Judgment, grace, and natural disasters

Earthquake damaged houseRecord drought in California. Record flooding in Louisiana. Earthquake in Italy. Insurance companies call these and other natural disasters “acts of God.”

Is God trying to tell us something?

Someone, it seems, always comes out of the woodwork to say that a particular disaster God’s judgment on—take your pick—homosexuality, abortion, taking prayer out of schools, or whatever other issue riles them.

It’s not.

Jesus made some relevant comments about other calamities

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” –Luke 13:1-5, ESV

But let’s not entirely dismiss the idea of God using disasters in judgment. The question deserves more serious attention than I have seen it get.

Natural disasters in the Old Testament

Noah's flood subsiding

The Subsiding Waters of the Deluge / Thomas Cole, 1829

The Mosaic covenant contains a curse for breaking it. In fact, it has two very graphic descriptions of what would happen to Israel if they turned to other gods. See Leviticus 25:14-46 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68.

Israel promptly turned to other gods. The curse came to its culmination in the time of Jeremiah.

Some people fled to Egypt and forced Jeremiah to join them. He denounced their unfaithfulness and met with the same response he had gotten all his life.

Then all the men who knew that their wives had made offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah:

 “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem.

For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”

 And the women said, “When we made offerings to the queen of heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, was it without our husbands’ approval that we made cakes for her bearing her image and poured out drink offerings to her?” – Jeremiah 44:15-19, ESV

The queen of heaven refers to a Canaanite goddess worshiped also in Babylon and Egypt. Not the Virgin Mary!

A generation earlier, King Josiah had put a forcible end to Baal worship, but the people did not return to the Lord. And now they essentially blamed Josiah that famine and sword had come.

Yet from the time of Moses onward, God and his prophets included famine and other natural disasters as consequences of serving other gods. God pronounced his judgment, and it came just as he said.

Natural disasters in the New Testament

storm -- natural disastersChrist has redeemed us (believers) from the curse of the law.

He has not redeemed us from the consequences of our sin or the sin of the world. We live in a war zone, a war between God and Satan. And we’re all born into Satan’s kingdom.

It’s worth recalling what Jesus answered when the disciples asked about a man born blind if he had sinned or his parents (John 9:1-3).

Neither had sinned to cause his blindness. Jesus was in no mood to get sidetracked into a theological discussion, but in fact, Adam’s sin sufficiently explains every kind of calamity.

Jesus also said that in the end times there will be famines, earthquakes, wars, and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6-8). What generation before or since has not experienced these signs?

Jesus as much as said that when he returns, everything will be business as usual on earth. Including really bad weather and unstable ground.

So do natural disasters signal God’s judgment in the New Testament?

In Revelation the seven seal judgments and seven trumpet judgments include natural disasters. And after the sixth trumpet, it says in Revelation 9:19-21 that the people on account of whom the judgments came refused to repent. Jeremiah 44 will repeat itself.

Where people go wrong today is in seeing gross sin in society, seeing a particular disaster, and assuming a connection. But Jesus has said the people who suffer are not worse sinners than those who don’t. In fact, believers suffer as much as their sinful neighbors.

The fact that we live in such a dangerous world, where so many people suffer harm so suddenly, indicates God’s judgment on Adam’s sin. But if a particular disaster indicates any particular judgment, he doesn’t say. What he hasn’t revealed is none of our business.

Where’s the grace?

Adam's skull on Calvary. God's grace

Adam’s skull on Calvary / Fra Angelico, ca. 1435

Where the Bible describes judgment, grace is never far away.

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. – 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10, ESV

In v. 4, persecutions refer to assaults on believers for their faith, but afflictions refer to all kinds of unrelated problems. Including natural disasters. And when can we expect relief from persecution and affliction? In v. 7, Paul says when Jesus returns.

In other words, not in this lifetime.

Meanwhile, when our faith and love grows, it’s by grace. That God will someday take vengeance on the unrighteous and spare the saints is grace. That anyone will marvel at Christ’s return and not shrink back in terror is grace.

So let’s recognize that God is judge. And let’s recognize that by grace, he will judge some people worthy of the kingdom.

Let’s respond to grace by preaching Jesus Christ at all times, regardless of what we suffer. And as St. Francis of Assisi said, when necessary, use words.

Photo credits:
Earthquake-damaged house. Some rights reserved by Martin Luff
Subsiding waters. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Storm. Some rights reserved by MSG Family.
Adam’s skull. Public domain.

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