John Mark Reynolds, 2005.
Is a Natural Disaster a Sign of God’s Judgment? This Sunday should the pastors of America thunder out a call for repentance based on the hurricane? If a television evangelist says that the hurricane is “God’s judgment” on somebody, is automatically he wrong to do so? What does a great natural disaster say about God’s will for America?
Recently, I have had students troubled in spirit as they ask these questions. These folk are not asking questions about the “problem of evil.” They understand that the existence of a good God is compatible with natural evils in the world. (For more information see C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.) Instead, these Christians want to know if there is a message for us in the storm. Christians have a Bible that makes arguments regarding divine intention and natural disasters. The book of Amos is an example it says:
The words of Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake. And he said, The LORD will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the habitations of the shepherds shall mourn, and the top of Carmel shall wither.
The example of Job’s friends complicates the picture. The friends, perhaps using the examples of the prophets, say, “If bad things happen to you, then you must be bad.” This simplistic idea is so attractive that God dedicated a whole book of the Bible to refuting it. Sometimes bad things happen to good people for their good. God uses this life as a great school for souls. The tests He sends are often very difficult, but they are always just.
How can we tell what is happening? The easy way out is to say that God’s judgments are so inscrutable that we can never say anything about them. There is some wisdom in this. Over time history can make a good guess about the purpose of God. His providence is not utterly inscrutable to men with divine Revelation to guide them, but perspective and humility are sound guides in attempting to make out the dim pattern of His work in space and time.The lesson of Scripture does seem to indicate from the Old Testament to the New that some individuals are called to attempt to make a call. These prophetic men stand in the midst of the storm and try to discern God’s purpose. They may not be right, but they should be allowed to a voice. We are not naturalists after all. God may speak to men and nations in the mighty wind or in a small and gentle voice.
Lay Christians must trust their responsible leaders to make this call. One problem, of course, with the American church is that we have too many self-appointed prophets and leaders who claim to speak for the church. Times like this are a powerful argument for ordination and church order. If someone claims to speak with the voice of the apostles what are his credentials? If one speaks as a prophet then where is the school of the prophets where he gained his credentials? It is no accident that the most irresponsible claims in such situations come from the self-anointed and the self-important. When I hear such men, I think of the early church leader Ignatius and want to ask, “Who is your bishop?” In other words, who checks up on your ministry? One of the strengths of working in a strong community like Torrey and Biola University and going to a good parish like my own is the ability to be accountable. The hard fact that our culture does not want to face in a disaster is human guilt before God.
We are all guilty, even the youngest child. That sounds harsh to modern ears, but it just tells a profound truth. Even the youngest child will soon have a sense of being “out of synch” with the cosmos. God would warn us, guide us, keep us from harm, but our broken state keeps us from hearing His kind voice. We go where we should not, build as we should not, and stay where we should not. We abandon the weak that He wished us to save. Our problem is not just what we do, but who we are. We need salvation and restoration to wholeness.
Natural disasters come in part because we are foolish. We do not attend to God’s voice or we take risks that are not worth the cost that eventually must be paid. We are sometimes like teenagers that surf on top of their cars at high speeds and then curse the car when they fall off and hurt themselves. Building a great city without proper protections is not the fault of a good God, but of fallible men. Sometimes we are unwise and then we blame the Wise for our folly. Of course this is not the whole story. Some natural disasters and some suffering is not the result of human folly. There is disaster that comes as a test to those who are wise in so far as human wisdom is concerned. It tests their mettle and helps them grow. No suffering in God’s universe is His perfect will. It is all the result of the brokenness of the cosmos. It is all part of His plan to make it whole again. This is not a pain that He administers from a distant as some great machine. No. This same God that must bring difficulties to us has come down and experienced maximum pain. He sends the storm with compassion because He suffered from the storm. He does not just feel our pain, but is willing to take our pain to Himself.
We are not the first Christians to ask these questions. Augustine had to deal with these issues in terms of a great man-made disaster. When Rome fell, many made the too-easy judgment that it had been caused by abandoning the old gods for Christianity. Christians sometimes too quickly argued that Rome had fallen for obvious depravity. Augustine pointed out that the just and the unjust had suffered in the fall of Rome. Like the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, the seemingly more wicked were being used to punish the less wicked! How could that be? His massive City of God is must reading at such a time. It is not a page too long to deal carefully with such hard questions.
The good news is that there is hope. Augustine could write his great work as his culture died. He wrote in a language of that culture with the faith that there was a Divine Plan. He was right. We can trust in the same divine Providence to bring us through the human muddle that now surrounds Katrina. Whatever we do God is at work in our folly bringing comfort, creating good from bad, and healing wounds. Even the dead who have died in the Lord go to a better place where race, poverty, and social standing do not matter. Perhaps the safest posture in a time of national calamity is wide spread repentance. God’s perspective is that of eternity. Many sins which a community must judge harshly in order to maintain civil order may count for less in the judgment of Heaven. After all the petty selfishness that keeps the pastor from finding a deeper level of grace may be just as serious to God as any other sin. No community should try to make selfishness illegal for that would lead to an intrusive state. Any positive gains would be offset by the greed and overreach of a too powerful government. God need no limit Himself in that way. He is not corrupted by absolute power. His goal is to root out all sin in the cosmos using the most merciful means possible. His righteous actions therefore seem to fall on the “just and the unjust” because in His eyes all of us have so much to learn.
What was God doing in this storm? I am no prophet or the son of a prophet. However, we can be sure that God is bringing good from it. He is calling our nation to examine itself. How do we treat the poor? Why are our cities government so corrupt? What should the Church be learning? We can all cry with the publican: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.