Hurricanes make theologians of us allWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Beyond their devastating physical force, hurricanes possess an uncanny spiritual power. Like all forms of natural disaster, they have the ability to draw out the theologian in everyone. When they strike, they drive people of every faith (and no faith) to assess their beliefs about mortality and suffering and the presence or absence of God in all of it.
That power has been on conspicuous display in recent years, during the Atlantic hurricane season of late summer and early fall. In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria ravaged the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. And in 2019, Hurricane Dorian brought its own share of devastation to those same regions and beyond, with some of these areas still recovering from the disasters of two years earlier.
When confronted with such widespread destruction, atheists are bound to double down on their atheism, while religious people strive to understand the tragedies in light of their faith – as well as defend their faith in light of the tragedies.
Christians for our part have our own explanations and attempts at theodicy (the practice of trying to justify God or “get him off the hook,” so to speak). But at least some of these attempts, while well-intentioned, wind up being at odds with Scripture, and thus neither helpful nor honouring to God.
The presence of natural evil is one of the thorniest problems for any belief system, and there are no easy answers for it. Nevertheless it may be useful to examine a few of the ways people of various beliefs might (or might not) respond to the challenge.
Are natural disasters a part of God’s will?
In order to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of natural evil, it may be tempting to think that hurricanes and such are not part of his will. Some people go further than that, claiming God has nothing at all to do with natural disasters, that they’re solely the result of demonic activity or physical forces operating outside God’s direct control.
But such assertions will not stand up to the light of Scripture. God himself declares that he is the author of both well-being and calamity (Isaiah 45:7; Amos 3:6; Job 1:21-22; 2:10). He is the Lord of all creation, including all of its natural forces and weather patterns. He doesn’t only bring sunshine and soft rains, but also snow and ice and blasting storms (Job 37:9-13; 38:22-24; Psalm 24:1-2; 147:16-18; 148:8; Matthew 8:23-27). To suggest otherwise is to undermine God’s sovereignty, thus making him something less than God.
Are natural disasters a judgment on sin?
At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that every natural disaster is sent by God as a direct punishment for the sin of a particular group of people. It’s a sad facet of human nature to assume that those who suffer must have somehow brought it upon themselves. But once again, the Scriptures show this is not always (or even usually) the case. To be sure, there are instances in which God sends calamity as a response to sin. Yet at the same time, he devotes the entire book of Job, as well as various other scriptural passages, to the question of why seemingly innocent people suffer (Job 1:1ff; Psalm 73; John 9:1-7).
In any event, since the close of the canon of Scripture, no one is in an authoritative position to claim that Hurricane X was sent by God to punish some sin in Community Y. Jesus himself rules out this kind of thinking. He declares that the tower of Siloam didn’t collapse and crush 18 people in Jerusalem because they were worse sinners than anyone else. Rather he insists that we will all likewise perish unless we repent (Luke 13:4-5).
Where is God in all of this?
Since ancient times, skeptics have argued that if God is able but not willing to prevent natural disasters, then he can’t be perfectly good. Conversely, if he is willing but not able to do so, then he can’t be all-powerful. Either way, he can’t be God, as we understand the concept. For many skeptics, this is an unavoidable paradox that proves God cannot exist.
While the argument may sound plausible on the surface, it’s little more than a clever bit of sophistry. In the first place, arguing that something doesn’t exist because I can’t explain it is not a very convincing way to make a case. Moreover, the fact that everyone recognizes suffering as a bad thing requires a moral standard of good – of “ought” rather than “is” – which in turn requires a moral lawgiver. Far from disproving God, then, natural disasters point powerfully to his existence.
C.S. Lewis expounded this in Mere Christianity, in his account of his own conversion: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
Beyond everything else, we need to remember that God’s ways are infinitely higher than ours, and he has chosen not to reveal his deeper purposes to us. Yet even if he did, we could never begin to grasp them (Isaiah 55:8-9; Psalm 139:17-18; Deuteronomy 29:29; John 16:12). As Tim Keller pointed out, “If you’ve got an infinite God big enough to be mad at for the suffering in the world, then you also have an infinite God big enough to have reasons for it that you can’t think of.”
The power and the glory of God
It’s customary to think of God’s glory primarily in terms of his creativity, kindness and love. And it’s quite right that we do so. However, the Scriptures also affirm that God displays his glory through his holiness, awesome power and acts of judgment (Exodus 7:3-5; 11:9; 14:1-4, 15-18; Romans 9:14-24). He reveals himself not only through the beauty of an amber and indigo sunset, but also through a dark raging storm at sea, or a cataclysmic disturbance in the upper atmosphere. The Apostle Paul urges us to consider both the kindness and severity of God (Romans 11:22) and the natural world reminds us of the same thing.
The fragility of a fallen world
In an affluent society with a wealth of creature comforts and a high standard of living, it’s easy to get lulled into a sense of one’s own immortality, the assumption that nothing very bad will ever happen. People in less developed countries, however, are far more in touch with the realities of life in a fallen world. For them, death and suffering are ever-present companions, only a heartbeat (or a famine or a flash flood) away. Moses prayed that God would teach us to number our days and so grant us wisdom (Psalm 90:12). When hurricanes hit our shores, they drive home the truth of our mortality as few other things can.
Warnings of coming judgment
Although we cannot (and should not) make any claims connecting specific disasters with particular sins, we can (and must) draw one general, inescapable conclusion from all of them. From Noah’s Flood to Jesus’ account of the tower of Siloam and beyond, every catastrophic event in history foreshadows the Last Day when God will judge the world. The Apostle Peter makes this connection explicit by drawing a line from the Flood, the first great cataclysm in history, to the final, fiery destruction of the present universe, to be replaced by the New Heavens and New Earth, in which righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:5-13).
Opportunities to show God’s love
There’s a real danger in these sorts of theological musings to focus merely on explaining suffering, but with a callous indifference to alleviating it. This, of course, we must never do. There are few things as ugly or damaging to the testimony of Jesus as orthodoxy without orthopraxy, right belief without right action (Matthew 23:23-24).
Perhaps more than anything else, it’s vital to keep in mind that natural disasters are a means through which God expresses his compassion and care for those who are suffering – and he does this primarily through his people. But at the same time, his people need to know why they do what they do. Their right actions must be rooted in right belief – the two go hand-in-hand. Along with bringing aid to the needy, they have to be ready with an answer for those who ask, “Where is your God?” (Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 2:10; 1 Peter 3:14-16).
Hurricanes not only draw out the theologian in each of us. They also drive us to practical, lived theology – to pray and give and serve and weep with those who weep. In this way, they open the eyes of the world. They make it see that God hasn’t abandoned his creation to the grip of death, but has sent his Son to bring eternal life and true immortality to light (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23; 2 Timothy 1:8-10).
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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