On the morning of November 1, 1755, Lisbon, Portugal was one of the world’s largest cities and a center for business and trade. By afternoon, the city lay in ruins and ash. In just one day, Lisbon experienced an earthquake, tsunami, and fire. The destruction unfolded on All Saints Day, as thousands of worshippers gathered in cathedrals.1
The Great Lisbon Earthquake also resulted in devastation in neighboring Iberian Peninsula and African countries. After the outbreak of such disasters, there was also an outbreak of serious unbelief. In the midst of the hurt, the church’s beliefs were challenged by the world.
A Rejected Faith
While mourning, believers and nonbelievers alike questioned God’s goodness and nature. Many concluded that if God is all-powerful, he could also be temperamental, resulting in a tragedy like this one. Some believed God was punishing them for their sin.
While mourning, believers and nonbelievers alike questioned God’s goodness and nature.
It was the age of the European Enlightenment, and debates raged over God’s role in the disasters in Portugal and beyond: Was God involved somehow, or were these disasters purely the result of natural forces, without any God at all?
Philosopher Immanel Kant thought the earthquake proved that the planet is indifferent towards people.2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau concluded the earth was attempting to lower the population of cities. Voltaire responded to the natural disaster with a poem, writing, “Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth! Affrighted gathering of human kind! Eternal lingering of useless pain!” He argued that nature is temperamental and disrespectful toward humans. These arguments led to an influx of atheism around the world.3
But the worst sign of all is the present decay of religion among us; this renders the rest more terrible, and makes it to be feared, that as we are ripe for destruction, so we may soon expect to have our candlestick removed: “for when the Son of Man comes, shall he find faith upon the earth?”4
In response to confusion and hurt, many decided to walk away from the peace and understanding that only God can provide.
An Affirmed Faith
In the fourth century, another powerful earthquake shook the border of Turkey and Syria. In a sermon afterwards, pastor John Chrysostom encouraged believers in Antioch to stand firm in their faith during the hurt and uncertainty:
Do you see the love for humanity of the Master who shakes [the] city and who makes [the] mind firm? He who rocks [the] foundations, and strengthens [our] thoughts? He who makes the city cracked, and makes our judgment strong? Set your minds on His love for humanity. He shook for a little while. He strengthened continuously. The earthquake [lasted] for two days, but let piety remain into all time. You were distressed for a little while, but you were rooted continuously….But nevertheless I rejoice, not because the city was made firm, but because it was through your prayers that it was made firm, because your singing of psalms became [the] foundations.5
The congregation could rejoice when they faced tragedy because they knew that they would not be shaken if they rested in the Lord’s presence, truth, and promises.
Build Your Faith on a Firm Foundation
When we face an abundance of opinions questioning our faith, what should we do? We stand on a firm foundation. Tragedies will strike, doubts arise, and hardships persist. This is inevitable in a fallen, sinful world. After the earthquakes, churches recognized that many believers had built their faith on shaky ground. All it took was one tragedy for many to walk away from their faith and the church altogether. Yet those with a foundation built on God’s sovereignty, even in suffering, remained strong in the faith, and the church persisted (Matthew 7:24–27).
Those with a foundation built on God’s sovereignty remained strong in the faith.
When many are tempted to run away from the church, we must remain faithful in gathering together as a community of believers. When we have questions, we should turn to Scripture, not the world, for answers. In prayer, we can bring our doubts to God, and he guides us. When the world is confused and hurt, we can tell them about the one who extends perfect peace and truth.