I have not been moved greatly by the natural disasters in Burma (Myanmar) and China. Why not? Am I callous? I sometimes feel a bit guilty for this. But somehow deep down these things do not move me.
One thing that I could say is that the tens of thousands who die in high profile disasters like these are in fact a small number compared with those dying every year from largely treatable diseases like malaria, which causes over a million deaths a year. It may seem callous to calculate like this, but there are probably more lives saved or rebuilt per buck from providing simple mosquito nets to poor Africans than from responding to the latest fashionable disaster appeal.
But there is also a more theological reason for not focusing on natural disasters, which is well put by John Hobbins quoting David Hart:
[T]here is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.
Hart’s essay is profound, and also touches on how this matter relates to understandings of the atonement. If this extract doesn’t make sense to you, read it all. It is in line with Hart’s conclusions that John adds:
Suffering and death have no meaning whatsoever except insofar as they will be vanquished forever.
Indeed! To Christians death should be a joyful release from this earth (2 Corinthians 5:1-4), although of course tinged with sadness for those left behind, and suffering is temporary and a preparation for greater glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). As for those who die without explicitly being Christians, it may well be that God reveals himself to them in their dying moments; or maybe God knew that they would never repent and believe and so there was no point in keeping them alive. In any case, God is in control of all this. We should avoid falling into the world’s way of thinking in which death is the ultimate disaster.
So, as Christians we should not let ourselves be distracted by giving excessive attention to natural disasters, which are bound to come, but should keep our focus on the work of building God’s kingdom.