How do we as Christians interpret these events? Are they God's direct judgment on the cities and/or nations involved, or are they just things that happen in a fallen world?
There seem two general schools of thought on this out there. There is a very common school of thought that the recent earthquakes are a direct judgment of God on Christchurch and NZ and Japan. A friend told me of one of his friends who went to a meeting at which all the pastors involved thought so. They tend to see how such things happened in the OT where events were seen as directly caused by God because of Israel's or the nations sins. One of the best examples is Amos 4:6-13 where God brought successive disasters upon Israel to cause them to repent including famine, drought, blight and mildew, pestilence, defeat etc. Israel did not repent, and so were destroyed by exile.
Other Christians think that Jesus ended all this sort of direct linkage between personal or the corporate sin of a nation or city and judgement. Jesus took the judgment of sin upon himself and now the bad stuff that happens should not be interpreted this way, but seen as a result of sin in a general sense; the whole world under destruction, sin and suffering (Rom 8:19-23). As such, God has taken suffering upon himself, and is with us in our sufferings. This view sees suffering not through the lens of God's direct intervention or non-intervention, but as a result of sin and evil corrupting God's world. God is with us in it grieving with and in us, and to strengthen and give us hope.
So who has it right?
There are at least three NT situations that suggest that God in the age after Christ acts in judgment. The first is the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 66-70 which Jesus foretold (see Mark 13:1-2; Matt 23:37-24:2; Luke 21:5-6, 20-34). It could be that Matthew 27:35 suggests for Matthew, that the fall of Jerusalem was the judgment of God on Israel for their killing of Messiah (if so, this does nothing to justify the shocking anti-Semitism of history!). This could be seen as an example of divine judgment post resurrection. The second is Acts 5:1-11 where Ananias and Sapphira meet their death due to them lying about the percentage of money they gave to the communal purse. Luke records this as divine judgment. The third is 1 Cor 11:30-32 where Paul interprets sickness and death in the Corinthian church as a result of their failure to uphold the Lord's Supper in unity and love. These suggest that there remains a possibility that natural and other events are due to human sin.
However, there are NT passages which warn against making the connection too quickly. First, there is the account in Luke 13:1-5 where some report to Jesus of some Galileans put to death by Pilate who mingled their blood into their sacrifices made at the temple. This is horrendous stuff! Jesus takes the opportunity to teach on this very idea. He asks, 'do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?' For many of the ancients, this would be typical thinking. Suffering is a result of sin, and so the horrible suffering of these Galileans necessarily presupposes their sin. This would be akin to saying, that the Japanese and Christchurch earthquakes must be a result of their personal sin. Jesus answers, 'No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.' The point being, that we are all sinners, and the suffering was not a direct result of their sin, but all such suffering is a result of the macro-problem of human sin since the Fall at which time sin and suffering, death and destruction entered the world of human experience. The lesson is that we should all repent and turn to God and place our trust in him, and then we will have hope and confidence when these things happen. Jesus follows it up in v.5 with another example of eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and died – sounds rather like an earthquake. Jesus asks, 'do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?' Jesus goes on, 'No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.' This refers of course to eternal death. The point of this passage is that we cannot equate a disaster with personal sin or a cities sin. This is dangerous thinking.
Two other passages reinforce this well. In John 9 Jesus' disciples ask him whose sin caused the blindness of the man beside the road, his own or his parents. Again, this is typical ancient and Jewish thinking before Christ. That is, personal sickness like this is a curse due to sin either of the person, or his parents or grandparents (to the third or fourth generation). Jesus rejects the link completely stating that it is for the glory of God to be revealed. Similarly, we need to be really careful to assume Christchurch or Japan is due to their sin or their nations' sins. Perhaps in some way, over time, God's glory will be revealed in the rebuild?
In the account of the leper lowered through the roof in Mark 2 and parallels, a seriously disabled man is brought to Jesus. Jesus looks at him and his friends, and seeing their faith, forgives him. This offends the Jewish watchers who consider this blasphemous, as only God can forgive. Jesus then gives them a riddle, 'Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven," or to say, "Rise, take up your bed and walk"? As westerners we struggle with this. Some say, 'to forgive' is harder as only God can do it. Others say 'rise…' is harder as this is a sign that requires an instant visible demonstration. The point is missed when we do this. For the ancients, the man was disabled because of sin and so, if he is forgiven, he will be healed. So Jesus is challenging at a deeper level than an either-or question. The watchers are caught in a quandary, as one leads to the other. Jesus then heals the man, and so in ancient terms proves that he has forgiven the man. His healing demonstrates visibly that God has forgiven him. What Jesus has done is not only forgiven, healed and proven his authority; but he has challenged their thinking, that all suffering comes from sin.
One other passage needs mentioning, one I refer to more and more in my thinking, Rom 8:17-23. Paul in this passage speaks about suffering not as a consequence of sin, but as a result of living in a fragile, broken world, enslaved to decay. The whole creation groans, desperate for its release. If we connect Paul's thinking with Rom 5:12-13, because of Adam's (and Eve's) sin, suffering, destruction and death was let loose like a virus in God's world affecting all parts of it. As such, we should expect such events in a shattered world as mortal beings. There will be natural catastrophes that will come and cause pain and suffering. The ancients knew this better than anyone in a world with a life-expectancy of around 40. Sickness, death, natural disasters, war, violence, etc, are all a part of the same problem. It is a terrible mistake to simply assume when an earthquake hits that it is God's direct judgment! (in a sense all events are a judgment, but not in a direct sense, a result of us causing the rift we have with our God).
So where does this leave us? First, it leaves us knowing that sometimes suffering is a result of direct divine judgment where God allows an event to occur. If so, there is always a reason, even though we cannot see it. It is ok to ask the question, but we must not jump to assume the connection. Second, most suffering is not a result of this, but due to the cosmic problem of evil which has permeated every nook and cranny of God's creation, it is a consequence of the Fall. We should not jump to judgment, but jump to groaning in the Spirit (Rom 8:26-27), seeking God's consolation in Jesus who suffered on the cross for us, and compassion and action for those suffering.
So where Christchurch and Japan are concerned let me ask with Jesus, 'were those who died in the earthquakes of Japan (and tsunami/nuclear disaster) and Christchurch worse sinners than the others in the city or us who are unaffected by the events?' No way! We are all sinners, and need to repent and place our trust in God or we will perish. And again, are the events judgment on these people or city because of their terrible sin? Or is it the result of the cosmic problem of evil that has invaded God's previous world, and which we are all prone to experience now and then because of a dangerous world with tectonic forces, the sea, and the weather? If it was judgment, I would have expected to hear clear warnings leading up to them, calling for specific areas of repentance, and warnings that if they do not they will be punished (a la Amos). I never heard them. I hear general statements warning the world in its decadence that such events will occur, but if anyone out there had God's word for these nations given to them, they needed to get up and cry it out through the media so it was heard. If not, they like Ezekiel's watchmen are guilty of not doing so, the blood of those who perished is on their hands. It is really easy to say it is judgment after the event, but is this what God is saying. Again, where is the evidence?
No, we cannot attribute these events to the judgment of God in a direct sense. They are what many are experiencing around the world, have done so since Eve and Adam, and will continue to do so. They are horrendous events where people in the wrong place and wrong time were killed because of natural forces. They cannot be trivialised to the punishment of God or theologised away in some simple way. We don't know why they happened other than @^&**@ happens now and again. And they hurt like hell. The last thing people need is people standing in judgment over them as if they have some divine right to do so. That is the stuff that drives people away from Christian faith into agnosticism, atheism, or other perspectives. Jesus came to walk with us in suffering, to love us through it, to strengthen us as we experience it. The greatest miracles are not God's direct miracle intervention, but the day by day way his Spirit sustains people through trauma like this. Our God is one of grace not judgment.
God bless them all and their families. We should be moved to deeper faith, deeper trust, deeper yearning, deeper prayer, deeper groaning, as we seek God for them. We should be moved to acts of love, grace, mercy and generosity for such people, rather than looking to lay blame. When we do, we judge ourselves, the great log of our sin banging around in our eyes as we cast judgment on the specks in theirs. Ours is not to lay blame, condemn and judge, ours is to love and care and show mercy. If we feel we have to judge, we should examine our own lives and not theirs.