A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Earth, Wind, Fire, and Disease: Are Natural Disasters Signs of God's Judgment?

It's been a dramatic and difficult time for the world these past few months, and the difficulty is not over. COVID-19 is on the loose and world economies are in a shambles. If that isn't enough, many are living with effects of disasters that have become all too common-- torrential rain and flooding, tornados, earthquakes, and drought. It is not surprising that some are raising the issue of whether these events are God's judgment upon humanity for our sins (feel free to list the ones most important to you). I suppose such events, especially when they come simultaneously and one right after the other, can lead to wondering of the place of the divine in such events. My short and definitive answer to the question of whether such phenomena reflects God's judgment is an emphatic NO! But we must not stop there. I think the related and intertwined matters of God's justice and judgment deserve some careful attention, most directly because they are often explicated in a simplistic and sloppy manner accompanied by a questionable interpretation when it comes to reading the Bible.


For me, the first problem is that assigning such acts to the will of God turns God into nothing less than a villain. It is not sufficient to say that God gives life, therefore, God can take it away if God chooses. There are much deeper issues that pertain to God's character, to God's purposes in this world, and the purpose of human life. It seems to me that if life is a gift from God, it is given as a good gift to be lived in the light of God's good purposes for creation and its redemption. It is not simply a matter of God giving and taking, but of God giving life so that it might flourish for a reason. If God gets angry with his children, it is not the anger of a nefarious deity, but the disappointment of a loving parent who witnesses our wayward ways and who wants what's best for his children. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus inquires as to what parent would give her or his child a scorpion when asking for an egg? No decent parent would consider such an option (Luke 11:11-12). In the same way, our Heavenly Father desires to give us good gifts. I dare say a killer hurricane is not one of those good gifts.

The second issue I have with people pointing to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a hurricane as God's judgment is frankly the arrogance one has to have in order to claim an inside knowledge of when and where God is judging, and the assumption that a person knows the sins that are the cause of such disasters. I would ask those people who believe that God has passed judgment on America in these "divine acts" (and notice these folks are always focused on America even though the entire world is suffering) if they are willing to apply that criteria to their own life? If a loved one is killed, do they believe that God is judging them or someone related to them? Do they see their own tragedy as simply unfortunate adversity, while the sufferings of those they don't know are experiencing the angry hand of God? People who point to tragic events as God's judgment have an arbitrary set of criteria for determining when and why the Almighty gets peeved at his children.

Third, if such natural disasters are the result of God's judgment, then God's judgment is quite indiscriminate. There's certainly much collateral damage incurred, and yes, I think dead children are collateral damage. One would think if God wanted to judge the guilty parties only, he would be capable of performing surgical strikes on the right people. If God does not have the ability to do this, perhaps God should have a conversation with the military.

Fourth, it is easier for Christians to pronounce judgement when living in a prosperous and comfortable environment where suffering is not necessarily a daily and commonplace occurence. How do Christians understand their suffering in parts of the world where war, violence, poverty, and all manner of suffering is sadly part of the daily routine? Would any Christians living the cushy life of suburbia dare suggest that God is judging them?

And that leads to my fifth point: it is shallow theology (and I mean shallow) to believe that prosperity is a sign of God's blessing and adversity points to God's judgment. How can anyone read the New Testament and come away with that perspective? At the center of our faith is a crucified Messiah and his most important evangelist in the New Testament-- Paul-- spent much time in prison and being beaten; and if church tradition is correct, he was beheaded during the reign of Emperor Nero. How nonsensical and illogical for Christians to think that prosperity is a sign of blessing when it's central figure brings the blessings of salvation to the world through a cruel form of execution.

Sixth, and perhaps this is the most significant point and one I will address further in the future, because this is where we lose our way in how we understand God's justice and judgment-- When we point to an earthquake or a major hurricane or a virus and refer to them as God's judgment, we have abstracted divine judgment from the story of Israel and Jesus; we have torn it away from the narrative of creation and redemption carried through God's people and accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We forget Jesus' own words that in the cross and resurrection, he has not come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17.)

There is no doubt that both Testaments of the Bible speak of God as judge. That makes perfect sense since God is perfectly just. Love and justice... and judgment cannot be separated from each other. One cannot have justice without judgment. The Apostles' Creed affirms that Christ will come "to judge the living and the dead." But what that means cannot and must not be divorced from cross and resurrection. We do that in pronouncing a natural disaster as God's judgment; and we distort the character of God and the purposes God has for this world in reconciling it through Jesus Christ.

We must also never forget Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount that the rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). That includes not only the rain that gives life, but the same water that kills when gathered together in force.

God is the judge and God alone; and God has not called his people to jury duty. So, to all my Christian brothers and sisters who are engaging in such speculation, I say, "cut it out;" lest you too be judged by the same standard you employ on others (Matthew 7:2).

2 comments:

Taylor W. Burton-Edwards said...

Allan,

"The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes" is a sermon by Charles Wesley (misattributed to John) in response to the 1746 Lima earthquake, and 5 years before the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake that quite literally ended the pre-modern era of philosophy in Europe, created pretty much a divorce between philosophy and Christian theology, and led to the flowering of various a-theistic approaches to philosophy, science, and politics that we are still living with to this day. https://web.archive.org/web/20180225040236/http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-129-The-Cause-and-Cure-of-Earthquakes

And Charles's approach falls very much on the pre-modern side of the argument, and commits many of the very things you (with many modern Christian theologians) find problematic. It DOES ascribe earthquakes directly to the acts and will of God. And it does use such events as a call to repentance-- not for any particular sin (as Piper et al have done about COVID-19) but for sinfulness in general.

Now, one might call this a potential difference in emphasis between John and Charles, except that John permitted this sermon to be published alongside his, and he was rather good at editing Charles whenever he wanted to or believed it to be needful. So we would reasonably presume here John would generally have approved of the reasoning and conclusions of this sermon as well.

Where does this place at least early Methodist theology on these matters?

Or is there another way of talking about judgment in light of natural disasters that CAN see them as signs of God at work in the world without falling into the "If God is good, why do terrible things happen" trap?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor W Burton Edwards

Allan R. Bevere said...

Taylor,

Thanks for your helpful comments.

Yes, I think such disasters can be seen as judgment in the way Paul sees judgment in Romans 1. God allows us to go our own way so that such problems as climate change, which may contribute to more hurricanes, as receiving the penalty of our lack of the stewardship of creation. Such knowledge should lead to lament, confession, and then penance (acting in a way to ameliorate the situation). In this context God's judgment is seen in you get what you get because you did what you have done. That, I believe, is different from saying God sent the hurricane as a judgment for name the "sin" you hate most.

I think it is very prophetic to see such events as opportunities for God's people to reflect again on their covenant life with God and with one another and then to respond accordingly.

Thanks!