The South Asian Tsunami: Foretaste of Things to Come?

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The South Asian Tsunami

Foretaste of Things to Come?

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For several weeks after the disaster, newspapers and magazines regularly devoted several pages to the ongoing effects of the deadly tsunami that struck South Asia Dec. 26. Poignant accounts of tragic personal losses of family and friends put a human face on mounting death-toll statistics. Encouraging stories of incredible heroism and a groundswell of sympathy, expressed in generous contributions from countries all over the world, reminded us that we are our brother's keeper.

Inevitably, many religious leaders reacted with a desire to give both their followers and the general public a philosophical framework in which to deal with these unacceptable events. Some responses might be rather surprising.

The title of one article was "If This Was an Act of God—What Was God Thinking?"

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in an article in the Jan. 2 Sunday Telegraph, wrote: "The question—'How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?' is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't—indeed, it would be wrong if it weren't. The traditional answers will get us only so far."

Assessing responsibility properly

We addressed several important aspects of the theological dilemmas in an article in the January issue of World News and Prophecy. (More understanding can be obtained by requesting our free brochure Why Does God Allow Suffering?) The disaster struck during our very tight editorial cycle, which enabled us to provide only a brief analysis in the last issue.

But with the added perspective of the passing of time—and with often-unrealized factors since coming to light—we can better assess the meaning of the tragedy and how those factors relate to biblical prophecy. Due to space limitations, however, we can only cover a few of these factors.

While this was a natural disaster, human culpability in the high casualty toll is greater than most had originally imagined. As one commentator cannily observed, "The Almighty might have His critics over the tsunami, but the actions of humankind made it worse."

This particular writer, environment editor Geoffrey Lean, went on to explain: "In the past, the shores of the Indian Ocean have been protected from tsunamis, tidal waves and the angry seas stirred up by cyclones and typhoons by a double barrier of coral reefs and mangrove swamps. The solid barriers of the reefs broke up and slowed down the waves while the tangled roots and dense vegetation of the mangroves absorbed much of their remaining energy.

"Yet both have been increasingly destroyed [by man] over the past 50 years, leaving coasts, and their people, defenceless" (The Independent on Sunday, Jan. 9, emphasis added throughout).

According to Mr. Lean, only about a third of the world's coral reefs are still healthy, with up to one fifth already destroyed. Fishing (using dynamite), pollution, quarrying for construction materials and global warming (a disputed point) have been named as the primary culprits. Mangroves have also been cut down and removed in favor of tourist resorts and shrimp farming.

Specific areas still protected by healthy coral reefs and mangroves sustained much less damage to property and much less loss of human life. The islands of Diego Garcia and the Maldives, isolated and vulnerable in the Indian Ocean but ringed by coral reefs, serve as two examples.

A feeble warning system

The British Sunday Times stated: "Scientists fear such a catastrophe was looming. So why were there no warnings?" (Jan. 2). A USA Today editorial said: "On the day a tsunami killed 140,000 people, scientists and government officials scattered across the Pacific and Asia had inklings of an impending disaster in time to save lives. Yet even in this age of instant global communications, the message never reached those in peril" (Jan. 7).

Bureaucratic bungling was partially to blame. Also the Indian Ocean area has no sophisticated warning system like the one wealthier countries encircling the Pacific Ocean have created for their protection. Holiday time was yet another factor.

American geophysicist Dr. Stuart Weinstein was on hand in his Hawaiian office when the instruments in the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center revealed the massive Indian Ocean quake. Dr. Weinstein's duties embrace 26 nations around the Pacific Rim. But there was no contact book, plan or emergency telephone links for spreading the alarm for the Indian Ocean area of South Asia.

Nonetheless, everyone available began telephoning what numbers they could muster in the endangered areas. But it was Christmas Day in Hawaii and the day after in South Asia. A lot of people were away from their desks. Telephones rang and rang with no answer. A very few who finally did come to the phone listened a little while and then hung up. Somehow the message didn't get through to them. Finally, Dr. Weinstein broke down and cried because he knew what would inevitably happen.

The ignorance factor

Nonetheless, many lives still could have been saved even in the last minutes before the tsunami struck had people known what to do. When people saw the tide suddenly retreating back into the ocean area, a few knew to run the other way to as high a ground as possible. Some heeded their shouts of warning and followed. Many, however, stood around to watch the curious sight only to be engulfed by a fast-moving wall of water minutes later.

We should learn crucial lessons from this! Ignorance of warning factors spared no one. Similarly, ignorance of Bible prophecy will undoubtedly prove disastrous in the coming biblical day of visitation.

The Bible is a book full of prophetic warnings. They apply to us individually and directly if we persist in failing to acknowledge that God created a moral universe and fail to govern our actions accordingly.

His Word tells us that in ancient times mankind had become exceedingly wicked in both thought and action (Genesis 6:5). To preserve a tiny remnant of humankind and to protect His plan and purpose for humanity, God destroyed all except Noah and his family in a great flood. But first, there were 120 years of merciful warning.

The New Testament calls Noah "a preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5). But instead of acting on Noah's words of warning, his generation likely only made fun of a preacher who would build a giant boat on dry land—that is, until it began raining for days and days and wouldn't stop. Some of these people no doubt finally believed God and His prophet, but it was far too late.

We know from Scripture exactly how much time they had from when God decided to act. Had they really repented while it was still time, the Flood wouldn't have happened. The inhabitants of ancient Nineveh repented at Jonah's preaching and they were spared. God is no respecter of persons.

The Scripture says that "God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built" (1 Peter 3:20, New International Version). The Bible doesn't say whether Noah told his contemporaries exactly how much time they had remaining. But he must have told them in general terms that their days were numbered. Today we ourselves don't know how many months or years remain on the clock—how much time we still have to get our act together.

Peter warns our generation

In principle, the warnings of Noah apply today in our modern age. The apostle Peter wrote: "First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, 'Where is this "coming" [of Christ] he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation'" (2 Peter 3:3-4, NIV).

Cynics are usually sinners as well. Jesus Christ Himself said behavior just before the time of His second coming would parallel human conduct in the days of Noah.

At least in principle, God warns the modern descendants of ancient Israel in Leviticus 26 and in Deuteronomy 28 of what will happen if they go astray from Him and His laws. The overall message is one of cause and effect. (If you would like to understand who these descendants are today, please request our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.)

Later God raised up the Hebrew prophets to warn the people of Israel and Judah. But with few exceptions, neither nation heeded these warnings from the Creator.

Ezekiel, a priest of God taken captive by the Babylonians when they conquered Judah, was specifically chosen by God as a watchman for the house of Israel (Ezekiel 3:1, 4, 5, 7, 17)—which had already gone into captivity a century before. So His prophecies would have to be fulfilled at a later time—logically during "the latter days" or end time.

As of a result of its sins, the northern kingdom of Israel went into captivity, followed by the kingdom of Judah 132 years later. Many Old Testament prophecies are dual in nature, meaning they have an initial, preliminary fulfillment and a primary fulfillment later.

According to Jesus Christ's words in Luke 21:22, most will see this primary fulfillment during the time of the end. (To understand more fully, please request our free booklets Are We Living in the Time of the End? and You Can Understand Bible Prophecy. These two publications will show you where the world is headed.)

Jesus Christ delivered His longest prophecy to His disciples not long before His crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, He spoke of key trends and events that would precede His return to earth—one of which was "nations... in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea" (Luke 21:25, NIV).

Then, near the end of the first century, the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation outlining world events during the time of the end. This long prophecy, too, foretells that natural disasters will play a major role in human affairs in the end time.

Intensified natural disasters

According to information reported on BBC News online, global disasters in general are on the increase. Late last year the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) released its statistical survey in association with the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain in Belgium.

The BBC stated: "Events including earthquakes and volcanoes, floods and droughts, storms, fires and landslides killed about 83,000 people in 2003, up from about 53,000 deaths 13 years earlier, the ISDR said." The BBC report also said that "254 million people were affected by natural hazards last year—nearly three times as many as in 1990" (Sept. 17, 2004).

The ISDR observed: "Not only is the world globally facing more potential disasters but increasing numbers of people are becoming vulnerable to hazards" (ibid.). An earlier BBC News online report warned that "giant tsunamis, super volcanoes and earthquakes could pose a greater threat than terrorism" (Aug. 9, 2004).

Please note that the disturbing results of these surveys and the resultant observations were all released before the giant quake and tsunami that rocked South Asia a few months later.

Summing up the scene

Journalists are not statisticians or experts in monitoring natural disasters. They can only report what scientists and geophysicists tell them. Often the writer's role is one of summing up, tying things together or putting events in context. Columnist Sharon Wright did exactly this for Britain's Daily Express.

"Flooding chaos could become a way of life for all of us—because the impact of the merciless weather has to be seen in the context of extreme natural phenomena across the world. One by one over the past 12 months, events have been falling into place like the pieces of a deeply disturbing jigsaw puzzle.

"Rivers across Britain are bursting their banks. There's no snow [yet] in the Alps... Bears near St. Petersburg are refusing to hibernate. Rain in the Sahara sent a plague of locusts to Africa... The list is long and very soon may become endless" (Jan. 14).

In addition, a record eight hurricanes lashed Atlantic islands and coastal regions in 2004, and the Canadian arctic became so warm last summer that Eskimos reported seeing wasps there for the first time. Extremes in weather may be becoming the norm.

The book of Revelation's warnings

The final book of the Bible speaks of major end-time happenings when natural disasters occur in extremes. The time of the end is not a normal time. Revelation talks of gargantuan events with massive numbers of people perishing as a prelude to the second coming of Jesus Christ. We may be on the verge of entering these troubling and tragic times. (Please request or download our free booklet The Book of Revelation Unveiled to better understand these coming events.)

Scientists and politicians speak of improved warning systems to lessen the loss of life when disasters do occur. One can applaud any workable protective measures that humans can implement for themselves. Ultimately, however, our only sure protection is in the hands of the Eternal God.

Jesus Christ urges us to pray that we would be worthy to escape the effects of these end-time events and to stand before Him at His return (Luke 21:34-36). Many of the Psalms encourage us to trust in our Creator for protection.

The tsunami a turning point?

A page-one newspaper headline asked: "Could the Tsunami Disaster Be a [Positive] Turning Point for the World?" (The Independent, Jan. 4). Fifteen respected British shapers of public opinion addressed this question. More than half were cautiously optimistic and guardedly hopeful. But a substantial minority said things like: "Sadly, I don't think it will happen," "We have been here before," "I think most people will simply forget," "It was the same after Sept. 11" and "I don't believe in altruism."

This disaster could be a genuine turning point if we truly mended our way of living. But barring a real national repentance in many nations, this tsunami is only the beginning of sorrows. Only a few weeks later it had largely disappeared from media headlines. There were some hopeful signs of American repentance after 9/11, but in most cases they turned out to be very temporary.

In Hosea 6:4, God described our fleeting forays into righteousness as like the "early dew that disappears" (NIV). They don't turn out to be permanent. Real repentance involves genuine sorrow and true confession to God coupled with a turning away from evil.

You can turn from your sins regardless of what your neighbor or the nation does. The clear lesson throughout Scripture is simple: You are responsible for yourself. WNP

Recommended reading

How much do you understand of what Bible prophecy reveals about the end time? Does the Bible talk about natural disasters such as great earthquakes, volcanoes and floods? You need to understand! Request or download our free booklets Are We Living in the Time of the End?, The Book of Revelation Unveiled and You Can Understand Bible Prophecy.

Also, to understand the way of life God wants us to begin living, request our free booklet The Ten Commandments. It's a good first step to learning God's definition of true righteousness.