Whenever some particular natural disaster occurs–e.g. an earthquake, hurricane, Tsunami, etc.–a segment of Christians vocalize their opinion that the particular disaster was God’s specific judgment on a specific people for a specifically egregious sin. As soon as these opinions air they are jettisoned by a floodwater of retaliatory and equally impetuous statements of antipathy and contempt towards those who have spoken them. As opinions are brandished, indecisive bystanders feel compelled to choose between one of two polarized options–namely, that they must either (1) conclude that God sends every catastrophic natural disaster as a judgment on men and women for their wickedness, or (2) conclude that God would never does any such thing. There is a more theologically nuanced answer to this issue. We must acknowledge that the Scripture speaks to this issue, and that it does so in a multi-variegated manner. So what exactly does the Scripture teach about natural catastrophes and their relation to personal or communal sin?
From Where Do Disasters Come?
It’s interesting to note that even many of those who reject the Bible’s authority–and who sneer at those who appeal to it’s teaching on this subject–nevertheless tend to personify nature when natural disasters strike. This is, no doubt, due to the sensus divinitatis. There is, in every fallen image bearer, a remnant of a principle of justice–or of personal governance–at work in their conscience. All men know that there is a Creator–even though they constantly seek to suppress the truth about Him (Rom. 1:18-32). Instead of acknowledging God the Father as the ultimate efficient cause of all things–guiding all things for His own purposes–they attribute the efficient cause to “Mother Nature.” Secular commentators frequently employ such personification phraseology as, “Mother Nature is really upset” or “Mother Nature protects.” While unbelievers attribute the cause of natural disasters to “Mother Nature,” Scripture everywhere tells us that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is sovereignly exercising His eternal will and power over all things.
The Scriptures unapologetically teach that God sends judgments on people, nations and the world for sinful rebellion. We find this truth in the biblical account of the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Plagues of Egypt, the leprosy with which Miriam was struck for grumbling against Moses, the earthquake that Swallowed Dathan and Abithar for their rebellion against Moses (Num. 16:31), the Covenant curses given to Israel (Deut. 27-28), the storm that God sent because of Jonah’s rebellion (Jonah 1:4-9), the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Matt. 24) as a response to the rejection of Christ and the teaching of the book of Revelation as to the perpetual nature-judgments of God that serve as trumpet blasts calling men to repentance throughout the New Covenant era.
We would have to deny the clear teaching of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation if we were to say that disasters and affliction are not a direct response of God to the sin(s) of individuals or a collective group of people. However, we would have to deny the clear teaching of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is we were to say that all disasters and afflictions are a direct response of God to the specific sin(s) of individuals or a collective group of people. We need to form a robust understanding of all of the biblical teaching on disasters in order to come to any appropriate conclusion about how we are to respond.
God’s Multi-variegated Purposes
In Job 37:11-13 we get one of the most profound insights into God’s will in sending natural disasters. Employing language that undoubtably has reference to a hurricane, Job declared:
With moisture He saturates the thick clouds;
He scatters His bright clouds.
And they swirl about, being turned by His guidance,
That they may do whatever He commands them
On the face of the whole earth.
He causes it to come,
Whether for correction,
Or for His land,
Or for mercy.
Here we learn that there are multi-variegated purposes behind God’s sending natural disasters. Sometimes God sends them for correction, sometimes for His land and sometimes for mercy. This means that God may (and, as noted above, often does) send a natural disaster in order to chasten people and call them to repentance; or, it may mean that He is wanting to do sometime to provide for or alter the physical terrain; or, He may send one in order to provide mercy. This last rationale is the most difficult to understand. Does Job mean that God sends natural disasters to bring communities together and encourage care for one another in a way that was not seen before the disaster? Or, does it mean that God sends disasters so that it might be used in the conversion of one of His lost sheep? It may just mean both. Whatever we conclude about the last of these three reasons, of this much we can be sure of: God has a variety of reasons for sending natural disasters and judgment is mingled with mercy.
Disasters and Self-Examination?
We are still left with the question, ‘What ought our response to be when these disasters strike?” This is not an easy question to answer.
If you asked Jonah why he thought that God sent the storm as he fled to Tarshish, he would tell you that it was because of his sin (Jonah 1:4-9, see esp. v. 12). Jonah’s conscience was plagued because of his rebellion. He knew that the storm was the chastisement that he deserved for running from the command of God. Jonah knew that the specific circumstance in which he found himself–coupled with the storm that came crashing down on the ship–was the reason why God cause the storm to arise. If you asked the men on the ship why God sent the storm–after the fact–they may very well have told you that it was so that they might come to know the true and living God. We are told that they sacrificed to and called on the God of Israel (Jonah 1:16).
Surely, we should always examine our own consciences as to whether we are actively in rebellion against God whenever some affliction or disaster comes. We are often all too quick to write off any association between affliction/disaster and personal sin on account of the abuse of such teaching by Job’s friends (Job 42:7-8) and on account of Jesus’ teaching about the man born blind (John 9:1-3). However, if we are in active rebellion and suffer some kind of physical affliction, we should never write it off as something that could never be related to our sin. James teaches this principle when he says:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:14-16).
James teaches that physical illness or some other form of affliction may actually be a consequence of personal sin. In addition to this passage, the apostle Paul teaches us that there were some in Corinth who were not “discerning the body” of Christ when they came to the Supper, and, therefore, “many…are weak, and sick and some had died” (1 Cor. 11:27-32). Paul clearly connects physical infirmity with personal sin in this place.
Moving from individual to corporate sin and judgment, we have extremely clear examples strewn throughout the pages of Scripture. In the case of Sodom and Gomorra, the Plagues of Egypt, the Flood, the Exile of Israel and the Destruction of Jerusalem, God revealed that He sent these disaster-judgments in response to the rebellion of men. It may not have been the only reason why He sent them, but Scripture declares it to have been the main reason. Even so, we must remember that these too were preceded by an offer of mercy.
The “salvation through judgment” paradigm of Scripture, teaches us that with the natural disasters, plagues or temporal judgments which God sends there is a call for men to turn to Him and receive His grace and mercy. Even in Sodom and Gomorra, God is said to have placed righteous Lot in the city to be a light and a witness to God’s promised saving grace. The men of the city responded to Lot by rejecting the call to repentance, and the corresponding reception of God’s mercy, when they told him, “This one came in to stay here, and he keeps acting as a judge” (Gen. 19:9). When men harden their hearts and refuse to repent of their sin in order to receive the mercy of God they will reject God’s messengers whenever they are sent to warn of judgment as a call to mercy. It’s sadly true that there are wickedly self-righteous and hateful calls to repentance echoing out from certain professing Christians and churches; however, every call to repentance ought not to be categorized as self-righteous judgmentalism. Men are all too quick to categorize legitimate and compassionate and Gospel-fueled calls to repent as bigoted, hateful and un-Christlike. The reality is, of course, that Jesus fell under such unjust condemnation for calling men to repentance (John 3:19-20).
Perhaps the clearest connection between world-wide affliction and disasters in Scripture is found in the book of Revelation. In Rev. 16, we read about the 7 bowls of God’s judgment being poured out on the earth. When the Apostle John records the fourth and fifth bowl, he explained the outcome:
“The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.”
In both case, there is a focus on the fact that men did not respond properly to the judgments that God was sending on the earth. There is almost an element of surprise when John writes, “people gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.”
Of course, this is a general statement about the judgments that God sends on all men–not on individuals per se. Jesus taught this principle in his response to the news about Herod mingling the Galilean’s blood with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1-5): “Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
While we must never assert that we know infallibly why this or that disaster has occurred, we can, at the very least, agree that a call to personal repentance is always in order in our lives. Such repentance entails a measure of honest self-examination. We cannot repent for our neighbors. We are not called to repent of the sin of those around us. We do not get to tell others who may have suffered from some disaster that they have sinned or that they need to repent of some particular sin(s). We all called to acknowledge and repent of our own sin. In order to do so, we must be willing to hold our lives and actions up to the scrutiny of God’s word. Thankfully, the Scriptures tell us that “God is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but it long suffering toward us–not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). So, instead of speculating whether or not God has sent a disaster to such and such a place on account of particular sins of a particular people, we should ensure that we are repenting of our own sins whenever we hear of such disasters. In a fallen world, every disaster is, in one sense, a tiny foreshadowing of the wrath to come. The good news for sinners like us is that there is mercy in Christ for any who recognize their need for Him who gave Himself up for hell deserving sinners so that he might deliver them from the wrath to come. The eternal judgment of God that our sins deserve fell on Him so that we might be the recipients of God’s undeserved and unmerited mercy that he freely gives us by faith in Christ.