Natural disasters: Acts of God or acts of Satan?
Herbert E. Douglass
During the past few years, our planet has been experiencing an increasing number of natural disasters–earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, and a devastating tsunami. Some of these crises, although less dramatic–such as global warming and the related melting of glaciers and ice caps–have raised questions in many minds regarding their causes. Are these events the result of still little understood natural laws? Is their real cause the human abuse of our natural habitat? Believers of many religions have also wondered if these catastrophes are punishments of an angry deity. Bible-believing Christians have pondered about the role that God and Satan play as the ultimate actors in a cosmic drama. Are these calamities pointing toward a culminating event in human history?
In trying to understand the role of God in natural disasters, we must avoid the trap that Satan has encouraged, namely, that last-day disasters are from an angry, insulted God. That is exactly how Satan has been painting God since Eden and even before. Millions on our planet believe this today. However, according to the Bible, we are in the midst of the last hours of the cosmic conflict, the Great Controversy that has plagued the universe since “war arose in heaven” (Revelation 12:7, RSV).*
A look at Bible prophecy
In Revelation we read that toward the end of human history God, through His angels, will be “holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree” (Revelation 7:1). This sounds most ominous. Before the end times, this earth will have seen all kinds of distress affecting the land, the seas, and vegetation. But we have never seen anything yet like what will happen when the winds of destruction are fully released by the holding power of the four angels who get their orders from the Lord Himself!1
Why are the winds still being held? God's people have not all been “sealed” with the approval of God “written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1). God's seal of approval will be placed on those who can rightly represent Him in the world; on those who tell the truth about God and witness to His power–again, exactly what Satan has been resisting for a long, long time. Here are people who are now ready to stand firm through the troubles of the last days as depicted in the closing verses of Revelation 6.
And what about those winds? They are the works of Satan about to be released from the restraining hand of God. All this can best be understood in light of the Cosmic Conflict. It is the replay of the Book of Job, but on a colossal scale: fire from the sky burning up sheep and Job's servants, roaming bandits killing at will, a great wind destroying a house and killing his children. (See Job, chapters 1 and 2.) Satan is unbelievably evil! And he is still the same today as in Job's day.
Satan's studied strategy has always been to confuse, bewilder, deceive, and destroy the peace of this world. He has been “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Why? In order to drain all hope and trust from Earth's billions that a more powerful Person, faithful and true, runs the universe!
But where is God? God, within the purposes of the Great Controversy, permits this final barrage of deceit and distress, not only on one man called Job but now on the whole planet. All that Job finally knew about what was behind the catastrophes he and his family were enduring–including fire raining from the sky and a devastating wind–God told Him later. But until then, it was a very dark time. Job only knew later that God had been challenged by Satan. Satan was furious that Job had been so blessed with a large family and remarkable prosperity. He accused God of playing favorites–that the reason Job was so dutiful in his worshipful obedience was because God had built a “hedge” around him to bribe him into obedience (Job 1:8-12; 2:3-7).
And then we listen to the amateur theologians who came to explain to Job why he had experienced these horrible disasters (Job 2:11-13). What we read in the following chapters of the book are the various reasons that many people today still use to explain awful calamities. Either Job is hiding deep secrets of evil habits and God is punishing Him, or God responds only to the upright and ignores those who suffer calamities because He is a just God, or God is so righteous and just that He can only vent wrath against the wicked, or that Job is receiving less punishment than he deserves.
We hear so many echoes of Job's three “friends” today, on the internet, in media articles, and from many pulpits.
The apostle Paul stated it clearly: Satan is “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).2 He is more than a myth! He is God's great antagonist, doing all he can to distract, demoralize, and destroy men and women. And for reasons that God knows, He will gradually withdraw the restraining power that He has been exerting over Satan's murderous plans.3
Jesus' view of the future
Of course, this planet has always had earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, and famines. Some of the worst of these on record happened long years ago, with far greater damage than we have experienced in the last few years, even though we have greater populations in these same areas today.
During the final days of Jesus ministry on earth, His followers asked Him about signs of the end of time and of His promised return. Among other pointers, Jesus told them: “‘You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains'” (Matthew 24:6-8).
In other words, the world will always have wars, earthquakes, pestilences, and disasters. But there are specific signs that He outlined in Matthew 24 and 25, such as the gospel going to the entire world, and then He would return (24:14). He compared the last days of Planet Earth to the last days before Noah entered the ark (24:37-39). He likened His delayed return to the delay in the bridegroom's appearance at his wedding (25:5).
Detecting the difference
As we reflect on the disasters of recent years, we notice a difference with those of the past. On a graph, we would draw this upsurge in frequency and intensity as an exponential curve with an upward slope that rises sharply in contrast to a predicted increase that follows a predicted straight line up.
Can anyone deny that hurricanes, floods, famines, pestilences, bankruptcies, moral degradation, depletion of water aquifers, escalating energy consumption, and similar realities are increasing with astonishing speed?4 Most people live with the sense that everything is in disarray compared to the life we lived even a few decades ago. There seems to be no way to turn back the clock. The escalator, either down or up, seems to go faster every day. And everyone has the lurking feeling that they can't get off that escalator. This sense is heightened when the latest disaster is broadcast through the global media and sent to our computers.5
An Adventist perspective
For more than 150 years, Seventh-day Adventists have been proclaiming to the world that human history is steadily moving toward its culmination, as predicted by God Himself in the Scriptures. We are encouraged by noting that millions of fellow-Christians have also begun focusing their attention and hope on the soon coming of Jesus. In addition, there are now dozens of Internet websites devoted to last-day events. The “Left Behind” best-selling book series plus their “Left Behind” movies more than amplifies the sense of something awful about to happen.
However, based on our understanding of Bible prophecy, we don't believe that Christians will be rescued in a secret Rapture or that Israel is a key figure in last-day events. Nor do we look for an Armageddon where modern armies fight it on the Plains of Esdraelon.
Optimists are right: The world will not end in either a whimper or a bang. World nuclear powers will not incinerate the earth; we will not drown or be suffocated in our own garbage, nor shrivel up in mass starvation.
And pessimists are also right: This world may soon have all the vaccines needed for all the physical challenges we face today, but there will be no vaccine for the rising tsunamis of moral garbage that permeates modern life, especially in the “enlightened” Western world. All the GPS devices and gasless cars will not drown out the increasing hatred that plague communities as well as between nations.
It is beyond human knowledge to understand the precise interaction of human, natural, and supernatural factors causing the increasing disasters our world experiences. For the Bible believer, however, some things are certain: Satan seeks to destroy as many people as he can by any means available to him. Ultimately, truth will triumph, and God and His loyalists will be vindicated. In the end, He will make all things right. We live in the waning days of Earth's history. Each day is precious and unrepeatable.
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:9-12).
Are you, am I ready?
Herbert E. Douglass (Th.D., Pacific School of Theology) has served as teacher, college president, and editor. He is the author of 16 books, including Messenger of the Lord (Pacific Press, 1998) and God at Risk (Amazing Facts, 2004). His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references in this article are from the New International Version.
1. Ellen G. White's comments are significant: “Angels are belting the world, refusing Satan his claims to supremacy, made because of the vast multitude of his adherents. We hear not the voices, we see not with the natural sight the work of these angels, but their hands are linked about the world, and with sleepless vigilance they are keeping the armies of Satan at bay till the sealing of God's people shall be accomplished” (Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1980], vol. 7, p. 967).
2. “Satan is working in the atmosphere; he is poisoning the atmosphere, and here we are dependent upon God for our lives–our present and eternal life. And being in the position that we are, we need to be wide awake, wholly devoted, wholly converted, wholly consecrated to God. But we seem to sit as though we were paralyzed. God of heaven, wake us up!” (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1980], Book 2, p. 51).
3. “Satan works through the elements also to garner his harvest of unprepared souls. He has studied the secrets of the laboratories of nature, and he uses all his power to control the elements as far as God allows.… He will bring disease and disaster, until populous cities are reduced to ruin and desolation. Even now he is at work. In accidents and calamities by sea and by land, in great conflagrations, in fierce tornadoes and terrific hail-storms, in tempests, floods, cyclones, tidal waves, and earthquakes, in every place and in a thousand forms, Satan is exercising his power. He sweeps away the ripening harvest, and famine and distress follow. He imparts to the air a deadly taint, and thousands perish by the pestilence. These visitations are to become more and more frequent and disastrous. Destruction will be upon both man and beast” (Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy [Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911], pp. 589, 590).
4. “I have been shown that the Spirit of the Lord is being withdrawn from the earth. God's keeping power will soon be refused to all who continue to disregard His commandments… Iniquity is becoming so common a thing that it no longer shocks the senses as it once did” (Ellen G. White, Last Day Events [Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1992], p. 27).
5. “When God's restraining hand is removed, the destroyer begins his work” (ibid., p. 111).