Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes and tsunamis—natural disasters slam humankind every year. Did God do that? What does the Bible say? Two different covenants make all the difference—a progressive revelation.
Let’s first look at some biblical verses about God’s creation and his sustaining it (Col. 1:16-17).
Some verses say that God makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust (Matt. 5:45) or gives us our every breath (Acts 17:24-25). One could interpret those verses ultraliterally and conclude that God directly causes every single natural thing that happens, even each raindrop. Some Reformed theologians seem to interpret such verses very, very literally, e.g. Herman Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics in one volume, Baker Academic, 2011, p. 242) and Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, pp. 317-27).
And, yes, anyone who believes in the God who made the heavens and the earth can also believe that he can intervene in his own creation, much like a homeowner can walk into his own house, and work nature miracles or special interventions (Matt. 8:23-27, 14:15-21; 14:25).
A better interpretation of the overarching, biblical theme of God’s providence over his creation is that God ordained secondary causes; in other words, nature follows its course and works without his direct, immediate causes. One theologian rightly observed about God’s omnipotence (all power): omnipotence ≠ omnicausality (J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, vol. 1, Zondervan, 1988, p. 72). This latter word means “all-causality.” This opposes pantheism (God is in nature so deeply that God = nature), as if God does everything in nature. Yes, he spoke the universe into existence about 13.7 billion years ago and currently sustains it, and he decreed the laws of nature, but he also fully gifted nature to have freedom to work by those natural laws. He is distinct from it. God’s omnipotence in creation and God’s perfectly free will means that he is free to act—and even not to act. In relating to humans and his creation, he is free to limit his omnipotence.
So verses like Matt. 5:45 and Acts 17:34-35 and others remind me that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, including planet earth. Those verses are spoken from a nonscientific perspective and merely reaffirm that God is in overall control. I don’t interpret them ultraliterally. Therefore, it is “top-down or macro-management,” not “micro-management” of every detail in nature. Just because God knows and cares for a sparrow that falls to the ground and dies does not mean he’s the one who killed it (Matt. 10:29; Luke 12:36).
Truth be told, however, we will never be able to draw the line between those two concepts—macro- v. micro-management–to everyone’s satisfaction. So whether you personally interpret those verses about God’s providence over nature ultraliterally or not, they are not about God’s justice-judgment-wrath through nature.
Now let’s come to the heart of the question.
The Old Testament says that God directly caused natural disasters to judge people (Gen. 19:1-29; 41:28-32; 1 Kings 8:35-40; Amos 3:6, 4:6-11, 5:8; Is. 19:22; 45:5-7, 54:16-17). For example, God caused the ten plagues in Egypt (Ex. 7:14-11:10). He ordered the earth to swallow up those who accused Moses of lording it over everyone else (Num. 16:31-34). At Elijah’s word, a drought struck the land to judge wicked king Ahab. Elijah later prayed for rain, and God answered him (1 Kings 17:1; 18:41-46; cf. Jas. 5:17-18).
However, let’s take a step back and look at the historical context. God made the Sinai covenant (Ex. 19-25) with his chosen people and claimed a small land as his own and rendered it holy (hence the Holy Land). Some of the terms of the covenant clearly state that God would bring punishment and curses, including natural disasters, if the people repeatedly violated it (Deut. 27:9-26, 28:15-68). And, significantly, he promised mercy when they repented and obeyed it. Those terms are set out specifically for the ancient land of Israel and the Israelites. The curses and disasters come in a narrow and restrictive historical context (even the ten plagues, coming before Sinai and outside Israel, is about God’s chosen people, and the author of Genesis was writing from a post-Sinai point of view). Therefore, we must be very careful about expanding that specific and ancient covenant and its punishments to the whole planet and to all peoples and at all times.
In contrast, the New Testament says that the old Sinai Covenant is obsolete (Heb. 8-10), yet the Scriptures that emerged from it still have relevance, such as some moral laws, and all their promises and blessings (2 Cor. 1:20), but the curses and old punishments are not retained (Gal. 3:13). The terms of the New Covenant are different and better. The entire Bible is a progressive revelation. Revealingly, in the New Covenant Scriptures (the New Testament), which reinterprets and filters the Old, it is impossible to find where God directly brought about an earthquake or a drought or a famine and so on to punish people. And even when a famine was predicted, God was not stated to be the direct cause (Acts 11:27-30), unlike during the time of Joseph, when God was said to have caused a famine in Egypt (Gen. 41:28-32). It is his mercy to forewarn of disasters, so people can be prepared.
A clearer interpretation of the entire Bible teaches us that God is omniscient, but just because he knows something in advance does not necessarily mean he caused it throughout the entire planet. Let’s not confuse and conflate God’s foreknowledge and his causation, as some (strong) Calvinist theologians seem to do. Better: It is not omnicausality. Remember the sparrow that fell to the ground and died? God did not cause its death. It followed the laws of its nature, and sparrows don’t live forever.
Yes, at the very end of the age, natural disasters will happen on a literally earth-shattering scale (Matt. 24:27-29; Luke 21:11), but even they are not said to come about by God’s direct cause. However, even if, hypothetically, God were to directly cause the stars to “fall” from the sky, the heavenly bodies to be shaken, and the sun to burn out, those events also happen in a unique and unprecedented context, for then immediately the Messiah will return and renovate the entire heavens and earth. Those signs signal a new era. Then God will directly judge peoples from all places and all times and forever. He will be the final and ultimate law enforcer.
Now what about the wrath of God before the end of the age? In this present Church Age (Acts 2:1-4), God currently uses law enforcement, which carries out (just) laws, to implement his justice-judgment-wrath (Rom. 13:4). Progressive revelation.
At this point, we can ask that if God is perfectly free but chooses not intervene to stop all (or even some) natural disasters, then how can he be considered good? The reply is that granting us an abundance of reasoning power, God expects us to use our heads in order to fight or resist or prepare for natural disasters, as Japan is doing; the authorities are now reinforcing their nation’s shorelines and have for years been retrofitting their buildings with earthquake resistance foundations. Exactly right. What’s wrong with a storm shelter dug in the ground at each home in tornado alley? We know what nature is like now. We must prepare for it.
Is there any redemptive purpose in nature-caused disasters? After they happen, God can use them, which is different from causing them, to stir up people to think about their mortality, the afterlife, final judgment, and God (Luke 13:4-5). They are wakeup calls, and it is best to listen to them only in that sense, but not to over-interpret them as God’s judgment and punishment—for now.
In the time of outreach and evangelism, God does not directly send and cause natural disasters to judge people, like the 2011 tsunami to punish the Japanese or the recent hurricane to take revenge on the Floridians or impose wrath on the fire victims in California, both in 2018. God does not work like that today.
Rather, God is calling everyone to receive the gospel—the good news, not the bad news—and come into right relationship with him through Christ.
And when natural disasters happen, let’s work to help people with their basic needs of food, water, clothing, and shelter and teach them to prepare for the next one, not point the finger of judgment at them.