|March 17, 2011
NATURAL DISASTERS, ACTS OF GOD, AND THE BIBLE
Well, it happened again—another massive earthquake and devastating tsunami that destroyed Sendai, Japan and numerous others of Japan’s coastal villages. Today’s (3/16/11) confirmed dead was 4164 and multiple thousands yet unaccounted for. And now a new threat is facing those who survived the tsunami: radiation from the destroyed nuclear power plants is leaking into the open air.
Was this horrendous event a natural disaster or an act of God? Actually it will depend on whom you ask. The news media in this country reports it as a natural disaster, but, no doubt, conservative Christian clergy are already at work on sermons crediting God with the disaster because of the sins of the Japanese people. “Sin,” of course, is always defined by such clergy as failing to follow their own ideas of being religious. That God caused the disaster may very well be right, however, because the Judeo-Christian God has a long history of such unconscionable acts—like ordering the Israelites to annihilate the ancient Amalekite people because of what they did to the Israelites (First Samuel 15:1-3), personally destroying by his own hand, as it were, the entire city of Sodom and its inhabitants because of their sinful ways (Genesis 19:24-25), using the ancient Babylonians to destroy the Temple at Jerusalem and deport all but the poorest people of the land into captivity in Babylon because of the sins of the people (Second Kings 24:1-14). Many more such acts by God are recorded in the Bible.
It appears to be in Yahweh’s (the personal name of the God of Israel) divine DNA to perpetrate such acts. If contemporary Jewish and Christian faith is to be believed Yahweh controls not only the destiny of history but also controls whatever happens in nature. Jesus believed God controlled nature as well (Matthew 5:44-45). If that is the case, then Yahweh is still up to his old ways today, and within recent memory destroyed New Orleans by flood, caused massive loss of life in Indonesia by earthquake and tsunami, and caused massive loss of life by earthquakes in Russia and China and most recently in Haiti—to mention only a few such disasters.
Such aberrations in the regularly occurring benign cycles of nature pose the greatest challenge to both the existence of God and to the traditional Christian and Jewish belief that God controls nature. Such disasters have always played the Devil with the belief that the Judeo-Christian God, who by most definitions is a gracious God, controls nature. This situation raises the following questions: if God controls nature and such unconscionable disasters occur in nature, how can God then be considered “good”? And if God is “good,” how can God either be responsible for such unconscionable disasters or permit such disasters to occur? It sounds like the proverbial “catch 22” situation.
On the other hand, if “Mother Nature” be considered the cause of such events—that is, that such events are natural disasters, then the disasters make better sense. Mother Nature is ethically blind, and hence in an “act of nature” all suffer—the “wicked” along with the “righteous.” On the other hand, the God of Christian and Jewish faith is supposed to behave in ethical ways—punishing the guilty, rewarding the just, and protecting the innocent—which is not what has happened in Japan. These disasters I have just mentioned are tantamount to killing a flea on your kitchen table with a hydrogen bomb—everyone and everything in the vicinity suffers: plant life, infrastructure, animals, innocent babies, the best of the populace, as well as the “wicked.” So how can an ethical God be credited with destroying cities and their populations through acts of nature and still maintain an ethically divine character?
Hard core conservative theologians will privilege traditional faith over common sense and claim no one is innocent before God—not even new born babies still nursing. But they will stop just short of saying “they all deserved it,” because they know how incredible it sounds. Another response is: God’s ways are not our ways (compare the book of Job) as though there could ever be some rational way, which we cannot now conceive, to justify such egregious behavior on the part of God. Another response is: it will all work out for the better (Romans 8:28)—like a forest fire that clears out the old growth to make room for new growth. Such an idea brings little comfort to the old growth, however. The disastrous fire was still a tragedy from the trees’ perspective, and should have been seen as such by a God with a conscience. Of course, we are not talking just about trees in the case of the tsunami in Japan—we are talking human lives, a big difference.
For my part, I gave up blaming God for the weather and natural disasters years ago. Mother Nature is the real culprit here, and modern science has made great strides in understanding her, although I doubt that they will ever understand her completely. There are just too many variables. I admit that such a theological position is rather unorthodox, but I sleep better at night realizing that although we all live in a capricious universe, God can be trusted to do the best that s/he can—given Mother Nature’s apparent capricious acts. God just cannot control or do everything (it’s a big universe), and is likely as grieved as we are for the foibles of Mother Nature.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:37am
Augustine has (in the Confessions) an amazing passage about his sins as a baby: Greed for milk, anger at being thwarted in his desires and so on. And existentialists like Camus used to say that nobody was innocent-- we've all got it coming. So maybe the problem is not so much that some Christians say that the Japanese "had it coming," but in imagining that they themselves don't have it coming too. But isn't this notion, that we are all sinners, a part of at least some Christian thought?