Thursday, 31 March 2011

God of Natural Disasters?

According to a recent survey, 44 percent of Americans and 59 percent of American white evangelical Christians believe that natural disasters are or could be a sign or message from God.

So as a British evangelical(ish) Christian, what do I think?  I'm not entirely sure, so I thought if I tried to write about it I might be able to work something out!
First of all, I have to believe that God is love. This is fundamental to the Christian faith and to my own understanding of God and the Universe. I therefore find it hard to imagine God deliberately - and for no reason at all - willing destruction and misery on large numbers of people, e.g. the recent tsunami in Japan.

Thanks to modern science, we now have some knowledge of the processes that cause natural disasters - e.g. tectonic plate movements that cause earthquakes and tsunamis. This would seem to suggest that they are just blind natural processes that happen to occur in places we'd rather they didn't - e.g. where some of us have built our homes!

How can this be reconciled though, with the idea of a God who not only made everything, but also takes an active interest in His creation? Why would God make a world which was subject to these kinds of events and why would He allow them to occur, in spite of the death and suffering they cause? Is it because He doesn't care. Is He being deliberately malicious? Is it possible that He does actually cause some of these events in order to try and communicate through them in some way? Or is the real answer, "none of the above", or perhaps even a bit of a mixture?

The classic evangelical Christian response to all of this - at least in my experience - is that when God first made the world it was "perfect" so there wouldn't have been any natural disasters, but when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden of Eden all that changed. "Sin" entered the world and a fundamental disconnect was created between man and God and also between God and His creation. The creation itself suffered as a result of man's disobedience and so natural disasters, along with all manner of other ills, entered the equation.

This is a nice story but it doesn't really fit with the scientific evidence, which suggests that the world has been in a pretty much constant state of flux since it first formed about 5 billion years ago. Also though, I can't see any direct claims in the Bible itself that natural disasters are a consequence of Adam and Eve's rebellion, or that they didn't exist before that point (whether or not the Adam and Eve story is meant to be taken literally, which is another question!).

I do think though, that human beings were created to be rulers and priests over God's creation (for more on this see my other post on this subject), and that this role involves acting as mediators between God and the world and bringing harmony to it through our wise stewardship. When we cannot perform this role effectively due to our own estrangement from God, then to some extent creation will suffer, but I can only really speculate as to what physical effects this might have.

I do quite like Father David Cloake's explanation of natural disasters here, which hinges on the idea that the world is alive and that life requires change and at times upheaval - both as a consequence and also as a prerequisite for growth and development. In the end, to be overly safe is to be suffocated by mundanity. No parent (i.e. God) wants their children to be hurt, but by protecting them from all danger you ultimately do them more harm than good because they can never truly learn or develop.

I was also struck by this spoof article on the Onion website, about the positive effect that disasters sometimes have on human nature. Suffering can make us bury our heads in the sand in despair, or it can call out everything that is good in us in response. Suffering presents all of us with both a challenge and an opportunity to be truly "human", in the best and most positive sense of that word.

I recognise that in discussing all these options, I haven't really answered the question, but this is what I think so far:
  • Did God make the world? - yes!
  • Does God love people? - yes!
  • Does He allow natural disasters to happen? - yes!
  • Could He prevent them? - yes!
  • Why doesn't He? - I've made some suggestions above but I'm sure there's more to it than this. I doubt if there's any simple "one size fits all" answer. It also seems entirely possible to me that He has done on occasion, though it would be hard to prove on the basis of something that didn't happen!
  • Does He ever cause them directly? - I don't know. There is some evidence in the Bible that He has done on occasion. I see no reason why He couldn't if He wanted to and I don't know what reasons He might have, but I'm personally willing to trust that He would only do so if they were very good ones!
  • Does God "speak" to us through natural disasters and if so, in what ways? - I think natural disasters speak to us in a number of ways, and as God made the world, so these could be seen as messages from our creator.
    • They encourage us to reach out to God, by reminding us of our mortality and the fragility of our lives.
    • By inspiring empathy in those not affected, they remind us of our shared humanity and challenge us to love one another.
    • They challenge us to learn and develop and adapt to changes in our environment.
    • They remind us of our dependence on the earth and our need to live in harmony with it.
    • It's also possible that in specific circumstances God may communicate through natural disasters in other ways but I think I've kind of run out of space to explore that properly here...


  1. Dan, thanks for the link. You have worked this to a considerable depth and in a very balanced and creative way. My views are clear, but your unfolding thesis begs more questions - and for that I thank you again!

  2. Thought I would have a quick read of this since I mentioned natural disasters in a recent comment in your other blog post.

    Why do you assume that God is love, and would never do anything malicious? Wasn't man made in God's image, and we all know what man is like!

    There is much pain and suffering in the world, wars, famine, disease, natural disasters, crime. So much in this world is bad really - not a small bit, but quite a lot! Why would a loving God allow this?

    You seem to look for possible reasons that might fit your "God is love" idealogy, but they just don't really fit. Should you not question then your starting point?

  3. Hey Gary,

    >> Why do you assume that God is love, and would never do anything malicious?

    Because that's been my own personal experience of Him so far, and because that's the central message of the Christian faith, as exemplified by the self-giving sacrificial love of Jesus, who I am convinced is - as the Bible teaches - the Son of God.

    >> Wasn't man made in God's image, and we all know what man is like!

    Made in God's image yes, but with the power to choose - so man was allowed to choose what he wanted to be, not just follow a predetermined path that had been laid out for him.

    >> You seem to look for possible reasons that might fit your "God is love" idealogy, but they just don't really fit. Should you not question then your starting point?

    Yeah, probably - I actually have done lots of times, but I always end up back at the same place! I really do believe He's love Gary, even if I don't understand all the reasons why He does stuff, or allows things to happen.

    I think there are many reasons - possible and actual - why God allows suffering and evil to exist in His world, but I can't begin to claim that I understand the whole picture.

    For more on what I think about love, see this post

  4. Just returning from Haiti a couple weeks ago, a lot of questions remain unanswered. One thing I do know much as we may want to speculate why God allowed something so traumatic to happen to a helpless nation, I witnessed some of the deepest love and abiding faith that the Haitians have in a God that seemingly allowed all to be stripped away. What we consider to be the end in a tragedy may mark some of the most fertile ground for hearts to be surrendered and a deep spiritual richness that I have not been able to touch.

  5. Thanks Jeff. It's always easier to speculate about these things from a distance (although none of us are untouched by suffering) but your insights from "the field" are much appreciated!

  6. I write this as we, in New Jersey, and in greater Northeast US just experienced and is suffering from Hurricane Sandy.

    God is love. I believe it. I also believe that God would rather have humankind be awakened with and through natural (or Acts of God) disasters than to experience eternal death from our sins. To that end, we, Christians, do not discuss death enough from the pulpit and with each other. Jesus conquered death for good. "Do not fear" as He commanded us. Yet, with fear and with human reason, we try to find human answers and even lay blame to human behavior for the causes of catastrophic disasters (i.e., earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.).

    We, preachers, must not sidestep the most catastrophic disaster of them all - the eternal death from sin.


If you don't have an account, and you want to leave your name, select "Name/URL" from the "Comment as" drop list below. Then just enter your name (you don't have to supply a URL) and click "Continue".