Some people mark the 1755 Lisbon earthquake as the true beginning of the Modern Era. In the capital city of Portugal alone it resulted in as many as 100,000 deaths, making it one of history's most violent and deadly natural disasters. Enlightenment philosophers used the event as a means to develop new theodicies (theories attempting to resolve the conflict between God's goodness and the existence of evil, usually by questioning either His goodness or His existence).
Natural disaster has been part of the human experience since Adam sinned. While some cataclysms are certainly more destructive than others, a single earthquake or volcano or flood isn't more or less proof that things are in bad shape. Evil entered the world when man deliberately disobeyed God's commands, and we've all had to live with the consequences ever since.
The 20th century had its share of disasters, but some of the more memorable ones were the result of human error rather than natural or divine origin. The most famous is the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, but there were others: the destruction of the Hindenburg airship, the sinking of the Lusitania, the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
There were also plenty of natural disasters: the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, Hurricane Andrew, the 1966 Flood of the Arno River. Whenever something really bad happens, a handful of Christians will always step up to identify the cause of the tragedy as God's Hand, citing either the sins of the people or God's good pleasure as the reason the chaos was unleashed. And, just as often, everyone else will shout them down, emphasizing the senselessness of disaster and evil.
In fact, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Evil is senseless because it is in opposition to God's goodness, but at the same time, God is in control, and what He has decreed will take place, as often as not as a result of man's failure to obey His Law. Yet the immediate Christian response shouldn't be condemnation and anger: it should be spiritual love and physical help.
More recently, Hurricane Katrina killed and rendered homeless a large portion of the population of New Orleans, a notoriously godless city, one in which sin and wickedness are rampant (almost on the scale of the Old Testament cities). After the hurricane, a number of Christian leaders issued public statements essentially blaming the catastrophe on the sinful people living in the city.
While Katrina may well have been God's judgment, the fact remains that plenty of godly Christians also live in New Orleans; was God judging them for their faithfulness? We don't know the mind of God, and since He gave no one direct revelation concerning this particular incident, to assert His reasons for sending the disaster were such-and-such is foolish. Besides, why hasn't Las Vegas suffered a similar fate? One is reminded of Jesus' challenge that whoever be without sin can throw the first stone.
When the Titanic sank 100 years ago, there was similar commentary from Christians who thought the wreck was a result of the massive pride that could put to sea such a huge vessel. They condemned the ship's opulance, the presumption and arrogance in statements praising it as "unsinkable," and the overall faith put in a work of human hands. Surely, they must have thought, God would judge such attitudes.
God cannot tolerate sin. As a result, he punishes it whenever and wherever it is found. But the presence of evil in the world, of natural and man-made disasters, is simply a result of man's state of sinfulness, of evil having entered the world through Adam and Eve's disobedience. To pin every catastrophe on specific sins or specific people is to miss the underlying theological principle and the opportunity to do good and show the survivors what genuine Christian love looks like.
Hurricane Katrina left thousands without homes: Christians from all over the country dropped what they were doing to assist the rebuilding and restoration efforts. The Titanic sank, killing hundreds: Christian men made sure women and children were safely aboard the lifeboats before even considering their own safety. In both cases, those who laid down their own lives did so without considering how wicked the ones they were saving might have been.
No one hopes to encounter disaster. Cataclysms aren't simply character-building exercises (though they may result in better character among the survivors), nor should they be downplayed or dismissed as "not that bad." They should be accepted as part of the lot brought on man by his own sinfulness, a part that cannot be escaped but that can serve as a catalyst for real Christian action and love.
Neither should we let earth-shaking cataclysms shake our faith; there will always be a bigger one than the last, which is simply a way of saying there will always be enough hurt that needs soothing, and enough lives that need fixing with the grace and blood of Christ, whose own catastrophe on the Cross makes everything else insignificant and bearable.