By Norris Burkes Sept 11. 2022

As you read this, my wife, Becky, and I are winging across the Atlantic toward Lisbon, Portugal, where we hope to finally begin celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary – postponed two years for the pandemic.

I have reading material to share with my beloved. She likes it when I do that.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, you can imagine our conversation going something like this.

“Apparently, Lisbon was a devout religious city in the 1700s, the fourth largest in Europe and a rich port city.” I say.

She looks out the window, and I continue.

“It’s a good thing we aren’t visiting back then.”

“Why?” she asks, eyes on the water far below.

“Well, for one thing, the inquisition was underway, meaning they’d have burned this spirituality columnist at the stake.”

“I’ve seen the email from your readers.” she says, “That bonfire might still happen.”

I ignore her comment.

“It gets worse. In the 16th century, Lisbon was the site of the worst natural disaster in European history.”

She turns to me. “Where are you getting all this?”

I hold up my source book and she reads the title aloud.

“The Big Ones – How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (And What We Can Do About Them)” by Dr. Lucy Jones.

Adequately footnoted, I share my abridged version with Becky.

“Jones, 67, a science adviser for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, tells the story in the book’s second chapter of Lisbon’s All-Saints Day earthquake.”

“On November 1, 1755, the ground began to shake about 9:40 a.m. The tremor transitioned into a violent earthquake, lasting five minutes. Jones quotes numbers estimating that the quake was nearly a 9.0 on the Richter magnitude scale. 

“She writes that many victims were sitting in stone churches, where many were crushed to death. If they survived church, they were swept away by the tsunami. If they escaped a watery death, they perished in fires that burned for six days.

“The quake killed roughly 60,000 people and destroyed 85% of the buildings.”

Becky fiddles with the air sickness bag.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “They’ve rebuilt the city. We’ll be safe.”

“That’s good,” she says, apparently hoping the story is coming to a close.

“Unless, that is…”

Her glare breaks my dramatic pause.

“Unless God is still mad at Lisbon.”

Becky shivers and reaches for the overhead vent. Or is it the call button to complain about her seat mate?

It’s hard to tell, so I put on my earphones and listen to the audio version by myself.

Jones describes how church leaders immediately declared that the hand of God’s punishment had crushed Lisbon.

In a city dominated by the Catholic Church, priests asserted the quake to be divine retribution for allowing too many protestants into the city. Their answer for the people was to execute more protestants.

Protestant clergy countered by asserting that it was God’s reckoning on the Catholic church for their worship of idol statues. Furthermore, it was payback for the many protestant murders by the Catholic Inquisition.

Fortunately, reasonable thought prevailed a few weeks later when Voltaire, the famed French writer and Theist philosopher, rejected the idea that a benevolent God caused the suffering. 

“What crime or sin had those young hearts conceived?” Voltaire asked. If God was punishing Lisbon, shouldn’t he also exact the same price from London, Paris or Madrid for their vice?

Jones credits Voltaire’s “deep feeling of unfairness for triggering a fundamental shift in Christian thought.”

From that day forward, people of faith drew a distinction between natural evil, like earthquakes and floods, and moral evil like the holocaust. Reasonable people rejected the idea that God is an angry old man using disaster as divine punishment.

The good news is that Lisbon recovered in remarkable fashion. Relief poured in from all over the world. Their government responded with assistance not seen before.

Lisbon’s survivors turned their hearts and hands toward rebuilding both their city and each other. In that regard, the people of God truly became the hand of God.

I heave a sigh at the redemptive conclusion and reach for Becky’s hand. She gladly accepts it with some hesitancy, hoping she’s heard the last disaster story on this vacation.


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