The Great Lisbon Earthquake: Thinking theology and natural disasters

It was November 1, 1755, All Saints Day in the Roman Catholic faith. The churches were full as the faithful worshiped. Suddenly, the earth began to shake and continued for more than three minutes. The city of Lisbon, Portugal soon lay in ruins from the quake that caused fissures that were 15-feet wide in places. Many ran from the falling and fallen buildings to the Tangus River in the center of town, seeking refuge on boats docked in the harbor. Moments later, a gigantic tsunami rushed into the harbor and up the river-sweeping away all in its wake.

The quake was felt hundreds of miles away and the tsunami rippled south to North Africa, north to England, and all the way to North America. Modern studies rate this quake at 9 on the Richter scale-the same as the revised magnitude of the one that just hit Japan. Records show that half of the city’s population of about 100,000 died in the event and most of its buildings were destroyed, including those housing great works of art and the records of the Portuguese empire around the world.

In sum, the Lisbon earthquake ranks as one the worst natural disasters in modern history when measured by loss of life and destruction of property.

Historians and literary figures who study theology, science, philosophy, and other ideas see the Great Lisbon Earthquake as much more than a grand natural disaster. As with all great events, natural or otherwise, people always seek to explain its cause and meaning. The Lisbon event is no exception. Yet, there was something unique about explanations of it at the time, and strikingly, for generations to come.

On the one hand, Christian thinkers, of many stripes, continued to explain natural disasters as examples of an almighty God exercising power over His Creation. Yet, the devastation in Lisbon was so great that age-old questions again came to the fore:

Why would God allow suffering and evil in this world? Why would he permit such disasters?

These questions point to the problem that theologians call theodicy, a kind of defense of divine justice in the face of what men perceive to be physical or moral evil. Hundreds of books, broadsides, and novels were written about the problem of evil in the wake of the Lisbon event. As might be expected, the Book of Job became the focus of many when commenting on the problem of evil. Job was pious, a man after God’s heart, but still suffered the loss of family and great wealth, forced to endure bodily sickness-festering boils and more.

The account makes it clear that it is not Job’s place to question, but only to endure. God is in charge, testing Job.

In contrast to traditional religious explanations of the cause of the Great Lisbon Earthquake, a new form of explanation for natural disasters arose. It was the child of the newly minted intellectual stance we know as the Enlightenment. Conditions in nature were said to explain natural disasters. The philosopher Leibniz seemed to suggest that we see disasters [evil] as part of a larger picture, that this is the best of all possible worlds and evil is simply part of it. Famously, Voltaire ridiculed this view, in his Candide and other works, and posited that evil is all around us and we must live with it. Another figure influenced by the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, wrote several pieces on the Lisbon quake, attempted to explain its cause as the result of massive gaseous changes below the earth’s surface. This is, of course, a prime example of a “naturalistic” explanation of events.

A main point here is that the Lisbon quake unleashed an intellectual conflict over the question of how to explain natural disasters, one that lasted for generations, reappearing when quakes like Haiti’s (2010), Southeast Asia’s (2004), and Japan’s (2011) occur. Notice that explanations of Japan’s quake today so far are largely in the scientific-naturalistic mode. Surely scientific explanations-tectonic shifts and the like-are sound and most helpful. But, seismology has not yet reached a stage where accurate predictability is routine.

While seismological explanations are satisfying in many ways, they do not preclude even the most ardent naturalistic scientist from wondering, at another level, why these events are allowed to occur. Thus, he joins the rest of humanity-educated and primitive-who still wonder why a loving God allows such evil to exist. Surely this question turns some who think about it into atheists. Yet, others reaffirm their belief, like Job, that it is ultimately their duty to trust God under any and all circumstances. Who, after all, can know the mind of the Creator of the universe?

– Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for law & humanities with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.