In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal ascended to the status of a world power during Europe's "Age of Discovery" as it built up a vast empire, including possessions in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Over the following two centuries, Portugal kept most of its colonies, but gradually lost much of its wealth and status as the Dutch, English, and French took an increasing share of the spice and slave trades by surrounding or conquering the widely scattered Portuguese trading posts and territories. By the 18th century Portugal was much like contemporary America - still a global power but with waning influence. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the city of Lisbon was the political and cultural center of the Portuguese Empire and probably the fourth most populous city in Europe.
November 1, 1755 dawned like any other day in Lisbon. But history would record it as the "Day of God's Wrath". Just after half past nine on the morning of Sunday, November 1, 1755, the end of the world came to the city of Lisbon. The day began with blue skies and gentle warmth. The locals were profoundly religious and the city was preparing to celebrate the day of All Saints, with the obligatory criminal proceedings and execution of heretics in the afternoon under the Portuguese Inquisition.
At 9:30 in the morning the inhabitants were alarmed by weak tremors. Christian Staqueler, consul of the German city of Hamburg, remembers in a later report: "First we heard a rumble, like the noise of a carriage, it became louder and louder, until it was as loud as the loudest noise of a gun, immediately after that we felt the first tremble."
At 9:40 all the bells of the city began to ring simultaneously and only seconds later the first buildings collapsed. Three major shakes followed in the next 10 minutes and most people were killed by the collapse of the churches, full of believers attending the second mass of the day,
People fled in the direction of the seaport where the large squares of the royal palace promised shelter from the debris of the collapsing buildings. It was there that they witnessed a strange phenomenon: The sea had vanished and the riverbed of the Tejo was dry. At 10:10 a 12 meter high tsunami-wave reached the city and destroyed the entire harbor where thousands of people standing along the shores were swept away and killed.
After the earthquake and the tsunami a terrible fire broke out; raging for five days it destroyed what earth and water had left over.
In the end three quarters of the city lay in ruins. At least 40,000 persons perished, whether crushed, drowned,or incinerated. Some reports give a bodycount of 80,000.
In one day, a world empire was brought to its knees.
In a broader context, many of the faithful across Europe saw the hand of God, while cynics and secularists, including Voltaire, saw the impersonal, unpredictable hand of fate. The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the society and culture in Europe. The earthquake had struck on an important religious feast and had destroyed almost every important church in a devoted Roman Catholic city.
Edward Paice records in "Portugal’s Hiroshima Wrath of God: The Story of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755" that Lisbon's faith was somewhat dire. While it certainly didn't lack in numbers ("one in six of Lisbon's adult population was a religioso of some description"), the locals "talked, laughed, flirted and even ate and drank in church." Too oftenthe nation's upper clergy took their moral tone from King João V (r. 1706–50) who unleashed most of his carnal appetite on nuns, and who allegedly took his confessor with him to his conventual assignations, thereby ensuring the successive dichotomous ecstacies of sin and penitence. One patriarch amassed an encyclopedic collection of "pornography and snuff-boxeswith pictures of naked women on them";another "kept a gambling house"; a third "was imprisoned after trying to run away with an Irish prostitute."
John Wesley, who rushed into print a pamphlet on the topic, announced that the earthquake signified God meting out justic not "to the small vulgar, but the great,to the learned, rich, and honorable heathens, commonly called Christians." In 1955 historian Charles Boxer likened the earthquake's international impact to "that which the explosion of the Atomic Bomb at Hiroshima has had on the world recently."
In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus was asked about some Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate. He goes on to make reference to the collapse of a tower in Siloam that killed 18 individuals. His message was clear - such disasters are ultimately a call to repent or perish.
John Piper says that disasters serve as a wake up call to repentance for mankind. Disasters can have a profound and sobering effect upon the human mind. When a war breaks out, or an earthquake destroys countless lives and property, or a drought burns the crops and dries up the water supply, or an epidemic disease victimizes millions of persons, many people will call out to God either in curse or prayer. C. S. Lewis wrote that "pain is God's megaphone to a deaf world."
It was an earthquake that caused the jailer at Philippi to exclaim: "Men, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30). It was a famine that sent King Ahab searching everywhere for the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:10). It was a plague that brought Pharoah to his knees (Ex 10:16-17).
In His Olivet Discourse Jesus predicted that certain calamities will occur before His Return. Because of their nature and function, we can call these calamities "signs of divine judgment." Specifically Jesus said: "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the sufferings" (Matt 24:6-8; cf. Mark 13:7-8). Luke adds "the roaring of the sea and the waves" (Luke 21:25) among the signs of the End. The latter reminds us of the terrible Indian Ocean Tsunami which killed more than 250,000 people.
Disasters challenge complacent, self-centered, and self-sufficient people to acknowledge their finiteness and helplessness and thus to seek God. It was the earthquake which marked the death of Christ that led the centurion and his soldiers to confess, "Truly this was the Son of God" (Matt 27:54).
John Wesley wrote in 1777 to a friend: "There is no divine visitation which is likely to have so general an influence upon sinners as an earthquake." (Cited in "Forecast: Earthquake," Time, September 1, 1975, p. 37). In a high school in Palm Springs (California) there was a sign which read: "In the event of an earthquake, the Supreme Court ruling against prayers in school will be temporarily suspended."
Disasters such as earthquakes figure prominently among the signs of the approach of the end of the age because they are signs of divine judgment and of concern for evildoers to repent before the final judgment. They represent a solemn divine warning and appeal to repent and be saved before the final judgment. Jesus spoke of wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences as disasters occurring not exclusively at the very end but during the time preceding His Return. This point is implied in the admonition not to be alarmed by the occurrence of these signs "for this must take place, but the end is not yet" (Matt 24:6; Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9). In fact, these signs are said to represent "but the beginning of the sufferings" (Matt 24:8; Mark 13:8). The occurrence of wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences does not pinpoint but point to the approaching End. They constitute a pledge that the End will surely come.
Disasters will intensify before the End. By saying that wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences are "but the beginning of the sufferings" (Matt 24:8; Mark 13:8), Christ clearly implied that they will intensify as the End approaches. "But the beginning" presupposes that there will be more and worse disasters yet to come. These will cause such a "great tribulation" that, Jesus said, "if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved" (Matt 24:22; cf. Mark 13:20).
(Coming in Part 3 - "The man who lived through doomsday")