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The forces of nature and unanswered questions

by Laurence Chilcott

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the devastation caused by natural disasters and the questions they pose.

Preparation and materials

  • Gather images of the devastation caused by catastrophic natural disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes – and relief agencies at work in such situations and have the means to display them during the assembly (optional).


1. We live in an amazing world – a world of contrasts and extremes. Some areas are so hot that you can fry an egg on the rocks or pavement, while others are so cold that your breath will freeze. In some places you can swim in hot natural lakes while there is snow all around you. We have mountains so high that you need oxygen to climb them and they are always covered with snow. We have a trench in the Pacific Ocean so deep that Mount Everest would disappear into it. We have a sea – the Dead Sea – in which you cannot sink, no matter how hard you might try. We have dense jungles where trees and plants compete for light, arid deserts where almost nothing grows, rolling hills and rugged mountains, placid lakes and meandering rivers, roaring seas and cascading waterfalls that sound like thunder.

2. It is a world that, in many ways, we have no control over. Deep inside the Earth there are forces that we cannot fully comprehend, forces that produce catastrophic events such as earthquakes and volcanoes, and weather systems that develop into hurricanes and tornadoes.

Whenever nature in all her power is unleashed, there is the potential for disaster. Lava from volcanoes can flow and engulf homes and towns as it does so. Earthquakes can send out shockwaves that cause buildings to collapse. Monsoon rains cause rivers to flood, ruining the homes and livelihoods of people alongside its banks. Tornadoes tear buildings and towns apart and bring misery to all as they travel across land and sea.

3. Sometimes, hopefully only once in our lives, we will hear of and see on our televisions a catastrophic disaster of such immensity that it shocks the whole world. One such event took place on 26 December 2004.

While people in Britain were relaxing on Boxing Day, the news came of a disaster on the other side of the world. An undersea earthquake had triggered a series of devastating tsunami along the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. Waves, some as high as 30 metres, inundated coastal communities and more than 225,000 people died. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded.

4. At such times, it is natural for us to ask why do such events occur and why is there so much suffering in the world? In truth, no one can fully explain the mystery of such suffering. Some suffering is brought about by human beings:

– hunger – there is enough food in the world, but millions go hungry

– war – the envy, ambition, greed of some can bring misery and suffering to many innocent people

– pollution – exhaust fumes, factory pollution, destruction of the rainforests for a whole lot of reasons and so on have an effect on our environment and climate.

The suffering brought about by natural disasters is more straightforward to explain. The colossal forces of nature operate in our world and those forces make the power of humans insignificant. The earthquake set off a tsunami in 2004, which is not unusual in itself, but what was unusual was the magnitude of the earthquake and how it affected the ocean above it.

5. At such times, people will sometimes ask why does God allow this to happen? We can’t answer that question with complete confidence, but Christians believe God created a world that conforms to the laws of nature, incredible and harsh though they sometimes are.

6. When there are disasters like this, we see suffering, but we also see some examples of the greatest human qualities. We see acts of great courage and sacrifice, great acts of compassion. Relief workers from all over the world leave the comfort and security of their homes to help those who have been injured or bereaved and money pours in from ordinary people to help with the rescue and reconstruction work.

Without suffering, we would have less knowledge of just how great those human qualities of care, compassion, sympathy and love can be.

Time for reflection

At times of disaster, we feel for people who have lost their families or loved ones and it is right that we do so. It is easy for us to feel greater sympathy when the numbers of people killed or injured are as great as in the disaster of 2004, but we need to remember that the grief of a single person who loses her husband or his wife, a son or daughter, a brother or sister in tragic circumstances does not decrease or increase depending on whether that person died alone or with others. The sorrow is no less, it is simply shared with more people if the loved one died as a result of a disaster.

Follow-up activity

1. Look at the role of relief agencies and non-governmental organizations in disaster areas.

2. Discuss the significant risks that people face living in certain areas of the world and the fact that they remain in such areas despite those risks.

3. Discuss how disaster can bring out the best and the worst in people – some risk their lives to save others, while other people loot shops and homes.

4. Consider the problems that relief agencies encounter in their efforts to help, such as corruption in certain regimes, physical threats and danger in war-torn areas, refusal to allow access to secretive or sensitive areas and not admitting the scale of the emergency in certain non-democratic countries.

Publication date: June 2015   (Vol.17 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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