Whenever major natural disasters strike, inevitably public comments are issued by religious and/or political leaders that attempt to make sense of the tragedy by explaining it as an act of divine retribution. Pat Robertson famously attributed the earthquake in Haiti last year to a “pact with the devil” made by Haitians over two hundred years ago to solicit the help of evil forces in their struggle against the French for independence. Days after the recent Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, interpreted these tragedies as “divine retribution” for the “egoism” of Japanese politics: “We need a tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time.”
The passage in Luke 13 that I cite in my “God and Tragedy” post is helpful in evaluating such comments. Jesus’ teaching on tragedy here cautions us against two opposite errors in our thinking about the meaning of disasters. The first is to regard the victims of disasters (or acts of human injustice) as uniquely deserving of such punishment while regarding ourselves, or our own “people,” as innocent relative to the victims and therefore undeserving. Thus, Jesus warns us, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” You see, death by any means is form of divine punishment for sin: “For the wages of sin is death” – Romans 3:23. All people are deserving of divine judgment because all have sinned. So while one might rightly call such horrible events that cause the death of thousands “acts of God,” one must not exclude oneself from the company of sinners that deserve divine wrath, for such is the fate of all that do not repent.
The other error, though, is to absolve God completely of any kind of agency in natural disasters, and to regard such events as random acts beyond God’s control. For Scripture teaches that God is sovereign over both the operations of nature and the affairs of men: “Whatever the Lord pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:6-7). Throughout Scripture we see the Lord using both the powers of nature and the powers of men (often in the form of foreign military powers) as instruments of His judgment. Though God’s specific purposes in such acts are normally inscrutable (and thus we should be wary of those who claim to know them), we should believe that He brings about “all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) – not just pleasant things, but earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis….tragic things.