If God is all-powerful, He could easily prevent disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, droughts and volcanic eruptions. But He lets them happen. Why?
Christianity portrays God as an intelligent, all-powerful being. And the Christian Bible teaches that "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God" (1 John:4:16).
Yet natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes are often labeled "acts of God." This carries with it the implication that mankind's Creator is personally responsible and accountable for the loss of life, material devastation and suffering that natural catastrophes leave in their wake. The anguish they cause leaves a lot of people very perplexed about God's attitude toward human suffering.
One woman standing in the midst of the New Orleans devastation told a reporter, "God doesn't live here anymore." When asked why God allows such a disaster, a priest's reply can be summed up: There is no answer.
Is that true? Is there really no answer? Must we remain completely in the dark concerning God's reasons for not preventing catastrophic destruction, loss of life and incalculable misery? Or could it be that God has already revealed His reasons for not always intervening and that we simply haven't paid close enough attention to them?
A realistic assessment of responsibility for the death and suffering caused by natural disasters—especially those that are predictable—should always include a review of our personal and collective responsibility to prepare for the unexpected.
By labeling all natural calamities as "acts of God," we are in danger of denying our own collective and personal responsibility. Such a view implies that God, by allowing natural disasters, is guilty of indifference. It suggests He is responsible and accountable for all human suffering.
Responsibility, however, is a two-way street. It's hardly fair to blame God for not doing all that He could if we have closed our eyes to the preventive measures we could and should have taken. Such an approach
in essence blames God for our own negligence. It completely ignores the principle of shared responsibility.
Consider the damage done in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. For years emergency-response personnel have warned that a massive and intense hurricane could devastate the Gulf Coast of the United States. A good example of this type of warning was the 2004 study on the vulnerability of New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast to hurricanes packing the destructive power of Katrina and Rita.
The predictions of that study were so accurate they almost seem prophetic.
Explains government watcher Robert Longley: "During the summer of 2004, FEMA ran a disaster simulation exercise in which a fictional hurricane named Pam hit the New Orleans area. The purpose of the Pam simulation was to help FEMA and local authorities in hurricane-prone areas to prepare for future disasters.
"In the FEMA simulation, Pam hit New Orleans with sustained winds of 120 mph, dumping up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and creating a storm surge that topped levees in the New Orleans area. More than one million residents evacuated and Hurricane Pam destroyed 500,000-600,000 buildings.
"Emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal and volunteer organizations participated in the five-day exercise held at the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge" (http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/defenseandsecurity/a/
Much was learned from that fictional simulation. Still more was learned when category-4 Hurricane Ivan was predicted to make a direct hit on New Orleans in September 2004. Ivan was virtually a dress rehearsal for Hurricane Katrina—hundreds of thousands of people evacuated the area before the storm veered away from New Orleans and pounded the Florida panhandle.
Even after many problems were identified through the simulation and Hurricane Ivan, only a few of the necessary changes and preparations were put in place. When Katrina finally did arrive on the scene, it was too late.
The early reaction by many government officials following Katrina was to blame others—with those at each level of responsibility pointing the finger at those above or below them.
As time passed, however, it became clear that all levels of those responsible for emergency readiness shared culpability for too-little, too-late preparation. This included planners from the highest government levels down to those in individual counties or parishes.
Responsibility must be shared! Once this is understood, we can more easily grasp God's response to natural disasters.
It is not that He is distant or uncaring. He simply has conditions for intervening in such matters. He is willing and eager to help. But first we have to do our part. This He makes very plain in the Scriptures.
Jesus Christ's instructive example
Just before He was crucified, Jesus looked down on the city in which He would be put to death, understanding clearly what lay ahead for Him. He also knew that in the not-too-distant future Roman armies would attack and devastate the city of Jerusalem. His love and concern for the people of that city affected His emotions so powerfully that He was moved to tears.
"As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, 'If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.
"'They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God'" (Luke:19:41-44, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).
Jesus deeply desired for them to have recognized who He was and the level of leadership that He had been offering them during His ministry. With deep feeling He lamented: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Matthew:23:37-39, NRSV).
For 31/2 years Jesus had crisscrossed the land of Judea with a message of repentance and renewal. Before Him, John the Baptist had called for the same changes. Both were ignored by the great majority of those who heard them. In the end, both were killed for preaching a message designed to repair the strained relationship between God and the people to whom they preached.
At that time Rome ruled much of the world with a heavy hand. The Jewish people resented its oppressive authority and were obsessed with gaining their independence. They wanted Jesus to lead them in an uprising to expel the Roman army. But they refused to accept His criticisms of their personal and national behavior.
Under those conditions Jesus, as His heavenly Father's messenger, warned them of the disaster they were about to bring on themselves.
The Jewish nation and its capital city of Jerusalem rejected His message that called for them to repent and submit to God. They wanted to hear a message about expelling the Roman army. In the end, war with that army is what they got. In A.D. 70 Jerusalem was completely destroyed and the majority of Jews not killed in the battle were carried away as slaves or had to flee for their lives.
Did God allow that disaster to happen? Certainly! He even foretold it. Yet who was at fault?
The blame fell on both the Jews and the Romans! Each acted out of misguided self-interest in defiance of the teachings and will of God. The consequences of the conflict produced by those choices were precisely what Jesus had said they would be.
Understanding God's perspective
God could easily give warning or prevent any natural disaster. And He is willing to do that, under certain conditions— that those receiving such protection will collectively pay close attention to His teachings by making them their personal standard of thinking and behavior.
From the creation of Adam to Noah's Flood—a span of more than 1,600 years—God observed human behavior intensely. His observations are not flattering. "The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain" (Genesis:6:5-6, New International Version).
Even God often finds it emotionally painful to watch how insensitive and callous human beings can be in their relationships with one another and with Him—though suffering often has the effect of making us aware of how much we need each other. By the time the Flood began, only the family
of Noah was found sufficiently obedient to God's will to be spared its devastation.
It's important to recognize that God is never unfeeling —but He is realistic. When the majority of people in a nation ignore His instructions—or worse, actively rebel against them—the nation forfeits any protection and personal intervention that God would so much like to give.
This loving concern is well documented in an excellent historical example. God gave the people of ancient Israel the opportunity to represent—by their example—the right type of relationship that He wants all nations to have with Him (Deuteronomy:4:5-10). He made a pact with them that He would shield them from all types of disasters, predictable and unpredictable alike.
But He also set conditions. They were responsible for their part. They had to do all that God would teach them. Notice the essence of both what God expected and promised:
"If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land.
"And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.
"You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new. I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Leviticus:26:3-12, NRSV).
Did you notice here how often God promised to act directly to ensure they would be both blessed and secure? "I will grant peace in the land . . . I will look with favor upon you . . . I will maintain my covenant with you . . . I will walk among you, and will be your God"!
God's favor included excellent weather that would bring blessings instead of disasters. His favor included peace and security with assurance of victory over enemies. It also included abundant agricultural blessings.
His requirements were easy to comprehend. The people were to follow all of God's instructions with attentive ears and hearts.
How simple and direct! But God also warned them not to turn a deaf ear to His teachings—like most of the Jews did in the days of Jesus, as mentioned earlier.
God told them: "You must therefore be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess" (Deuteronomy:5:32-33, NRSV).
The fruit of unrighteous behavior
Later, prophecies in the New Testament give an enlightening picture of what the world's societies will be like in the period leading up to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Like the time before Noah's Flood, it is not a flattering picture even though it is bustling with human commercial activity.
Revelation 18 describes the international trade of that period as incredibly prosperous and far-reaching. Great varieties of merchandise are shipped from one seaport to another. Immense fortunes are made. Prosperity abounds. But so does human selfishness, greed and brutality.
Paul, writing to Timothy, explained that "in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! " (2 Timothy:3:1-5, NRSV).
He is describing a time when people find it expedient to appear to be religious but not expedient to live godly lives. God judges by what is in the heart. He extends or withholds blessings according to this principle: "Righteousness exalts a nation , but sin is a disgrace to any people" (Proverbs:14:34, New International Version). It is righteous living, not the outward appearance of mere religious piety, that counts with God.
A nation that desires God to look after its national welfare must heed this instruction: "Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands . . . Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down . . . and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied . . . You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.'
"But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth . . . If you ever forget . . . I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deuteronomy:8:11-19, NIV).
God leaves those who ignore these instructions and warnings to the mercy of both nature and their enemies. He no longer ensures that they will be blessed or secure. Those who spurn godly behavior reap the fruit of their own thinking, often totally unaware of how fragile their security is.
Jesus explained that people living in the prosperous era before His second coming will mostly be oblivious to the impending disasters drawing near: "Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
"It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building . . . It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed" (Luke:17:26-30, NIV).
God's response to harmful behavior
God allows or sometimes even causes suffering for another reason. He uses it as a means of correcting wrong behavior. Notice the scriptural advice to those who begin to stray from the ways taught in God's Word:
"And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—'My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.'
"Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? . . . Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness" (Hebrews:12:5-10, NRSV).
God is very focused on the ultimate outcome of our lives. Therefore He sets choices before us. He even allows us to make bad choices (Deuteronomy:30:15-19).
But He wants us to learn from their consequences, to see and distinguish the harmful effects of foolish decisions. If we still fail to get the point, He may even take a more direct approach and bring bad consequences upon us. But His goal is always to bring us back to His ways, His teachings.
George Barna, America's leading pollster of behavioral patterns among professing Christians, once observed that even though the practice of Christianity in the United States may be represented accurately as "a mile wide," it also may be described just as accurately as only "an inch deep."
Understanding and applying biblical principles seems to be at an all-time low not just in America today, but in most Western countries. The shallowness of devotion to God's ways today is very similar to that of ancient Israel's people and priests.
Addressing directly the priests responsible for giving the people of that era the knowledge of His ways, God exclaimed: ". . . My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. 'Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.
"'The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful. They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness. And it will be: Like people, like priests. I will punish both of them for their ways and repay them for their deeds'" (Hosea:4:6-9, NIV).
Today, clear biblical instruction is mostly out of vogue even among professing Christians, having been replaced by feel-good messages and emotionalism. Though the United States is one of the last Western nations engaged in a political struggle between secular and religious values—with secularism having won nearly everywhere else—only a small portion of the religious factions in that struggle are actively committed to living expressly as the Bible teaches.
But that segment could profoundly affect the effectiveness of God's discipline on those nations where the teachings of God's Word are available.
The "watchman" assignment
In ancient times a watchman in a tower or on a defensive wall was assigned the responsibility of warning his countrymen of any approaching threat. Throughout history God has charged His faithful servants with a similar responsibility. Here is an example of that charge as given to Ezekiel:
"Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, 'You will surely die,' and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.
"But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself" (Ezekiel:3:17-19, NIV).
The Good News magazine is committed to providing sound biblical teachings and warnings appropriate for our time. As disasters and suffering increase, our goal is to help readers understand that God has not hidden His face from what is happening.
We also suggest other material and resources devoted to the same goals. It's our fervent hope that you will take full advantage of these informative resources—and not just read, watch or listen to them, but act on them.
We now live at a time when disasters are called "acts of God," yet with few people understanding why He allows them. He is neither negligent nor indifferent. He wants us to recognize our need for His care so that we will take His word seriously and apply it.
Those who turn to Him and make the Bible the foundation of their lives can take great comfort in these words: "Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you'" (Hebrews:13:5).
If you want God to include you in that category, you must make sure, as in James:1:23-25, that you have become a "doer," not just a "hearer," of His Word. GN