(Oxford, UK and Grand Rapids: Monarch Books, 2014)
Robert S. White is an eminent geophysicist who combines his scientific understanding of the Earth’s crust with a biblically based Christian world view. In chapters 1 – 3 of this book he shows that geological events – even those that we experience as destructive, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods – are essential to the beautiful and fruitful planet that we enjoy. But our interaction with them sometimes turns them into disasters.
The incidence of ‘natural disasters’ should be seen in the context of rapid population growth and the unjust distribution of resources. The locations where building takes place, and the building standards observed, affect the degree of people’s vulnerability. Because the poor often cannot afford to protect themselves, the distribution of fatal outcomes is also a justice issue. For example, climate change is expected to result in a significant rise in sea levels: while rich countries can afford to defend themselves against the dangers of flooding, those who live in deprived areas are less able to do so.
In chapters 4 – 7 White considers historic volcanic eruptions, floods and famines, and points out the interplay of natural and human factors in their experienced destructiveness. Other disasters – heat waves, wildfires, pandemic diseases and extraterrestrial impacts – are considered in more summary form in chapter 8. These historical summaries are very valuable in themselves. In chapter 9 the focus narrows to consider the biblical records of disasters, and the way they are regarded within the biblical narratives. Here again the concise summary of a considerable body of material is very helpful.
Chapter 10 begins the final section of the book. It consists of a series of biblical reflections on disasters. Firstly, what went wrong when Adam and Eve sinned? White rejects the view that physical creation was somehow changed, as being not borne out by geological evidence. Nevertheless both Old and New Testaments bear witness that ‘the earth is somehow “out of kilter”.’ The Bible describes a situation of lost relationships and spiritual death. The rebellion against God of humankind in general has inflicted devastating damage on creation.
Nevertheless the world is still subject to the ‘sustaining sovereignty of God’. Humans are created in the image of God, although Jesus alone reveals that image perfectly. No correlation can be found between the suffering experienced by individuals, and their apparent deserts. White considers a variety of ways in which theologians and philosophers have attempted to solve the problem of God’s apparent injustice, and finds them all to some degree inadequate.
His own approach is based on the biblical portrayal of a broken world, the victory of Christ in his death and resurrection, and the promise of a new creation in which ‘God will come down to dwell with his people’. The kingdom inaugurated by Christ will then come to fruition. These principles are traced through the biblical narratives of Joseph and Job in the Old Testament, and the teaching of Jesus in the New. Although we cannot fully understand God’s dealings with the world, we are called to serve God by using our gifts and abilities to mitigate the effects of disasters.
Who will be helped by this book? Christians struggling to reconcile God’s goodness and love with the apparent injustice of some human experience; those who may have rejected Christian faith as seemingly inconsistent with experience; and anyone interested in the interface between belief and science.
I have read and pondered this book at a time when my wife and I were struggling with her diagnosis and treatment for terminal cancers in two parts of her body. The issues raised by cancer are only partially relevant to the subject matter of the book. But the connections are there, and I can bear witness that Professor White’s book is of pastoral as well as theological and theoretical value.
I was initially puzzled by the apparent absence of some of the ‘figures’. Four pages of helpful coloured charts and pictures are placed together between pages 80 and 81, detached from the references to them in the text. Some editorial ‘signposts’ to that effect would have been helpful.