In November of my freshman year at college, we received the news about a tragedy that occurred at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. Days of torrential rains had weakened the earthen dam holding back 139 million gallons of Kelly Barnes Lake overlooking the TFC property. In the middle of the night, the dam burst and a monster wave headed straight for the Christian college campus. A 30-foot wall of water roared over the top of the waterfall, carrying boulders and tree trunks as it destroyed everything in its path. The raging floodwaters smashed into the campus, killing at least 39 people. Students were trapped in dorm rooms, suffocating under mud and water. Trailers were flipped and demolished. The pictures we saw were horrifying.
Many of these students were mission-minded, intending to serve the Lord in local churches or on the mission field. These were good people. Why would God allow them to die?
This wasn’t the cause of evil done by man, either. This was an act in nature, or as some people might say, “an act of God.”
Why, oh, why are there horrible things like floods, tornadoes and earthquakes?
I won’t cheapen the discussion by giving you my opinion. The only way we can approach satisfaction is by seeing what God Himself says through His Word. I see two powerful passages that deal directly with it in a no-nonsense way.
I first see that God has allowed the earth to show sin’s results; He has let creation display the repercussion that evil has brought. Much the way the tragic presentation of a car accident is tangible evidence of drunken driving, the natural disasters are evidence of what mankind’s rejection of God has done to us all. I am intrigued by the teaching of Romans 8:19-21:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
When man fell into sin due to his rejection of God’s invitation, the result had worldwide consequences – in the literal sense. Nothing escaped the malfunctioning we brought on, including the world we inhabit. Rather than glory and perfection, the earth’s natural disasters show its frustration and decay. Sin brings the individual death and suffering; it also brings the world earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and other painful results. We wait for deliverance from this, and guess what – so does creation. The same passage tells us that the creation around us “groans” and “travails” and awaits the delivery. The allegorical implication to the birth of a child is powerful. Our earth is not in dying pain – it’s in birthing pain.
There’s a second thing I see – a lesson we’re supposed to take from this. So how does this ‘natural disaster’ thing work? Do people who are more spiritual get to hang around and dodge the bullets of earthly catastrophe?
That very question came up in the thirteenth chapter of Luke. People were asking about calamity and trying to figure out whether this is a universal lottery – if your number comes up and you’re not spiritual ready, you get the axe.
In answering them, Jesus addressed a well-known incident where a tower in Siloam collapsed, crushing eighteen people. “Do you suppose they weren’t as holy as others?” No, he says, it’s to get your eyes on your mortality – and prepare for eternity. “Repent, or you too will perish”. Does He mean that if we don’t straighten up we’ll have a tower fall on us – or a tornado sweep us away? No, Jesus patiently teaches, the key is to repent. The whole lesson is to prepare yourself for the life beyond and make your decision on where you want to go. You want God? Then follow His plan of salvation. You don’t want God? That’s your choice entirely. But mark the truth that was whispered to the greatest Roman conquerors by the slaves who accompanied them in their victory parade: memento mori – “You too shall die.”
The second century saint, Irenaeus felt that something you might call “soul-making” comes out of suffering. He felt that God allows disasters to occur, because people’s suffering leads to righteousness. I am not sure how far I would follow that line of reasoning, but I do know that these incidents bring people to a standstill, to a time where they take stock of the brevity of life. Remember how many people packed into your church after 9-11? Sure you do – you no doubt set attendance records. Of course that was not a natural disaster, but you get the idea – people whispered the oft-repeated phrase to themselves: That could have been me.
If it would have been, would you have been able to face the God of all eternity?
Catastrophes often wake us up to a vision of getting right with God.
In my high school years, a teammate on our wrestling squad was victim to a tractor accident. Only a month after his high school graduation, John lay in an ambulance, bleeding to death. His final words to his mother were “I know I’m dying. I’ll see you in Heaven.”
His words had an impact.
I know, because they impacted me.
They were the catalyst for me to take stock of my life and realize I was in need of salvation in Jesus. It wasn’t long before I knelt in my bedroom and made a decision to turn my life over to the Savior.