Posted September 23, 2005
In Matthew 24:6-8, Jesus Christ foretold some of the signs that would mark the age leading up to His return: "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows."
We have certainly seen devastating earthquakes in recent years. The December 2004 earthquake off Indonesia was the most powerful in decades, unleashing a massive tsunami that took some 300,000 lives—the greatest number of casualties from an earthquake in more than 500 years.
But this word translated "earthquakes" in Matthew 24:7 deserves a closer look. The Greek word is seismos, from which we derive such English words as "seismic" and "seismology," referring to earthquake activity and the study of earthquakes. Strong's Lexicon defines it as "a commotion, i.e. (of the air) a gale, (of the ground) an earthquake—earthquake, tempest" (Strong's No. 4578).
Seismos encompasses a broader meaning than just the earth shaking. Matthew 8, for example, records the famous story of how a violent storm overtook Jesus and His disciples on the Sea of Galilee, threatening to capsize their fishing boat and drown them—until Jesus miraculously calmed the winds and waves.
The word used in verse 8 for this sudden, powerful storm is seismos, here translated "great tempest." The parallel account in Mark 4:37 calls it a "great windstorm." Therefore, seismos can also refer to violent storms involving wind and water, and isn't limited strictly to earthquakes as we might assume.
When Jesus Christ foretold "famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places," His words encompass natural disasters that include earthquakes, but also can apply to hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes and other such violent storms in the air.
As the world recently saw with Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, hurricanes can be enormously destructive. Katrina took more than 1,000 lives and caused an estimated $200 billion in damage. In 1998, rainfall from hurricane Mitch generated more than a million landslides in Honduras alone, wiping our roads and burying towns and farmland.
Are such natural disasters increasing as Jesus foretold?
The Sept. 16 issue of Science magazine reports on research by scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. They concluded that while the number of hurricanes and cyclones had not increased, "the researchers did find a sharp increase during the past 35 years in the number of category 4 and 5 tropical cyclones, the most intense storms that cause most of the damage on landfall" (Richard Kerr, "Is Katrina a Harbinger of Still More Powerful Hurricanes?", p. 1807).
Specifically, they found that the frequency of the most dangerous and damaging storms—those rated category 4 and 5— increased by 80 percent from the 1970s to the last decade. Their conclusions mirrored findings by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorologist reported in the Aug. 4 issue of Nature.
Such findings should certainly make us sit up and take notice. Later in that same prophecy of the end time, as recorded in Luke 21:25-28 (New International Version), Jesus says: "There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea." This appears to be not just a reference to massive storms, but also to more devastating tsunamis like the Indian Ocean tsunami from last December.
Here we also find Jesus using an interesting Greek word. Salos, translated "tossing," means "the tossing motion of large waves on a body of water—'surging waves'" ( Louw-Nida Lexicon ). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines its meaning as "a rolling or tossing motion, surge, esp. of the waves in a rough sea . . ." Both of these definitions mention surging of waves. The huge storm surges produced by hurricanes are perhaps their most damaging aspect.
Jesus continues: "Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."