On March 11, 2011, a monstrous 9.0-magnitude earthquake near the east coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu rattled the entire country and brought much of the population to its knees.
In the more than a hundred years during which men have been measuring the strength of earthquakes, only three stronger quakes have been recorded. This one tied for the fourth-strongest on record.
This quake was the largest ever in Japan’s history, unleashing the equivalent of 30,000 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs. It was so powerful that it shifted the earth on its axis by several inches, making make it spin a little faster and thereby shortening the day by 1.8 millionths of a second. It moved the island nation about eight feet to the east.
Since the earthquake’s epicenter was offshore, the early damage from the quake was moderate, relative to the size of the tremor. The tsunami that followed was another matter. Within minutes a huge wall of water swept onto the land, crushing buildings, capsizing boats, destroying bridges and sweeping debris in its path. Cars were swept along like they were toys.
In addition to the loss of thousands of lives, half a million people were rendered homeless, forced to take refuge in temporary shelters. Many lost everything they had, except for the clothes on their backs and perhaps a few personal items.
In the days that followed, the havoc wreaked by the earthquake began to increase exponentially. Another threat to life arose—that of radiation sickness from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. With the breakdown of cooling systems due to the earthquake and tsunami, reactors were badly damaged. Officials labored frantically to avoid a disaster like that of 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
The quake’s epicenter was approximately 150 miles from Japan’s capital city of Tokyo. The city and its surroundings are home to 39 million people, so any strong tremor there would be catastrophic—even one much smaller than the monstrous 9.0 shaker. So of course it’s been calamitous. And that’s despite some preparation, big earthquakes having struck the area in the past—in 1703, 1855 and 1923.
We should consider what’s happened in the context of other recent and historic quakes—and what the Bible has to say about such natural calamities.
Frequency of recent major quakes
The earthquake off the coast of Japan is the sixth major one worldwide in a year and two months. On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake struck the poverty-ridden nation of Haiti; the epicenter was approximately 16 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Because the nation of Haiti is so poor and had few buildings designed to endure the stress of a convulsion of this magnitude, an estimated 316,000 died, 300,000 were injured and 1 million were made homeless, according to the Haitian government. An estimated 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial structures collapsed or were severely damaged. This was the worst earthquake in the region in more than 200 years.
On February 27, 2010, a devastating magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. Over 500 people were killed, and more than more than 1.5 million were displaced.
The earthquake triggered a tsunami, which devastated several coastal towns in south-central Chile and damaged the port at Talcahuano. Tsunami warnings were issued in 53 countries, and the wave caused minor damage in the San Diego area of California and in the Tohoku region of Japan, where damage to the fisheries industry was estimated at $66.7 million.
Chileans were only just beginning to grapple with the devastation before them even as more than two dozen significant aftershocks struck the country. In Santiago, the capital, residents reported having been terrified as the city shook for about 90 seconds.
While this earthquake was far stronger than the 7.0-magnitude one that ravaged Haiti six weeks earlier, the damage and death toll in Chile was far less extensive, in part because of stricter building standards enabling structures to withstand damage in devastating earthquakes.
On January 2, 2011, another earthquake shook southern Chile, this one with a magnitude of 7.1. Tens of thousands fled the coastal areas for higher ground, fearing the quake might generate a major tsunami like the one in 2010. Hundreds of tourists spending the New Year’s holiday at resort cities cut their trips short and headed north, clogging highways.
On February 22, 2011, a 6.3-magnitude temblor struck New Zealand, leaving the city of Christchurch in ruins. This was the second major quake to strike the country in less than six months.
The earlier one of September 2010 was considerably stronger, but the Christchurch shaker did much more damage because it struck one of New Zealand’s largest cities. Churches and tall buildings were toppled and more than 100 people were killed. In viewing the city, Prime Minister John Key said, “It is just a scene of utter devastation” and “We may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day.”
Earthquake threats to the United States
What is the danger that the United States will be jolted by a colossal quake? It is not only a danger; it is virtually guaranteed to happen eventually. The two densely populated areas that are most in danger are the midlands and the West Coast.
The New Madrid fault in the Midwest is not as infamous for the threat of major earthquake damage as other faults in the continental United States, but this area experienced major seismic activity in the years 1811-1812. Seven earthquakes in the magnitude range of 6.0 to 7.7 occurred in the period of Dec. 16, 1811, through Feb. 7, 1812. These quakes rank as some of the largest in America since its settlement by Europeans.
These quakes are not as well known as other major U.S. quakes, because the affected area was sparsely populated when the cataclysms occurred. According to the United States Geologic Survey, “The area of strong shaking associated with these shocks is two to three times as large as that of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and 10 times as large as that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.”
The first main shock of these seven occurred on Dec. 16, 1811, and was felt far away. “People were awakened by the shaking in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina” (USGS).
During the quake that occurred on Feb. 7, 1812, the vibrations were so great that some areas of the ground sank as much as 16 feet. Resulting tidal waves from the Mississippi River created Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. It is Tennessee’s largest natural lake.
West coast quakes
The most famous of mainland earthquakes in America is the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck San Francisco in 1906. This was due to seismic shifting on the San Andreas Fault, which runs roughly 810 miles through California to Baja California in northern Mexico.
Yuri Fialko, Professor of Geophysics at the University of California San Diego, completed a study in 2006 in which he demonstrated that the San Andreas Fault has been stressed to a level sufficient for the next “big one”—an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or greater.
Fialko’s data suggests that the fault is ready for the next big earthquake, but exactly when that might occur we’re not able to tell. According to professor Fialko, “It could be tomorrow or it could be 10 years or more from now.”
Then there’s the Cascadia subduction zone, a 680-mile fault that runs 50 miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest from Cape Mendocino in California to Vancouver Island in southern British Columbia. Geophysicists estimate that it’s capable of generating an earthquake with a magnitude as high as 9.0. The last time this occurred was in 1700; the one before that is estimated to have occurred around 1500.
Scientists say a rupture along this fault would cause the sea floor to bounce 20 feet or more, setting off powerful waves close to shore. The resultant monstrous tsunami would inundate coastal communities in minutes. As with the San Andreas Fault, geophysicists do not know if such a disaster is imminent but agree that eventually it is inevitable.
Earthquakes can affect the whole world
Every year thousands of earthquakes occur around the world, some strong enough to be felt by people. Most of them do no significant damage either to life or property. But some that have been recorded in the last 150 years have resulted in massive loss of life. An estimated 200,000 people were killed in an 8.5 quake in Kansu, China in 1920. In 1976, 255,000 people died from damage caused by an 8.0 quake centered near Tangshan, China. And the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami left more than 230,000 people dead in 14 countries.
Earthquakes can cripple—at least temporarily—a nation’s economy. Japan is the third-largest economy in the world. While the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami will have a harmful short-term medium effect on their economy, some economists believe the catastrophe will have a negative impact short-term on the world economy.
Historically, earthquakes have at times wrought permanent damage to major powers. In ancient Greece, the city-state of Sparta had the greatest military power during the classical era. “From the ninth to the fourth century BCE its armies were almost invincible . . . Sometime around 464 BCE a powerful earthquake devastated the city of Sparta with many fatalities. This event, while not immediately affecting Sparta’s prominence, had a catalytic role in its eventual decline.
“The fatalities included not only Spartan soldiers but a great many women and children as well. Thus in the following years there were many fewer births among the Spartan soldier caste, leading to the weakening of Sparta’s army. This earthquake foreshadowed Sparta’s gradual deterioration and disappearance from the world stage” (Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, Earthquakes in Human History, 2005, pp. 45-46).
Thus, even the mighty can be laid low by the powerful shaking of the earth.
God’s involvement in earthquakes?
Is God’s hand ever present in the occurrence of tragic earthquakes? This quandary has often provided fodder for philosophers.
“A shocking event at mid-[18th] century supplied a brutal confirmation of disbelief. On the eve of All Saint’s Day [Nov. 1] in 1755, while the faithful were in church, an earthquake shattered Lisbon. Fire and flood from the Tagus River completed its destruction. Tens of thousands perished.
“Instantly, [French historian and philosopher] Voltaire set to work on a long poem that drew the moral: how could a personal God endowed with power and justice ordain such a holocaust? For what conceivable reason kill worshipping men, women and children in a peculiarly horrible manner?
“That they were worse sinners than the same number of Parisians or Londoners was a contemptible answer. There was no answer, except that the forces of nature acted independently of their creator” (Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 2000, p. 378).
Because God is omnipotent, He has power over all the forces of nature to use earthquakes to punish individuals or nations, should He choose to do so. However, we should not conclude that in all cases He singles out people for chastisement through such tragedies. Sometimes people die or suffer other losses through natural disasters because of time and chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11 Ecclesiastes 9:11I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.
American King James Version×). They are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are exceptions, though. Sometimes God does speak through earth’s turmoil, and there is surely no greater natural tumult that man can suffer than to have the very earth shake under his feet. A prolonged horrendous earthquake can turn the bravest human beings into a quivering, frightened mass of fearful flesh.
There is perhaps nothing we depend on more than having the steady, predictable solidity of the ground under our feet. When it begins to shake, buckle and roll violently, man’s confidence can be reduced to zero as he sees everything he has made with his hands come crashing down around him. God’s power is limitless. “He looks on the earth, and it trembles” (Psalms 104:32 Psalms 104:32He looks on the earth, and it trembles: he touches the hills, and they smoke.
American King James Version×).
God’s past interventions
During past turbulent historical periods, God has moved the earth—sometimes to instill awe, fear and respect into the minds of people. Shortly after the time that God brought Israel out of Egypt through the Exodus, there were certain men—Korah, Dathan and Abiram—who dared question the divine authority that God had given Moses. They accused Moses of presumptuousness and self-exultation (Numbers 16:3 Numbers 16:3And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, You take too much on you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: why then lift you up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?
American King James Version×). Furthermore, a majority of the people was sympathetic to Korah, the ringleader (verse 19).
Moses knew that God was working through him, so he assembled the three rebels and the cantankerous congregation and warned them that God would move the earth, create a crevice and cause it to swallow up those who dared reject God (verse 30). Right after Moses spoke, God caused the earth to gape open with a fissure that swallowed the rebellious leaders and their families (verses 31-32).
This historical example demonstrates that God does sometimes punish disobedient people with shaking and splitting of the earth as appropriate payment for sins.
Earthquakes at the death and resurrection of Jesus
At times God has used an earthquake to send a different message. He spoke through an earthquake in the first century right after His Son was nailed to the cross.
When Jesus died, “the earth quaked, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51 Matthew 27:51And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
American King James Version×). Perhaps the quake foreshadowed the coming judgment of God on those who had crucified Jesus and also served as a divine sign that He truly was the Son of the Father.
It impressed the Roman soldiers who were guarding the site. “So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake . . . they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (verse 54).
God also used an earthquake to roll the stone away from Christ’s empty tomb—to show that He had gained victory over the grave (Matthew 28:1-6 Matthew 28:1-6 1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.
2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it.
3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:
4 And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.
5 And the angel answered and said to the women, Fear not you: for I know that you seek Jesus, which was crucified.
6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
American King James Version×).
The coming terror because of earthquakes
Biblical prophecy tells of future earthquakes far more powerful than any that human beings have yet experienced. The reason for these, in part, will be to instill awe and respect towards God in the hearts of all humanity at the end of the age and the return of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah 29:1 Isaiah 29:1Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelled! add you year to year; let them kill sacrifices.
American King James Version×issues a woe of warning to “Ariel,” which is another name for Jerusalem. Included in the dire message is the notice: “You will be punished by the Lord of hosts with thunder and earthquake and great noise” (verse 6).
Shortly before His death, Jesus gave a solemn prophetic warning of terrifying and terrible events that would precede His return. He included among these the fact that “there will be great earthquakes in various places” (Luke 21:11 Luke 21:11And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.
American King James Version×, emphasis added throughout).
He also admonished all that there will be the turbulence of “the sea and the waves roaring” (verse 25). This may be a reference to future titanic tsunamis.
It will be more than just the area of Jerusalem that will be dealt deathly earthquakes at the time of the end. The greatest shakings of the planet since people have existed will make the entire earth tremble. The reaction of human beings will be nothing short of absolute panic: “They shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, from the terror of the Lord and the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake the earth mightily” (Isaiah 2:19 Isaiah 2:19And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty, when he rises to shake terribly the earth.
American King James Version×).
There may be multiple quakes that follow that which Isaiah describes. But there will finally be one trembling and quaking of the earth that will be greater than all others.
The apostle John was given a preview of it through a vision in the book of Revelation. It will occur in conjunction with the final great battle, commonly (though erroneously) known as Armageddon, which pits the forces of Jesus Christ against those who dare rise up in rebellion against Him at His arrival.
It is part of the seventh bowl of God’s wrath that is to be poured out: “There was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth … Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found” (Revelation 16:18-20 Revelation 16:18-20 18 And there were voices, and thunders, and lightning; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were on the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.
19 And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give to her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.
20 And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.
American King James Version×).
Why will God speak through such horrifying calamities to the population of the planet? It is because man is in rebellion against Him. We have worshipped and are worshipping idols and other gods instead of the true God (Isaiah 2:7-8 Isaiah 2:7-8 7 Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures; their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots:
8 Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made:
American King James Version×).
This monstrous quaking of the planet will cause men to cast away their idols of silver and gold (verse 20). Idol worship is not limited to adoration of graven images. Idol worship includes the love of money and all things that money can buy. It can include excessive, inordinate lust for anything, because covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5 Colossians 3:5 Mortify therefore your members which are on the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
American King James Version×). We need to heed the Bible’s warnings and turn from our sins!
What should you do?
In any given year, geophysicists record thousands of earthquakes; over 21,000 occurred in 2010. Most of these are small and do no damage. Large ones can do horrendous damage, and those that occur in the oceans can trigger disastrous tsunamis.
Men try to protect life and property against these powerful forces. They build seawalls to ward off the roiling ocean currents. Japan had constructed a 31-foot seawall near Fukushima on the island of Honshu. Yet even this could not stop the relentless wall of water.
No amount of planning, skills or constructing can stop a force that moves the planet, shaking the very ground on which we stand. Eventually the only deliverance is by turning to and placing ourselves in the hands of the only One who can truly save us—the all-powerful living God.