An earthquake of magnitude 6.3 struck my hometown at 12:51pm this afternoon. I don’t live in Christchurch anymore, but I heard about it within 10 minutes. We were on our way to Auckland airport at the time. Christchurch had a major quake last September and about a thousand aftershocks since then, so I didn’t realize today’s one was a serious disaster until I saw a photo on an Internet terminal at the airport. It was a picture of the Christchurch Cathedral in ruins. This is the city’s most famous landmark and it had survived last year’s bigger quake. Now it looks like a bomb hit it.
At the airport we heard the announcement that all flights to Christchurch had been cancelled. On our way home we heard that there were likely to be many fatalities and injuries. We prayed for God’s peace to be on the city and for wisdom for the search and rescue teams. Already there have been a few stories of miraculous escapes and rescues. But as I write this, some six hours later, the number of dead is 65 and climbing.
This Sunday New Zealanders will go to church looking for answers. The pressure on pastors to deliver a message of hope in the face of disaster will be enormous. For some questions there will be no answers this side of eternity. We serve a God of mystery and we live in a time of uncertainty. But here are four questions that every Christian should be able to answer at a time of crisis such as this:
1. Is God judging Christchurch?
No, no, and a thousand times no! After last year’s earthquake several Christians told me that God was judging Christchurch for its sins. The logic usually runs like this: There was a move of God in Christchurch in the late 1960s and 1970s that led to much fruit (including me!). But since then the church has withered and darkness has flourished. Connect the dots and it’s easy to see that God has had enough, that these earthquakes are His divine judgments for the sins of the city and the apathy of the church.
Only they’re not. How do I know? How can I be so sure of God’s purposes for Christchurch? Because I’ve seen Jesus! And because Isaiah 54:9 tells us that God is not angry with Christchurch or any other city. The three chapters of Isaiah 53-55 are a prophetic picture of the new covenant forged in the blood of Christ. At the heart of that new covenant is an oath made by God Himself, a promise never again to be angry with us. If there’s one thing we can stand on in this brittle world, it is the steadfast assurances of our Father. Read it, then take look at the next verse:
“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed.” (Is 54:10)
Just look at the language God is using here. It’s as if He was anticipating that in times of shaking we would naturally think He had abandoned us. But He is saying, I have not!
It’s true, Christchurch did have a sin problem. But God dealt with it 2000 years ago at the cross. The cross – not earthquakes – is God’s remedy for sin. The sins of Christchurch were forgiven, done away with, and abolished long before the first settlers walked the Bridle Path over the foothills (Heb 9:26, AMP). If God were judging Christchurch for its sins, then heaven help us all, for it means the cross was not the one-time solution that the Bible says it was (Heb 10:12).
2. Is this earthquake an “act of God”?
You might think so if you work for the Earthquake Commission. In the insurance industry, the phrase “act of God” is used in a legal sense to describe events that are outside of human control. In other words, you can’t sue anyone for an earthquake. But despite the phrase, it doesn’t follow that you can sue God. He’s no more responsible than you or I. If you were to take Him to court claiming He was at fault, your case would be thrown out for lack of evidence.
You might say, “But God made the planet and the tectonic plates. Surely He is the first cause of all things and therefore personally responsible for the death and destruction in Christchurch?” I disagree. God is on the throne and nothing will ever change that. But He is not in control of everything that happens here on Planet Earth.
Think about it. God is not willing that any should perish, yet people perish. The fact that Jesus raised people from the dead tells us that some people die prematurely. In the Old Testament when bad things happened, people like Job blamed God as a matter of course. But this was not the message Jesus preached (see Jn 10:10). Sickness is not from God. Death and destruction are not from God. We live in a world where God Himself occasionally has to rebuke storms (Lk 8:24). Sadly, stuff happens and people die. It’s a tragedy that is not helped by playing the blame game.
We live after the cross, so we have no excuse for being confused about these things. God is good and everything He does is good. He never gives us bad gifts and He is not the author of evil (Deut 32:4). If the earthquake were an act of God, then you’d be sinning by helping the hurting and the homeless. But it wasn’t and you’re not.
Does God use earthquakes? You bet. He used an earthquake to free Paul and Silas from prison (Acts 16:26). But don’t confuse bad stuff that happens with redemptive outcomes. And don’t buy into the “God is sovereign” mantra either. This is nothing more than old fashioned fatalism that leads to passivity. The last thing Christchurch needs right now is for Christians to be cloistered away wringing their hands wondering whodunnit?
3. Doesn’t the Bible say there would be more earthquakes in the last days?
In Matthew 24 Jesus prophesied that “earthquakes in various places” would be associated with “the beginning of birth pains.” Earthquakes often followed major events in the Bible. When Jesus died there was an earthquake (Mt 27:54) and when He rose there was another one (Mt 28:2). About half a dozen earthquakes feature in the book of Revelations. You don’t have to be a theologian to see a connection between significant spiritual events and natural phenomena. But whatever your particular brand of eschatology, these scriptures should not be used, as they often are, to scare people into making decisions for Christ. Why not? Because fear is a poor basis for any relationship.
God is reaching out to Christchurch (and your city) with love. God is not a fear-monger. God is love. If we use fear to motivate people to turn to God, we are misrepresenting His true nature. There is a temptation to manipulate hurting people into making an emotion-charged decision for Christ. Don’t do it. Romans 2:4 tells us that the most effective means for leading people to repentance is a revelation of His goodness. How do we reveal that? By preaching the good news, healing the sick and comforting the broken-hearted. Dark times provide us with an opportunity for letting Christ shine through us.
4. What message does God have for Christchurch at this time?
There’s nothing like an earthquake to get people’s attention. Do you know that God has entrusted us with a special message for the people of Christchurch? It’s called His message of reconciliation. This is how He might say it at a time like this:
“Christchurch, I love you, I love you, I love you!
“I love you so much that I sent my Son to die on the cross to do away with sin. Through Him I have reconciled you to myself. I am not counting your sins against you and I am not judging you. You are weary but I am your rest. Take comfort in the arms of my everlasting love for you. I am your Rock, your Fortress and Deliverer. I am your eternally secure Stronghold.
“Cities will come and cities will go, but my love for you is everlasting. The mountains and the hills will be shaken and removed, but my unfailing love for you will never be shaken. Be comforted and rejoice! The covenant of my peace that I have made with my Son on your behalf will never be removed.”
Redeem the time. If you meet someone from Christchurch, don’t condemn them with a false “gospel” of judgment. Love on them. Reveal the Father to them. Cantabrians have had five straight months of bad news. They need to hear some good news and you have some. Tell them about God’s unshakable covenant of peace. Let them know that some of their questions have wonderful answers.