Theology in 3D

Natural Disasters and the New Testament Theology

Greg Stiekes | September 11, 2017
New Testament

Classic discussions about the paradox of evil in the world, given the Bible’s claim that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator governs all things, generally proceed on the grounds that evil originates from one of two sources. Evil comes from wicked people and evil comes from so-called natural disasters. On this day, ironically, the attention of millions of people in our nation is riveted upon evil events from both sources. While we pause to remember and honor those who died at the hands of malicious terrorists in the devastating attacks on 9/11 sixteen years ago, hurricane Irma is ravaging the coast of Florida, leaving a path of death and destruction in its wake.

In some ways, the malevolent acts of wicked people are easier to explain than catastrophes of violent weather, shifting tectonic plates, and fatal diseases. For the Bible is clear that humans are fallen creatures who act according to their own volition, while God is not the source of sin (James 1:131 John 1:5). In the case of malicious human acts, therefore, our inquiry into God’s purposes leads us to ask merely why God would “allow” such things to take place under his control. But when it comes to natural disasters, there is no intervening human volition between the catastrophe and God’s sovereign control to mitigate the claim that God is responsible. Moreover, God does not dodge this bullet. Instead, he declares:

I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things (Isa 45:6c–7).

Because God claims responsibility for calm as well as for calamity in his creation, there are many who try to assign to God a particular motive during major events that destroy property and claim lives. In fact, a September 8 Washington Post article has already reported on the predictable claims made by religious celebrities who argue that hurricanes Harvey and Irma are acts of divine judgment on liberal agendas such as pro-choice and gay marriage. But theologically savvy evangelicals refuse to be taken in by this kind of hype. They will counter, sometimes by appealing to the words of Jesus in Luke 13. In the opening of this chapter, someone in the crowd is commenting to Jesus about fatal events that befell some of their countrymen, ostensibly insinuating that God had judged them.  In response, Jesus recalls the tragedy of eighteen Jews who died when the tower in Siloam fell. “Do you think that [those who died] were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” he asks. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5). So, in the worldview of Jesus of Nazareth a natural tragedy is not necessarily an act of God’s judgment on the worst sinners. Rather, tragedy in the world is a harbinger of final judgment, putting the world on high alert that judgment is coming upon all who have not turned to Christ.

Beyond this teachable moment in the ministry of Jesus, however, what does the New Testament tell us about natural disasters that occur in everyday life and how to process them?

There are several references to great destruction on the earth. Peter says that the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements (stoicheia) of the earth will burn up (2 Pet 3:1012). Jesus himself refers to earthquakes, famine, and pestilence (Luke 21:11; par. Matt 24:7Mark 13:8). And, of course, the prophetic book of Revelation foretells a level of natural disaster and catastrophe that is almost unimaginable. But all of these examples speak of the judgment of God on the earth in the Eschaton.

When it comes to the New Testament’s teaching on how believers should respond to natural disasters before the Lord returns to judge the earth (Acts 17:312 Tim 4:1), however, there is little we have to rely upon from the New Testament authors. Why are they largely silent on this topic? Is our tendency to demand answers regarding catastrophic events a modern idea? Perhaps, at least in comparison to the more resigned worldview of the past. Those in ancient times did not think the same that we do in the modern West. For example, they could not survive in the world apart from their family and community connections. As a result, they thought about how their choices benefited the community, not as much as we to today about how the decisions of the community impacted them personally. This view of culture and society may have played a role in how the ancients processed natural disasters also. In two rare accounts, we get a glimpse into how ancient people processed disasters beyond their control. According to Thucydides, who survived the terrible plagues of the late fifth century BC, the men of Athens were urged in a passionate speech, “Cease … to grieve for your private afflictions, and address yourselves to instead to the safety of the commonwealth,” for “the hand of heaven must be borne with resignation” (Peloponnesian War, 2.61). In the first century, Pliny the Younger, fleeing from the fires of Vesuvius that claimed the life of his uncle, does not question the gods or reflect upon the meaning of this eruption, though he thought the world might be ending. He simply recounts the events as he knew they happened, in a reserved manner (Letters of Pliny, 16).

Nevertheless, the apostle Paul lifts back the curtain and satisfies our modern criticisms with a glimpse that helps to explain the presence of natural disasters. “For we know,” says Paul, “that all the creation groans together and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom 8:22). The use of birth pains to denote the suffering in the world through natural disasters is unique in the NT, but Jesus himself uses the verb in a similar manner in Mark 13:8 (par. Matt 24:8) when he refers to the earthquakes and famines of the Eschaton as “the beginning of birth pangs.”

Note the universal impact of Paul’s claim. “All” creation groans “together” and suffers “together.” And the suffering is ongoing. We tend to deliberate about God’s purposes in a single event such as a hurricane or an earthquake or a tsunami. But the truth is, the whole world is always groaning in pain every day. Even as Irma was destroying towns in Cuba this past weekend, Mexico reported a major earthquake, communities in eastern Texas are still under water from the massive flooding caused by hurricane Harvey, and in the Pacific Northwest wildfires are raging out of control.

As Richard Dawkins has famously observed, “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored…. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 1996, p. 132).

Even an avowed atheist such as Dawkins is able to recognize groaning and birth pains when he sees them. But his perception falls short of reality when he says that there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” The theology of the New Testament tells a different story. The depressing state of the creation is governed by the sovereign design and wise purposes of the Creator. In the verses leading up to his description of the groaning earth, Paul explains, “ For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:20–21, ESV). The divine passive verb, “was subjected” points to God who “placed the world under” this “futility” or emptiness that Dawkins and all of us can see. Paul no doubt is drawing his theology from God’s curse on the earth in Gen 3:17, the holy response of a righteous God to Adam’s sin. When God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground for your sake” (Gen 3:17), God himself is the one who cursed it, or judged it (cf. Gen 5:29).

When natural disasters occur upon the earth, they remind us that the earth has been subjected, not necessarily to specific acts of God’s judgment on specific people, but to judgment in general. Yet, as Paul says, when God subjected this world to futility, he did so “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from bondage to corruption.” Here we may see evidence of Paul’s reading Gen 3:15—“Her seed shall bruise your head, but you shall bruise his heel”—as a message of hope. For Paul anticipates the fact that the days of God’s judgment will finally culminate and come to an end because of the victorious work of Christ.

How do we live, then, in the fact of present hardships because we are living on a groaning earth? We live, the New Testament teaches, in anticipation of that great day when the earth will be released from its futility. As the Scriptures teach, we endure in hope. We bear patiently, by God’s grace, the burdens of a world under judgment. For God knows that the temporary nature of our suffering in comparison to the eternal glory to follow will steel us against the storms. As Paul begins his brief discussion on the groaning of the world, we are urged to “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Even as a mother is able to endure the birth pains, in part because of the anticipation of the great joy to follow, so we suffer and endure with growing anticipation of our greatest joy.


One response to “Natural Disasters and the New Testament Theology”

  1. Randy Jaeggli says:

    Thanks for the spot-on analysis of disaster. This matter of “futility” (Greek, mataiotes) in Rom. 8:20-21 ties in with the Hebrew concept of hebel in the book of Ecclesiastes. Every time Solomon uses hebel (“vanity”), the LXX translates with mataiotes. Everything is hebel, and it is all a result of man’s sin. Thanks for pointing us to anticipate the time when God restores everything.

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