This whole question of why God allows such awful things to happen is an important theological question that touches every person’s life at one point or another. The 9/11 attacks and now this tsunami disaster bring this question all the more to the forefront, as the reality of death is magnified so greatly by the sudden loss of so many lives. It’s not as if suffering and death aren’t already a daily reality on a much smaller scale for the sick, the dying, the murdered, suicides, accidental deaths, etc. But most of the time we can try to avoid facing this reality of death. However, when these tsunamis struck, the reality of death was thrust in our faces again, and we could not ignore it. So it is important that we Christians know how to look at death and disaster “Biblically”; but we must do so in a correct way.
The man in the airport was not wrong in pointing out that the Bible prophesies great natural disasters for the end times. Here are some passages that say as much: “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28). Jesus also said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:7-8). Also in Revelation, the parallel visions of the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls each give accounts of the destruction that will come in the end times.
So we know that these disasters are in fact in keeping with what the Bible prophesies about the end times. But a very important point to notice is that the End Times began when Christ ascended and continue till He returns. They didn’t just begin now; the Christians in the first century A.D. had the same prophecies and warnings, and witnessed similar disasters in their lifetimes as they waited in expectation for Christ’s return.
But now to address the error in this man at the airport’s thinking. Is it right for us as Christians to assume that those people in Southeast Asia were worse sinners because they suffered in this way? Was God dealing out a specific punishment on those people in response to some certain sins? The first place I remembered to look in my Bible when considering this question, was Luke 13:1-5. There two tragic events were discussed that could easily be paralleled to the 9/11 attacks and the tsunami disaster. Here’s the text, “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The murder of the Galileans by Pilate is similar to the 9/11 murders, and the accidental collapse of the tower of Siloam is much like the disaster that killed well over 150,000 unsuspecting people. The point is not the scale of the disasters, but the question Jesus asks, “Do you think they were worse sinners?” Were those in the towers at 9/11, or the people of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, etc, worse sinners than all the others in this world? “No,” Jesus answers, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” No, they were not worse sinners, and no they weren’t punished—as the man at the airport supposed—because they had really p****d somebody off.
This man had made one of the most common mistakes that believers have made throughout the ages: to make a one-to-one correlation between suffering or disaster with God dealing out punishment for some specific sin. And the accompanying mistake is to believe that if you are a good person and a good Christian, therefore you shouldn’t encounter such suffering or disaster. There were indeed times when God did punish sin directly, such as the Flood, but in those instances God clearly announced beforehand a warning of the disaster to come. However, by and large throughout all history, God has not dealt with us in that way. Rather, good and evil things seem to come upon believers and unbelievers alike, regardless. (cf. Matt 5:45)
The book of Job is a prime example of this, where Job is a righteous believer who suffers the enormous loss of his possessions, his children, and his health. Yet amid this suffering he still had faith in his Redeemer, and showed remarkable humility in saying, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Job’s friends, like the man in the airport, tried to explain Job’s suffering by saying that he had committed some specific sin that God was punishing him for; but in the end, God rebuked those ‘friends’ of Job, saying to them “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, and my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). They were wrong to entirely equate good fortune here on earth with God’s favor and ill fortune with God’s punishment. Suffering came on Job to test his faith, not as a punishment for sin. Likewise believers today are told by Jesus to expect sufferings and trials and persecutions for their faith. It is certainly not true that bad things only happen to bad people.
So what should we learn then, from the tsunamis and other disasters, or even the day-to-day death and suffering that may touch us at different times? We learn what Jesus said in the passage I quoted above, that they were not worse sinners, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5). They were sinners, just like us—not worse. But these disasters, like the Tower of Siloam in Luke 13, and like the death that is a daily reality for humankind all around, these are warnings for us to repent, lest we perish in our sins. God does not desire to lose anyone to their sins, because He sent His only Son Jesus to die for the sins of the whole world. After paying so much, He longs passionately for every lost sinner. That is why He has delayed Christ’s return for so long, because “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God does not desire to lose anyone, so don’t think that He doesn’t mourn the loss of every sinner who died without knowing their Savior. God has mourned the death of men from disasters and wars and famines that have happened throughout history, that we never even knew. God says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).
The correct Biblical view of such death, of all death, is that God wants us to realize the shortness of our existence on earth, and how sudden death can be. Therefore He wants us to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus for our salvation, so that when death takes us from this vale of sorrows that Christ would carry us to eternal life. And He has given us His Word that we might also share this warning with others, and point them to the One True God Jesus Christ, who has taken away the sting of death.