Amid tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods, where is God?
Does God control the path of tornadoes that move across the US each spring? 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 weather, or other
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 a tornado, 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 a hurricane arises and other
names for the forces that direct it. Hurricanes arrive, not because God has a
habit of punishing "left-leaning East Coast liberals" every September,
but because the prevailing winds, ocean currents and frontal zones combine in
ways that make tropical storms more likely at this time of the year. The same
is true of earthquakes, 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
If we truly believed that God micromanages the weather
-- and further that storms were the just punishments meted out by an angry God
-- we would not be spending tax payer money so that NOAA could send airplanes
crammed with all sorts of sophisticated equipment into the eye of the storm to
predict its path. Instead we would be sending investigative reporters into the
major population centers of America 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.
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 hurricane
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.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.