What is the Biblical Perspective on “Natural Disasters”?
Earlier this year, the massive loss of life and utter devastation to property that afflicted northern Japan as a consequence of a massive earthquake and tsunami were appalling by their massiveness. In subsequent weeks and months, a series of property-destroying and death-dealing tornadoes repeatedly afflicted the heartland of America, most recently in Joplin, Missouri. While the death and destruction in Japan were much more extensive than all the storms collectively in America, the much closer proximity of these American storms to us in south central Kansas, particularly the tornado in Joplin (a city just three-plus hours away by car , and one we have driven through dozens of times), gives them a much greater immediacy. What did happen there could easily happen here.
The prominence of such tragedies in recent news raises a serious question: Why? What cause was behind these disasters? Can a direct line from cause to effect be traced? What was God’s divine purpose in all this?
The natural reaction
The first and natural (and usually wrong) impulse is to say, “It must have been deserved. Something these people did brought this on themselves.” That was the theory of Job’s friends in trying to reason through the cause of his multiplied calamities. That was the speculation of Jesus’ disciples, too, when they saw the man born blind in John 9. Surely his parents or he himself committed some specific sin (which in the case of the man himself assumes divine foreknowledge of a future heinous sin and a preemptive strike, of sorts, by God).
In both these cases, the presumption was wrong. There was in neither case a direct cause-and-effect relationship between some specific sin or sins and the calamity that befell the individuals afflicted.
Which is not to say that there is never such a direct linkage. When God imposed the penalty of death, suffering and exile on Adam and Eve, it was a direct consequence of their act of disobedience to God (Gen. 3:17). When God annihilated the entire human race except for Noah and his family in the great universal flood, it was expressly because of their rebellion against God (Gen. 6:5-7). When God rained down fire and sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah, He declared that it was an act of judgment on vile, unrepented-of sins (Gen. 18:20-21). The death in the wilderness of nearly the entire generation of the exodus was a direct judgment on their act of unbelief at Kadesh Barnea. Many more examples could be noted from the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the New Testament, examples are not lacking—Ananias and Sapphira come immediately to mind.
However, there is not always, indeed not usually, a direct, traceable connection between a particular sin or sins and a particular calamity. Jesus warned us sharply against leaping to a hasty conclusion in this regard:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (NIV84, Luke 13:1-5)
Assuming then that neither the Japanese tsunami nor the Joplin tornado were direct acts of divine judgment on specific human sins, what explanation or justification for them can we offer for their occurrence? While we dare not pretend to comprehend fully or even moderately the ways of Providence, we can offer some suggestions of at least a subsidiary nature regarding the great unanswered “why?”
First, there is the great truth that we live in a fallen, sin-cursed world. This world, though created a perfect paradise, came under judgment due to the sin of God’s earthly vice-regent, man. All the “natural calamities”—volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, plague and disease, poisonous and savage beasts—are part of the general curse imposed on the earth because of human sin and ultimately for man’s benefit (Gen. 3:17; the Hebrew can be understood in both senses). So, yes, ultimately, sin is the cause of all human tragedy. Only in the New Jerusalem will there be “no more curse” (Rev. 22:3).
Second, we must reject the common notion that “Mother Nature” is always benevolent. This attitude generated by Darwinism (which sees in “nature” an omnipotent, omniscient force for perpetual progress) and ecological extremism blinds us to the reality of a world under judgment. “Mother Nature” is very often not benevolent, but brutal and barbaric, cold and impersonal, and devoid of compassion. “Nature” is not inherently good, and certainly is unworthy of our veneration, or in extreme cases, worship.
Third, people often need to be reminded that earthly possessions are temporary and fleeting. Everything we have, everything that passes into our hands will sooner or later pass out of them; nothing is ever, truly “ours,” but is only a decidedly temporary loan. Obsession with possessions is one great flaw of man, particularly so in our present materialistic age. It kept the rich young ruler from Jesus (Matt. 19:16-22). It led the rich fool to be complacent when his life hung by a soon-broken thread (Luke 12:13-21). We need to be weaned away from our pre-occupation with things, and the false conclusion that they are ours. The sudden loss of virtually every earthly possession—going “cold-turkey” off of materialism, as it were—is almost always a real shock to the soul. But sometimes that is the only way to gain clear-sighted perspective.
Then, there is that most important of earthly lessons: “Life is short, death is sure” (and to complete the poem: “sin the cause, Christ the cure”). Everyone expects to die sometime—just not today. Teens expect to live until they are “old” (which seems incredibly distant and remote to them), but even “old people” in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s expect death to come more later than sooner.
In spite of the serious errors some published authors have recently espoused in this regard, the truth is that this life—here and now—is the only opportunity to settle accounts with God and prepare for eternity. The Talmud relates a story of a rabbi and his students. One of the students asked, “Rabbi, when is the best time to repent?” The rabbi answered, “One day before you die.” The student thought for a moment and then replied, “But I don’t know when I will die!” “Then you should repent today.” Isaiah’s admonition still rings true:
Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the LORD and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. (Isa. 55:6-7).
The snatching away in sudden, unexpected death of one person—or a few or dozen or thousand people of all ages—deeply impresses the mind with one’s own very tenuous hold on life, and imparts an urgency in this matter that few other things can.
Finally, we have the opportunity such disasters present for believers to show—in reality—Christian compassion, love and concern for the suffering victims. Often we are much stronger on the theoretical side of showing compassion than on the practical side of actually doing it. Such calamities should, and commonly do, spontaneously bring out in us the fulfillment of the Second Great Command in the Law (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) and the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). That Biblical Christianity is more than a collection of pretty aphorisms, but is characterized by genuine action is something that the world needs to see much more of, and something that we need to show more often.
I don’t pretend that these thoughts exhaust God’s providential purposes in allowing natural disasters to occur, but I offer them as some of the causes that may be at work in them.