It’s amazing how quickly we forget. Maybe it’s a sign of cognitive deterioration, but as I watched gut-wrenching footage of boats and cars being swept through the streets of Japan by the tsunami, my mind started racing. Where else did we recently have massive earthquakes? I quickly remembered Haiti, but it took a few moments for the doddering mechanisms of my long-term memory to start sending back the rest of the answers. In case you’re also struggling with recall, let me give you a head start: Haiti, China, Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand. In reality, there have been more than 30 earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.0 or greater since the beginning of 2010.
So why did I have to struggle to remember even a few of them? Is it possible that large-scale disasters have become such a regular part of the news cycle that I’ve actually developed calluses? What does it take to make a lasting impression on the twenty-first century mind?
Shortly after 9/11 church attendance in America shot through the roof. According to some estimates about half the adult population made their way to a religious service the weekend following the attack. Churches all across the country were pleased to report record crowds. Less than a year later—in fact, I distinctly remember it being a matter of weeks—attendance had dropped back down to pre-crisis levels.
This week people are dumbfounded by the immensity of the Japanese crisis, and rightly so. Seismologists have revised their original estimates, upgrading the quake to a magnitude of 9.0, which is unimaginably huge. As I write, the Japanese government’s estimate for the death toll is nearly 10,000 people. That may not be as large a number as we saw in Haiti, but let it sink in: 10,000 deaths.
And that’s not the end of Japan’s troubles: foreign governments are worriedly advising their nationals to evacuate the region because of concerns over radioactive contamination from heavily damaged power plants. Electricity is being rationed for the first time in Japan’s technological history. Factories have slowed to a standstill because transportation routes have been compromised. And the financial impact of the disaster will be terrible: the Japanese economy, already saddled with one of the largest debts in the industrialized world, can scarcely afford a disaster this enormous.
Right now the world’s attention is glued to Japan. The Web is glutted with apocalyptic-like footage. As the shock begins to wear off we will move past our astonishment to humanitarian measures. But shortly after that, most of us will simply forget. The event will become a statistic, a fuzzy memory as we move on with “normal” life. As with the other supersized disasters to have battered our planet in recent years, the visceral impact of a 9.0 earthquake will likely have a very short half-life.
But it’s not supposed to. “So you also,” Jesus said, “when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors!”
Much of the world is shaken by the news coming out of Japan. Shaken, but not stirred. Most of humanity will quickly return to life as usual. In Japan, the process will take significantly longer, especially if the problem of radioactive contamination mushrooms in the days ahead. But they too will eventually recover a sense of normalcy. The spiritual significance of these larger-than-life disasters—and the accelerating frequency with which they’re happening—is eluding most of the human race.
It’s not that people are missing the point entirely. We have a general sense that something’s up. The History Channel has been running specials about Nostradamus and 2012 for a couple of years. Fascination with the occult is back in vogue. Late-night radio shows are talking about cosmic alignments, global spiritual “awakenings,” and an approaching cataclysm.
Environmentalists are sounding alarm bells about melting polar caps and climate change.
People seem to have a nagging sense that it’s no longer business as usual, but without the ability to attach meaning to these kinds of events, most of them simply forget and move on with life. Without the Bible’s prophetic road map, large-scale disasters become nothing more than unfortunate random events. And from the perspective of tragic ignorance, the signals of Jesus’ rapid approach shake us up, but fail to make a lasting difference. People are shaken, but not stirred.
And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed.
For Seventh-day Adventists it’s a completely different story, or at least it ought to be. With the words of Jesus engraved in our hearts, reports of a 9.0 earthquake do not rattle us. We know why it is happening. We’ve been expecting it. We are not shaken. But are we stirred?
The prophetic hourglass is nearly out of sand, and we find ourselves in possession of a remarkable gift that could offer peace of mind to a troubled world: we have an explanation and we have hope. But if you and I are silent, what good is knowing? Is the good news really just for us? If the progressive collapse of a planet untethered from its Creator does not move us to action, what will? And if human suffering on such a massive scale does not stir our hearts to share what we know, what will it take?
It’s easy to assume that the message behind Matthew 24 is aimed at the “Gentiles,” who we feel ought to pay more careful attention to the signs of Christ’s return. But I am convinced that each successive catastrophe is also a clear message to God’s church. They are meant to stir us to action. They ought to remind us that our neighbors can’t explain what is happening—and that they are utterly lost without Jesus, hurtling down a path to final destruction.
We can expect the rest of the world eventually to move on, to brush off the dust, and to mostly forget what happened in Japan. But what a tragedy if God’s remnant church is also shaken, but not stirred. Clearly, it ought to be the other way around: stirred, but not shaken.
 Luke 17:26-30, NKJV
Shawn Boonstra, former speaker/director of It Is Written, writes from Southern California. This article was published on March 15, 2011.