It was a typical post-church brunch at the local IHOP. The din of countless conversations and forks clanking against plates filled the restaurant. Then, without warning, the floor beneath us began to quiver. Forks and pancake-stuffed jaws dropped as we waited for the trembling to increase or cease. Breaking the silence, an anxious eater proclaimed the shaking’s cause:
E A R T H Q U A K E !!!
With that bellow the tiny temblor ceased and the rest of us sat in awkward silence before finally digging in to our meals.
Southern Californians know all too well about the initial moment when a quake hits. In that eternal second we try to decipher whether this is just another lame aftershock or “the big one”—the one that will transform homes in the valley into oceanfront properties. We had such a moment yesterday in the early morning hours. Nature’s alarm clock hit at 4:43 AM measuring in at a magnitude of 3.7. Then, as if someone had hit the snooze button, another alarm sounded (a magnitude-3.8 quake) a mere twenty or so minutes later. A 3.8 earthquake—for Californians—is hardly enough to motivate most people out of bed (and, for some, out of slumber). I can’t say the same for the 5.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan yesterday.
Whether large or small, earthquakes remind us that we’re essentially standing on floating plates. When these plates slide past and underneath one another, we get what’s called tectonic activity. As we’ve seen in Haiti (2010) and Japan (2011), such activity can cause widespread destruction—leaving countless people homeless, mourning, and perhaps orphaned. How, then, could anyone view natural disasters, like earthquakes, as anything but evil? And if they’re evil, how does one explain these disasters in light of a good Creator? If God does exist and He is good, why would He allow natural evil in His creation?
We’ve touched on the topic of natural evil (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.) a number of times. Still, the issue continues to come up, and understandably so. As RTB theologian Krista Bontrager puts it, “these tragedies warrant a compassionate and empathetic response, and questions about them deserve serious consideration.” Being “cold or callous about human suffering and loss,” she warns, could shut down the opportunity for meaningful dialogue.
So how does one begin to discuss natural evil? Krista suggests first clarifying that “natural ‘evil’ is a misnomer.” She explains here:
Phenomena such as earthquakes and hurricanes actually prove beneficial for mankind. Planetary scientists, among others, affirm that events such as hurricanes and earthquakes must occur for planet Earth to maintain the delicate balances of atmospheric and other environmental conditions mandatory for human life to exist and survive.
Without earthquakes, for example, life-essential nutrients would “erode off the continents and accumulate in the oceans” and eventually cause land creatures to starve. Tectonic activity helps recycle those nutrients back onto the continents.
Turns out plate tectonics played an important role in early Earth’s history as well. According to astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink, active and widespread tectonics “allowed a youthful Earth to support diverse abundant life.” The diverse abundant life then “quickly transformed Earth’s surface into an environment safe for advanced life.” Advanced life that would eventually be jolted out of bed at four in the morning, shaken (no pun intended) but grateful that the floating plates are doing precisely what they were designed to do.