(In light of the earthquake in Japan, the fifth most powerful quake since we began recording such phenomena, I am reposting an article on the role of God in natural disasters. This was first posted on 2/16/10.)
Pat Robertson's remarks on the Haitian earthquake were well intentioned but justly censured by others. While the portrayal of his remarks as mean spirited is unfair, Robertson's remarks were certainly unsupported by a comprehensive examination of Scripture. They conveyed the message that the earthquake was the result of the sins of the Hatian people, that God was punishing them for practicing voodoo. These remarks have produced some very well thought out theological responses. I would like to analyze some of these responses and hopefully make an original contribution to the discussion.
The best response to Robertson's remarks I have seen is by Ben Witherington. He rightly points out that the scriptural evidence indicates that while God is the most important actor, God is not the only actor when it comes to human tragedies. God gave our first parents the choice to obey Him or not. They chose to disobey and that human choice is the first cause of all human suffering that follows. Throughout history men and women have made a conscious choice to exploit the weak and the powerless and Haiti's history is a sad chronicle of such free choices, whether the choices were made by foreign powers or by the Hatains themselves. Human failure is another factor in human tragedies; Witherington points to Three Mile Island as such an example.
To add to Witherington's arguement, Scripture also teaches us that Satan plays a role in human tragedies, including natural disasters. The natural disasters that destroyed Job's economic prosperity were caused by Satan, as were the sicknesses that came upon him. True, Satan did have God's permission to afflict Job, but God allowed Satan to be an independent actor nevertheless. When Jesus was asleep in the boat and His disciples feared they were going to drown, Jesus rebuked the wind and the sea. (Luke 8:24) While Scripture is silent as to the cause of the storm, it appears that the cause was not attributed to God's direct action. In Acts 11:19-27, God told the Church there was to be a famine and the Church responded by taking up a collection for the Church in Judea. But God did nothing to intervene to prevent the famine. We are not told whether the famine is the result of God's actions, Satan's or natural conditions.
Not only is the notion that all natural disasters are God's punishment for a nations sin unscriptural, the belief that those who perish in such disasters die as punishment for their own sins cannot be supported by Scripture either. The belief that all personal misfortune is punishment for sin has been around as long as Man has roamed the earth. This belief was the main thrust of the arguement advanced by Job's companions during his affliction. The death of Job's children, the loss of his property and health was the sign of God's displeasure at Job's sin known only to Job and God. If Job would confess his sin, God would forgive him and he would never be afflicted again because good people and those who repent never suffer such disasters. Only the wicked suffer such things. When protesting his innocence, Job states that he thought his blamelessness before the Lord would shield him from such afflictions. When God finally responds to both Job and his companions, God admonished Jobs' companions: "My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right..." (Job 42:7) God was angry because Job's companions had slandered His, God's, character. To similiarly contend that those who died in the Haitian earthquake died because God was punishing them for their individual sins also puts God's character and the Gospel in a bad light. Jesus teaches that the sun rises on the evil and the good and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. (Mt. 5:45) The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates that both the wise and the foolish experience trials and afflictions. Many responded to Robertson by quoting Jesus' words concerning those who perished when the Tower of Siloam fell: "...do you think they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?" (Lk. 13:4)
If it is faulty Biblical exegesis to attribute all natural disasters to God, are we correct in asserting that God plays no role at all in natural disasters? Some theologions believe so, or lean in that direction. Roger Olson wrote this after the collapse of the Minnesota bridge: "...But what if God limits himself so that much of what happens with the world is due to finitude and falleness? What if God is in charge but not in control?...God has said to a fallen sinful people, 'Ok, not my will then, but thine be done--for now...God is great but also good. In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he must have limited himself."
The most obvious response to this would be that the Old Testament is full of examples of God taking a direct hand in the conditions of the natural world and uses His power to reward or punish the conduct of a people (Dt. 11: 13-21). Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8); how could we expect God to act differently concerning his control over natural conditions? Those, such as Craig Blomberg, would point out that verses such as these pertain only to ancient Israel, not to ancient Israel's pagan neighbors or to any nation today. After all, the Promised Land was a land of milk and honey while the Canaanites lived there (My example, not Blomberg's). However, it can be argued that as the Old Testament is the record of God's dealing with His covenant people, it does not record how God dwelt with other nations. Consider the case of the ancient Greeks. Their gods had no ethical sensibilities. Yet from the time of Socrates on, the Greeks were increasingly disturbed by the lack of ethics among the gods they worshipped. God used this mindset to produce a receptiveness towards the Gospel throughout the Hellenistic world. If God could be working on the hearts and minds of other ancient peoples, then it is not far fetched to believe God would directly involve Himself with the natural conditions another nation lived under to acheive His own purposes. This is not an definite assertion by me, but a caution in going too far in the extreme opposite from Robertson's remarks. It is true, as Blomberg points out, that the New Testament does not concern itself as much as the Old Testament does about God's direction of the natural world. But that may be attributed to the fact that God's relation to the natural world was not as central to the purposes of the New Testament writers as it was to the writers of the Old. The New Testament does attribute to God a direct hand in the continuance of the Universe; Heb: 1:3 "...and upholding all things by the word of His power..." and Col: 1:17 "And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist" are two scriptural examples. It is also true that not all Old Testament verses pertaining to God and Creation refer only to Israel. Verses such as Neh. 9: 6, speaks of God's continuing role in the entire natural world, not just the Promised Land. This should make us cautious in making blanket statements that God has had no hand in natural disasters such as Earthquakes or Tsunamis, even if the purpose behind such statements is to defend the character of God, as I believe Olson's article at least implies.
We also have to ask ourselves the source of our attitudes concerning how we believe a loving God would act. How have our attitudes been shaped by our Western sensibilities? The fact of the matter is that the view of God using natural disasters to punish a people for sin shapes the mindset by many a Christian in the Third World. In "The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South", Philip Jenkins writes "If global South clergy express their faith that God will intervene to reward or punish contemporary states and societies, so do such high-profile American Christians as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell." (p. 6) I can guarrantee that many a Haitian Christian or Christians in other Third World countries believe that God uses natural conditions to reward and punish "contemporary states and societies." Are we going to be as quick to denounce these views of millions of believers as quickly as some have disavowed Robertson's remarks? Are we going to class these views as the cultural baggage of an uneducated population living in socities with more primitive views of the world? Would such a classification stem from greater Western discernment concerning the things of God, or would such classification be a form of Western condensation toward non-Western Churches? Those Christians in the Third World suffer from natural disasters, but they do not as a rule question the character of God who they believe had a hand in such events.
Then there is an issue that I have not seen anyone directly address. How can we reconcile statements such as Olson's that God limited Himself so that He has no direct role in natural disasters with God's grace, prevenient grace and the grace believers experience after salvation? Prevenient Grace is a theological term describing the actions of God in drawing us to Him prior to salvation. It is the will of God that none should perish but that all come to repentance (2Pet. 3:9). Prevenient Grace not only includes God's drawing people to Him, but it also includes God's grace in every aspect of our life before salvation. Paul included the Athenians when he proclaimed to them that in God we all live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). To state that God has no direct role in any natural disaster, that He takes no role in whether an individual lives or dies, cannot be reconciled to the doctrine of Prevenient Grace or to the grace of God subsequent to salvation. If it is in God that we all live and move and have our being, then this grace extends to the protection of all life from all hazards whatsoever. Many people testify that God spared their life from illness and accident before they came to Christ. My former pastor's father vowed to God that if He would spare his life on the battlefields of WWII, he would serve Him for the rest of his life (which he did). Are we to conclude that these people are theologically uninformed concerning their own experience? If God's grace operates in these pre-salvation experiences, why would He be not as directly involved in the lives about to experience earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes? And if God's grace operates in the lives of those who experience natural disasters, then it follows that God chooses that some will live and some will die. Am I saying that God saves the good and dooms the bad? Not at all. Both good and bad die according to God's purposes. And such purposes are beyond our discernment in this life.
Witnesses reported that after the Haitian earthquake, there was a silence that was broken by the praise to God by survivors grateful God had spared their lives. Are these people theologically uninformed? Are they incorrect in believing that God had a direct hand in sparing their lives? Surely there are those who came to Christ because they believed God had spared them. Did they repent of their sins and trust in Christ because of a theological mistake? Christ Himself declared that we are not to fear that which could kill the body but not the soul and that the very hairs of our head are numbered (Mt. 10: 28-31). While Jesus did not say we will never perish, does not this verse imply that God's grace is always with us? That through this grace God is intimately involved in all aspects of this world? How can we say that God's grace can be trusted even in the midst of natural disasters but God chooses not to have any control over these events? Such a view undermines our trust in the God and His promises toward us. Paul told the Philippians (and us) that God, who began a good work in us will bring that work to completion. Can we not say that God brought some through the quake to mold them into the kind of people God wants them to be, so they can perform specific works? If the answer is yes, then we must say that at least in some cases, God has a direct role in some natural disasters.
My purpose in posting this is not to dogmatically state the all natural disasters are God's punishment for sin or that God has no role in such disasters. I wanted to show that one cannot definately state God's purposes or the extent of His role in such disasters. I don't want to repeat the mistake of Job's companions, thereby misrepresenting God's character. Yet in defending the character of God, I would not want to diminish God's sovereignty. God's sovereignty is not the starting point for good theology, yet sometimes we who are not Calvinists are to quick to diminish its place in our view of God. Nor do I want to limit the grace of God by stating that God forgoes any role in natural disasters. This was a very difficult post to write since my position and my understanding of what others wrote on the subject underwent changes as I wrote.
Scripture quotations from the NJKV.
I was made aware of the Olson article through Kevin Jackson's blog