Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

The Year That Was

By the time this article is printed in the Standard Bearer, a good portion of the New Year will have passed. There is, however, a real need to reflect on the year past—2004. News commentators last year, in their reporting on some terrible “disaster” in the realm of creation, could be heard asking the question, “What’s going on here?” That is a reasonable question. There is something “strange” going on—strange, at least, to the commentator. Rarely, however, does one hear the mention of God in this connection. The closest approach to what the Bible has to say is a reference to a disaster as being of apocalyptic proportions—an obvious reference to the testimony of the book of Revelation.

We have been reminded this past year of Scripture’s testimony: “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matt. 24:7).Revelation 8 presents the blowing of the seven trumpets—an increase of disasters from the average (1/4 of the earth affected) to above average (1/3 of the earth grievously affected). Are we hearing those trumpets? It would seem so.

The Christian observes the great disasters as an increase of trials and troubles on this earth as foretold in Scripture. Others have called attention to the great increase of disasters in this past year as well. Casey Research, Inc. of Dallas, Texas published an article that chillingly summarizes the catastrophes of the past year. The article speaks of these events and also about those likely to happen in the near future. The Christian can only respond, “The Word of God concerning events immediately preceding Christ’s return are taking place.”

In what might have been exceptional foresight, Japanese priests named 2004 “the year of disaster.” Indeed, it was heralded on December 26, 2003 when a large earthquake in Iran destroyed the city of Bam, killing 30,000 and leaving around 70,000 homeless; to the day one year before the cataclysmic undersea earthquake in Sumatra. Let’s take a look at 2004. 

More than 52 tornadoes struck Illinois and other Midwest states, devastating Utica, IL and killing 8 people in the basement of the Millstone Tavern. The NASA Ames Research Center found that bug populations that have multiplied unchecked due to extremely mild winters have devoured huge swathes of forest in western Canada and Alaska since 1995. The damage had gone unnoticed because the region is largely uninhabited and not harvested for timber. An exceptionally strong monsoon flooding in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh left 15 million homeless. Six hurricanes struck the U.S., drove Floridians out of their homes and left 350,000 people without power for days. Charley was deemed the second costliest hurricane on record. Jeanne delivered a hard blow to already poverty-stricken Haiti, and the Philippines saw the worst storm season in 13 years. Unprecedented numbers of locusts ravaged Africa and made it as far north as Portugal and the Canary Islands. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one ton of locusts can eat as much as 10 elephants or 2,500 people in one day. The San Andreas Fault ruptured near Parkfield, CA, producing an earthquake of 6.0 on the Richter scale. Mt. St. Helens was spewing huge clouds of steam. A record ten typhoons hit Japan, killing more than 100 people and causing estimated $6.7 billion damage. Typhoon Tokage, the deadliest to hit Japan in over two decades, produced a wave eight stories high and was followed three days later by the deadliest earthquake in one decade, which destroyed more than 6,000 buildings and caused more than 1,000 landslides. 

And, to top it off, on December 26, a 9.0 earthquake shook Sumatra, causing a tsunami that devastated the shore lines of 12 countries in the Indian Ocean and, at last count, had killed over 140,000 people from 37 different nations (and counting). 

Are there more such cataclysmic events waiting to happen? Unfortunately, yes. Consider, for instance, a warning that was issued by a group of researchers at University College London in 1999. 

There is a strong possibility, the scientists warned, that the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma, one of the Canary islands off the North African coast, could erupt with such force that it would virtually split the island in two. That would cause a tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean of such force that tidal waves up to 160 feet high would strike the North American East Coast, destroying large parts of Boston, New York, and Miami. “Following an eruption in 1949, scientists found a fracture running through the western side of the volcano,” states an article in last week’s Republican. “The land mass—a half trillion tons of rock—appeared to have slipped 13 feet toward the sea during the eruption, but friction apparently stopped the slide.” 

A new eruption, warns the team from University College London, could cause the entire land mass to slide into the sea, creating the feared mega-tsunami. J. Michael Rhodes, a volcanologist at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is skeptical. He says there is no way to predict if and when such a landslide will occur—and what effect it would have. “[It] really depends on how big the landslide is and how rapidly it moves. It also depends on whether the land slides all at once or whether it goes in pieces. And there is no way of knowing that,” he told the Republican. 

Then there is America’s pending super-volcano in Yellowstone National Park. In 2004, it showed an alarming rise in sulfuric gases and water temperature, killing fish and wildlife and causing park rangers to close some sites to tourism. When (note, we didn’t say “if”) a mega-eruption happens, say scientists such as Bill McGuire, professor of geohazards at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre at University College London, “the explosion would be the loudest noise heard by man for 75,000 years.” Falling ash, lava flows and the sheer blow of the eruption would eradicate all life within a radius of a thousand kilometers, according to McGuire. 

Or in the New Madrid zone, for example. This earthquake-prone fault runs through parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. The three earthquakes—each an estimated 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale—that occurred in 1811 and 1812 near New Madrid, MO are among the Great Earthquakes of known history and affected the topography more than any other earthquake in North America. Large pieces of land sank into the earth, new lakes were formed, the course of the Mississippi river was changed … so strong were the quakes that they reportedly rung church bells in New Eng—land. Casualties were few, however, since at that time, the Mississippi river valley was sparsely settled. A similar earthquake today would cost hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives. 

Then there is the fault associated with the meeting of the African and European tectonic plates that run through the British island of Gibraltar. Some earth scientists forecast that this is the one most likely to go, triggering a massive tsunami that would devastate the coast of Portugal—as it did in 1755 when an estimated 100,000 people were killed by the disaster. 

A recent NY Times editorial titled “The Year the Earth Fought Back” compares 2004 to 1906, a year of major earthquakes—including the “Great San Francisco Earthquakes”—volcano eruptions and other natural disasters around the world. “Given these cascades of disasters past and present,” wonders author Simon Winchester, “…might there be some kind of but

terfly effect, latent and deadly, lying out in the seismic world?” He speculates that “the movement among the world’s tectonic plates may be one part of [an] enormous dynamic system, with effects of one plate’s shifting more likely than not to spread far, far away, quite possibly clear across the surface of the globe.” 

What to do? First and probably most important, don’t take Mother Nature for granted. No amount of modernity can tame the earth. If you live in an area that has been devastated in the past, or that is at risk, take what steps you can to be prepared—including keeping a stash of long-lived food and try to secure a source of clean water (or, the water purification materials need to create same). Then go about your business.

There have always been earthquakes throughout the earth’s history—often devastating. There have always been tsunamis—often very destructive. But all of these things are occurring in a short period of time, are among the greatest that have devastated the earth, and have affected more people than ever before. The writer of the above article points out that mankind cannot withstand the forces of “nature.” What must he do? He should prepare himself for disaster striking in his area. He should have adequate water and food supplies at home for any eventuality.

But there is no recognition of God. There is no recognition of the fulfillment of scriptural signs concerning Christ’s return. In fact, some have gone out of the way to mock with the idea that God is at work or that there may be any kind of retribution here. In the Grand Rapids Press, January 4, 2005, an article appears by David Brooks of the New York Times News Service. He writes:

Human beings have always told stories to explain deluges such as this.

Most cultures have deep at their core a flood myth in which the great bulk of humanity is destroyed and a few are left to repopulate and repurify the human race. In most of these stories, God is meting out retribution, punishing those who have strayed from his path. The flood starts a new history, which will be on a higher plane than the old.

Nowadays we find these kinds of explanations repugnant. It is repugnant to imply that the people who suffer from natural disasters somehow deserve their fate. And yet for all the callousness of those tales, they did at least put human beings at the center of history.

In those old flood myths, things happened because human beings behaved in certain ways; their morality was tied to their destiny. 

Stories of a wrathful God implied that at least there was an active God, who had some plan for the human race. At the end of the tribulations there would be salvation.

If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe’s main concern. We’re just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves….

The writer ends thus:

This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation.

But what a hopeless and heartless philosophy! No explanation? No hope? There is only despair. There is even the dreaded thought that the vast wealth of the United States may soon be exhausted if these sorts of disasters continue to come—and perhaps with devastating force against this country too.

It is wise to be prepared for certain disasters, no doubt. Scripture, however, speaks of another sort of preparation. When all these things occur, then look up. The time of deliverance is at hand. Then the church cries out, “Even so, come Lord Jesus, quickly.”