Were the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile judgments from God? Or how about the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004? Or Hurricane Katrina in 2005? It seems as if every time there is a major disaster, some religious pundit gives God the credit—or the blame.
So is God quick to inflict disaster? Doesn’t He care when innocent people suffer? Is God a terrorist who strikes both good people and bad people without warning?
This sort of opining-after-the-fact comes across as self-righteous, and it paints God as a tyrant. It leads many people to reject the God of the Bible as unfair, vengeful, and ready to destroy human life at any moment. It’s easy, simply reading through the Bible, to get the idea that God is constantly inflicting disaster on human beings. But it’s important to keep in mind that the Old Testament covers thousands of years, so judgments upon the wicked are rare. Nevertheless, there are stories in the Bible about God inflicting natural disasters on the earth, so it’s important that we examine some of these to see what lessons they may have for us as we contemplate the disasters that strike our planet today.
The Flood of Noah. The first biblical record of a judgment from God is the story of the Flood. And the first question that arises in our minds is, Why would a loving God destroy an entire global population of human beings—whom He Himself had created? The Bible gives the answer. Describing the world before the Flood, it says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. . . . ‘The earth is filled with violence’ ” (Genesis 6:11, 13). In our modern world, we lock up violent people as a protection to society. But what happens if the entire social order has become violent? That apparently was the case before the Flood. As God looked down on the earth, He saw that human beings had become so wicked that He was sorry He even created them! Violence was one of their most defining characteristics, and God’s solution was to destroy the world.
But first He commanded His servant Noah to build a large boat, called an “ark,” in which anyone who wished could be saved. Then He gave Noah 120 years to tell the people what was coming. Unfortunately, in the end, only Noah and his family chose to enter the ark.
From this story we learn two important lessons about the natural disasters that God causes. First, He warns people about the disaster ahead of time, and second, He provides a way of escape.
Sodom and Gomorrah. We see these same lessons in the story about God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, two very wicked cities at the time of Abraham. According to the story in the Bible, God sent two angels to Sodom to warn the people of His plan to destroy the city, but instead of accepting the warning, the citizens tried to attack the angels. Lot protected them, and they spent the night with him and his family. The next morning, they hurried Lot and his family out of the city just before it was destroyed. Again, we see that God gave a warning and provided a way of escape, but the people refused to accept it. Because of Lot’s relationship to Abraham, the angels took him and his family out of the city almost against their will.
There’s another lesson in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I will begin by giving you a simple test of your Bible knowledge. True or false: Abraham prayed for the destruction of Sodom. The answer, of course, is false. Abraham prayed that God would spare Sodom. The Bible says that Abraham approached God and said, “ ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ The Lord said, ‘If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake’ ” (Genesis 18:23–26).
From this we learn that it only takes a few good people in a population to spare the entire population from destruction.
The story of Job. The first two chapters in the biblical story of Job help us to understand something else about God’s relationship to disaster, though in this case the disaster was to a single individual and his family. The story begins with a conversation between God and Satan. God considers Job to be one of His most faithful servants, but Satan challenges Him on that. Of course, Job serves You! Satan says in effect. Look how You’ve blessed him! He has 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 1,000 oxen, and 500 donkeys! Job is a wealthy man! Then comes Satan’s challenge, Take all that away, and Job will curse You to Your face.
So God says to Satan, Go ahead. Take it all away from him. Just don’t touch his body.
Within 24 hours, Job’s wealth is wiped out. Yet through all this loss of wealth, Job maintains his loyalty to God.
So Satan comes back to God and says, OK, Job was loyal to You even though he lost all his wealth, but let me touch his body, and he will curse You to Your face!
So God says, Go ahead. Harm him physically. Just spare his life.
Soon Job breaks out with boils all over his body. The pain is so excruciating that his wife says, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” Throughout most of the rest of the book, four of Job’s friends (if we can call them that) keep insisting that his suffering is God’s punishment for his sinfulness. But Job maintains his loyalty to God.
For our purpose in this article, the point of the story is that Job’s suffering was caused by Satan, not by God. This is an extremely important point to note as we consider the causes of the natural disasters that strike our planet.
The story of Jonah. Jonah gives us the story of a judgment from God that did not take place. This story reveals more about the heart of God than all the other stories about His judgments in the Bible. Jonah is an Israelite prophet, and God tells him to go to Nineveh and warn its inhabitants that their city will be destroyed in 40 days. Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian nation and a very wicked city. The Assyrians were a cruel people who were responsible for the capture, deportation, and enslavement of the northern tribes of Israel.
Jonah is afraid to go to Nineveh and actually takes a boat across the Mediterranean in the opposite direction! You no doubt know the rest of the story: God causes a great storm to arise, the sailors throw Jonah in the sea, he gets swallowed by a big fish (the Bible does not call it a whale), and the fish spits him out onto dry land. Again, God commands Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that their city is about to be destroyed, and this time Jonah cooperates. And the people respond. They repent, and the city is spared.
Jonah was angry with God when the city was not destroyed, but God said, “ ‘Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?’ ” (Jonah 4:11). Apparently God not only had compassion on the people but on their cattle as well!
Contrary to some people’s perception of the Old Testament God, Ezekiel quotes God as saying, “ ‘ “As surely as I live, . . . I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” ’ ” (Ezekiel 33:11; emphasis added).
What we learn
We learn several lessons from these biblical stories about natural disasters. First, from the story of Job, we learn that Satan rather than God is often the cause of disasters. However, when human beings reach a certain point in their evil ways, God may solve the problem by bringing about a natural disaster that destroys them. But if the disaster truly is from God, He will warn the people ahead of time. If they repent and change their evil ways, He may change His mind and refuse to bring about the disaster. If the people as a whole do not repent, He will provide a way for those who are loyal to Him to escape.
But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from these Bible stories is that that it is not our business to pass judgment on the victims of a disaster. They have enough suffering to deal with right then. They don’t need us blaming them for the disaster. As Christians, rather than condemning them, we should be doing all we can to help them.
The Bible warns that in the final days of earth’s history evil will once again become rampant. The worst earthquake of all time—an earthquake that will shake the entire planet—lies just before us. This earthquake will be so terrible that the world’s mountains will flatten and the islands in the sea will disappear (Revelation 6:14; 16:18–20). However, God is already warning the world of this terrible calamity. He is calling on people everywhere to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7).
The key question—as with all of the disasters that God Himself causes—is how we will respond. His invitation still stands. What is your answer?