People or God: who is responsible for natural disasters?

Professor Robert White examines natural disasters from an historical and biblical point of view

Natural disasters are processes which make this a fruitful world,” says Professor Robert White of Cambridge University and the Faraday Institute. “Things go wrong when human actions turn a natural process into a disaster.”

Neither earthquakes nor volcanoes are negative occurrences, Professor White says. Though they have been happening for centuries, some countries have the technology to minimize damage while others do not. “Poor people are disproportionally killed by disasters,” he says. The effects are often made worse by the action or inaction of people.

Professor White cites various examples of natural disasters that have been aggravated by humans to illustrate his point.


In 1793, a nine-month volcanic eruption covered Iceland in ash but killed no one. The following winter was harsh, killing most of the cattle and crops, causing a famine. Neighboring countries were aware of the conditions and did nothing to help, resulting in the death of 25 per cent of Iceland’s population.

In May 1902, Martinique‘s Mount Pele erupted, destroying the city of Saint Pierre and its inhabitants. Saint Pierre’s residents stayed because the mayor, who was running for re-election, released a statement saying the volcano was not dangerous. Only one person survived.

While nothing could have stopped these volcanoes from erupting, the actions of the mayor in Martinique and the inaction of the countries near Iceland claimed many lives.


Although it is still difficult to predict a volcanic eruption, the technology used to prevent damage from earthquakes has advanced. When earthquakes measuring 7.0 and 9.1 hit California and Tokyo, respectively, 57 people died in California and no one was lost in Tokyo.

When a 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti, 230,000 people died. Without the ability to build quake resistant structures, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, suffered massive losses and is still trying to recover.

Joseph, Job and God

Natural disasters have challenged the faith of Christians for centuries. Both believers and non-believers have asked God why he allows tragedies to happen.

Professor White used Joseph as an example of God working through people to prevent disasters. After being sold by his brothers, God placed Joseph in the perfect position to prepare for the coming famine. He stored grain and rationed it accordingly so that no one would starve. Later in Genesis, Joseph says to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” This is one of the ways God works to keep a natural occurrence, like a drought, from becoming a disaster.

Job’s situation was different. As a faithful believer in God and a “blameless and upright man,” he could not understand why he was being punished and pleaded with God for answers.

Professor White quoted fellow Catalyst Live speaker, Sharon Dirckx, saying, “Things that go wrong in your life are not a punishment from God.” Instead, in response to Job’s questions, God explains his absolute power over creation, and rebukes those who have told Job he is to blame for his trials. “God is sovereign over this world, even over evil,” says Professor White. Natural occurrences happen for a reason, not necessarily because those affected have sinned.

The earth is always changing because of earthquakes, droughts, famine, volcanic eruptions and floods. God gives people the tools and warnings they need to survive these natural occurrences. When warnings are ignored or tools are not shared, that is when these events become disasters.

Professor Robert White is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Science at Cambridge University

Words: Vickey Casey


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