With North America at least very much conscious of natural disasters at the moment, old questions tend to resurface. With a number of massive hurricanes bearing down on America’s southeast, and the biggest earthquake to recently pound Mexico, many people again start asking the bigger questions.
And those questions involve the place of God and his role in the world when all these disasters take place. Is God behind them? Is God trying to get our attention? Is he in fact judging us? These are all important questions to ask, and they have been asked often in the past.
Getting foolproof answers is a bit trickier however. When it comes to the Christian worldview, there are some things we can say about natural disasters with some degree of certainty. For example, here is what Christians can basically know for certain about such matters:
-God certainly can and does judge nations by means of natural disasters.
-When this happened repeatedly in the Old Testament, he made it clear through his prophets what was taking place and why.
-The West today, and the US in particular, are godless, immoral, wicked and evil places that certainly can be ripe for divine judgment now.
But there are some other things we simply cannot say so assuredly. Here is what Christians cannot and do not know for certain about such matters:
-That any particular natural disaster today is indeed the direct judgment of God on people for their sin.
-That any particular sin today is deliberately being judged by God via these natural disasters.
Confusion arises when those things we can know more or less for certain are conflated with the less certain issues. That is, the Old Testament speaks much about these matters, but the New testament, not so much. There is continuity and discontinuity here.
Some of the things that remain the same are of course God and his character. He remains the same, and is just as holy, pure and righteous today as he was in earlier times. So he hates sin as much today as he ever has, and he extends grace and mercy today just as he always has.
But things do differ with the Testaments as to how God can and does relate to the world. I will get to all this in a moment. But first let me mention a few things being said about these recent disasters by various folks. Their varied responses indicate some diversity of opinion here.
In relation to the major storms hitting the US at the moment, one person who happens to be a Christian said this on the social media: “Natural disasters are quite common phenomena in certain areas in the world. STOP blaming God or Trump for that fact.”
He is certainly right to say that US Presidents are not responsible for such things – at least not directly (more on this in a moment). Whether he is right about God is another matter. Then we had the bizarre comments of leftist American actress Jennifer Lawrence.
She said the hurricanes were due to Trump supporters because they don’t believe in man-made climate change! She said, “You know you’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s really hard especially while promoting this movie, not to feel mother nature’s rage and wrath.”
Long-standing anti-abortion campaigner Randall Terry wrote a book in 1995 called The Judgment of God in which he said these natural disasters are indeed judgments of God on America and the West because of their great evil, especially abortion.
He just put out a public statement the other day about the hurricanes, reaffirming his position, mentioning his book, and including sins like homosexuality as to why God is now judging us. One prominent Christian who also is an actor, Kirk Cameron, took a slightly more nuanced approach to this:
This is not Mother Nature in a bad mood. This is a spectacular display of God’s immense power. When he puts his power on display, it’s never without reason. There’s a purpose. And we may not always understand what that purpose is, but we know it’s not random and we know that weather is sent to cause us to respond to God in humility, awe, and repentance.
So who is right here? Many of these comments contain elements of biblical truth. So let me go back to what we know and don’t know for sure. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament will reveal that Yahweh frequently judged Israel and the nations, and he did this so very often by what we call natural disasters.
Of course with God directly behind them, we can also call them supernatural disasters. I have gathered at least a hundred examples of this in the OT, in which both Israel as well as the pagan nations of the day were on the receiving end of such direct divine judgment.
Way back in Genesis 12:17 for example we read about how “the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai.” And of course in the first 15 chapters of Exodus we read about the ten plagues inflicted upon Egypt.
The covenant curses and blessings found in Deuteronomy 28 are overwhelmingly couched in these sorts of terms. When Israel violates its covenant with Yahweh and disobeys and sins, we read about these consequences for example in verses 20-24:
The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him. The LORD will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. The LORD will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The LORD will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.
Plenty of specific cases of this being carried out can be found in the OT. Here are just a few:
-2 Samuel 24:15-17 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem,
-Jeremiah 3:2-3 You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness. Therefore the showers have been withheld, and no spring rains have fallen.
-Haggai 1:9-11 “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”
And God often did the same with pagan nations as well:
-Joshua 10:11 As [the Amorites] fled before Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the LORD hurled large hailstones down on them, and more of them died from the hail than were killed by the swords of the Israelites.
-Jeremiah 27:8 I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague.
-Zechariah 14:17-19 If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The LORD will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.
And basically all these acts of divine judgment – or pronouncements of coming judgment – were coupled with a clear, inspired, divine word from God through his prophets. So there was no doubt in these cases as to what was happening and why. But that is the difference between then and now.
Sure, we have plenty of natural disasters occurring today – all over the place. But we do not have the same authoritative, “Thus saith the Lord”. So we need to be a bit more cautious here. Every natural disaster that happens today may or may not be a direct judgment of God on a particular sin.
We just do not know all this with the same assurance that folks in the OT had. Could Hurricane Irma be the direct judgment of God on a sinful and rebellious America? Yes it certainly could be. But I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, and I cannot say definitely if it is or it is not.
We do know however that these things can certainly be used to get people’s attention, and help drive them back to God, as Cameron mentioned. So yes we can use these occasions to remind people of the things that matter. But to claim with full assurance that this or that disaster is the direct hand of God, punishing a people for a particular set of sins is something I at least cannot say.
Thus we need a bit of humility and caution here. As I say, such disasters may well be God’s hand of judgment. But we find very little of this type of stuff mentioned in the New Testament. About the only clear passages on this are found in the book of Revelation.
But whether Irma or the Mexican earthquake or the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 were specific, deliberate acts of judgment by God Almighty for particular, specific sins I just cannot say. And we have warnings by Jesus on this.
When the disciples met a man born blind, they asked Jesus if it was his fault or his parent’s fault. Jesus said, ‘neither one – it happened that God’s glory might be made manifest’ (see John 9:1-3). And in Matthew 5:45 he told us that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
So we must be careful here, and not rush to judgment every time some national tragedy strikes. This is a time for Christians to show compassion and offer help to the victims of these tragedies, not to sit back and gloat over them. We need to have God’s heart on all this.
As I was about to post this, I noticed that Michael Brown had just written on similar things, so let me offer a few lines from him as I close:
As for the cause of these storms, I will leave that to others to decide. Are these satanic attacks? Divine judgments? Completely natural occurrences? The results of global warming? Something else? Again, that is for others to say….
Yet even for those who believe that the Lord is sending these disasters as judgement on America, we must do as Job did many centuries ago. He was convinced that God was responsible for his terrible suffering, yet He knew that his only hope was in God. So what did he do? In the words of a Jewish philosopher, he fled from God to God. That was his only choice….
Right now, towns and cities in our nation are completely overwhelmed, and the rebuilding process will take many years. But that is also a picture of our spiritual state. We are torn apart, divided, and devastated, and the time for rebuilding must begin now. Yet we can only rebuild with the help of our Maker.
Yes indeed. Recall the fuller context of a very familiar passage we often recite:
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:13-14).