Assigning theological blame

October 6, 2005 at 11:10 pm Leave a comment

So, Hurricane Katrina.

There seems to be some confusion or indecisiveness from a theological point of view about how to explain the hurricane (or any other natural disaster, for that matter). So far, I’ve heard responsibility attributed to the following sources:

1. God

According to this explanation, the hurricane was sent from God as a judgment on New Orleans. Supposedly, it is a punishment for the city’s wickedness and a warning to all to return to God. Biblical support for this idea comes from verses that suggest God controls natural phenomena, as well as from stories about God’s judgment on various peoples in the past, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, or Nineveh, or the world population at the time of Noah’s flood.

2. Satan

As a logical alternative to God being the perpetrator, it is suggested that natural disasters like hurricanes are the work of Satan, who presumably has power to send afflictions to those who live on the earth. This sort of view would imply that Hurricane Katrina is more a random act of violence than a specific judgment or warning from God.

Such an explanation draws support from the story of Job, where responsibility for Job’s afflictions is clearly ascribed to the devil and not to God. Other support for this explanation might come from the New Testament, which sometimes suggests that the Christian life consists of warring against “principalities and powers,” implying that forces contrary to God are decidedly at work in this world.

3. Natural consequences of sin

In lieu of an active instigator, the alternative is that disasters like hurricanes have purely natural causes—that they are simply the expected result of thousands of years of sin. Those who advocate this view recognize that sin has inherent repercussions (cf. James 1:15), and that even though hurricanes might be a consequence of sin, they are not necessarily artificially imposed by a personal agent. In other words, God and evil forces are not directly responsible for hurricanes any more than either one is responsible for why we get burned when we touch a hot stove.

So it seems to me that we have a bit of a theological dilemma—the problem of consequences, you might say: Are they artificially imposed by God Himself? Are they the result of an evil force at work in our world? Or are they natural?

It is ironic to me that most people automatically (and authoritatively) jump to one or the other explanation, while seeming to completely ignore the other two. I get the feeling most people are not consciously aware of the fact that the Bible gives varying views on the subject. But perhaps we should be more aware, considering each of the three views is biblical, despite the fact that all of them offer radically different—and seemingly contradictory—explanations for the evils that befall us.

Personally, the idea that God is responsible is the hardest for me to accept. For one thing, this notion ignores the role of Satan as outlined in the Bible. It also implies that God is somewhat arbitrary, in the sense that it suggests that consequences for sin are artificial. This implication leads to the question of whether or not there would actually be any consequences for sin if God didn’t arbitrarily step in to make our lives miserable when we disobey Him.

An additional difficulty with the view that God is responsible is that we humans are—not surprisingly—inconsistent and arbitrary about how and when we resort to God as an explanation for such events. (We suggest, for example, that Hurricane Katrina was a judgment on the city’s wickedness, but we’re hard pressed to say the same about Hurricane Rita. See the second half of this post for some excellent commentary on this point.)

I lean toward the third view, the naturalistic one. I am convinced that sin does have inherent consequences, and that God only labeled certain actions as “sins” because they are inherently harmful (not because He decided to punish us when we cross His arbitrary will). It is entirely within reason, in my mind, that sin so drastically affects God-ordained harmony that it can naturally result in such atrocities as hurricanes.

That said, I don’t think it’s right to entirely discount the works of God and Satan in such phenomena. All three explanations have important elements that the other two miss, all three have significant biblical backing, and all three contribute in an important way to an understanding of exactly how sin’s consequences work.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

For Alex: Musings on divine sovereignty Announce it to the world, shall we?

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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