shy away from,” The Guardian, December 28, 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1380094,0.html (accessed January 31, 2005).
- This appears to be the meaning of the article by the Anglican leader and the statements of the Catholic cardinal. However, their thinking is far from clear. Cf. Rowan Williams, “Of course this makes us doubt God’s existence,” The Daily Telegraph, Filed: 02/01/2005, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?
xml=/opinion/2005/01/02/do0201.xml; Antoine Robitaille, “Et Dieu dans tout ça? L’archevêque de Canterbury doute et le cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte rejette toute idée de «Dieu vengeur»,” Le Devoir.com (Quebec), Édition du mercredi 5 janvier 2005, http://www.ledevoir.com/cgi-bin/imprimer?path=/2005/01/05/71922.html (accessed January 31, 2005).
- “But the serpent said to the woman: … your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Gen. 3:4-5).
- Traditional Apologetics show that the Creator must be eternal, intelligent, omnipotent and infinite. To read more, see the Summa Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas, available at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles.htm, or http://www.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/gc.htm.
- Pantheism is a set of doctrines and philosophical systems that claim that God and nature are the same, or in other words, that nature is divine. See http://www.newadvent. org/cathen/11447b.htm (accessed January 31, 2005).
- 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 Theologica, I, q. 19 a. 8; Summa Contra Gentiles, I, n. 86).
- Cf. Saint Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III, Nos. 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. Cornelius a Lapide, Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, Vol. 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 (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965), p. 827.
- John L. McKenzie, S.J, Dictionary of The Bible (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1965), p. 609; Jer. 25:27-29.
- Non-baptized infants, according to the most common opinion of theologians, are given eternal natural happiness in limbo.
- Joseph Rickaby, S.J., Of God and His Creatures – An Annotated Translation of the Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas, (Westminster, Maryland: The Carrol Press), book III, n. 71, pp. 24-243; Cf. ibid. I, nn. 39, 95-96; Summa Theologica, I. q. 14, a. 10; I. q. 48; I. q. 19, a. 9; (for Summa Theologica see http://www.newadvent.org/summa/); Saint Augustine, The City of God, book VI, http://ccel.org/fathers/NPNF1-02/Augustine/cog/t31.htm#t31.htm.2.
- Ernesto Galli della Loggia, “Tsunami. A universal deluge:” “The tsunami that destroyed the Indian Ocean coasts from Sumatra to Somalia was something very different from common natural catastrophes that have befallen humanity, something that goes much beyond. Indeed, this cataclysm was the first natural catastrophe whose resonance has taken on a universal dimension … Italians, Swedes, French, English, Americans, in tens and even hundreds, were taken away by the seaquake’s fury, along with Asians. … [it is] a genuine transfer to the real world of the myth of the Flood present in the cultural patrimony of a great many peoples living in the most different corners of the earth” (Corriere della Sera, apud http://www.soverato.com/Eventi/Tsunami/diluvio_universale.asp)
- Unlike man, God does not become angry, since in Him there are no passions. However, when human wrath comes from a legitimate indignation against evil and is proportional to its gravity, it is an act of virtue and therefore a perfection. Thus, while ire does not exist in God as a passion, it does exist as a perfection of virtuous wrath, since all the possible perfections exist in Him, the absolutely perfect Being. It is in this sense that Scripture says that God manifests His wrath for the sins of men (Cf. Summa Theologica I, q.3 a. 2: I.q.19, a.11; I.q.20.a 1; I-II q. 46 2; II-II, q. 158 a.1.; Summa Contra Gentiles, I, n. 96.
- Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words (Fatima, Portugal: Secretariado dos Pastorinhos, 1998) pp. 170-174.
- Ezech. 33:11.