How to Think About Hurricanes (and Other Natural Disasters)
In the past month, three of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the United States in recorded history brought economic devastation, suffering and at least 120 deaths to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and several other states. How should a thoughtful Christian think about hurricanes and other natural disasters? There are several unhelpful ways to think about hurricanes:
- Hurricanes are God’s judgment on particular people for their wickedness.
During Hurricane Katrina, various Christian pastors and televangelists publicly speculated that Katrina was God’s judgment on New Orleans for its wickedness. Lost, of course, in this speculation about what God was up to in Hurricane Katrina was the fact that many of the victims of Katrina were New Orleans’ most vulnerable – the elderly, the disabled, and the poor. On the other hand, notorious Bourbon Street with its seedy bars and strip joints was largely spared. Lost also was the fact that hundreds of New Orleans churches were damaged and many faithful Christians were drowned.
I am aware of no such speculation about Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Perhaps TV preachers are mostly from Texas or Florida. Or perhaps preachers have been sufficiently chastened by the reaction to their Katrina comments. Unfortunately, it’s likely that if San Francisco is finally shaken by a long overdue earthquake, the “this is judgment on them” crowd will be back in force.
We dare not speculate on the secret counsels of God regarding particular tragic events. When Jesus was asked in Luke 13 about some Galileans who were murdered by the bloodthirsty Pontius Pilate, Jesus responded by saying:
2 “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 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? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust alike. Hurricanes and earthquakes happen to Christians and non-Christians alike. We have no basis to speculate on why God allows a natural disaster!
There’s another bad way to think about hurricanes:
- Hurricanes and other natural disasters are a sign that Jesus is coming soon.
One frequently hears the idea that with an uptick in the number of wars or earthquakes or hurricanes, Jesus is returning soon. But here is what Jesus actually said:
Matthew 24:6-7 (NASB)
6 You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes.
Wars and earthquakes and other natural disasters are what I would call the Not Yet signs of the Lord’s return. There is only one great sign that Jesus’ return is near; the preaching of the gospel to every nation. Here’s what Jesus actually said was THE sign of his return:
14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
So, if these are bad ways to think about hurricanes and other natural disasters, what are good ways to think about such things?
- Hurricanes, like all natural disasters, should cause us to examine ourselves and to repent.
Again, in Luke 13, when Jesus was questioned about the murder of some Galileans by Pontius Pilate, Jesus used that as an opportunity to call the questioners to repentance. He said:
2 “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Rather than speculate about other people’s wickedness when disaster strikes, it is always good to examine our own hearts before God and to personally repent for our own sins. After all, we don’t know how long we have left or when a hurricane or a tornado will strike us. It’s always right for us to be ready to face God in judgment.
- The damage caused by “natural disasters” is often exponentially increased by human folly and greed.
We often struggle with God’s goodness as we look at the sheer amount of human suffering. But when we dig in and ask why people suffer, the vast, vast bulk of human suffering is not the result of God’s doing, but the result of our sin – what we human beings do to each other. From the Holocaust to child abuse, from torture to sex trafficking, from war to embezzlement, it’s not God who is doing these terrible things to people. It is we who lie and steal and maim and murder.
You ask: “But what about natural disasters – things like famines and earthquakes and floods? You can’t blame the vast majority of suffering from natural disasters on people. Don’t let God off the hook so easily! All the natural disasters around the world that cause so much suffering, its God who causes all of this suffering, not people.”
I read a powerful book several years ago by Thomas Keneally titled Three Famines: Starvation and Politics. What Keneally did was to detail how famines actually happen. There’s been a revolution of thinking regarding famines. As recently as the mid-1980’s, it was thought that a famine was an “act of God” – a failure of rains, or climate, or pests which destroy crops. But in the 1990s a Nobel Prize-winning economist named Amartya Sen showed this was wrong by proving one clear fact. He said: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”
Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food fairly because an undemocratic government is not accountable to the starving. So Keneally examines three famines. One was the Irish Potato Famine in 1845. The second was the Bengal Famine during World War II in 1943-44. The third were the Ethiopian Famines of the 1970s and 1980s. Even though these famines were scattered across centuries and across continents, Keneally says they all share the same DNA. In every instance of famine, there is a natural trigger, but it is not nearly enough to explain the famine. For example, in Bengal, the crop was only down 5%, yet hundreds of thousands of people starved.
What’s going on? Keneally shows that in each of these famines, political powers did one of three things: they forcibly took food away from the hungry and gave it to other people who already had enough. Second, they sabotaged and vandalized the means of producing food. And third, when people began to starve, the government neglected the starving.
But you might ask: what about other natural disasters like earthquakes? Surely, you can’t blame the suffering inflicted on people in Haiti, for example, on other people.
Nature Magazine, a few years ago, did a piece which analyzed the correlation between government corruption and deaths from earthquakes. What they discovered was, as a general rule across the globe, it is not the strength of an earthquake which determines the number of deaths, but rather the corruption of the government. The authors looked at places where an enormous number of deaths from earthquakes took place around the globe and then considered where each of those places ranked on a study of corruption from Transparency International. Here is what the authors of this Nature article concluded:
83% of those hundreds of thousands of deaths occur in particularly corrupt nations. Put another way, it is likely that most people crushed to death under falling masonry, do so because of corrupt building practices. Corners cut and palms greased to put up homes cheaply end up with coffins being carried to cemeteries.
Scientists believe that the human contribution to climate change has caused the rise of sea levels resulting in vastly more flooding in coastal areas. Climate change also causes higher sea-surface and sub-surface ocean temperatures which results in way more precipitation due to more moisture evaporating from warmer waters. This causes unprecedented rainfalls like that of Hurricane Harvey. In addition, lax zoning laws which permit the paving of marsh land, results in the loss of absorption of surface waters and much greater flooding. All of this is to say that before we blame God for suffering, we may want to consider our own human contribution to the suffering equation.
Finally, the most helpful way for us to think about hurricanes and any other tragic situation is this:
- Hurricanes are an opportunity for us to serve and to relieve the victims’ suffering.
There are hundreds of stories of people racing to Houston in an armada of small fishing boats to pluck people out of flood waters. There are many stories of great heroism and sacrifice. This is where we want to live as a church. Vineyard Columbus is a church that refuses to speculate on the secret counsels of God regarding any particular tragedy. Instead, we simply want to be there to help people, bind up the broken, offer comfort, and help victims rebuild their lives.
To that end, Vineyard Columbus is organizing dozens of work teams and teams of health professionals to assist in providing relief for the victims of Harvey, Irma, and Maria.