A Call for Caution Regarding Earthquakeology

A friend called me a spoon this week. “You’re always stirring up things,” Raeanne Olivier teased. She was referring to something I had posted on Facebook. At last count, around 50 people had clicked that they liked it and another 80 or so comments had been left. Some have probably unfriended me by now.

No one was neutral.

I said something to the effect that Earthquakes are not a sign of anything. They are not a sign that the world is coming to an end. They are evidence that we reside on a living planet, one that has to deal with its inner pressures and stresses. Tornadoes and hurricanes are pressure relief valves for this planet and not the whims of a vindictive God. Come on!

A lot of people agreed and sent thanks for a clear word of reason. But not everyone.

Some started quoting scripture to me. Which was funny.

You wonder where they think I’ve been all these years. Like I’ve not read the Scriptures.

What was funny about that–if it weren’t so tragic–is that they quoted it completely out of context. They cited verses where Jesus referred to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 that have nothing to do with eschatology (end of the world stuff). And when I told one writer that he/she needed to go back and read the context of those verses, someone else sent me the same verse.

Groan. Okay.

I’m a realist, folks. I am completely aware of two overwhelming facts: I do not have all knowledge and we’re not going to change everyone’s mind on anything.

Young pastors sometimes think if they preach the definitive sermon on a subject they have forever banished the darkness in that corner of their universe. But darkness has a way of hanging in there, taking root, and giving up none of its hard-won territory.

We have to fight these battles against biblical ignorance again and again. What’s frustrating is that some of the defenders of the darkness are in pulpits.

Any disciple of Jesus hates to see the Lord slandered. And that’s precisely what many who would try to defend Him are doing.

When people attribute the earthquake in Japan last week to the Almighty, someone quickly responds, “What kind of God would send such a calamity that killed untold thousands of unsuspecting people?” And a preacher quickly answers that God killed all those people in the Old Testament, so He is that kind of God.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ would do well to get our theology from the New Testament. There are a hundred activities of God and His people in the Old Testament that are not for us. I don’t plan to stone my child who curses me or the couple caught in adultery, to name a couple. I do not agree with the psalmist who wrote that he would delight to bash in the heads of Babylonian babies (Psalm 137:9).

Even though we’ll not solve or resolve all this, I’d like to address a couple of concerns here.

In attributing disasters to God, we need to tread softly. This is thin ice.

Whether it was the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Earthquake, the Asian Tsunami, Katrina’s Hurricane and floods, or this Japanese quake, there is no lack of people stepping up to boldly assert that “God did this as punishment on you sinners!”

I keep hearing the Lord Jesus say, “What man of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a snake?” (Matthew 7:9-10)

Listen, Jesus did not pull that out of thin air. That is precisely what the enemy does: he accuses God of dirty tricks, of dashing people’s hopes, of cruelty toward those who come trusting.

My strong belief is that the second reason Jesus came to earth was to do something about God’s lousy reputation. The first, of course, was to give His life for our atonement, our salvation.

You know how the Bible says the devil is “the accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10). He is also the accuser of God, as we saw him doing in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-5).

Jesus came to tell us the truth about God. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” He said (John 14:9).

God is like Jesus.

Can anyone see Jesus calling down fire from Heaven on an unrepentant people? Well, God is like Jesus.

The disciples did indeed want to call down fire and brimstone on a town that had refused them entrance. Jesus rebuked them. (Luke 9:52-55)

What about all those people in the Old Testament God judged and killed?

Long answer: they had it coming. Short answer: I don’t know.

What I do know is that I do not get my theology from the Old Testament. I might see New Testament principles illustrated throughout the Old book, and there is a wealth of great teaching and foundational insights and historical underpinnings in the OT. But I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ, thank you.

The New Testament is “the teachings of the apostles.” It’s my assignment. And if you are Jesus’ disciple, it’s your text, too.

Understanding the teachings of Jesus is not always simple.

There, I’ve said it.

Some of our Lord’s disciples heard Him speak and said to Him, “This is a hard saying” (John 6:60).(Peterson in “The Message” has them saying, “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”)

Books have been written on “the hard sayings of Jesus.” So, let’s admit up front that some are tough to grasp and tougher to implement.

Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in what our Lord said about the end times. Take Matthew 24, for instance. The disciples ask Jesus three questions: When will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world (age)?

Oh great, guys. Couldn’t you have asked those one at a time? That way, we would know that the first part answers the first question, and so forth. But as it is, we have the Lord Jesus answering all three questions in the same speech. And it seems clear He blends and plaits the answers. Sometimes He’s referring to the fall of Jerusalem, which started this teaching in the first place (Matthew 24:1-2), and then He seems to be referring to to His return and to the end of the world. But we’re not sure when He quits one and moves to the other.

This is why we need the help of other teachers and pastors and scholars to help us understand it.

And, this is why we value a good paraphrase. I’m one who loves Eugene Peterson’s “The Message.”

And, speaking of earthquakes–which is what I’m actually trying to write about (on Facebook, I’d write a ‘lol’ about here!)–this is the passage from a standard translation of Matthew 24 which started all this.

Take heed that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 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. (NKJV for 24:4-6)

Now, here’s Peterson’s take on the same passage.

Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities, claiming, ‘I am Christ, the Messiah.’ They will deceive a lot of people. When reports come in of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history; this is no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Famines and earthquakes will occur in various places. This is nothing compared to what is coming.

We hear that some people are opposed to paraphrases of Scripture. This is unfair since every translation is a paraphrase to some degree. No one wants a word-for-word translation of Scripture because it would not make sense. (Ask any linguist.) Even in the most careful translations, translators still have to choose which word is the best equivalent in that language and their choice might even reveal a bias.

If any of us requires a scriptural precedent for paraphrasing the Holy Word, I call your attention to Nehemiah 8:8. They read the book of the law, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read.

Give the meaning. That’s what a paraphrase does. I started to say, “I don’t know about you, but I need one from time to time.” But I do know about you. You do, too. We all do. No one among us has all knowledge. “We know in part,” said the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians 13:12).

Earthquakes have always been with us. For the Lord to make a ‘sign’ of them would be unreasonable.

Imagine someone giving you direction to their home in Baton Rouge. “As you come into town, look for a traffic light. The red light will let you know you’re close.”

How many traffic lights does a city of a half-million people have?

How many earthquakes have rumbled over the earth in the last 2,000 years?

People who defend the earthquakes-as-signs philosophy like to say, “Well, in the last days, there will be more earthquakes than before.” We answer:

1) Oh? And where in Scripture did you find that? Jesus did not say it. You just decided it would be that way. A dangerous pattern to form.

2) We’re able to monitor even the smallest earth-shaking now far better than in the past, but seismologists see no increase in the number of earthquakes in the last century.

We read Matthew 24 (and its cousins, Mark 13 and Luke 21) through the lenses of teachers and preachers who have drummed their version of these passages into us to the point that it’s near impossible for most of us to read them freshly as though seeing them for the first time. But try it and see. (That, incidentally, is where a good paraphrase comes in, just to show how someone else saw these words. You don’t have to accept what they wrote, but it might bring out something you missed.)

Anyone who reads this blog regularly know I frequently quote John MacArthur. Now, I do it primarily because I happen to own The MacArthur Study Bible and it’s handy. However, here’s what he does with this very point. (I decided to insert this at the end of my dismissal of his technique in order to be fair.)

MacArthur writes: “Famines, earthquakes, and conflicts have always characterized life in a fallen world, but by calling these things ‘the beginning’ of labor pains, He indicated that things will get notably and remarkably worse at the end of the era as these unique tribulations signal the soon arrival of Messiah to judge sinful humanity and set up His millennial kingdom.”

For one noted to be careful in his exegesis, Dr. MacArthur takes a flying leap there and concludes something the text does not indicate, imply, or encourage. Just because something is the beginning does not mean it’s going to get worse and worse. That’s his opinion. And it’s part of the problem.

It’s also–may I add–what’s wrong with coming out with your own “study Bible.” People read God’s word and then yours and conclude yours carries as much weight as His.

The egotism of God’s humble servants is something to behold.

Confession here. Let me tell you who I’m writing this article for.

I was 24 years old and a first-year student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. We’d been married two years and had a small baby, and had moved to the campus from Birmingham. Now, I had majored in history and political science at Birmingham-Southern College, so my background in Bible and theology was woefully lacking.

One Sunday, I was invited to preach at the First Baptist Church of Grand Isle, LA. It would be a long day–a two-hour drive early Sunday morning, and we would be staying over for the evening service and driving home that evening.

That afternoon, this young green (green, green, green!) preacher went into the church library and pulled out Clarke’s Commentaries and turned to Matthew 24, figuring to get up a sermon on the Second Coming of Jesus and preach it that night.

That’s when I ran into roadblock. The commentary writer was saying many of those precious signs of the end–tried and true and hammered into my head through the years–referred not to the return of Jesus but to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

I had never heard that before. It was like preparing to whip up a bacon-and-eggs breakfast for the family and discovering you had only the ingredients for pizza.

I have no idea what I preached that evening, but it wasn’t the Second Coming, I’m sure.

Back on campus, I began studying the Word and the books and talking to professors and student pastors. And I made a discovery.

Clarke was right.

The first question the disciples had asked Jesus was when the temple was to be destroyed. So, naturally, that was the first answer He gave in Matthew 24.

Wars and threats of war, earthquakes and similar disasters are not signs of anything. That kind of trouble is routine. It has always been around. Why, if you read those verses cleanly (i.e., not through the eyes of anyone you’ve ever heard), it’s apparent they’re not even signs of the fall of Jerusalem.

So, I’m writing this little essay for the 24-year-old Joe McKeever, whoever he is today. A green pastor who tends to mimic what he has heard every other preacher say about the Second Coming. I want him to go read the Word for himself. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Consult all the various translations you can. Ask around. But mostly, listen to the written Word.

There’s no good place to end this. But it’s already overly long, so we’ll stop here. If you made it all the way to this point, you have my undying admiration.

10 thoughts on “A Call for Caution Regarding Earthquakeology

  1. Hurry up with the “to be continued.” I’m planning to preach Matthew 24 this coming Sunday in a series I’m doing on the last week of Jesus’ earthly life leading all the way to Easter. This one is called “Jesus’ Last Sermon.”

    And pray for me because as you’ve said, “Nobody is neutral.”

  2. I can just imagine the posts that would have been left if Facebook had existed during WWII and Hitler’s actions against his people and specifically the Jews. Would love your comments on that one, Joe.

  3. Joe,

    I was going to respond on Facebook but emotions were running a little too high. I’m with you on this one (as I usually am). I just don’t see in the New Covenant nations being judged. I see each one giving a personal account. Because Jesus came to forgive the sins of the world (past, present, and future), judgement is done until the final judgement. I love your thought about not taking my theology from the Old Testament. The Old Testament always points to Jesus. But everything changed in the way we relate to God in the New Covenant. You can’t take Old Covenant theology and move it to today. It just doesn’t work. God did NOT change, but the way he relates to people did change at Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thanks for stirring the pot!

  4. Thank you for the reminder that natural disasters are not an Act of God but the workings of the amazing living planet we inhabit. In my feeble musings, it occurs to me that the problems we face with these kinds of events is that there are so many of us (human beings) with all of our impedementa packed together which leads to the scope of devastation and suffering we now see in Japan.

    I’m grateful to our SBC missionaries and relief workers who are there and for the Cooperative Program my church supports which allows me to help.

    And keep that spoon out!!!

  5. Luke 13:1-9 is a passage I think of when faced with horrific events. Instead of people standing back declaring that God is judging maybe we should examine our hearts and repent.

  6. Good stuff, Joe, on the general point that we can’t infer from one particular calamity to the nearness of the Second Coming. However, there is genuine disagreement among Bible scholars about how to interpret Matthew 24 and similar passages. I join with those who understand that Matthew 24 is about the Second Coming with A.D. 70 in the background. Furthermore, John MacArthur’s understanding of the “birth pangs” is hardly a “flying leap” of logic. Others have come to the same conclusion, which doesn’t make it right, of course, but does mean that it’s not unique to him.

    As you said, the egotism of God’s humble servants is something to behold. That applies not just to John MacArthur but also to those who disagree with him.

    That said, your overall point is absolutely right. We can’t be dogmatic about the meaning of natural catastrophes beyond the point that they are part of the creation that groans because we live in a fallen world.

  7. *An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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