In the wake of hurricane Harvey and Irma, folks have been publicly linking the storms’ destruction to supernatural judgment. The idea seems to be more accepted when framed in terms from Eastern mysticism (“karma”) and left-wing politics, and condemned when framed in terms of Christianity.
— Raw Story (@RawStory) September 8, 2017
— Bipartisan Report (@Bipartisanism) September 11, 2017
54 out of 58 Republican Texas legislators voted against relief for Hurricane Sandy. Let that sink in as their karma comes home to roost. https://t.co/9abH9nUvCS
— Michelle Lemley (@thepublicstrust) September 1, 2017
Here's Pence quoting Matthew 7:25 while urging Congress not to fund Katrina relief effort. Can't get any more phony. pic.twitter.com/wiEPkhlI1a
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) August 30, 2017
Because of you. we exposed Ken Storey and he was fired for saying the hurricane Harvey victims were just receiving karma. pic.twitter.com/m9y79VmJc3
— #ThePersistence (@ScottPresler) September 3, 2017
That was a sampling of karma tweets. On the flip side, some resurrected a story as an occasion to gloat about Christianity’s apparent idiocy. Last year, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins’ home was flooded in southern Louisiana. In a similar vein as these liberal karma-pronouncers, Perkins has publicly said that natural disasters are related to sins such as adultery, abortion, and gay sex, but he’s largely met scorn for making that connection, and he meets that scorn now after every hurricane.
Guy who says God sends natural disasters to punish gays has his home destroyed in a natural disaster – DeadState https://t.co/FVfKmt6PVo
— Scott Greenberger (@sgreenberger) August 31, 2017
Hurricanes are like a divining rod for gay people. It's science.
— Tom Murphy (@tgagemurphy) August 30, 2017
Besides the PC frame going on here that defines right and wrong entirely within the narrow confines of liberal politics, there are some other curiosities. A big one is the replacement of politics with morality. Within the traditional Christian frame, politics is largely considered the realm of prudence. There are no definite biblical answers about what are precisely the right tax rates or trade policies, or appropriate billions to spend on hurricane cleanup and from what institutions. Christians are free to decide those practical matters through their available political and civic institutions, such as a parliament, the U.S. Congress, charities, and insurance and labor markets.
It is not necessarily a sin to support high tax rates, nor to oppose a welfare state. Therefore God would not send a hurricane or any other evil to punish red or blue states as such, nor for opposing (or supporting) climate-change legislation or federal disaster spending.
But there are definite biblical answers about what actions are sins that do incur God’s wrath, both in this world and eternity. These include gay sex, the murder of children in their mother’s wombs, divorce, slander, theft, unfaithfulness to one’s spouse or children, and worshipping any god but Jesus Christ and the holy Trinity of which he is a part. Although some protest otherwise, these are all plain-text readings of the Bible and reinforced by thousands of years of church scholarship and theology.
The Bible also makes it very clear that natural disasters are a direct consequence of sin, such as those listed above. So, in one sense, it is accurate to say Christianity does teach that “gay sex causes hurricanes,” that “divorce causes hurricanes” and “theft causes hurricanes,” or insert whatever sin you want because they all cause hurricanes, no one more or less, as all comprise rebellion against the Creator. Yet theodicy — reconciling God’s goodness with the existence of evil — is much, much more complicated than such sneering reductionism.
Here’s a Basic Rundown of the Christian Gospel
Christianity teaches that we all have sinned, and the consequence of our sin is the eternal torture of the complete absence of everything good. Although we all have favorite sins to love and hate, we have all committed enough to deserve eternal punishment. We are all damned, whether for gay sex or gossip. It is an equal sentence and equally offensive to every person because to some extent we all refuse to believe any suffering or judgment we endure could be just. That is part of our rebellion against God, a refusal to accept his statements of fact concerning our spiritual condition.
That is the bad news, the really bad news. Nobody truly likes to hear it, which is why denial of it is so widespread and so severe. But it is necessary to hear and believe this bad news to be rescued from the eternal judgment we deserve. We must know the diagnosis in order to treat the disease. Otherwise there is no point. There is no salvation if there is no sin.
Our rebellion against God affects the natural world because God gave humans the responsibility to care for the earth. It is our world, and just like parents’ sins hurt their children, humankind’s sins hurt creation. Because everyone has sinned and is therefore damned, we and all the world God gave us to care for, in his mercy God sent his son Jesus Christ to absorb and relieve our damnation. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” His death ended for eternity the punishments God justly visits upon sinners.
So why does evil still exist? Why do people still get cancer, and die in hurricanes, and lose their homes and families? Christianity teaches that we persist in this messed-up world, whose misery we are all responsible for, so that everyone may have the opportunity to hear God’s word, believe it, and therefore be saved for eternity in a perfect new world when our sick world is destroyed forever with fire. Everyone will not be saved, but everyone will have had the opportunity to be saved. We’re still here because that hasn’t happened yet. It may not make sense, but humans cannot possibly do calculus about the sum total of evil in the world versus the sum total potential for eternal good that comes from bearing it for yet a bit longer. God can.
The Cause and Effect Is Still Somewhat Mysterious
Obviously, lots of people don’t accept this account as true. But it is a basic account of what orthodox Christianity teaches. Where fundamentalist types, the kind the media likes to call out for their brash and narrow statements about things like this, sometimes go wrong is the same place several folks did in biblical conversations with Jesus. He corrected their simplistic thinking about the cause and effect between sin and a specific event or malady.
In the Bible’s book of John, chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind. They ask him, “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Then Jesus goes on to heal the man’s blindness.
A similar event occurs in Luke chapter 13, when some people ask Jesus about local news. Pilate, the Roman governor of the area Jews lived in, had killed some Galileans at worship. Jesus tells the people, “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.”
In both of these scenarios, Jesus makes it quite clear that all evil happenings are not a direct result of the sins of those affected. This does not mean that specific sins do not cause bad consequences; my pastor gave an example of someone who smokes and eats poorly all his life then has poor health in old age. That is a natural consequence of not caring for one’s body, a sin. Another might be that someone who has a habit of rage alienates his family and friends, or that someone who sleeps around contracts STDs. These are natural consequences to evil behavior.
But not all evil consequences can be directly traced to specific evil behavior. The people of Houston and of Texas and of Florida are not uniquely evil. It’s pretty improbable to the point of falsehood that only the kinds of sins the religious right dislikes most are those at fault for any hurricane. We are all culpable for the evils that happen to us and to our fellow man. The cause and effect for natural disasters is part of the world’s mystery. They are too far beyond our comprehension, and in that aspect they participate in the nature of God himself. Understanding the supernatural is only something we are given in bits and pieces. The rest we must wait until eternity to learn.
What to Do When You Witness an Act of God
There’s another wonderful biblical scene in which God personally makes this reality clear to a human. It’s in the mysterious but wonderful book of Job. In this book, a host of horrible things have happened to what people think is a good man — Job. All his children have been killed in natural disasters, his home has been destroyed, all his wealth is stolen and lost. His body is afflicted with horrifying sicknesses, and his wife tells him to “Curse God and die.”
Nobly, he refuses. But he also laments. He asks God what we all ask when terrible things happen: Why are you doing this to me? I’m a good person! After letting Job and his friends pontificate for many chapters in attempting to assign specific blame for these evils, largely making asses of themselves, God himself comes down and lets Job have it. He essentially tells Job he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He can’t even understand basic things about the world, like how the weather or a dinosaur works, let alone make these great things: “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?”
Then Job does a remarkable thing. Rather than getting angry and scornful at God for being so incomprehensible and apparently unjust, Job humbly accepts that he’s been a great fool. In response, God heals him and restores his family and property.
I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
An act of God is not a time to point fingers, to demand answers, or least of all to erupt in scorn. It is a time for us all to repent in dust and ashes. That is the only true path towards restoration, both temporally between neighbors and eternally with God.