Do Natural Disasters Negate Divine Benevolence?
The Earth is plagued with all kinds of natural disasters (tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, etc.). How can these tragedies be reconciled with a supposedly good, benevolent God?
September 21, 1989—Hurricane Hugo strikes the southeastern coast of the United States. Over 25 people are killed, and over $10 billion worth of damage results. One month later—October 17, 1989—an earthquake registering 7.1 on the Richter scale strikes the San Francisco Bay area in California. At least 62 people are killed, and damage estimates are placed at well over $1 billion. August 24, 1992—Hurricane Andrew hits three counties in southern Florida. More than a dozen people lose their lives, and damage estimates are set at over $20 billion. A year later, on September 11, 1992, Hurricane Iniki devastates the Hawaiian islands. At least four people die, and damage is set at over $1 billion. In June 1993, huge portions of numerous states along the Mississippi River and its tributaries experienced the worst flooding in their history. Entire cities were covered with water measured not in inches, but in feet. At least 47 people died, and more than 25,000 were evacuated from their homes.
Do these types of natural disasters represent merely isolated, infrequent events? Hardly. Throughout history, man has recorded many such tragedies. In 526, an earthquake hit the country now known as Turkey and left 250,000 dead. A similar earthquake in China in 1556 killed over 830,000 people. Another quake in India in 1737 annihilated 300,000, and quakes in Central China in 1920, 1927, and 1932 killed 200,000, 200,000, and 70,000 people respectively. In 1889, the famous “Johnstown Flood” occurred in Pennsylvania. The dam of the South Fork Reservoir, twelve miles east of the city, burst during heavy rains. Over 2,000 people were killed, and property damage was estimated to be over $10 million. In 1969, Hurricane Camille killed more than 250 people in seven states from Louisiana to Virginia, leaving behind over $1.5 billion in damage. In 1983, Hurricane Alicia struck near Galveston, killing 21 and causing over $2 billion in damage.
It is rare indeed, it seems, for a single generation in a given locale to be spared at least some kind of natural disaster. Without warning, tornadoes sweep down from the afternoon sky and destroy in a moment’s fury what took decades or centuries to build. Floods cover “old home places,” and remove forever any vestige of what were once storehouses of hallowed memories. In a matter of seconds, earthquakes irreparably alter once-familiar landscapes. Hurricanes come from the sea, demolish practically everything in their paths, and then dissipate as if they never had existed. Each time humanity suffers. And each time there are those who ask “Why?”
THE “WHY?” QUESTION
In the face of disasters such as those described above, there is hardly any question likely to be asked more routinely than “why?” But the question is not always asked in the same way, or with the same intent. Some stand on the charred remains of what was once their home and ask, “why me?”—and mean exactly that. Why them and why now? All they want is to understand the physical events that have changed their lives, and to learn what they can do to correct the situation and avoid a repeat of it. They are not looking to assign blame; they merely want an explanation of the prevailing circumstances.
Others view the destruction around them and ask “why?,” but their inquiry is brief and their response immediate. They correctly view the Earth as a once-perfect-but-now-flawed home for mankind. Rather than their faith in God being diminished by the ravages of ongoing natural phenomena, it is strengthened because they: (a) know that there are rational biblical and scientific explanations for such events; (b) understand that after all is said and done, “the Judge of all the Earth will do that which is right” (Genesis 18:25); and (c) put their faith into action as they work to help themselves, or those around them whose lives have been affected by a disaster.
Still others view natural disasters and ask “why?,” when what they really mean is: “If a benevolent God exists, why did He allow these things to happen?” The implication of their statement is clear. Since these things did happen, God must not exist.
THE BIBLICAL RESPONSE TO THE “WHY” QUESTION
It is not my purpose here to address the “why me, why now?” question that seeks a physical explanation as to what kind of swirling wind current spawns a tornado, or what kind of geological phenomena may be responsible for an earthquake. Much has been written on these topics that can provide adequate answers for those willing to research the problem. Instead, I would like to answer the more pressing philosophical questions of why the Earth experiences natural disasters in the first place, and why such disasters are not incompatible with a benevolent God.
Our Once-Perfect-But-Now-Flawed Planet
At the end of His six days of creation (Genesis 1:31), God surveyed all that He had made, and proclaimed it “very good”—Hebrew terminology representing that which was both complete and perfect. Rivers were running, fish were swimming, and birds were flying. Pestilence, disease, and human death were unknown. Man existed in an idyllic paradise of happiness and beauty where he shared such an intimate and blissful covenant relationship with his Maker that God came to the garden “in the cool of the day” to commune with its human inhabitants (Genesis 3:8). Additionally, Genesis 3:22 records that man had continual access to the tree of life that stood in the garden, the fruit of which would allow him to live forever.
The peacefulness and tranquillity of the first days of humanity were not to prevail, however. In Genesis 3—in fewer words than an average sportswriter would use to discuss a Friday night high school football game—Moses, through inspiration, discussed the breaking of the covenant relationship between man and God, the entrance of sin into the world, and the curse(s) that resulted therefrom. When our original parents revolted against their Creator, evil entered the world. Moses informs us that as a direct consequence of human sin, the Earth was “cursed” (Genesis 3:17). Paul, in Romans 8:19-20, declared that the entire creation was subjected to “vanity” and the “bondage of corruption” as a result of the sinful events that took place in Eden on that occasion. Things apparently deteriorated rapidly. Just three chapters later, Moses wrote:
And Jehovah saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented Jehovah that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And Jehovah said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and creeping things, and birds of the heavens (Genesis 6:5-7).
Genesis 6-8 records the global destruction resulting from the Great Flood sent by God as His instrument of judgment. The text indicates that the waters which caused the Flood derived from two sources: (a) “the fountains of the great deep”; and (b) “the windows of heaven” (Genesis 7:11). Water fell for forty days and nights (Genesis 7:12,17), and eventually covered “all the high mountains that were under the whole heaven” (Genesis 7:19). We may only surmise the changes that the Flood wrought upon the Earth. Local floods can cause tremendous damage in very brief periods. Imagine, then, the damage that water covering every mountain fifteen cubits (Genesis 7:20; approximately 22½ feet) must have caused. As one writer has suggested:
The destructive power of flood-waters is evident from what flood waters in recent years have done. They moved blocks of granite weighing 350 tons more than a hundred yards. Boulders weighing 75 to 210 tons have been moved by flood waters only 15 to 20 feet deep.... What vast devastation must have been created when all those forces of the earth worked together; rain gushing down from the canopy above the firmament, earthquakes shaking the earth, many volcanoes erupting and exploding at one time, continents shifting, mountains lifting up, tornados, hurricanes and wild windstorms raging, gigantic tidal waves with crosscurrents and whirlpools raising havoc.... Truly, the Flood was the greatest and most violent catastrophe in the history of the world, with total destruction of all forms of life and of the entire surface of the earth (Sippert, 1989, pp. 78-79).
What were conditions like on the Earth prior to the Great Flood? Numerous biblical scholars have suggested that conditions were radically different than those we see today, and that the Earth was devoid of the many natural disasters that it presently experiences (see Rehwinkel, 1951; Whitcomb and Morris, 1961; Dillow, 1981). Whitcomb and Morris have stated, for example:
This is inferred from the fact that the “breaking-up of the fountains of the great deep” (Genesis 7:11), which implies this sort of activity, was one of the immediate causes of the Deluge; therefore it must have been restrained previously.... Thus the Biblical record implies that the age between the fall of man and the resultant Deluge was one of comparative quiescence geologically. The waters both above and below the firmament were in large measure restrained, temperatures were equably warm, there were no heavy rains nor winds and probably no earthquakes nor volcanic emissions (1961, pp. 242,243).
It is not unreasonable to suggest, knowing the changes caused by local floods, that the global Flood of Genesis 6-8 not only radically altered the face of the Earth, but simultaneously produced circumstances that are responsible for many natural disasters experienced since that time. New, higher mountains and lower valleys were produced by God after the Flood (Psalm 104:6-10). Approximately 71.9% of the Earth’s surface remained covered with water. Temperature changes occurred, producing seasonal variations unlike any before. No doubt other factors were involved as well.
What causes natural disasters on the Earth today? One cause is the vastly different geological and meteorological phenomena now present. Tall mountains and deep valleys may be conducive to localized extremes in weather. The drastically changed components of the Earth’s crust (e.g., fault lines, etc.) give rise to earthquakes. Vast bodies of water, and large global climatic variations, spawn hurricanes and tropical storms.
Taken at face value, then, the wickedness of mankind in Noah’s day (which precipitated the Flood) is responsible ultimately for the changes that now produce various natural disasters. As Brad Bromling has observed:
While we may never know with precision what conditions prevailed between the Edenic period and the Flood, it seems that the weather systems with which we are familiar were largely absent at that time. The fossil record bespeaks a period when the entire Earth enjoyed a temperate climate. This storm-free era most certainly predates the Flood. Since that event, man has been imperiled by tornadoes, blizzards, monsoons, and hurricanes.... Upon whom should we heap blame for the suffering resultant from such weather? Is it fair to accuse God, when He created man’s home free from such things (Genesis 1:31)? In all honesty, the answer is no. Sin robbed us of our original garden paradise, and sin was responsible for the global deluge (Genesis 3:24; 6:7) [1992, p. 17].
One writer concluded: “[T]he cause of all that is wrong with the earth is not godliness but rather ungodliness” (Porter, 1974, p. 467, emp. in orig.). The matter of man’s personal volition has much to do with this. The Scriptures speak to the fact that since God is love, and since love allows freedom of choice, God allows freedom of choice (cf. Joshua 24:15; John 5:39-40). God did not create mankind as robots without any free moral agency. Mankind now reaps the consequences of the misuse of freedom of choice (i.e., the sin) of previous generations. Surely one of the lessons here is that it does not pay to disobey the Creator. In his second epistle, Peter made a clear reference to “the world that then was,” and its destruction by the Flood (3:6). That world no longer exists. Today we inhabit a once-perfect-but-now-flawed Earth. Man—not God—bears the blame.
Natural Disasters and a Benevolent God
The Bible teaches that God is both all-powerful and loving; thus He is benevolent, as love demands. How, then, can He allow natural disasters to occur? Do not natural disasters negate the benevolence of God, and strike at His very existence? In addition to the reasons listed in the section above, I would like to suggest the following reasons why they do not.
First, God created a world ruled by natural laws established at the Creation. If a man steps off the roof of a five-story building, gravity will pull him to the pavement beneath. If a boy steps in front of a moving freight train, since two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, the train will strike the child and likely kill him. The same laws that govern gravity, matter in motion, or similar phenomena also govern weather patterns, water movement, and other geological/meteorological conditions. All of nature is regulated by these laws, not just the parts that we find convenient.
Second, some disasters may be the by-product of something that itself is good. In addressing this point, Norman Geisler has noted:
In a physical world where there is water for boating and swimming, some will drown. If there are mountains to climb, there must also be valleys into which one may fall. If there are cars to drive, collisions can also occur. It may be said that tornadoes, lightning, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are likewise by-products of a good physical world. For instance, the purpose of rain is not to flood or drown, but the result of rain may include these disasters. Likewise, hot and cold air are an essential and purposeful part of the physical world, but under certain conditions they may combine to form tornadoes (1978, p. 72, emp. in orig.).
The natural laws that God created allow man to produce fire. But the same laws that enable him to cook his food also allow him to destroy entire forests. Laws that make it possible to have things constructive to human life also introduce the possibility that things destructive to human life may occur. How can it be otherwise? A car is matter in motion, and takes us where we wish to go. But if someone steps in front of that car, the same natural laws that operate to our benefit will operate in a similar fashion to our detriment.
Third, natural laws are both inviolate and non-selective. Everyone must obey them or suffer the consequences. In Luke 13:2-5, Jesus told the story of eighteen men who perished when the tower of Siloam collapsed. Had these men perished because of their sin? No, they were no worse sinners than their peers. They died because a natural law was in force. Fortunately, natural laws work continually so that we can understand and benefit from them. We are not left to sort out some kind of haphazard system that works one day, but not the next.
Those who rail against God because of natural disasters often are overheard to ask, “But why can’t God ‘selectively intervene’ to prevent disasters?” Bruce Reichenbach has addressed this question:
Thus, in a world which operates according to divine miraculous intervention, there would be no necessary relation between phenomena, and in particular between cause and effect. In some instances one event would follow from a certain set of conditions, another time a different event, and so on, such that ultimately an uncountable variety of events would follow a given set of conditions. There would be no regularity of consequence, no natural production of effects.... Hence, we could not know or even suppose what course of action to take to accomplish a certain rationally conceived goal. Thus, we could neither propose action nor act ourselves (1976, p. 187).
If God suspended natural laws every time His creatures were in a dangerous situation, chaos would corrupt the cosmos, arguing more for a world of atheism than a world of theism! Further, as Geisler has remarked:
First, evil men do not really want God to intercept every evil act or thought. No one wants to get a headache every time he thinks against God. One does not want God to fill his mouth with cotton when he speaks evil of God, nor does he really desire God to explode his pen as he writes against God or destroy his books before they come off the press. At best, people really want God to intercept some evil actions.... Second, continual interference would disrupt the regularity of natural law and make life impossible. Everyday living depends on physical laws such as inertia or gravity. Regular interruption of these would make everyday life impossible and a human being extremely edgy! Third, it is probable that chaos would result from continued miraculous intervention. Imagine children throwing knives at parents because they know they will be turned to rubber, and parents driving through stop signs, knowing God will create crash-protection air shields to avert any ensuing collisions. The necessary intervention would finally grow in proportions that would effectively remove human freedom and responsibility (1978, p. 75, emp. in orig.).
How, then, exactly, would the unbeliever suggest that an understandable, dependable world be created, and operated, other than the way ours presently is? How could natural disasters be prevented, while maintaining natural laws and human freedom?
Those who suggest that the existence of a benevolent God is impossible as a result of “natural evil” often call for a better world than this one. But they cannot describe the details necessary for its creation and maintenance. When—in an attempt to “improve” it—they begin to “tinker” with the actual world around them, they invariably find themselves worse off.
Instead of blaming God when tragedies such as natural disasters strike, we need to turn to Him for strength, and let tragedies, of whatever nature, remind us that this world was never intended to be a final home (Hebrews 11:13-16). Our time here is temporary (James 4:14), and with God’s help we are able to overcome whatever comes our way (Romans 8:35-39; Psalm 46:1-3). In the end, the most important question is not, “Why did this happen to me?,” but instead, “How can I understand what has happened, and how am I going to react to it?” With Peter, the faithful Christian can echo the sentiment that God, “ who called you unto his eternal glory in Christ, after that ye have suffered a little while, shall himself perfect, establish, strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever” (1 Peter 5:10).
Bromling, Brad T. (1992), “Who Sent the Hurricane?,” Reasoning from Revelation, 4:17, Semptember.
Dillow, Joseph C. (1982), The Waters Above (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Geisler, Norman L. (1978), The Roots of Evil (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan).
Porter, Walter L. (1974), “Why Do the Innocent Suffer?,” Firm Foundation, 91: 467,475, July 23.
Rehwinkel, A.M. (1951), The Flood (St. Louis, MO: Concordia).
Reichenbach, Bruce (1976), “Natural Evils and Natural Laws,” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 16.
Sippert, Albert (1989), From Eternity to Eternity (North Mankato, MN: Sippert Publishing).
Whitcomb, John C. and Henry M. Morris (1961), The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).