About tsunamis, hurricanes and similar natural disasters
Difficulties that tragedies pose to religions.
Theodicy: about God choosing to allow evil.
"Tsunami-class" mass murders in the Bible.
Difficulties that natural disasters pose to religious faith:
Two days after the South Asian tsunami, Martin Kettle wrote an article in The Guardian newspaper on 2004-DEC-28, He asked:
"How can religious people explain something like this?" 1
He compared the tsunami with a massive earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755 CE, which killed more than
"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, he asked, that it should be punished in such a
appalling and indiscriminate manner? Immanuel Kant was so amazed by what
happened to Lisbon that he wrote three separate treatises on the problem
of earthquakes, writing:
'...it is hard to think of any event in modern times that
requires a more serious explanation from the forces of religion than this
Voltaire's 18th-century question to Christians -- why
Lisbon? -- ought to generate a whole series of 21st-century equivalents for
all the religions of the world.....A non-scientific belief system,
especially one that is based on any kind of notion of a divine order, has
some explaining to do, however. What God sanctions an earthquake? What God
protects against it? Why does the quake strike these places and these
peoples and not others? What kind of order is it that decrees that a
person who went to sleep by the edge of the ocean on Christmas night
should wake up the next morning engulfed by the waves, struggling for
Richard Dawkins, an Atheist,
an Oxford professor of biology, and a famous author said in a letter to the editor of The
Guardian that religious explanations for natural disasters range
from the "loopy" (its payback time for Original Sin) through "vicious"
(disasters are sent to try our faith) to "violent" (heretics were rounded up and hanged
after the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755).
Referring to the existence of
God, Dawkins wrote that while it is:
"... psychologically possible to derive comfort
from sincere belief in a non-existent illusion, I thought believers might be
disillusioned with an omnipotent being who has just drowned 125,000 (now
145,000) innocent people, or an omniscient one who failed to warn them."
An article by Michael McAteer in the Toronto Star newspaper said:
"Dawkins has little time for
religious people who try to explain the tsunami disaster. He has less time for
religious people who give up on trying to explain natural disasters yet remain
"Theodicy" refers to:
"... Attempts to answer or ponder whether a just and loving God, who created us, can be all-powerful and all-knowing yet permit terrifying evil and painful suffering. Or, when posed from the human perspective concerning divine justice, we ask, 'Why do bad things happen to good people, who know, love, and serve God?' ... A 'theodicy' consists of attempted answers or explanations, by prophets, priests, and sages, for troublesome questions about divine justice." 3
In Christianity, God has traditionally been defined as having four attributes:
- omnibeneficient (all-loving),
- omnipotent (all-powerful),
- omnipresent (all-present), and
- omniscient (all-knowing).
Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote a book in 1983 titled "When bad things happen to good people." Although it is now over three decades old, it is still popular and is available in many different formats. 4 He argues that the set of four attributes have internal contradictions which cannot be resolved. Only three can logically be held simultaneously. He decided to abandon God's omnipotence and retain the other three.
Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, lived from 341 to 270 BCE. Perhaps his most famous statement is:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God? 5
If God is all-present and all-knowing, then he would have known that the earthquake in Indonesia was about to occur and that it would trigger a massive tsunami which would cause massive loss of life. If he is all powerful, then he would be able to prevent the earthquake, or to at least inform people perhaps days in advance of the event so that they could stay away from the ocean. If he did not wish to prevent the earthquake or to inform people, then one could make a convincing case that he is not all-loving.
Many Agnostics and Atheists argue that the existence of evil in the world is their most powerful argument in favor of their lack of belief in God. Examples of natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados provide what is probably the best form of evil to use in this argument.
There are four obvious arguments to resolve this conflict. There may be more:
- Adopt Deistic belief. This is the belief that God created the Earth and the rest of the universe, established its natural laws, started it up, left the scene, and hasn't been heard of or hasn't taken any interest in his creation since. Needless to say, this is not the God portrayed in the Bible or taught within Judaism, Christianity or Islam to any extent. However it was a very widespread belief among the founding founders of the United States and appears in the phrase "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence.
- Believe in a God who is missing one of the traditional attributes. Rabbi Kushner choice was to drop omnipotence as the least awful choice. This is such a fundamental change to the nature of God that most people would be unable to accept it.
- Accept that the conflict over theodicy points to either a non-omnibeneficient God or to a non-existent God. For some, this path leads to Agnosticism (indecision about the existence of God), Atheism (no belief in God) or strong Atheism (active denial of God's existence). This is a major change in belief that most theists are unable or unwilling to take.
- Accept that Theodicy presents problems that cannot be resolved using the limited reasoning skills of humans. We might accept that there is a solution to the internal conflicts presented by four attributes of God, but that we cannot resolve it at this time. Some might expect to have the problem resolved in Heaven. This is probably the easiest alternative to accept by most theists. 6
More information on Theodicy.
The biblical record of previous "tsunami-class" mass murders by God:
Since the vast majority of visitors to this web site are either Christians
and/or were raised in a Christian environment, descriptions of mass
exterminations in the Bible may be of particular importance.
The Hebrew Scriptures records a number of instances where God either committed, or ordered the ancient Hebrews to commit, mass murders or genocides
against various groups. As we explain in our section titled: "Four of God's Genocides: "Show them no mercy:"
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) of the Bible describe many events which involved major loss of life. Most were conventional wars. Four of these
events would probably qualify as genocides under most current definitions of the term. They were:
||The worldwide flood at the time of Noah as described in Genesis, chapters 6 to 8: From the description, it almost completely wiped out the human
race -- men, women, children and infants -- with the exception of eight people: Noah, his wife,
his three sons and their wives. Genesis explains that God did this because of the immoral behavior
of the entire human race with the exception of Noah. Many religious historians believe that the Noah story was copied from an earlier Pagan source in which multiple gods were annoyed by the incessant noise being created by humans. So they sent the flood to exterminate most humans on earth.
||The Passover events described in Exodus chapters 11 and 12, in which all of the firstborn of all Egypt were exterminated. The reason given is
that, partly because God hardened the heart of the Pharaoh, the Pharaoh was
initially unwilling to release his Hebrew slaves as Moses asked. It took a
genocide of the Egyptian people to convince the Pharaoh to release the Hebrews.
||The conquest of Canaan, in which God ordered the Hebrews to completely
exterminate the Canaanite people -- including the elderly, adults, children, babies, newborns and fetuses.
This is described in the book of Joshua, and appears to have been justified on the religious practices of the Canaanites and the need for them to be removed
from the land in order to make room for the Hebrews.
||The near extermination of the tribe of Benjamin by the remaining 11 Hebrew tribes, triggered by the serial rape and murder of a priest's
concubine. See Judges, chapter 20. The mass killing of almost the entire Benjamin tribe
-- also including men, women, children and infants -- was justified by the immoral behavior of a few of its
members. This was an application of the principle of collective responsibility:
that an evil act by a few members of a particular gender, or religion, or
nation, or race, etc. justifies mass punishment or mass murder of the entire
There are additional mass murders involving fewer people which are also mentioned in the
Hebrew Scriptures. These include:
||A number of plagues which killed thousands of Hebrews,
||Two bears who were presumably sent by God to kill 42 children who were poking fun at Elisha, calling him "baldie." The massacre was in response to a his curse on the children.
||Murder of an entire family because of sinful behavior by the father.
In addition, the book of Revelation in the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament) if interpreted literally, predicts that Jesus Christ will lead a massive genocide will occur at some time in our
future, in association with the war of Armageddon. This will lead to the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). In excess of two billion
humans would be exterminated if this war were to start now. The number would increase if the war is delayed. If it happens as described in the Bible,
it will be the largest human genocide in history in terms of humans slaughtered, and the second largest genocide in terms of the percentage of humans exterminated. The flood of Noah wiped out the largest percentage of humans of any genocide.
God therefore has either engineered or ordered others to commit mass murders in the past. If the 2004 tsunami is was intentionally triggered by
God, then he is illustrating his unchangeability over time.
Linking biblical passages to the 2004 tsunami:
The problem remains: if God caused the tsunami, was his motivation similar to
those mass exterminations in the Bible?
||Did God feel that the people in the predominately Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim countries were behaving in a
particularly immoral manner, as at the time of the flood of Noah as recorded in
the book of Genesis?
||Was God retaliating against over a hundred thousand people because of
the behavior of their governments, as in the book of Exodus?
||Was he punishing entire countries by killing over 150,000 people in response to the
immoral behavior of a few individuals, as in Judges?
||Was he exterminating hundreds of thousands of people because they were
following the wrong religion and worshiping other deities (or none)?
||Is the tragedy a precursor of the upcoming war of Armageddon?
It may be impossible to determine what God's motivation is. One could
try to seek the answer from God through prayer. However, one pilot study seems to indicate that one cannot assess the
will of God in this manner. In the meantime, God could use many techniques
for informing the human race of his displeasure: Email, fax, telephone, radio,
television, postal service, Internet, etc. Some suggest that God appears to prefer to keep
- Martin Kettle, "How can religious people explain something like this?," Guardian Unlimited, 2004-DEC-28, at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/
- Michael McAteer, "Disaster challenges belief," The Toronto Star, 2004-JAN-09, at: http://www.thestar.com/
- Anup Shah, "Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster," 2005-JAN-05, at: http://www.globalissues.org/
- Harold Kushner, "When bad things happen to good people," Anchor, (2004), Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- "Epicurus quotes," Think Exist, undated, at: http://thinkexist.com/
- David J. Voelker, "Who is Nature's God," 1993, at: http://history.hanover.edu/
Copyright © 2005 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-JAN-01
Latest update: 2014-MAR-16
Author: B.A. Robinson