Does God cause tornadoes? Is His snarling face glaring through the eye of the hurricane? Does He stomp the sea to stir up a tsunami?
The recent spate of tornadoes in the US South and Midwest conjures these sorts of questions in our minds.
I just realized that one of the searches that lead someone to my blog was this question: “did god create tornadoes?”
A sobering search. Maybe that person has just been watching the news. But maybe she just lost a child to the violent suction of a storm.
The dual experiences of pastoral ministry and writing a book on cynicism have led me to have to think seriously about what disillusions us in our faith. A pressing questions I have spent some time wrestling with is the degree to which God is behind these natural disasters. How “natural” are they?
My conviction is that something is tragically distorted in our reading of Scripture if we have an over-simplified theological response that looks like this:
God’s Providence + Natural Disasters = God Causes All Death-Wreaking Tornadoes/Earthquakes/Tsunamis/Etc.
If you want to see my theological wrestling over this stuff, you can check out the links below. An all-satisfying answer you will not find. But maybe we can think through this difficult stuff together…
Our church met outside last Sunday. Power was still out. The sermon was delivered from the flatbed of an 18-wheeler. Behind our pastor’s head was a scarred landscape. A crude notch had been etched into the vista. Stems of trees with shredded tips stood feebly within earshot of the sermon. With an occasional gentle breeze on our faces, we were sitting atop the recent path of a deforesting vortex.
“Why did God make that tornado, Daddy?” This came from my six-year old son. He doesn’t know yet that you are supposed to table questions of that character and file them away somewhere in the subconscious.
Singing praise choruses Sunday morning while eyeing the splintered tips of tree stems was awkward for me. The debris of a natural disaster has a way of squeezing those tabled questions up from out of the subconscious. These trees were not clapping their hands to our songs. Their hands had been taken.
While our nation rejoices over one individual’s death, there seems to be a lot of grieving left undone for the many deaths in the Southeast. The tornadoes that tore up my church’s campus were nothing compared to those that came later that evening. The big one that came through Tuscaloosa and into neighborhoods north of Birmingham left a swath of threshed trees, crunched up houses and splayed open buildings. People are still missing.
While driving around after the first batch of tornadoes Wednesday morning, a pleasant, happy aroma caught my attention. The smell of Christmas. The smell of pine. But Christmas was months ago….
“Why did God make that tornado, Daddy?”
While sitting in the worship service on Sunday, my pastor preaching on a flatbed truck, his voice echoing off decapitated trees with no hands to clap, no limbs to catch the breeze, I wrestled with my son’s unanswerable question.
As I wrote in a previous post, God spoke out of a tornado to Job. But when Elijah witnessed rock-splitting wind, raging fires and an earthquake, the biblical narrator of 1 Kings is explicitly clear that God was not in them. Did God make the tornadoes last week? Was He in His meteorological lab concocting a volatile mix of warm and cold air, tweaking atmospheric moisture content and toying with air pressure before uncorking the vial and spilling it on my state?
The beheaded trees positioned in the choir loft on the makeshift stage behind my pastor served as a reminder: creation needs salvation.
To identify God with natural disasters is to tinker with pantheism. Christians are theists which includes the affirmation that as Creator, God is distinct from creation. He most certainly uses creation as an arena that displays his wonders. An artist is bound to her artistry in a mysterious, perhaps even mystical way. But the art is still distinct from the artist.
Paul writes in Romans 8 that creation is groaning. Just as human beings, plagued by sin, are scanning the horizon longing for a savior, so also are the hills that form the horizon.
The grass is longing for the weight of the footfalls of a redeemer.
A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that most “white evangelical Protestants” see natural disasters as signs from God. Would we view an act of murder by a human being as a sign from God? Human beings are part of creation, yet when a man commits a violent crime, we usually blame the man, not God. Humans are sin-damaged and sin-corrupted. Of course we hurt and injure. We need saving. When nature commits violence, however, we are usually a bit quicker to blame God. But the sky and the shrubs, the tectonic plates and the ozone layer—they too are sin-damaged. Creation lacks moral will, but it stills churns and quakes under the sickness of sin. Of course it hurts and injures. It, too, needs saving.
Our Bibles open with a presentation of God as Creator. Our Bibles close with the presentation of God as Re-Creator. The tree in the midst of the river in New Creation will have limbs to catch the breeze, and hands to clap for the Savior. Creation needs salvation. It is coming. Over the horizon… and for the horizon.
After providing links to my articles on God & Natural Disasters in the previous post, I found myself in the lower belly of my home with my wife and kids listening to one of those outdated relics from a bygone era—a “boom box.” We were tracking the weather reports. “Tornadic,” said the meteorologist.
Do you hear the violence tucked into the syllabic sounds as you enunciate the word?
Definition: “relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a tornado.”
So with three online articles about God and natural disasters circling about in cyberspace, these God-awful storms circled and twirled and tilled and killed in the Southeast. The lady sitting near my table at a coffee shop just said she lost a friend to the storms.
The God I worship once spoke to a man from out of a tornado. When God answered Job’s demands for an answer, God did not speak in the sweet, gentle whisper of a comforting breeze. He spoke out of the churning, feral madness of a whirlwind (Job 38:1).
I am not saying God was in the whirlwinds last night. But as a guy with articles offering a theological response to natural disasters on the Internet and tornadic winds rip-roaring just to the north and south of my home, I felt kind of responsible… responsible to give an account of sorts. Responsible to say something wise and theologically helpful in response to the whirlwinds.
I think I’ll just do what Job did and lay my hand on my mouth… now.
(…while muttering though closing lips a prayer for the injured and the bereaved…)