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God and Earthquake in Haiti
Amid earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, where is God?

Does God control when and where an earthquake strikes? As one hears the heart wrenching stories told by victims and watches news reports of the devastation on the ground, the question arises with greater intensity. So how about it?

There are plenty of Biblical passages that would suggest God does micromanage the phenomenon of nature. The prophet Ezekiel believed that God used tremendous storms as a weapon to punish the unrighteous: "Thus says the Lord GOD: I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath; and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger." Likewise the Psalmist catalogues those elements of the natural world that follow God's commands: "fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!" (Psalm 148)

From the perspective of a majority of people living in biblical times there was little doubt that God was responsible for every turn of events in the natural world, whether it be drought or flood, earthquake, wind or fire. Perhaps the ultimate example of how this "majority view" found itself even into the pages of the Bible is the story of the great flood in which every living creature on earth was annihilated, save those who were lucky enough to be gathered by Noah onto the ark. From this perspective, storms are thought of as punishment for bad behavior and favorable weather as a reward for faithfulness. The same is true of any other natural disaster. Televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson was reinforcing this view of God when he warned a few years back that the city of Orlando might well face a direct hit by a hurricane because it permitted the display of rainbow flags out of respect for gay people. Said Robertson: "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you."

Since Biblical times we have come to see that there are other explanations for why an earthquakes occurs and other names for the factors that cause one. Earthquakes strike, not because God has a habit of punishing "left-leaning liberals" in certain parts of the world, but because the "plate tectonics" in certain regions makes them more likely or even inevitable. The same is true of hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods. All of these are directed by the forces of nature. This is so in good times and bad and without respect to the moral climate or condition of the people who happen to be living in a region where disaster strikes.

If we truly believed that God micromanages such events -- and further that they are the just punishments meted out by an angry God -- we would not be spending tax payer money to discover causes that lead to various kinds of natural disaster, and thus be able to predict them and warn potential victims. Instead we would be sending investigative reporters into the major population centers of the world to take the "moral temperature" of particular populations and in that way determine where God was most likely to strike next.

Even within the pages of the Bible, there were those who challenged the majority opinion that every adverse condition of nature was an "act of God" targeted at people who had done wrong. Job, for example, was a good man who suffered greatly. And he argued with those who suggested that he had done something to deserve the wrath of God. "He crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause," Job insisted. And he went even further to challenge God's good judgment: "Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands, and favor the schemes of the wicked?"

As one reads through the Bible one begins to see emerging a minority opinion that suggest one cannot draw a cause and effect relationship between the circumstances a person faces and whether that person has done evil or good. (With the resulting view that if a person suffers from misfortune, the suffering must be deserved.) For example the prophet Isaiah comforts the people of his day and time with the assurance that far from seeing the hand of God in every misfortune, they could be assured of God's presence to guide them through the eye of any storm. "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you." (Isaiah 43:2)

Likewise, Jesus urged people to look beyond the surface of circumstance to find God even in the depths of suffering or pain. He communicated an understanding of God that is exactly the opposite of the majority view. In his famous "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus turned the conventional wisdom around 180°:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven;
for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Here Jesus suggests not only that God does not target storm or rain as a punishment for evil, rather God "sends rain on the just and the unjust." But, even more remarkable, he uses the fact that natural events happen to the "just and the unjust" equally as the basis for urging his followers to love enemies and friends alike. Moreover, Jesus went out of his way to identify with lepers, the lame, the blind and other victims of tragic circumstance, insisting that far from deserving punishment, such persons were deserving of love and respect.

Unfortunately, Christians have not always been faithful to the minority opinion put forward by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, but have reverted to the majority view that poverty, for example, or disease, or natural calamity must by the just punishment of a righteous God. The majority view, even though it is echoed within the pages of the Bible, should be rejected by Christians, for it falls short of the good news that God loves and cares for all people. And it is the good news of God's love for the world that inspires Christians not to wonder what earthquake victims may have done to bring the wrath of God upon themselves, but instead to join with others in bringing comfort and relief to the afflicted.

For a short list of major relief agencies involved in rendering assistance to victims of natural disaster.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.