Keynote 5

Earthquakes, Volcanoes and God: Praying in response to Natural Disasters

Revd Prof David Chester, Department of Geography and Environmental Science , Liverpool Hope University

David is Head of Environmental Sciences at Liverpool Hope University. His research has focussed on natural hazards, particularly earthquakes and volcanoes, and their impacts. His recent research has concentrated on religious responses to disasters. He is also an ordained Anglican priest. You can read more about his research interests on his academic web-site.


The Hebrew and Christian scriptures usually interpret disasters in terms of divine wrath visited on sinful people and nations, but discussion of catastrophes did not end at the close of the biblical era and continued throughout Christian history, with a number of alternative models being developed, some of which only became prominent following the devastation wrought by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.  

            In the past few decades there has been a sea-change in both Christian attitudes towards disasters and in the ways in which losses are viewed by hazard researchers. From the perspective of the latter, an approach that envisions disasters as being primarily caused by extreme physical events has been largely replaced by one in which disasters are studied as social constructs, with emphasis being placed on human vulnerability. From the perspective of Christian theology much reflection on disasters, especially on earthquake which have occurred in South America, has resulted in greater prominence now being given to viewing disasters as events that represent institutional rather than individual human sinfulness, and which is manifested in national and international disparities in wealth, poverty, hazard preparedness and disaster losses. 

            Greater focus is also placed on Christian praxis, rather than merely trying to understand the nature of supposed divine responsibility.  It is argued that these new hazard analytical and theological perspectives are synergetic: allowing on the one hand churches, their members as well as their leaders, more fully to engage in disaster relief;  whilst, on the other, enabling civil defence planners more effectively to use the often considerable human and financial resources of Christian communities and their charitable agencies.