TCS Daily

At Risk In the Universe... Always

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me if you know all this.
-- Job 38:16-18

In Holland, on April 27, 1421, the sea submerged 72 Dutch counties, killing 100,000 people. On November 1, 1530, sea dikes burst in Holland, submerging much of the country and killing 400,000 people. In 1642 floods in China killed 300,000.

On December 30, 1703 a massive earthquake hit Tokyo, killing an estimated 200,000 people. On December 30, 1730, a quake hit Hokkaido, Japan, killing 137,000.

Between 1851 and 1866, the low area between Beijing, Shanghai and Hankow flooded repeatedly during a disastrous 15 years of storms. It is estimated that 40 to 50 million Chinese perished in these floods.

In 1887, spring rains in China caused the Yellow River to overflow, covering 50,000 square miles and killing an estimated 1.5 million people.

A drought in India in the years 1876-78 is estimated to have killed 5 million people. A drought in China over the same time period is believed to have killed between 9 and 13 million. In 1896-97 a combination of drought and plague killed 5 million in India.

In 1970, a cyclone-driven tidal wave overwhelmed the Ganges Delta in what is now Bangladesh, killing somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people.

In 1976, the year we in the United States were busy celebrating our bicentennial, an earthquake hit Guatemala City, killing 23,000 people on February 4. On May 7 and 8, a quake in northern Italy killed 900. On June 26, a quake in Indonesia killed 9000. On July 28, a quake leveled the city of Tangshan, China, killing 242,000. On August 17, an offshore quake jolted Mindanao, in the Philippines, causing a tsunami that killed over 5000.

Okay, enough. These are just a handful from history's pages. You get the picture.

Or maybe you don't.

The pictures in our minds right now, the ones that overwhelm us, are of "The Tsunami," the earthquake-borne disaster in the Indian Ocean that rivets world attention.

We live in an age when we expect our disasters served up on cable, slow-mo, freeze-frame and all. Remember that progression of photos of Mt. St. Helens blowing its top? We expect that now. The amateurish videos of the tsunami crashing ashore are okay, but next time we'll expect better angles and no blurring. History Channel re-enactments won't do.

But in a week or two these pictures of crashing water, debris-strewn streets and body bags will be forgotten and the death toll (150,000? 200,000?) will merely be another numbing figure beside those above in the almanacs and record books.

There are no photographs of 16th century Holland laid waste, no videos of the violence with which the North Sea must have rushed across cities, farms and homes. In China, we can only imagine the corpses littering the land around the Yellow River when the waters finally subsided in 1887. The death toll in the 15-year period of floods in China in the mid 19th century simply staggers the wildest imagination.

And even in this video age, we who have not experienced it have only the dimmest sense of the wretched, slow death march of famines across Africa, India or China that have killed untold millions.

"How could a merciful and loving God...?" Once again the old question springs to the lips of people trying to come to grips with some cataclysmic act of nature.

And even many Christians and Jews, who above all should have some understanding of the implications of being created absolutely free -- and therefore at risk -- in the universe, seem to be speechless or reduced to platitudes by the death and destruction around the Indian Ocean.

Pundits and preachers, the wise and the unwise, try to "explain" what has happened. They see the hand of God or the absence of God; the justice of God or the indifference of God. They see far more than this scribbler (who tries to be a Christian) is able to see.

I would not dare presume the faintest knowledge of the mind or ways of God, let alone dare to discern his purpose in any disaster. Make no mistake; I acknowledge God's sovereignty over creation and his power to do anything or cause anything. Thus it is possible for him to send or withhold destruction. But who of us can pretend to know if or when, where or why?

I am saddened by the ignorance of those who say such calamities "prove there is no God." I am astonished at those who would confidently "see" God's hand in a natural disaster.

I only know that what is, is. Droughts and earthquakes and floods are physical realities of this earth, this imperfect way station for our souls on their journey into eternity. And when we react to these events with love and sacrifice and selflessness, we become gauges of God's glory, instruments of His love.

The advances in communications that have brought this disaster so close to all of us bid fair to create a distorted picture of its place in the greater scheme of things. Knowledge and technology have done and will continue to do wonders in helping us minimize the human cost of such "earth events." In some cases we will indeed be able to predict approaching calamity, issue warnings, facilitate evacuations.

But earth abides, and earth surprises, and earth humbles us. And in the history God sees fit to yet give us, this terrible event will take its small place in the long gray columns of statistics that pay grim tribute to the precariousness of our physical lives.


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