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There’s something about the earth’s most dramatic geological events – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis – that make people want to fire God.
A few weeks after the December 2004 earthquake that sent mountainous walls of water crashing onto beaches around the Indian Ocean, taking more than 225,000 lives, Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer didn’t mince words: “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways, especially after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.”
When an earthquake rocked Lisbon, Portugal on November 1, 1755, multiple tsunamis raced ashore. Resultant fires destroyed most of the city and killed as many as 100,000 people. One immediate outcome was a crisis of faith across Europe. If God allowed the indiscriminate deaths of so many people – and on All Saints Day, no less – how could he ever be trusted?
It seemed wiser to conclude, as did the French philosophe Voltaire, that the God worshiped by Christians could not possibly exist.
Those clinging to faith felt that God had some explaining to do. Surely a beneficent deity could have and should have prevented disasters like the apocalyptic explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, as well as the earthquakes that crippled Haiti in 2010 and brought Japan to its knees in 2011.
In begging God to eliminate volcanoes and earthquakes, however, it’s clear that we really don’t know what we’re asking.
By honoring such a request, God would undermine the essential structure of our planet and ultimately make it uninhabitable.
Geologists have learned a great deal about the Earth’s crust over the past six decades. In 1963, when a Canadian researcher submitted a paper documenting the evidence for “continental drift” to the venerable Journal of Geophysical Research, he was rounded jeered: “Such speculations make interesting talk at cocktail parties, but it is not the sort of thing to be published under serious scientific aegis.” This is the kind of rejection letter that comes back to haunt an editorial board.
A few years later, the highly regarded textbook The Earth declared that so-called plate tectonics was a physical impossibility.
Now we know better. Today there is consensus among scientists that the Earth’s surface is a bit like the shell of a hard-boiled egg that’s been dropped on the floor. There are 8-12 large crustal slabs or plates, with 20 smaller plates interspersed among them. The shocking and unexpected discovery is that all of these pieces are moving on something like “conveyor belts” of molten rock – some comparatively quickly, others rather slowly, and none of them in precisely the same direction. The average plate crawls along at about two inches a year, roughly the same pace your fingernails are growing.
What does all this have to do with the world’s most dangerous geological events?
They almost always happen at the places where the plates are rubbing against each other, or where one is slowly plunging beneath another – a process called subduction.
Geologists were just getting used to the idea that the continents really do drift when they began to realize that tectonic theory might help resolve some of the most vexing problems in geology. Why, for instance, do the world’s oceans not become exceedingly salty, like the Dead Sea? Salts of all kinds routinely find their way down to sea level, yet ocean salinity (while increasing slightly) has remained at a relative state of equilibrium for centuries. Scientists now believe that a generous portion of oceanic salt is returned to the Earth’s crust by means of subduction.
A 2016 article in Scientific American suggests that plate tectonics, “which acts as a global thermostat,” might be – and here the author uses a rather dramatic word – our “savior.” This happens by means of the recycling of carbon dioxide in a process that takes millions of years. The relentlessly slow movement of the plates “helps keep Earth’s temperature stable enough to support life.”
Tellingly, the same article reports that astronomers are finding little evidence of plate tectonics operating anywhere else in the observable universe.
It just may be that the bumping and grinding of our planet’s crustal plates is one of the “just right” features associated with Life’s only currently known galactic address.
But what about the eight billion human beings who must live atop those plates, and who face potentially catastrophic quakes, lava flows, and towering tsunamis? Doesn’t God care?
God does care. God cares enough to have created a planet that is uniquely engineered to provide a stable place for human life to flourish. And he has endowed us with sufficient intelligence to puzzle out some of the Earth’s most significant geological realities, along with sufficient wisdom to respond to what we learn.
For instance, we now know it’s vitally important to accommodate ourselves to the Earth’s tectonic “danger zones.” If sizable populations happen to live in those areas, we know how crucial it is to provide substantial warnings and protections – and to help as many people as possible relocate, if they choose, to safer ground.
Most of all, we know how to come alongside, more quickly than ever, those whose lives have been shattered by natural disasters.
As recently as 200 years ago, people had little idea what was happening on the other side of the planet. Sunsets in Europe may have turned beautiful shades of red, but no one suspected it was because a volcano had erupted in Indonesia. Crops may have failed in India, but no one knew it was connected to a bitter winter in North America.
Today’s interconnected world suddenly feels very small.
Trained disaster relief teams can reach any spot on Earth in less than 24 hours. Our prayers, our resources, and our hands-on efforts in Jesus’ name can arrive while there’s still time to dig through the rubble and weep with those who weep.
Disasters are tough. And they always will be.
We may even be tempted to fire God.
But the irony is that such events turn out to be the very moments when God is most committed to enlisting us in his efforts to reveal his deep love for the world.
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