December 26, 2004 in the Indian Ocean was relatively uneventful till 7:58:53 local Indonesian time. Then 160km off the west coast of Sumatra the fourth largest earthquake since 1900 struck. Thirty kilometres below sea level an estimated 1200 kilometres of fault-line slipped when the edge of the Burma plate rose above the Indian plate.

Physically, What Happened?

The sudden vertical motion of the seabed lifted massive volumes of water. The release of enough energy to boil 150 litres of water for every inhabitant on earth was converted into destructive waves radiating out from the entire length of the rupture. These waves, initially moving faster than a jet plane, then slowing but gaining awesome height—up to 15metres—as they moved through shallower coastal waters, smashed into the unprotected shores of countries on the rim of the Indian Ocean . Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand were most severely hit, some villages being literally wiped off the map (see picture p61, Banda Aceh Before and After). With a death toll above 220,000 the 2004 tsunami was the deadliest in recorded history.

Global Psychological Impact in Perspective—Bigger But the Same

This great tsunami has caused a “shared sense of identity” as men have realised it could have just as easily been “one of us”. The surprisingly generous giving by rich countries (whoever before heard of a cricket match raising $14.5 million!) indicates a sense of shared vulnerability. And well it might to us too. As mortal humans we are vulnerable and fearful.

There is, however, need for perspective here. The death of more than 220,000 people in one day, though very sad, is not at all exceptional. Sadly, each and every day of the year, at least this number1 normally die throughout the earth, though not en masse. But through huge media publicity this event has touched heartstrings largely untouched by recent—and even larger— disasters, such as the death of one million people in the hideous conflict in Sudan or the tsunami-equivalent loss of life in five months of man-made conflict in the Congo. And historically, what of the forgotten 225,000+ Chinese who died in the Tangshan earthquake in 1976? Believers need to remember that human history has often been punctuated by many such disasters no less significant and all potentially learning experiences to those who seek wisdom.

In Christ’s day, the slaughtered Galileans and those crushed by the tower of Siloam were not exceptional sinners. But the huge lesson from these incidents when “innocent” lives were lost is the same lesson that the tsunami must have for all who would learn: “but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).

Sadder than the magnitude of the catastrophe is surely the fact that the unsuspecting victims didn’t simply die—they perished: they died for evermore, just as Noah’s contemporaries (2 Pet 3:6). For all who would learn from this catastrophe, the issue of the tsunami is not just death (which inevitably overtakes ALL mankind) but of perishing without hope. People perish not simply because they die: they perish because they die without the hope of Israel.

The Almighty’s Use of Powerful Natural Phenomena to Shape History

Was this tsunami revealing the God of judgment at work? Or was it a case of time and chance? We do not know. The point that Jesus made about catastrophe is that we need to concern ourselves with changing our lives before it is too late, rather than worrying about the reason behind the disaster. But we can take disaster as a warning that God has unlimited power and as a sure sign that He is about to unleash it.

It is clear that God at times has used natural processes including weather and earthquakes to progress His purpose with Israel. The nation of Israel was established by angelic control of natural events in Egypt. The journey to Canaan and its conquest were accompanied by extraordinary angelic manipulations of ‘natural’ forces, including earthquake (eg fall of Jericho). Of a time almost one and a half millennia later it could be said, “Perhaps no period in the world’s history has ever been so marked by these convulsions [earthquakes] as that which intervenes between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem.”1 Over the next two millennia, climatic change certainly contributed to the prophesied desolation of the land of Israel.

The history of the nations has also witnessed the intervention of God’s hand via weather and earthquake. The Flood and the volcanic destruction of Sodom are the classic examples of direct Divine judgment by natural disasters. Others were at least warnings. Gibbon wrote that in AD365, the year before the start of the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, most of the Roman world was shaken by a violent earthquake that caused a tidal wave (ie tsunami) in the Mediterranean Sea: waters retreated and returned with force, severely deluging the coasts of Sicily, Dalmatia, Greece and Egypt. Not surprisingly the calamity astonished and terrified the subjects of Rome. Later in history (1780s) unprecedented hurricane, volcano and earthquake activity occurred in the decade leading up to the French revolution, as signs of an imminent massive political upheaval. In 1812 the cold of the Russian winter destroyed Napoleon’s army, thus limiting Napoleon’s work in bringing God’s judgments on Roman Catholicism. Last century, extraordinary weather conditions played a significant role in the winning of World War 2 by the allies.

Brother Tony Benson2 concludes that though natural disasters are not restricted to our day, we can “expect earthquakes in our times on the principle that… times of overthrow at God’s hand in the kingdom of men are preceded by earthquakes as signs and warnings.” No doubt in our day God’s powerful hand will continue to shape the geopolitical landscape by “natural” catastrophes. Features are in place. For example, it is reported that Cumbre Vieja Volcano in the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean is set up to cause a landslide which would cause a mega-tsunami that would flatten the coast of Florida and cause multi trillions of dollars in damage. Could this be one of the ‘angels’ time bombs’?

Our Personal Responses? Compassion

The images of children in hastily erected orphanages in Banda Aceh, who had lost their entire family including grandparents were heartbreaking. They cried these giant tears of fear and loss and helplessness. As individuals, were we able to at least enter into their feelings, and to feel a terrible sadness for this whole world? If not, had our compassion gone on holiday? In a snapshot of all human history, the Apostle Paul depicts the sorry state of mankind in Romans 8:18–23—the whole creation groans and travails in pain, the birth pangs growing stronger and stronger UNTIL the birth, creation’s redemption. The sense of sorrow we feel at the tsunami disaster can act to promote a stronger sense of yearning for the times of refreshing (Acts 3:19).

Preaching

Perhaps this tsunami has highlighted to many of us that we don’t know quite what to say to people around us, to our neighbours. Surely the message of the Gospel is clear: there is good news only via the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s simple really. Take courage, brethren— the humanistic view that humans must all be valuable to God is not Biblical.

Reading the Signs—Heeding the Warnings

It all happened on a normal Sunday. Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all of the victims were taken completely by surprise. By contrast, one of the few coastal areas to evacuate ahead of the tsunami was the Indonesian Island of Simeulue, very close to the epicentre. Island folklore recounted an earthquake and tsunami in 1907 and the islanders fled to inland hills after the initial shaking—before the waves struck. Let us remember Christ’s warnings and take evasive action, metaphorically fleeing into the mountains, the spiritual high country, to be spared perishing in ‘the big tsunami’.

Failure to interpret God’s signs as warnings to repent may mean eventual exposure to similar natural disasters. In perishing, those rejected at the judgment seat of Christ will return back into an absolutely chaotic world to ‘take their chances’ without Yahweh’s protective hand. Were 220,000 lives wasted without effect on the children of God? Repentance means doing something Godly with our lives while we have opportunity, to “put our lives in order” (Bro F Abel, EOYS 2004).

Thankfulness, Encouragement Yet Warning

That the lives of the local brethren and sisters in Christ were wonderfully preserved in the tsunami must be a cause of thanksgiving. Ultimately it is true that “Yahweh preserves all them that love Him, but all the wicked will He destroy” (Psa 145:20). He will save such as be of a contrite spirit (Psa 34:18). Thanks be to God.