At 2:46 P.M. on Sunday, March 11, horns sounded across the entire island nation of Japan. People everywhere stopped and bowed their heads in a minute of silence. Special ceremonies throughout the country commemorated the devastating disaster that occurred at the same time one year ago.
The disaster came in three waves. The first wave, an earthquake measured at 9.0, the largest in Japan’s history, shook the northeast of Japan violently. Although quite familiar with earthquakes, Japanese communities witnessed excessive damage.
The second wave, a giant tsunami, first reached the coast in less than 30 minutes after the earthquake hit. The wall of water, peaking at 133 ft. in one location, carried boats, cars and houses inland, as far as six miles. It left over one million buildings partially damaged or completely collapsed.
The third wave resulted from the first two. The eleven reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant automatically shut down with the earthquake. The tsunami overflowed into the plant, drowning emergency backup power systems. Radioactive rods began a meltdown process that leaked radiation into the surrounding region. Official had to evacuate over 200,000 people surrounding the plant.
The death toll soared to 15,854, with 3,155 people still missing. Early estimates calculated over 500,000 people displaced, with 340,000 still homeless today. Crews have removed nearly 25 million tons of rubble, leaving hundreds of square miles of empty land. Reconstruction has begun, but it will take many years before the affected communities recover. Some never will.
Natural disasters of this magnitude create theological upheaval, especially for those who already seriously doubt the existence of a benevolent God. They refuse to accept any theistic explanation for this kind of human tragedy. They can only see unnecessary and undeserved human suffering.
Science can explain the disorder with its laws of physics. These laws resulted from years of careful observation and calculation. They cannot explain anything like origin or purpose, however. Christian theology would never deny the explanations of good science. And good theology would never try to give more explanation to the causes of the disorder than what God reveals.
Accepting that God has revealed himself in the Bible, Christian theology argues that natural disasters are really unnatural. God originally created the universe with a harmony that would never allow destructive forces to oppose human existence. He placed humans in that paradise with the authority and ability to rule over the creation, giving order to natural forces for further creation and reproduction.
The humans upset the equilibrium by rejecting God’s authority and disobeying his command. When sin entered the world, its devastating effects reached beyond humans. God placed the entire creation under a curse as part of the penalty for the humans’ disobedience. This curse violently disrupted the harmony of the creation, leaving it subject to destructive forces.
The apostle Paul describes the unnatural disorder this way, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption … For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Romans 8:22
Some natural disasters in history have served as a specific divine punishment. The plagues on Egypt recorded in Exodus, for example, resulted from Pharaoh’s refusal to obey God’s demand to let Israel leave Egypt. The concentration of these disasters suggests direct intervention by God to cause the plagues, using scientific laws. Through the plagues, God demonstrated his authority over Pharaoh and his superiority over Egypt’s gods.
We can confidently assert this explanation because God revealed the cause and purpose to Moses. Science could offer no help in this explanation. Whether one believes that Moses provided an accurate interpretation of his experiences, and the record of his interpretation has survived several millennia is another matter.
Good Christian theology will not try to overstep God’s revelation and suggest cause or purpose that God has reserved for himself. Why God allowed Japan to suffer such horrific tragedy we cannot answer. But we can affirm that nothing in the universe happens apart from his sovereign and good purposes. (“For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Romans 11:36)
Japan’s devastation somehow fits into the purposes of God. God is not only benevolent, but he is also holy and just (also revealed in the Bible). And he can create beauty out of ashes. He can make all things, even earthquakes and tsunamis, work together for good for those who know and trust him (Romans 8:28). It is up to each person in Japan, through faith, to discover the good that God intended for him or her.