Where was God when the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004? Is God useless in a crisis? What is the fate of those who perished? As we face such questions, it helps to rehearse the basic principles of our Christian faith.
Some of the religious leaders at the time of Christ saw most instances of mass human destruction and untimely death as God’s judgment against sinners. Christ condemned such uncharitable explanations, saying that those who so judge should repent of their hurtful attitudes. He said that victims of tragedy are not worse sinners than others.
Even today, some writers and speakers judge victims in the same way as those religious leaders did — but Christ’s instruction remains, that we should turn to God and stop judging others (see Luke 13:4).
That life is unfair is part of the human condition. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 tells us that “time and chance” happens to us all, “like fish taken in a cruel net.” God does not plan out in advance all the details of our lives and then make them happen. Time and chance are part of the very fabric of the universe, the way God freely chose to make things.
What God did plan in advance and bring to pass was to send Christ for the redemption of the world (Revelation 13:8b). In Christ, we have been freed from sin, and that freedom enables us to trust God for our lives and for the lives of others. It also enables us to trust God to give us what we need to endure suffering. In Christ’s love, we have hope that goes beyond death, and we have courage to reach out to help others in times of need.
The Christian message is that through Christ’s wounds and sacrifice God understands our suffering and pain. Matthew 25:35-40 reminds us that Jesus identifies with victims. In helping someone in desperate need it is as if we are helping Jesus himself. Mother Theresa of Calcutta interpreted it this way: “When we touch the sick and the needy, we touch the suffering body of Christ” (Mother Theresa: In My Own Words. 1910-1997, page 26, compiled by Jose Luis Gonzales-Balado, published in 1996 by Gramercy Books, New York).
In Christ, our response to calamity and evil is a reflection of God’s infinite compassion. As we pray for the survivors, we participate in Christ’s love and compassion for those who suffer. Prayer gives voice to love. In Christ’s love, we pray for all those who grieve, whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, whose health is in danger because of possible disease, who need to rebuild their shattered existence.
We pray that they may find comfort and courage in God. And, as we are able, we give to help them in their desperate need. Acts 10:4 shows us that our prayers and our almsgiving — giving of our substance to those in need — are a memorial before God. God tells us that he does not take pleasure in the physical death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:32). In fact, God hates death and
will destroy it.
So what happened to all those who perished in the tsunami, and to the nearly 3,000 who were killed in New York on 9/11? Or to the estimated 3.1 million who died of AIDS in 2004? What about the 937,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates who were slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide attempts of the 1990s? And the reported 240,000 deaths in Chechnya since 1994? Or to the teenage pregnant girl who bled to death in some backstreet abortion? Are all these people lost to God? We know that the Christians who perished are with the Lord, but what about those who, as far as we know, never had the chance to receive or reject Jesus Christ? Are they gone forever?
God reveals himself in the Bible as loving the world, and as sending his Son into the world not to condemn it but to save it (John 3:16-17). If God is anything, he is mercy. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). The answer to the question lies in the mercy of God.
In Psalm 88, David wonders whether death signifies the abandonment of God, and then in Psalm 139 he refutes that idea and proclaims that the Spirit of God finds us even in the grave. Similarly, in Ecclesiastes 3, the writer, called the Preacher, queries what happens to a person’s spirit or soul. Then, in chapter 12:7, he asserts that the “spirit will return to God who gave it.” Dead or alive, human beings are in the hands of the merciful God. The Bible tells us that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
God is faithful to his covenant love. In his faithfulness God sent his Son to die for us while we were still sinners. In his faithfulness, God loved us even before we loved him. In his faithfulness, God reconciles to himself the world he created (Colossians 1:19-20).
Because of God’s faithfulness, we can put all our trust in him. We can trust him to be who he says he is. He is the God who loves the world, who redeems the world, and who in Christ has shared in human suffering. He is the God who promises that beyond death, in the new creation he has prepared for us, we will see our Lord Christ as he is. In Christ, we can rest in God’s word of faithfulness concerning his mercy and grace for all his creation, for all people, even for those who may die without yet having met Christ.
The tsunami was not Judgment Day. Only God can decide how Judgment Day plays out, and the Bible tells us that God has decided that the final result of Judgment Day is that there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
The Song of Solomon says, “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the floods drown it” (8:7). Neither can tsunamis, earthquakes, diseases, violence or war. God’s love is the hope of humanity. And nothing separates anyone from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Nothing.
Author: James Henderson