Living under the curse & outside the garden
The 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the north-east coast of Japan, left more than 28,000 people dead or missing and knocked out the Fukushima nuclear plant’s cooling system. The reactor’s sea-wall, designed to withstand a 5.5 metre (18 feet) wave, was breached by a surge estimated to be 14 metre (46 feet) high.
Such devastating natural disasters change people’s lives forever. They are dreadful catastrophes which wreak destruction, and tragedies which overwhelm people with great distress and can cause a high death toll. People ask where is God when innocent people suffer and die? How can He allow such calamities to happen? Doesn’t He love people?
Disasters in the Old Testament
Many natural disasters are mentioned in the Old Testament. Most were God’s instrument of punishment. The Bible says that they were God’s judgment against sin. For example, the global flood was God’s judgement of the great wickedness on the earth and the people who rejected Noah’s preaching and continued in their sinful ways (Gen. 6:3-5). God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness; there were fewer than ten righteous people in Sodom (Gen. 18:32).
God brought disastrous plagues on the Egyptians because they persecuted the Jews (Ex. 7:14 – 11:29). Once they escaped, if the Jews didn’t obey the law, God promised disasters (Deut. 28:61). This would be God’s punishment for their idolatry (Deut. 29:16-29; Jos. 24:20); the prophet Jeremiah confirmed this (Jer. 44:1-23). It was a disaster when the Jews were defeated, scattered and captured by the Babylonians. God also promised disasters on many ungodly nations (Jer. 46:21; 49:8, 32; 51:2, 64). And famines occurred, including the 7-year famine when Joseph was in Egypt (Gen. 41:53-57; 47:13-25).
Disasters in the New Testament
Disasters also occurred in the New Testament. There were earthquakes when Christ died, when He came back to life and when Paul and Silas were in prison.
In ancient times it was believed that disasters fell only on those who were extremely sinful. But Jesus taught otherwise when He mentioned “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Lk. 13:4-5). The answer was not that they deserved punishment more that the others, as suffering is not directly proportional to sin. Disasters happen to us all. All are sinners who must turn to God or perish in hell. The massacre of the Galileans who had come to Jerusalem to worship and the collapse of the tower weren’t God’s judgement on their sinfulness; they were warnings to all that unless they repented of their sin, they were doomed to eternal punishment in hell. Disasters are not necessarily God’s judgement, but they are warnings of His coming judgement unless we get right with God.
Jesus also said that the weather doesn’t discriminate between good and bad people. When He taught the disciples to love their enemies He said that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45). The lesson was that God shows His love to people without distinction.
Revelation talks about the horrible disasters that will make life on earth miserable during the coming Great Tribulation (Rev. Chapters 6; 8-18). The Bible says that they will be God’s judgement on the sin of humanity.
Disasters follow sin
After God created the universe, the Bible says “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). There were no disasters and no suffering or pain in the original creation. But after Adam and Eve sinned, God told Adam: “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:17-19). A radical change took place: God’s good creation was placed under a curse. Weeds grew, and nature was out of balance. Adam had to work for food. Death was introduced. Animals and people aged and died. Because of this curse we have disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, bushfires, and droughts today. The world is full of natural disasters because sin has polluted our once-perfect world. That’s not what God planned, but it is a consequence of our rebellion and sinfulness.
Paul described it like this: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children 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 freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:18-23). Here there are more signs of the curse: all creation is under “bondage to decay” and it is groaning and suffering like a woman in childbirth. The scope is “the whole creation” so it affects Christians and the rest of God’s creation.
When people say, “how could a loving God create such a world?” they show their ignorance of history. God didn’t create it that way! We are reaping what Adam and Eve sowed. Life is a struggle for all creation and there is much suffering because we live in a fallen world. It is not what God intended. Disasters are part of the trouble that is inevitable in the sinful world (Jn. 16:33).
God’s response to disasters
What has God done about disasters? He has done something about the sin, suffering and death in our world. He sent Jesus, so that we can have eternal life without these things (Rom. 6:23).
The big picture is visualized in the diagram. God created a perfect world where there were no disasters because there was no sin. This world was changed and spoiled when humanity sinned. We now live under the curse and outside the Garden where there are all kinds of disasters. We live between the fall and the restoration. But God sent His Son to take the punishment for sin by dying for us. Those who accept His rescue plan become part of His new creation where there will be no disasters because there will be no sin. As long as there is sin, there is the curse and there are disasters.
Why does God allow disasters and suffering, when He has promised a new creation without disasters or suffering? Peter wrote, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:8-9). Why the delay? What seems a long time to us is not a long time to God. Because He desires everyone to repent and enjoy the new creation, God has delayed judgment. He is being patient. During this time, we can avoid God’s judgment by confessing our sins and turning to Him, realizing that Jesus has already taken our punishment.
Meanwhile we Christians wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies and look forward to the Lord’s coming reign over the earth (Rom. 8:19, 23). When He returns to set up His kingdom, creation will be released from the curse and will be “very good” once again. The Garden will be restored, the curse will be abolished and there will be no more suffering and disasters (Acts 3:21; Rev. 22:3).
What about Romans 8:28?
Romans 8:28 is set in the context of things to help us through difficult times, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose”. This verse is addressed to believers. God’s purpose, given in the next verse, is to conform us “to the image of His Son”. God wants to make us like Jesus Christ, so we share His character. He wants our lives transformed (2 Cor. 3:18). Everything has this purpose, including disasters, suffering and tragedy. Disasters provide opportunities to grow in our divine nature and become more Christ-like (Eph.4:22-24).
But it can be difficult to balance the physical and spiritual aspects of life. Paul said that God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Here we see that the blessings that are promised to believers are spiritual, not physical. Although disasters, suffering and tragedy might destroy our physical possessions, they don’t take away our spiritual blessings. God gives us what we need, not what we want. After all, Jesus died to save our spirit and soul, not our body. Of course, at the resurrection He gives us new bodies. We know God loves us, not because of how our lives go, but because of Christ’s death at Calvary.
Are disasters a sign of the end times?
When Jesus was asked about the supernatural events (or signs) that would precede His second coming to the earth, He described events that will occur in the time of Tribulation after the Rapture. Some of these events “will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Mt. 24:7b-8; Mk. 13:8; Lk. 21:11). They are not precursors to the Tribulation, but evidence of its presence. These earthquakes are also predicted in Revelation, culminating in devastating earthquakes in Jerusalem (Rev. 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18). As the supernatural events associated with these earthquakes have not yet occurred, these earthquakes are future events.
So, although future earthquakes will be a sign of the end times, I am not aware of a Biblical passage that says that current disasters are a sign of the end times. Of course some people believe that we live in the end times and the Bible says that we need to be expecting the rapture at any moment. Also, we need to realise that no matter when we live, God can call us at a moment’s notice. How do we know that we’ll even be alive tomorrow morning (Lk. 12:16-20)? Our life could end suddenly like the rich fool.
Dealing with disasters
We all will face disasters of some kind, and death sooner or later. The Bible says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Jesus said, unless we repent and turn to God, we will perish in hell. Like in First Aid, we need to look after ourselves before we can help others. Are we ready to face disasters and death? It is presumptuous for us to refer to any disaster as God’s judgment upon this earth. We can’t say this with certainty because God hasn’t told us. When Peter wrote about the end times, which are characterized by disasters, he advised us to keep praying, help the needy, and use our gifts to serve others (1 Pt. 4:7-11). Disasters provide opportunities to help, bring comfort and relief, and pray.
God is with us in disasters
When the Jews faced disasters in the Old Testament times, God said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Is. 43:2). David said, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). David was writing about the valley of the shadow of death–a time of great fear like a disaster, a tragedy, or a crisis. But when he realized that God was with him, he is comforted. Disasters don’t separate believers from God (Rom. 8:35-39). Nothing can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).
The worst is the best
Paul said that “the sting of death is sin” that is unconfessed and unforgiven (1 Cor. 15:56). Because the Lord has forgiven the sins of believers, the sting of death has been removed. That’s how to be ready to face disasters and death. Instead, for the believer, death is the beginning of eternal life. If we know that our sins are forgiven, we can face death with confidence. Like David, we know that God is with us through disasters and “the valley of death”. Death actually ushers us into God’s presence, which is the best thing that can happen! Paul said “to die is gain” because it means we’ll with Jesus (Phil. 1:21). But for unbelievers death is the beginning of eternal punishment and this is terrible. But God is giving plenty of time for people to turn to Him (2 Pt. 3:9).
Lessons for us
We have seen that disasters are a consequence of our sinful world and God is delaying the coming judgement and the perfect world without sin and suffering because He doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell, but everyone to repent so they can go to heaven.
Today disasters are God’s warnings of His coming judgment. They remind us of our need to be right with Him. They remind us that life can be taken away in an instant and there may never be a tomorrow. James warns: “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14). We live in an uncertain world. Disaster and tragedy could strike us at any time. Everything that happens, including disasters, is to bring us to Christ, and make us more like Him. Do we have a right relationship with Him? Live every day as if it will be your last. Those going to sacrifice in Jerusalem didn’t know that would be their last day; those working on the tower of Siloam didn’t know that would be their last day. Likewise, we don’t know if today will be our last. One day that will be true for each of us.
So where is God when disaster strikes? As usual, He is on the throne of the universe, ruling all creation, loving us and caring for us and preparing us for eternity.
Written, April 2011
Living in a world shaped by tragedy and heading for destruction
Disasters such as wars, famines and freak weather events can change the course of our lives. Let’s look at four major disasters, two from the past and two from the future, that bring great tragedy to humanity and the physical world.
The typical sequence of events for a disaster begins with a warning that may include a choice, followed by a cause which initiates the disaster, and a consequence which follows the disaster. The consequence can be immediate, or it can extend into the long-term future. Major disasters can have lifetime consequences that extend to the after-life.
1. The Fall Of Humanity
After God created Adam and Eve, He gave them a warning: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 NIV). So Adam and Eve had a choice: either to follow God or to make their own rules and live without considering God. It was a test of obedience that we all face from time to time. In their case the penalty for disobedience was spiritual and physical death.
The cause of the first disaster on earth was Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God. They failed the test and were the first people to sin. After this they hid from God among the trees in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8); they felt shame, fear and guilt and were separated from God. Later they were banished from the Garden (Gen. 3:23-24).
We all experience some consequences of their action; when they sinned, sin entered the entire human race and decay and death spread to everyone (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). It drastically changed everything in the world: the ground was not so productive and thorns and weeds came into existence (Gen. 3:18); people had to work hard and struggle to earn a living (Gen. 3:17, 19); “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22); there is pain, suffering, illness, tragedy and tears (Rev. 21:4); and humanity is destined to be separated from God, which is spiritual death.
The fall of humanity into sin was the predominant disaster and it has led to the other three disasters. It has affected us all, as we all inherit a rebellious sinful nature, being naturally rebellious and sinful from birth.
2. The Global Flood
Nine generations after Adam and Eve, the wickedness on earth was so great that God was actually sorry he had made people. He used Noah to warn them to change their ways. Noah preached for up to 120 years warning them of God’s judgment if they did not repent (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pet. 3:18-20; 2 Pet. 2:5). The next great disaster was caused by people rejecting Noah’s preaching and continuing in their sinful ways (Gen. 6:5).
God allowed all the underground waters to gush up everywhere, and torrential rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:11-12). Flood water covered the earth for 150 days. “Every living thing that moved on the earth perished – birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind … Only Noah was left, and those with him in the boat” (Gen. 7:20-24).
A global flood destroyed the landscape; living creatures and all land vertebrates died, except those on the boat (Gen. 7:22; 2 Pet. 3:6). It probably also destroyed any evidence of earlier civilization. The landscape was totally changed with the uplift of new mountain ranges and the formation of the continents and oceans as they are today. There was a new start to civilization on earth. As a result of this catastrophe there are huge sedimentary layers across the earth; fossil graveyards have been found and we use fossil fuels for transport and for generating electric power. All this should remind us of the worldwide flood of Noah’s time.
The Bible teaches that the ungodly will be judged by God. The next two disasters concern two aspects of these judgments – namely, events on earth culminating in its destruction, and the eternal state. They are both consequences of rejecting God’s revelation to mankind.
3. The Day Of The Lord
The phrase “day of the Lord” appears in 22 Bible verses, and it refers to any time that God acts in judgment (2 Pet. 3:10). In the New Testament, it means God’s judgment at the end times. It is “a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger – to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:9). It is “a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek. 30:3), when “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” (Joel 2:31).
This coming “day of the Lord” is comprised of two main events – the tribulation, and the end of the world as we know it. The tribulation is a seven year period when God will judge unbelievers living on earth (1 Th. 5:2-3; 2 Th. 2:1-12), ending when He returns in judgment at His appearing in power and glory (Mt. 24:27,30; 2 Th. 1:7-10). Paul warned his generation that the “day of the Lord” was an event yet to come (2 Th. 2:2).
The Bible also teaches that the universe will be destroyed and re-created (2 Pet. 3:7,10,12-13). Everything will be destroyed, and the earth will be renewed and purified through a judgment by fire. Einstein discovered that matter (m) is stored-up energy (E = mc2, c being the speed of light) that can be released in nuclear reactions when matter is converted into vast amounts of energy. There is plenty of energy for a great disaster today, just as there was plenty of water in the early earth.
Of course there are scoffers who laugh at the warning of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pet. 3:3). They say, “You Christians have been threatening us with a terrible judgment upon the world. You tell us that God is going to intervene, punish the wicked and destroy the earth. It’s just nonsense! We have nothing to fear. We can live as we please. There is no evidence God has intervened in history. Why should we believe He ever will?”
But they ignore the biblical and geological evidence of the big flood, and the ancient traditions about it from many nations around the world. As in Noah’s time, people are being warned today of God’s judgment and told about the possibility of being rescued through the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Why the delay in God’s judgment? He is being patient because He does not want anyone to perish, and is giving people more time to repent (2 Pet. 3:9). So far He has waited thousands of years, giving everyone more opportunity to be rescued from the coming two disasters.
The cause of the “day of the Lord” is unbelief and refusal to accept God’s provision for mankind. Those who reject the good news of salvation will be left behind after the Rapture – when Christ comes to take the believers away to heaven as He promised, delivering them from the extreme distress of the tribulation (Dan. 12:1; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).
This day will come upon the unsaved as a thief, by surprise and causing loss (Mk. 13:32; 1 Th. 5:2-3; Rev. 16:15). Because they will not be prepared or ready, they will experience extreme suffering that is “unequalled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equalled again. If those days had not been cut short, none would survive” (Mt. 24:21-22). The terrible consequences for those living at that time are described in the seals, trumpets and bowls of Revelation 6-19. It will be a time of great fear and terror when people will panic and wish they could die rather than face God’s judgment (Rev. 6:15-17). Christ spoke about this time in Matthew 24-25, which culminates in the battle of Armageddon where Christ defeats all His enemies on earth (Rev. 16:14-21).
4. The Lake Of Fire
The Bible says that a “day of judgment” is coming when God will judge the world in justice (2 Pet. 2:9; Acts 17:31). The “lake of fire” is a term to describe the place of everlasting punishment after the final judgment. Jesus also described it with the Greek word “Gehenna,” which was a valley near Jerusalem where a fire was kept burning at the city’s garbage dump (Mk. 9:43; Lk. 12:5).
As in Noah’s time, those who reject the warning of God’s judgment are destined to experience much suffering and pain (Mt. 22:8-13). There are two reasons why: first, they have rejected the true God as revealed in the creation and in their conscience (Rom. 1:18-2:16); secondly, they have rejected the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ (2 Th. 1:8).
The consequence is judgment at the great white throne and being sentenced to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” in the “eternal fire” (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10-15). This “eternal punishment” is called the “second death” (Mt. 25:46; Rev. 2:11; 20:14) where there will be trouble and distress due to God’s wrath and anger (Rom. 2:8-9). The agony is described graphically by the rich man in Luke 16:22-28. The eternal torment and separation from God (2 Th. 1:9) is like an eternal death. There is no possibility of rescue or escape. It is the ultimate disaster that never ends.
The Key To Understanding Our World
Knowing of these four disasters helps us understand the future of our world. We have all been impacted by the Fall (of humanity), which teaches that we are all sinners. Our biggest problem today is that people are generally not aware of sin; the word seems to have been removed from their vocabulary. This is a result of unbelief in the Fall (into sin) as a real, historical event that has drastically altered the earth’s history.
The Fall should remind us that we are not gods or masters of our destiny. If we live as though we are, then our destiny is the lake of fire. Those not aware of the Fall are not aware of their dangerous situation; like the people of Noah’s time, they are on the road to disaster. The Fall was also the ultimate cause of pain, suffering and death. God allows us to experience the consequences of our choices so we will have more time to turn to Him and avoid the lake of fire.
The global flood should remind us that God judges sin, regardless of what humanity may think – remember, the scoffers perished in the disaster. We also see from the Fall and the flood that our choices can have lasting consequences (Gal. 6:7-8).
The day of the Lord and the lake of fire, the two disasters yet to occur, remind us that we are accountable to God. They show that disasters are on the horizon. Are you prepared for them? Those who trust in God will be rescued from them.
Unbelievers are scoffers who haven’t realized they are in danger. Don’t be like those who perished in the great flood. If we trust in God’s provision we can avoid the coming disasters and be prepared for the future – for life after death.
What should be our response as believers when thinking about the disasters facing the world or when facing personal disasters? According to the Bible we should:
- Be clear-minded, alert, prepared, self-controlled, not alarmed, and we should warn others (Mt. 24:6,44; 1 Th. 5:6-8; 1 Pet. 4:7)
- Live by faith and obey God (Gen. 6:22; Heb. 11:7)
- Be holy, pure, godly and at peace (Gen. 6:9; 2 Pet. 3:11,14)
- Encourage one another (Heb. 10:25)
- Look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13)
C. S. Lewis wrote: “God will invade our world … When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the Author walks on the stage the play is over… It will be too late then to choose your side … That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it or not. Today is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us the chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”