Tsunami

March 14, 2011 | 26 comments
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I am sure that many of you have been following the stunning events in Japan: earthquake, tsunami, meltdown. Our first personal reaction to such events is always concern and sympathy for those swept up in the ongoing human tragedy. The first LDS institutional response, when resources are available, is to forward relief supplies and helping hands to those in need of assistance. But at some later point comes personal and institutional reflection. Is this just the sort of natural tragedy that happens from time to time, or is it a divine sign of the end times? Or both?

tsunamiI am inclined to the natural tragedy view. Some reflective people class such an event as “natural evil,” one branch (along with moral evil and sometimes institutional evil) of the philosophical problem of evil. However, despite reading several books on the topic, I can’t quite internalize the problem of evil. Pairing “evil” with “nature” seems improper to me. We live in a universe and a world governed by the operation of physical laws. Placing a moral evaluation on a natural event seems like a category mistake. Natural events can be tragic for individuals and communities, even on an epic scale, without being evil.

In a similar vein, here’s what I wrote about a year ago in a T&S post titled Beliefs and Causes (with dead links removed):

Take earthquakes. Plate tectonics explains how chunks of continent and sea floor very slowly move, how stress builds at plate boundaries, then eventually releases in earthquakes at faults. We now have a good understanding of the natural processes involved, and seismographs show that for every earthquake felt by human observers there are thousands of tiny quakes and tremors that we would never notice but for these instruments. At the same time, many feel God must somehow be part of the process, at least for big earthquakes that make the news. But if you let your belief in God become mixed up with your sense of what causes earthquakes, you might end up sounding like this recent AP story. First line: “A senior Iranian cleric says women who wear immodest clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes.” Or this LA Times opinion piece, which notes, “The evangelical Christian Pat Robertson suggested that … that this year’s earthquake in Haiti was part of a curse on that island stemming from an 18th century pact with the devil that Haitians allegedly made in exchange for liberty from French slave owners.” [Mormons leaders are more circumspect -- we just send food and shelter.]

Of course, there are other credible LDS views on earthquakes, tsunamis, and natural disasters. In an April 2004 Conference talk titled “Preparation for the Second Coming,” Elder Dallin Oaks included earthquakes as one of nine signs of the Second Coming, then commented:

These signs of the Second Coming are all around us and seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity. For example, the list of major earthquakes in The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2004 shows twice as many earthquakes in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s as in the two preceding decades (pp. 189–90). It also shows further sharp increases in the first several years of this century. The list of notable floods and tidal waves and the list of hurricanes, typhoons, and blizzards worldwide show similar increases in recent years (pp. 188–89). Increases by comparison with 50 years ago can be dismissed as changes in reporting criteria, but the accelerating pattern of natural disasters in the last few decades is ominous.

To his credit, Elder Oaks is not saying God is causing the earthquakes, but not all commentators are as careful in their phrasing as Elder Oaks. There is, strictly speaking, nothing inconsistent with viewing earthquakes as natural events and also viewing them through a religious lens. But there are many angles through that religious lens — the only one I really like is the LDS response of sending relief supplies and helping hands.

[For another personal commentary on this topic, read Wilfried's T&S post "Tsunami" from 2004.]

26 Responses to Tsunami

  1. AHLDuke on March 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    IMO, when we see a major deadly earthquake epicentered in some particularly wicked place far away from any known fault lines (e.g. Florida during Spring Break?), then we can talk about religious causes. The last three major earthquakes (Indonesia, Haiti, Japan) have all occurred exactly where anyone with a plate map could have predicted.

  2. Steve on March 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    According to the USGS, there is no overall increase in earthquakes: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/topics/increase_in_earthquakes.php

    Of note, we’ve only been monitoring activity using seismographs since the late 1800s. Some decades are higher. Some are lower. But, there is no clear evidence of an overall bump in either frequency or intensity except for more smaller quakes being detected.

  3. James Olsen on March 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    One mistake that we often make is attributing a divine endorsement or agency to any divinely inspired prophecy. In this case, if the last days see an increase in natural disasters, this must be because God is directly intervening to increase those occurrences (or how about the whole world turning against Israel in the last days must be because of the wickedness of the world conflicting with the righteousness of Israel – we tend to insert such judgments into the prophecies).

    Also, the very nature of the problem of evil lies within a theistic context. If one’s an atheist then there’s no problem (though there might still be evil depending on how we cash that out). So the reason that natural catastrophes are considered a branch of the problem of evil is because either a) God could intervene but doesn’t; or b) God could have made the world different such that these catastrophes don’t occur (it doesn’t take much to imagine, say, a natural geologic lubricant that prevented any serious earthquakes – surely God could’ve imagined something better). So if we attribute to God a creational or organizational role, then it’s fairly straightforwardly both evil and a problem.

  4. Brad Dennis on March 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    You are right. Dallin H. Oaks is not saying that God is causing earthquakes. But he is suggesting that the supposed increase in natural disasters is a sign of the Second Coming. But as Steve points out there does not actually appear to be any increase. The causes of and incidence of natural disasters is more correctly understood through science, not through religion. Sometimes I get the sense that many in the LDS community, including high-ranking leaders, want there to be an increase in the number of natural disasters, not because they want wicked people to suffer God’s wrath, but merely to be able to use as evidence of the accuracy of future predictions of the scriptures and say ‘the scriptures were right all along you unbelievers, time for you to join our church.’ In some ways it feels like a cheap marketing campaign. I wish that members and leaders alike would treat the connection between natural disasters and the signs of the times more agnostically, if not selective ignore it.

  5. Gdub on March 14, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    This is the clincher:

    Pairing “evil” with “nature” seems improper to me. We live in a universe and a world governed by the operation of physical laws. Placing a moral evaluation on a natural event seems like a category mistake.

    .

    One purpose of mortality is to experience pain and trial and we signed up for that. Just as parents allow their children to leave for school, where innumerable bad things may happen, so our Eternal Father allows us to “come to school” in mortality.

    Now, though because God isn’t actively causing these tragedies, we can still use them as impetus to repent because they are a reminder of the nature of mortality— that is, of indeterminable length and full of challenges we probably don’t want to face alone.

  6. Gdub on March 14, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Ugh, sorry for the code error. Somebody want to put the proper ending to that first blockquote? Thanks.

  7. Dan on March 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    i agree with Steve and Brad.

    oh and right on schedule, no additional commentary needed.

  8. Master Blaster on March 15, 2011 at 12:15 am

    While overall frequency of earthquakes might be the same, I think you could argue that frequency of earthquakes that have a direct negative effect on humanity have increased greatly. I think that is the measurement that is relevant.

  9. Jader3rd on March 15, 2011 at 12:20 am

    While I agree that there hasn’t been a statistical increase in earthquakes (don’t know about volcano’s) we are seeing more extreme weather, and disaster class weather. I haven’t seen an expert report on extreme weather decreasing, I’ve only seen reports on it increasing. http://weather.twincities.com/climate/extreme.asp. Should this be the increase of natural disasters predictied by revelation, I see it fitting in naturally with the rest of the gospel where it’s not God sending judgement, it’s us making bad choices and dealing with the concequences of those choices (this argument assumes that all of the energy we’re pushing into the atmosphere is having a reaction of greater swings in weather). Or it could be God affecting the weather, and mankinds actions have nothing to do with it. Or extreme weather could possibly not be related to the signs of the times at all. Either way, God’s in control.

  10. Cameron N. on March 15, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Directly attributing a disaster to punishment for sin is unwise and is almost certainly only endorsed by the Spirit in the rarest of circumstances.

    However, we know that God allows/causes (which to me is the same thing) disasters to happen to compel his children as a general population to be humble. We also can’t deny the verses in the Doctrine & Covenants that speak of natural disasters as a form of testimony.

    One interesting thought for me is how the horrific events in Japan have affected the humility of the entire world through modern technology. These days, something horrible can happen to any people, any where, and it surely has a humbling impact on many people across the globe, albeit on many different levels.

    We should always be careful though to not pull a Pat Robertson. If the Samoan temple burned because of wickedness, then why did the Nauvoo temple burn? I think Elder Oaks’ counsel to worry about the ‘what’ and not the ‘why’ is very pertinent here, although that talk was about obedience.

    Another lesson to me, is that physical preparation isn’t the important one. Japan was probably the most prepared country for an earthquake as far as physical preparation, but no amount of effort can prevent some catastrophes. We just need to not worry about it too much, and keep the commandments and be reasonably temporally prepared as counseled.

  11. Steve on March 15, 2011 at 12:50 am

    The issue isn’t that storms are increasing. It is that more of us live in areas vulnerable to weather, mostly coastal cities.

  12. James Olsen on March 15, 2011 at 1:14 am

    Cameron N.: Let’s add compassion and work to the “we just need to” list. Too often we use the atonement as justification for an “it will all work out” attitude that results in despicable apathy and inaction, rather than as an impetus for mirroring Christ by taking upon ourselves the suffering of others in order to relieve it. You sound like you’re endorsing the former, but I trust you want to endorse the latter.

  13. Brad Dennis on March 15, 2011 at 1:52 am

    Actually, I am not quite sure where the notion comes from that the increasing number of natural disasters is a sign of the times.

    In Matthew 24:7, Luke 21:11, and Mark 13:8 Jesus says that earthquakes will occur in “divers places,” not that these will physically increase in number. It is an extrapolation from scripture to claim that the supposed increase in the severity and incidence of natural disasters is a sign of the times.

    However, the case can be made that the authors of scriptures did believe that God had a hand in weather, although bad weather was not always a punishment for wickedness, since, according to Jesus, the Father “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45)

  14. Dan on March 15, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Master Blaster,

    While overall frequency of earthquakes might be the same, I think you could argue that frequency of earthquakes that have a direct negative effect on humanity have increased greatly. I think that is the measurement that is relevant.

    That still has nothing to do with prophecy. There are vastly more people on the planet now than ever before. So obviously a natural disaster will harm more people than before.

  15. Dan on March 15, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Brad,

    However, the case can be made that the authors of scriptures did believe that God had a hand in weather

    Indeed, and that could be because they didn’t have the knowledge we have today in physics. I’d be curious to know what the writers of the scriptures thought about the scientists of their day (who happened not to have been religious, or at least in the Judeo-Christian sense). Did they feel the same conflicts as we do today in trying to explain the occurrences of nature?

  16. SilverRain on March 15, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Hah!

    If it’s because of God, there is no increase.

    If there is an increase, it’s because of Global Warming.

  17. Master Blaster on March 15, 2011 at 9:21 am

    That still has nothing to do with prophecy. There are vastly more people on the planet now than ever before. So obviously a natural disaster will harm more people than before.

    I submit even if these earthquakes happened 50 years ago with a lower population in the same place, it will still be considered unusual. Consider the major cities/areas that have virtually destroyed/severely damaged in the past year:

    Port-au-Prince
    Christchurch
    Sendai (5th largest earthquake ever recorded)

    Not to mention 6th largest earthquake of all time in Chile just a few months ago.

    I’m just sayin’, something to consider.

  18. Dan on March 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Master Blaster,

    No doubt those catastrophes are terrible, but they are not occurrences which could not be predicted by science, even the Haiti earthquake. Incidentally, the Haiti earthquake probably happened as strongly as it did because of deforestation. That’s one theory which I tend to agree with. If it was a sign from God of something then the deaths that occurred from the earthquake must have been God’s will. Maybe I totally misread God, but it just doesn’t seem to me that he would purposefully cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of His children. Just from a selfish point of view, seeing that he does mourn when his children are harmed, why would he cause such harm to so many of his children? To convince the survivors of what exactly?

    My view is that God created this world to work in a certain way. In Japan, one plate shifts under the other creating tension and on frequent occasions releasing that tension. The vibration of that energy release thrusts through the earth. That people live on Japan has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not those earthquakes would happen. Very strong earthquakes have struck in remote areas. For instance in 1950, an 8.6 earthquake struck Tibet, and a 9.0 earthquake in 1952 struck Kamchatka in Eastern Soviet Union. If those areas happened to have been populated, we’d say more that they were “signs from God.” But because they happened where people weren’t, we treat them like the tree that fell in the forest.

  19. Brad Dennis on March 15, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Master Blaster, according to the US Geological Survey: “Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant.” Follow the link in Steve’s comment #2. The USGS adds that due to the increase in the number of seismographic stations throughout the world, more earthquakes have been able to have been detected.

    The Christchurch earthquake was tragic as all earthquakes are, but not significant, neither in terms of death toll (166+) nor Richter scale (6.3).

    The Porte-au-Prince earthquake was indeed one of the deadliest earthquakes in history but was still relatively low on the Richter scale (7.0) (compared to 9.5 in Chile 1960, the largest earthquake ever recorded).

    You could say the end of the world should have happened in the 1970s. The Tangshan, China 7.6 earthquake in 1976 had a death toll that exceeded that of Porte-au-Prince, of 250,000. But three weeks later another deadly 8.0 earthquake occurred in the Phillipines which killed some 6,000. Earlier in 1976 there was a 7.5 earthquake in Guatemala that killed 23,000.

  20. Dan on March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Brad,

    don’t forget the Vrancea earthquake in Romania in 1977, which measured 7.2. I happened to have been in that one. :)

  21. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    When God used earthquakes and tsunamis to destroy the more wicked among the Nephites, he prophesied it to Nephi 600 years earlier, then to Samuel the Lamanite a few years before, then confirmed it by a voice from the heavens. Presumably if we have another quake that is specifically acting as an instrument of God’s will, that fact will be foretold to “God’s servants, the prophets.”

    The person who has made the most hay about disasters being man’s punishment for sin is Al Gore, with his 2005 claim that Hurricane Katrina was caused by man-made global warming, an assertion that was the theme for the cover of his book and the DVD of his Oscar-winning presentation. Sadly for Mr. Gore, his forecast of regular warming-caused super hurricanes has fallen totally flat–as has the graph of global average temperatures. Those who continue to try to alarm us over the threat of global warming persist in discarding their credibility by claiming that severe winter snowfall is also caused by global warming, raising the question, is there any kind of weather (hot, cold, wet, dry) that is NOT consistent with global warming? And if not, then why should we worry?

    There are tragic events affecting one person or thousands every day. Surely God will tell us when he is using one of those events to communicate something to us, which is the whole point, after all.

  22. Tim on March 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    It’s clear that human actions make natural disasters much worse. Much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina could have been avoided had natural wetlands been left in place to provide a buffer. As Dan mentioned earlier, much of the damage in Haiti could have been avoided had deforestation not taken place. You can debate global warming and bash Al Gore all you want, but the truth is, human actions (often environmental in nature) do have consequences, and human actions such as deforestation and the filling of wetlands sometimes affect the severity of natural disasters.

  23. kcn on March 16, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Quite an earthquake of Lisbon moment, isn’t it?

    It appears to me that God’s power must be severely constrained in order to dismiss natural evil as a category error. If earthquakes can be removed from the set of things which God can influence or eliminate, then He isn’t responsible for them. Otherwise, it appears that natural evil exists, since God could have engineered a planet with fewer natural disasters (presumably).

    I would be interested to hear more about this “the universe needs earthquakes” theodicy, though.

  24. Robert on March 16, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    “Now learn a parable of the fig tree—When its branches are yet tender, and it begins to put forth leaves, you know that summer is nigh at hand; So likewise, mine elect, when they shall see all these things, they shall know that he is near, even at the doors.”

  25. Robert on March 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    One thing I don’t think anyone’s really said here is that these events might be for *all* of us — not just Japan. As has been mentioned, we need to take great care how we speak of such disasters — obviously there are many good people in Japan, Haiti, New Zealand. But it’s clear to me that God’s hand is over it. Denial of that seems — egregious to me. What seems clear is that, in a global world, God is speaking to us all.

    “O, ye nations of the earth, how often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not!”

  26. Anne Ashera on March 20, 2011 at 12:33 am

    This is the first time in history when so much of the earth has access to viewing natural disasters. If earthquakes are just one of these signs then doesn’t it stand to reason that having the whole world watch sends a beacon to all people that our Father is in control. All people need to head the warning of any natural disaster. Just like with us, when we do not follow the commandments of the gospel we can not receive the blessing due us. Keeping the land from shifting with such severity is a possibly due to our continued ignorance and completely ignoring the warnings and commandments of the gospel. No matter weather it be so called “Global Warming” or just another natural disaster we need to listen and watch for these and use them to motive us to follow the commandments. Most important however is to make sure your personal relationship with the Lord is where it needs to be. There is no reason to fear if this is the case. Helping others to come to the gospel is just as important. Those are the things which we should work toward no matter what happens around us.