Why do disasters happen? What should Christians do when disasters happen? The recent earthquake in Haiti was catastrophic. Perhaps it has caused you to wonder if it was caused by God. I don’t think that it was.
When a disaster occurs, sometimes Christians rush to judgment. We think that the disaster happend because the people who lived there were sinful, or perhaps their ancestors were sinful.
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it, They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ -Pat Robertson on the Haiti Earthquake
There are also some Christians who believe that God directly or indirectly causes all disasters. John Piper is one who holds to this view:
Jesus Christ controls the wind, including all tornados….The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. -John Piper on the ELCA tornado.
God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills. -John Piper on the Minnesota bridge collapse.
This type of speculation from Robertson and Piper is counterproductive because it attributes destructive events to God when God has not spoken. In reality the events can reasonably be attributed to other root causes. Earthquakes happen where there are fault lines. Tornadoes happen in tornado alley. Bridges and buildings collapse when they are not properly built or maintained.
In Haiti there were two factors that contributed to the disaster. First, there was a shallow fault line near to Port Au Prince. Second, many of the buildings were built poorly. These two factors adequately explain why the disaster occurred. There is no reason to attribute it to a curse or anything else.
Speculation like Roberson’s and Piper’s is also quite selective. When a disaster fits our paradigm we quickly assign blame. But when it strikes us personally, we respond differently. If Robertson’s house was destroyed by hurricane, would he blame that on a curse? Probably not. If Piper’s church was destroyed by a tornado, would he attribute it to sinful doctrine being taught? Probably not.
When Christians speak in such ways we damage ourselves. Rather than being salt and light to a world that needs us, we are seen as hypocritical and selectively judgmental. Pat Robertson perhaps meant well, but he damaged his Christian witness and held all believers up to ridicule. When disaster comes, Christian help. We grieve for those who are hungry and hurt. We give to those in need. We do not assign blame.
So why do disasters happen? There is not an easy answer, and perhaps it is dangerous to look for one. One thing that can be said is that we live in a fallen physical world. Creation is in decay and is awaiting liberation (Romans 8:18-21). God’s will is not always done on earth, that is why we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10)
Theologian Roger Olson argues that:
…what if God limits himself so that much of what happens in the world is due to human finitude and fallenness? What if God is in charge but not in control? What if God wishes that things could be otherwise and someday will make all things perfect?
In this world, because of our ignorance and sinfulness, really bad things sometimes happen and people do really evil and wicked things. Not because God secretly plans and prods them, but because God has said to fallen, sinful people, “OK, not my will then, but thine be done — for now.” -Olson On the Minnesota bridge collapse.
Does God ever cause disaster? First and formost we should remember that Jesus came to bring life (John 10:10). When Jesus died he paid for the sins of the entire world. That includes the people of Haiti.
God can cause disaster as a form of judgment, however, he makes his intent known when he judges, he does not leave it wide open to interpretation. Greg Boyd notes that:
…the model of God bringing about disasters to punish people is rooted in the Old Testament. Here we several times find God using nature and human agents to punish people. (Though even back then this wasn’t God’s normal mode of operation). But in these contexts, God first gives ample warning about a coming judgment and he tells people exactly what he is doing. Punishment without teaching is not pedagogically effective.
Imagine a parent saying to their child, “I’m going to spank you whenever I want to but not tell you why.” It just doesn’t work! -Boyd, Why Did the 35W Collapse?
As noted above, John Piper has stated that “Jesus Christ controls the wind, including all tornados.” This explanation does not line up with the scriptural account. In fact, scripture records that Jesus rebuked a storm (Mark 4:35-41). If Jesus causes all storms, he was rebuking himself.
In a fallen and decaying world bad things happen. Even to good people. If it greives us, we can be certain that it grieves God as well. In the meantime, we help those in need and we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. Only then will God’s will be fully done on earth, just as it is in heaven.