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An Act of God?: Answers to Tough Questions about God's Role in Natural Disasters

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Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Why does God allow such disasters to happen?
Our hearts ache when we remember the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless and without hope when Hurricane Katrina crashed against the Gulf Coast. Or the staggering death toll in Japan after the island’s earthquake and tsunami swept away entire villages.

Whether we see the devastating accounts of a natural ...

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An Act of God?: Answers to Tough Questions about God's Role in Natural Disasters

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Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Why does God allow such disasters to happen?
Our hearts ache when we remember the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless and without hope when Hurricane Katrina crashed against the Gulf Coast. Or the staggering death toll in Japan after the island’s earthquake and tsunami swept away entire villages.

Whether we see the devastating accounts of a natural disaster in the news or personally face a catastrophe, we find ourselves asking, are these truly the acts of a loving and compassionate God?

In An Act of God? (an updated edition of the previously published Where Was God?), pastor and bestselling author Erwin W. Lutzer tackles this tough subject head-on, offering real answers as well as comfort and hope to those who struggle with challenges to their faith. In doing so, he addresses the questions we all ask, including:
Does God care about what happens in this world? Do natural disasters mean God is angry with us? Can we still trust God? What, if anything, can we say to those who are suffering?
If you’ve ever felt helpless and confused by the horrors of natural disasters, devastation, or loss, step inside these pages where you’ll get to know the real face of God—and find the answers to some of life’s most difficult questions. Tyndale House Publishers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781414364940
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/16/2011
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 1,218,278
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Answers to tough questions about God's role in natural disasters

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Erwin W. Lutzer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4143-6494-0

Chapter One


Everything comes from God and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. ROMANS 11:36

"No, God! No, God! No, God!"

Those were the words of a man who apparently thought God had something to do with Hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005. He was one of many who prayed as he climbed into his attic to wait out the storm and the high waters. Many people who had not prayed in years (if ever) called out to God when that tragedy struck.

Fast-forward six years and listen to this report from the Associated Press on Friday, March 11, 2011, after the offshore earthquake and resultant tsunami that rocked Japan:

For more than two terrifying, seemingly endless minutes Friday, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan shook apart homes and buildings, cracked open highways and unnerved even those who have learned to live with swaying skyscrapers. Then came a devastating tsunami that slammed into northeastern Japan and killed hundreds of people.

The violent wall of water swept away houses, cars and ships. Fires burned out of control. Power to a cooling system at a nuclear power plant was knocked out, forcing thousands to flee. A boat was caught in the vortex of a whirlpool at sea.

The death toll rose steadily throughout the day, but the true extent of the disaster was not known because roads to the worsthit areas were washed away or blocked by debris and airports were closed....

Large fishing boats and other vessels rode the high waves ashore, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. A fleet of partially submerged cars bobbed in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.

The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing direction and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea.

A marketing employee in Tokyo is quoted in the same article as saying, "I thought I was going to die."

Or think of the tornadoes that hit the southern part of the United States during the last week of April 2011, leaving over 340 people dead across seven states, with over 250 of those deaths in Alabama alone. This tornado storm system was the deadliest since March 18, 1925, when 747 people died. An eighty-two-year-old man in Alabama said, "I give God credit" for surviving the storm, but he is struggling as he attempts to recover belongings from his destroyed home.

Across many of those same states, severe tornadoes had already destroyed lives back in May 1999. Stories abounded: a two-year-old child ripped from his father's hands, thrown dozens of feet into the air before being slammed against the ground as a tornado tore through his family's home; thou sands of homeless families sifting through rubble. In one instance, a huge funnel cloud skipped across the ground for four hours, killing at least forty-three people and destroying more than fifteen hundred homes and hundreds of businesses. That 1999 storm was classified EF5, the most powerful tornado there is, with winds of more than 250 miles per hour. Twelve years later, another EF5 tornado decimated Joplin, Missouri, taking 160 lives.

Or consider the tsunami that hit Indonesia the day after Christmas in 2004, killing hundreds of thousands of people and inflicting terrible suffering. An earthquake in the middle of the Indian Ocean set a massive wave hurtling across the surface until it smashed into the coastline full of unsuspecting people.

Or what about earthquakes? In Haiti, a year after the earthquake that decimated the country in January 2010, there were still more than a million people living in tent cities. World Vision was working in Haiti before the earth quake, but in the aftermath, providing shelter has been the priority of the organization, a basic but critical step toward "rebuilding an entire country."

How about tidal waves? Different from tsunamis, which are caused by an earthquake under the sea, tidal waves hap pen when the moon's gravity creates bulges on the ocean surface and the waves head to shore. When a thirty-foot tidal wave hit Papua New Guinea in 1998, it killed seven thousand people, wiping out nearly an entire generation of children.

And then there are mudslides. Catastrophic mudslides in Venezuela in December 1999 killed an estimated twenty thousand people in just a few days.

It seems that almost every day a disaster hits somewhere on our planet, with 2011 seeing the United States in the crosshairs of disasters. A record ten US weather catastrophes—blizzards, tornadoes, floods, drought, and Hurricane Irene—carried price tags of $1 billion or more each, breaking the record of nine set in 2008. Globally, with Japan's and New Zealand's earthquakes and flooding in Australia, the total was estimated at $265 billion in the first six months of 2011.

So we ask a fair question: where was God?

It's a great mystery, isn't it? Why is God seemingly so silent in the presence of the human suffering we see all around us? Why doesn't He speak? Why doesn't He explain Himself? Doesn't He understand the bad press He gets from natural disasters and the human suffering they cause?

God's silence forces those of us who believe in Him to rethink our faith, cope with our doubts, and debate whether He can be trusted. And if we can survive all that, we're still left with the responsibility of trying to explain that trust to our friends who themselves are dealing with questions. Just as earthquakes create aftershocks, natural disasters create religious aftershocks. Believers wrestle with doubts; unbelievers use disasters as justification for their refusal to believe in a loving God.

Either way, disasters force us to ask ultimate questions—yet we don't know what we'll find out. We wonder if we should even dare to search for answers.

The Earthquake That Shook Europe

We begin our discussion not with recent disasters, but rather with one that dates back to November 1, 1755. The Lisbon earthquake was probably the most far-reaching and well known natural disaster in modern history until the earth quakes and resultant tsunamis that occurred in 2004 in Sri Lanka and in 2011 in Japan. Other disasters might have caused worse damage and more deaths, but this particular disaster in the time frame it occurred had profound ramifications on people's thinking about God.

That morning the sky was bright, calm, and beautiful, but in a moment, everything was transformed into frightening chaos. Ironically, the earthquake hit on All Saints' Day, when churches were crowded with worshipers. One would think that the people who sought shelter in a house of God might be spared. Indeed, some people even ran into the churches in the middle of 9:30 morning mass. Eyewitnesses said that people looked terrified in the chaos after the first quake. Then a second great quake hit, and priests and parishioners inside the churches were screaming and calling out to God for mercy. But heaven didn't seem to respond to their pleas. Almost all of the churches in Lisbon were reduced to rubble, and the people hiding in them were killed.

After the initial quake, which lasted from six to ten seconds, aftershocks continued to destroy buildings and homes. Fires broke out across the city, making rescue efforts nearly impossible. This havoc was then followed by a tsunami—its high waves pounded the seaport, tearing ships from their anchors and drowning hundreds of people who had sought shelter from the earthquake along the coast. The bright morning sky was darkened with soot and dust. With earth, fire, and water combining to magnify the destruction, even cool headed observers suspected that something—or Someone—was behind it. The earthquake claimed somewhere between thirty and sixty thousand lives and reduced three-quarters of the city to rubble.

Survivors were forced to rethink many of the important issues of human existence—the ultimate questions about the purpose of life, the reason for suffering, and the place of a loving God in the middle of such devastation. News of the horror in Lisbon spread throughout Europe, and everywhere there seemed to be a whole new willingness to consider and discuss questions about life beyond the grave. Many people began to talk about building a civilization based on Christianity, reasoning that the only real hope in this life must be rooted in the next. Then, as now, people were faced with one of two choices: (1) turn against God, believing that He has no power or simply doesn't care about the plight of human beings, or (2) turn to God, believing that He has the power and plan to bring good out of the evils of this world.

As might be expected, many people clung to their faith and others sought out faith in Christ for the first time, having been frightfully reminded that their lives were in constant jeopardy and that they could die in an instant. Some historians even say that the age of revolution in France and the age of the Wesleyan revivals in England may have gained impetus from this catastrophe in Portugal.

Opinions were far from unanimous as to how the event should have been interpreted. People attempted to read God's mind and, not surprisingly, came up with a variety of reasons for why the disaster had occurred.

The Danger of Trying to Interpret a Disaster

The people of Lisbon searched for meaning amid the rubble of destroyed homes and cartloads of dead bodies. Many believed the earthquake was an act of divine judgment against a sinful seaport city. A famous Jesuit (a Roman Catholic order of priests) spoke for many when he said, "Learn, O Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches and con vents, the cause of death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures are your abominable sins." After all, because the quake happened on All Saints' Day, many people assumed God was saying that the sins of even His followers were so grievous that they deserved immediate judgment.

What puzzled some people, however, was that a street filled with brothels was left largely undamaged.

Against the claims of the Jesuits, the Protestants said that the earthquake was a judgment against the Jesuits who founded the city. At that time, the Inquisition was in full force, and tens of thousands of so-called heretics were being brutally murdered. Like the famous Spanish Inquisition, the Inquisition in Portugal was focused on rooting out people who had converted to Catholicism from other religions but were not adhering to the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic faith. Many such people were branded as heretics and subsequently tortured and executed.

The Jesuits responded by saying that even though over a thousand people had been determined to be heretics and were burned at the stake, the quake revealed the anger of God because the Inquisition had not done enough to root out and punish heresy.

Clearly, people were confused.

A Franciscan priest (the Franciscans are another religious order within the Roman Catholic Church) gave a different interpretation, arguing that the earthquake was a form of divine mercy. After all, he reasoned, Lisbon deserved much worse: God had every right to destroy the whole city because of its wickedness. Thus, the priest marveled at the restraint of God in allowing some people to live. God graciously did just enough to send a warning and chose to spare some in the city as an act of undeserved mercy so that people who survived could repent.

Those who already believed in God accepted the general consensus that the Lisbon tragedy had to be interpreted in light of an existence beyond earthly, human existence. They felt that God was somehow trying to communicate that there is a world beyond this one, a world that could give meaning to people's unpredictable and haphazard existence on earth. Sermons with interpretations on the lessons of the earth quake were preached for many years after.

Whenever tragedy strikes, we each have a tendency to interpret it in light of what we believe God is trying to say (or what we want Him to say). In 2004, some Muslims believed that Allah struck Southeast Asia with a tsunami at Christmastime because the season is so filled with immorality, sin, alcohol, and other excesses. And following Katrina, some Muslims said that Allah was heaping vengeance on the United States for the war in Iraq.

People are still as confused about the reason for disasters today as they were after the quake that rocked Lisbon over two hundred years ago. We see in natural disasters exactly what we want to see. I'm reminded of the remark, "We know that we have created God in our own image when we are convinced that He hates all the same people we do." Disasters often become a mirror that reflects our own convictions and wishes.

All of this is a warning that we must be careful about what we say about tragedies. If we say too much we may err, thinking we can read the fine print of God's purposes. But if we say nothing, we give the impression that there is no message we can learn from calamities. I believe that God does speak through these events, but we must be cautious about thinking we know the details of His agenda. We will discuss this concept further in chapter 3.

Is This "The Best of All Possible Worlds"?

A German philosopher named Gottfried Leibniz, who lived a few decades before the Lisbon quake, was the first philosopher I know of to write a theodicy, a defense of God and His ways in the world. Leibniz taught that God had before Him an infinite number of possible worlds, but because God is good, He chose this world, planet Earth, which is "the best of all possible worlds." God ordered nature to serve the best of all possible ends. After all, a good God would do only what is both best and right.

Needless to say, after the Lisbon earthquake, people had to ask whether this was indeed "the best of all possible worlds" and whether the laws of nature were indeed ordained for the best possible ends. If God had an infinite number of worlds and chose ours as the "best," then what would the worst of all possible worlds look like!

Likewise, as we look around at the recent disasters that have rocked our planet, we must pause and ask, "Is this really the best of all possible worlds?" We instinctively know that it isn't—it can't be. Paradise will be the best of all possible worlds, not our current world with its suffering, corruption, and endless tragedy. No one could reasonably say this is the best of all possible worlds. If it were, then it would be "best," with no room for improvement. That is clearly not the case, and the writer of the book of Hebrews in the Bible agrees with us. The word better is used eleven times, and in Hebrews 11 it says that the biblical heroes longed for "a better place, a heavenly homeland" (v. 16) and that God has planned something better for His people (v. 40). Thus we work hard to make things "better" on this planet because we know this is not the best the world can be. Even in the case of natural disasters, while we are powerless to stop them from happening, we do our best to create warning systems and to minimize death and devastation. And when disasters do occur, people from all over the world descend upon the hard-hit areas to search for, rescue, and help suffering people. We do whatever we can to try to make it "better."

The Christian Hope

But that still doesn't help us with our core question about God's role in all of this. If this world isn't the best it can be, why isn't it? The Bible teaches that God created all things for His own pleasure and for His own glory: "For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory" (Romans 11:36). And we read that God "makes everything work out according to his plan" (Ephesians 1:11). If all things work to the glory of God and according to His plan, if indeed the details of history—along with natural and even human evil—all contribute to His eternal purpose, wouldn't it be accurate to say that even if this isn't the best of all possible worlds, it is being run by a God whose plan is the best, if only we could see it from His point of view? Does He see our tragedies through a different lens? Might there be a good and wise reason for what we see as complete chaos?


Excerpted from AN ACT OF GOD? by ERWIN W. LUTZER Copyright © 2011 by Erwin W. Lutzer. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Franklin Graham vii

introduction A Heart for the Hurting xi

chapter 1 Dare We Search for Answers? 1

chapter 2 Is God Responsible for Natural Disasters? 21

chapter 3 Are There Lessons to Be Learned from Disasters? 43

chapter 4 Are Disasters the Judgments of God? 59

chapter 5 Can We Still Trust God? 73

chapter 6 What Do We Say When Friends Ask? 97

Epilogue Ready for the Big One 111

Notes 117

About the Author 121

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    Solid answers to tough questions. Worth your time!

    Dr. Lutzer writes with wisdom and clarity, providing well thought out answers to some of the toughest questions we face when enduring the aftermath of disaster. His responses are never flippant or demeaning but, instead, are grounded solidly in faith even to the point of reminding us of something we often forget - "that God owes us nothing."

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