Like others, I felt horror and disbelief on seeing photos of the powerful tsunami in North East Japan this week. Such power dwarfs Mankind. It is as if we see the earth rear up like a hidden monster, suddenly showing itself, and swallowing us. There is primeval horror in it.
For the Japanese, this idea is not alien. Indeed, a seismic wave is perfectly captured in the most famous Japanese woodcut "The Great Wave of Kanagawa" by Hokusai. This shows a huge tsunami wave, in front of volcanic Mount Fuji, dwarfing a boat. Recognise it on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokusai
Of course, the tsunami is the same thing as an earthquake at sea - it is its fatal ending. A tsunami is not water moving at 500mph through the ocean, but energy moving through the water at huge speed, which at the end, on the land turns into a wave of water which moves onto the land at 50mph. One is struck dumb by the horror of the poor people caught up in this.
I can understand earthquakes as shock waves, because I experienced the shock from an earthquake off the Bay of Naples, in my twenties. I was woken at night by something like an explosion from a huge World War One cannon going off a mile way. I now realise that I was lucky that no tsunami followed it, minutes later.
These recent events in the Pacific "Ring of Fire", have sensitized us all the dangers of an earthquake at sea. Apparently, this Japanese earthquake was so powerful that the Italian seismic centre says the axis of the world has shifted by 25cm. Such events belong to a scale which we rarely witness on earth but which is closer to the scale of planetary movements, than to our own small lives.
I am not necessarily prophecying the imminent end of the world. I simply note that Jesus knew and talked about earthquakes in relation to His Second Coming. Matthew 28.7-8 saying that signs of His Second Coming will be this:
"For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows" (King James Bible).
The meaning appears to be that signs of the end times will be due to shortages of resources as nations fight not to ration out, but to command dwindling supplies (e.g. of energy, food, dry land, drinking water) and the world will become suddenly filled with war over these shortages, pandemics - with increasing numbers of earthquakes, in different places, so that the earth itself will seem to mirror the scale of human sinful disorder. Alternatively the cause of dissension could be domination by one religion. Since 2004, we have better understood this concept of earthquakes "in various places". I am not sure that we have all the other conditions, quite yet but we can now imagine them.
Romans 8.22 says "For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now". Again, there is a connection between the torment of labour and natural disasters, suggesting that their pain in terms of upheaval, but we could also see as the pain of those caught up in them, will usher in a new redeemed age, free from pain, suffering and sin, just as the pain of childbirth is a stage towards the the pure joy of a new birth. An earthquake is also reported as happening during the Crucifixion.
William Shakespeare thought of natural disasters as omens of major events, like the death of kings, which was a classical idea, not incompatible with the New Testament.
He also suggested that a volcano is rather like the earth's flatulence which scientifically is correct - it is a build up of internal pressure.
When I find his rather surprising quotation again, I will insert it here.
There is a theological thought about the tsunami here.