Making Sense of Catastrophes

If we were to survey the things various pastors have said from their pulpits about the recent tsunami in Japan, I suspect that we might find three types of comment: 1) those who see this event as God’s judgment on Japan for not believing, 2) those who see this event as part of the problem of evil, with God bringing peace and good news into the midst of the catastrophe, and 3) those who see God’s involvement in such events as somewhat of a mystery.

It is precisely in this sort of event when our theological questions cease being academic discussions and become either helpful or dangerous.  For example, if we believe that this event was God’s judgment on the Japanese, we will be less likely to try to help the survivors.  Or if we think giving help can only be motivated by the possibility of salvation, then our help may actually be counterproductive to its purpose.  Help purely in the service of a narrowly defined sense of evangelism is more likely to turn others away from the gospel in disgust than to draw them in.

It is also a time when imprecision in our biblical theology goes from innocent to dangerous.  For example, how do we reconcile 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1?  The first says that God tempted David to take a census, while the second says that the Satan tempted David to take this very same census.  Unless we want to allow for contradiction, the only solution I can think of is to see a development in theological precision between the earlier Samuel and the later Chronicles.  The New Testament confirms this trajectory of understanding when James 1:13 says that God does not tempt anyone.

It seems an inescapable conclusion that some of what the older parts of the Old Testament ascribe to God’s direct action (like sending an evil spirit on Saul–1 Sam. 16:14) are likely things that God allows rather than directly causes.  Similarly, many parts of the Old Testament–especially the historical books–have a very general sense of good and evil consequence:  those who do good receive prosperity in this life; those who do evil suffer in this life.  In the New Testament especially this view gains precision.  After all, the most righteous man of all–Jesus–dies on a cross.

So a more precise understanding is that God does not directly cause all the bad things that happen.  Further, both good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.  The most accurate view is thus the third one, although with a bias toward the second.  That is to say, unless God gives you a special revelation about the Japan crisis, we must ultimately accept that his will in such events is a mystery.  We must also be confident that he is in control and does what is right.

I will also confess that I have remained with the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition because I cannot make sense of Christianity if God directly causes everything that happens in the world.  The notion that “God is love” seems to become meaningless.  If I have to try to explain how God can be love in a world where pedophiles rape and murder children, the only answer that makes any sense at all is that a world in which God has given us some degree of freedom is a better world than one in which we are slaves to his will.  But if God allows us the freedom to do evil, then some will do evil.

Romans 8:20 tells us that the creation is in the same boat with us.  I can only make sense of things if God has granted the creation some of this same freedom to continue on its course following its laws and the effect of Adam’s sin.  According to those laws, when tectonic plates build up enough pressure, massive earthquakes happen.  And when massive earthquakes happen under water, massive tsunamis happen.  And when people are living nearby, a lot of people are probably going to die.

Jesus warned his audience not to think that God was singling out the 18 who died when a tower fell on them.  “Don’t think they are worse sinners than you,” he said (Luke 13:1-5).  And when Jesus’ disciples assumed a man was blind either because he or his parents had sinned, Jesus corrects them (John 9:1-3).

So how can we make theological sense of these sorts of events in the context of Christian faith?  First, while God’s intentions in relation to such events is ultimately a mystery, given God’s revealed nature it is far more likely that he allows them rather than directly causes them.  But even more importantly, our sense of his revealed nature will lead us to picture his Spirit reaching out to those who are suffering.

Is this not the picture of God we find in Romans 5:10 when it says that Jesus died for us when we were his enemies?  And Jesus did not die only for those who would believe.  He died for everyone, including those who ultimately reject him.  For this reason, we cannot legitimately restrict evangelism–preaching the good news–to saving people’s souls.  Nor can we legitimately distinguish between helping people’s souls and helping people’s bodies.  The good news is one good news, to body and soul, to those who believe and those who do not believe.

  • Keith Campbell

    Great article!