God and Disasters

The theologian Karl Barth said that we should read the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and although he said that long before television and internet, the basic idea still applies.(1) I wrote this post a few weeks after the tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, as I thought about the earthquake and, more broadly, God’s place within natural processes. This summer, with its unusually hot temperatures and wildfires in some parts of the country, made me think again about this difficult topic.

During that first week following the tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend from college years introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes. For most of these she gave the citations but there are the entire verses.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, 36then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of us agreed that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who can create but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I soon was called upon to write a Sunday school lesson on the tsunami, as part of my freelance curriculum work (http://www.cokesbury.com/faithlink). I won’t repeat that research here, of course, but I did find a site of “biblical earthquakes” (http://hubpages.com/hub/7-Earthquakes-in-the-Bible) which included Ex. 19:18, 1 Kings 19:11, Zech. 14:5, Matt. 27:54 and 28:24, Acts 16:26, and the prophesied Rev. 6:12. I kicked myself for not thinking of that 1 Kings 19 passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. how do you explain God’s presence in Elijah’s situation?  Or do you just say it was a mystery?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes.” The sermon is worth reading: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-129-the-cause-and-cure-of-earthquakes/ To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5….

[The Lord,] who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.

….as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances. 

Wesley’s sermon makes us think, of course. Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God. Today, we know more about the natural causes of earthquakes, and how very frequently they happen throughout the world. We only think about them when they’re destructively intense on the Richter scale, but mild earthquakes are extremely common. Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, surely the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken repentance in someone because of a crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin.

Of course, this is a difficult philosophical and theological issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. (“We all got it comin’, kid,” as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven.) Put several million people on an island or a coastal region, in an area prone to floods or quakes, and some day you’ll have a major problem. Allow people to travel in 5000-pound metal vehicles that go fast, and you’re not guaranteed complete safety. I’m not being flippant, but it’s human nature to wonder where God is amid tragedy forgetting that all of us are mortal and live among many potential dangers. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we don’t see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances. For some people, certain circumstances are evidence of God’s absence, or a lack of divine power.

The Bible calls death a “curse” and an “enemy,” against which Christ has already dealt a mortal blow: 1 Cor. 15:26. The word “curse” chafes when we think of innocent people who suffer and die but it refers to the imperfect, mortal, and in the human realm sinful quality of the world. Someone like Pat Robertson is rightly criticized for simplistically blaming victims (in the recent Haiti quake) as targets for God’s punishment. But although the Bible may draw those kinds of connections we should be very, very careful lest we draw a simplistic (and likely arrogant) conclusion about God’s purpose behind a tragedy. Femember that Job’s friends were full of theologically correct answers and insights about God’s will and works, but at the end of the book (42:7) God is angry at them!

Another problem with thinking about these issues, is that we’re prone to raise issues when a disaster strikes but we forget the everyday disasters. For another research project (http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/Index2.htm) I found a 28-page “Global Health Overview” at http://www.globalissues.org/article/588/global-health-overview. Drawing and paraphrasing data from just the first major section, we learn that:

* A billion people have no access to health care systems.
* 33.4 million people live with HIV (2008 figures), while 2 million died that year from AIDS and another 2.7 million were newly infected with HIV.
* There are 9.4 million new cases of TB every year, and 1.3 million die each year.
* Malaria accounts for 243 million illnesses every year, and 863,000 million deaths.
* Measles accounted for 164,000 deaths, mostly among small children, in 2008, while half of the 1.6 million people who die annually of pneumococcal diseases are children.
* Not quite a third of all deaths worldwide are caused by cardiovascular diseases.
* Over 8 million young children die yearly from preventable diseases and malnutrition yearly.
* In 2002, the total number of people who died from infection diseases (about 11 million) greatly outnumbered the total who died in other catastrophes that year.

Unfortunately, disease is related to poverty. According to that same report (the section “Health, poverty and inequality”), preventable diseases like malaria are attributed to economic disadvantages and also perpetuate poverty. A little further, the report quotes a World Health Organization report from 2008 notes that “The poorest of the poor, around the world, have the worst health….In rich countries, low socioeconomic position means poor education, lack of amenities, unemployment and joy insecurity, poor working conditions, and unsafe neighbourhoods [sic], with their consequent impact on family life. These all apply to the socially disadvantaged in low-income countries in addition to the considerable burden of material deprivation and vulnerability to natural disasters.” But, further into the report (the section “Increasing commodification and commercialization of healthcare”), we learn that the increasing perception and reality of health care as a “market commodity” rather than “a common good” is increasing the inadequacy of affordable and available health care in different parts of the world (including, one can add, the United States).

I admit that this discussion has become very depressing, and that I’ve no answers to these problems. My point is that we often don’t think of the world’s suffering until disasters strike, but suffering happens in the world every day on a staggering level, many due to injustices and social evils that perpetuate among societies and nations. We need to remember that there are social and economic forces that (while benefiting people like you and me) contribute to people’s suffering and, in turn, their susceptibility to natural disasters. We (including myself) don’t always think of that when we wonder about God’s role in tragic circumstances.

Two more Bible passages. I’ve always found this one comforting, because Jesus refuses to interpret two senseless tragedies as judgments against people.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Even when we focus upon our relationship with God, our lives won’t be all good. But in a crucial way, all will be well because we are in that relationship (which God has initiated).

As I thought about this whole topic of God’s presence in a disaster, I realized ….Duh!…. that there is a passage which not only explicitly indicates where God is in terrible circumstances, but also states where we should be if we want to be where God is! We all know it….

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:31-46).


1. The source of this saying is discussed at the Center for Barth Studies website,http://libweb.ptsem.edu/collections/barth/faq/quotes.aspx?menu=296&subText=468




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