Earth, Wind, Fire, and Disease: Are Natural Disasters Signs of God's Judgment?
Preparing for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Three Days before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
Old Testament: Isaiah 9:8-17
Epistle: Romans 9:1-9
Psalter: Psalm 33:12-22
Old Testament: Job 21:1-16
Epistle: Romans 9:1-9
God of Abraham and Jesus, you invite your people to contemplate heavenly things and urge us toward faith in you. May your coming among us find our doors open, our tables set, and all your people ready to greet you. Amen.
Why do the wicked live on,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their children are established in their presence
and their offspring before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them.
Their bull breeds without fail;
their cow calves and never miscarries.
They send out their little ones like a flock,
and their children dance around.
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre
and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol (Job 21:7-13).
It's been a dramatic and difficult time for the world these past few years, and the difficulty is not over. COVID-19 is still on the loose though we are learning to live with it, and world economies are struggling with inflation and shortages. 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 occurrence. 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 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 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).
PRAYER: God of judgment and grace, you ask not for sacrifices, but lives of trusting faith that acknowledge your power and mercy. Give us faith as deep and strong as Abraham’s and Sarah’s, that we may follow you through all our days as did Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
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