The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 200,000 people. Suicide attacks by al-Qaeda upon the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 caused the deaths of 2,973 victims and 19 hijackers. Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of New Orleans, Louisiana, killing over 1,500 people. The Haiti 7.0 magnitude earthquake of 2010 resulted in a death toll of 170,000, with many more thousands dead in the rubble and outside the capital, and not including unreported bodies buried by relatives.
It’s difficult for us to imagine the scope of these disasters, but we try. One of the ways we make sense is to bring fairness and justice into play. “They must have done something really bad for that to happen.” That kind of reasoning leads one to think that God had a personal hand in the destruction, for who else would have this destructive ability? Were these events expressions of God’s displeasure toward the citizens?
We look to the biblical record and see the Flood destroying all but seven people, fire destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and disaster striking Egypt’s firstborn in every family. In each case, we could not have known that the disaster was caused by God except when the Word of God says so.
The Bible is a consistent narrative. That is, it sticks to its story of man’s fall and redemption from beginning to end. Extraneous events are ignored. Thus, any disasters happening outside of the scope of the story are unrecorded, while those which God used in the course of the story are emphasized. Thus it may give the impression that nearly every natural calamity originates from God.
Abraham had misgivings when he heard that God was going to Sodom. He asked the Lord, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23). God’s answer was clear: he rescued righteous Noah and his family from the rest of the unrighteous before the Flood first. He sent an angel to pull out Lot and his family before sending fire upon his city. God’s judgments are precisely targeted.
Sometimes a natural disaster helps. In Acts 16:26 an earthquake released two missionaries, Paul and Silas, from prison, and Paul used the opportunity to witness to the jailer, who then turned to Christ, then his family also. God was not directly mentioned as the agent, but the timing was too striking to be coincidental.
In many cases, the disasters used by God were preceded by warnings to repent. For instance, the Flood came after Noah and Enoch warned the people to repent. Before God sent judgment upon Nineveh, he sent Jonah to preach. (They repented at the preaching of Jonah, and this delayed judgment for a time.) God repeatedly sent prophets to the Israelites to warn them to repent before finally sending them war and disease.
The Bible chronicles other unfortunate events too, but they are not attributed to God. For instance, Jesus mentioned that Pilate was responsible for the deaths of several Galileans and their blood was “mingled with their sacrifices.” A tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people (Luke 13:1-5). He used those disasters to give a lesson that is worth repeating here: “Think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” In this case, we understand that disasters do not always come upon us as a consequence of our evil deeds. God sees all of us in need of repentance.
I conclude that we cannot say that all disasters are of God because:
1. God often forewarns people before sending disasters as judgment.
2. We cannot know which events were of God unless he reveals his part.
3. I can accept some disasters as from God if they can be tied to deeds in ways that strain the bounds of coincidence.
4. If a disaster overtakes many reputable people, then I reject the calamity as from God because he does not destroy the good with the bad.
What Do You Think?
a. Are you angry with God over some recent disasters? Why or why not?
b. Have you uncovered some proof that God has caused one of the recent disasters? Will it hold up in a court of law?
c. Natural disasters have been called “acts of God” by some insurance companies. Has this phrase linked God to natural disasters unfairly? Why or why not?