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Calamity and Creation: Does God Cause Disasters?

Posted by Dr. Jeff Peterson on September 13, 2017 at 9:30 AM

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;

all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. (Psalm 42:7 ESV)

 

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

what is man that you are mindful of him,

and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4 ESV)

 

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This dispatch is offered as a meditation on the two psalm verses quoted above (honest!). A bit like Pascal, though, I didn’t have time to write a short blog post, so I had to write this long one instead.

The headlines that have greeted us as August has yielded to September — hurricanes battering the US coast, wildfires in the western interior, earthquake in Mexico — have been grim. Arrested by such news, with hundreds of lives lost, the thoughts of Christian observers may tend to follow a predictable pattern. Our first response, I suspect, is dismay for those killed and concern for those still in the path of danger.

That is acute, of course, if our loved ones are in the vicinity, as was the case for me with the hurricane designated “Harvey.” (I confess I’m ambivalent about the practice of using personal names for hurricanes; it’s evidently useful for increasing public safety and distinguishing one storm from another in memory, but I wonder if it doesn’t also tend to domesticate a natural phenomenon that is in fact the epitome of wild, undomesticated nature. The World Meteorological Organization hasn’t consulted me on this, and I don’t expect they will.) The weekend after Harvey visited Houston, I visited family in the area and was relieved that the storm spared all but one of several households; the exception isn’t a total loss but will require weeks or months of recovery work. It’s natural to feel relief in such circumstances and offer thanks to God for the safety and security of those dear to us. We should, of course, also remember in prayer those who didn’t fare so well — dozens of my mother’s neighbors two blocks away, for example, whom I saw piling their ruined possessions and sheet rock out at the street as I drove in and out of her neighborhood.

Most often, I think, our thoughts then turn to questions beginning with the word, “Why?” Why was my mother’s house untouched while others only yards away were gutted, and still others miles away were destroyed? (Is my family more righteous than other families, or especially blessed for some other reason?) Why did this storm strike at this place, at this time, with such intensity? (Is global warming part of the answer, or the judgment of God?) Why did God visit so awful a storm on Houston, specifically? (Is Houston especially offensive to God?) Or, if we are hesitant to attribute natural evils directly to God, as the prophets and psalmists sometimes certainly appear to (e.g., “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things,” Isaiah 45:7), we may ask why God permits such things to befall human beings created in his image.

If we proceed very far down that path, we find ourselves trying to take in a tragedy from the vantage point of the throne of God, a seat human beings do not occupy by our nature and can be drawn up toward only through the gift of God’s Spirit and the communion in the mind of Christ that requires our humble submission and faithful service and patient prayer. By God’s grace, Paul tells us (Colossians 3:1), we have been “raised with Christ,” who is “seated at the right hand of God,” but we must still exert ourselves to “seek the things that are above,” including the wisdom that God shares on his throne with his beloved Son, “in whom all things [i.e, the created universe] hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And according to Paul in chap. 3, the first order of business for those in Christ is to strip off the old, dead, sinful humanity we are born into and put on as our everyday clothing the new self offered us in Christ with its attendant virtues, the greatest of which is love. (In biblical vocabulary, “love” more characteristically involves actions like rescuing a neighbor from a house filling up with water or carrying its ruined possessions out to the street than feelings like the rapture of lovers looking into each other’s eyes.)

But I don’t intend to dismiss the questions asked above. They are natural to ask, and they deserve answers. A point Austin Farrer makes effectively in his brief study Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited is that the God revealed in creation and in Christ has made a world of real beings distinct from himself. These created beings act in accordance with their (our) natures, even when this involves interference with the operation of other created beings; falling boulders do not cease to respond to the pull of gravity when a living being steps beneath them, nor do carnivorous predators in the wild break off the chase when they realize their quarry is a missionary or a healer or an environmentalist. Following the Asian tsunami that claimed more than 200,000 lives in 2004 — as it’s no longer in the headlines, do we even remember it? — David Bentley Hart offered answers to the same questions in another short book that complements Farrer’s. Both authors employ the ancient distinction between those actions that God performs by his express design and those that he permits his created beings to undertake, without interfering with them. Such questions and answers constitute a whole topic of philosophical theology designated “theodicy,” the justification of God’s ways to humankind, to paraphrase John Milton in the opening lines of Paradise Lost.

Centuries of Christian reflection have contributed to the exploration of theodicy, including consideration of biblical texts that seem at variance with the distinction between God’s permitting natural evil and his visiting it on his creation. Satisfying answers to such questions require more space than a blog post permits — not to say more philosophical acumen than this Greek teacher has available! What is more, turning quickly from a human tragedy unfolding before our eyes to questions of theodicy skips over a necessary realization we must make if we would apprehend the nature of biblical faith. That realization returns us to the two psalm verses quoted at the beginning of this post.

Read in its context, Psalm 42:7 is uttered by a worshiper of God in distress, who “go[es] mourning because of the oppression of the enemy” (v. 9), who has wept “day and night” as his “adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (vv. 3, 10). Considering v. 4, which recalls the joyous days when the psalmist “would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God,” this oppressive taunting is likely visited on a priest who’s been carried far from the temple in exile. The psalmist is metaphorically overwhelmed by God’s “breakers and [his] waves” (v. 7), which reminds us that profound suffering can be visited on us in different ways; for this singer of praise, the inability to worship God with his people in his temple feels like a great flood washing over him. Suffering forms a part of every life, even those who never experience the intense physical shock of hurricane or wildfire or earthquake. And when we suffer, we are moved to cry out for help and justice — to those within earshot if there is hope for response, to the silent universe if we find ourselves doubting that anyone anywhere is listening, to God if we are believers.

Our second quotation, from Psalm 8:3–4, considers the immensity of the universe in comparison with the small and fragile creature known in biblical idiom as “man” or “a son of man” (literally). How is it that a God who wrought the vast heavens and “set in place” the moon and stars, as well as the seas that go unmentioned in the psalm but are also immense and powerful in comparison with mere mortals — how can such a God lower himself to attend to the concerns of creatures like us? Why should we expect him to do so? If God is busy overseeing the universe, if he’s the CEO of the whole creation and must superintend all its divisions, why should I expect him to respond to my cry of woe over the problems I’m dealing with down here in the mail room? (Or the hospital? Or the single-family dwelling in Houston?)

Yet God does just that, the psalmist affirms in v. 4. In a statement that the author of Hebrews teaches us is fully realized only in Christ, God “made [the ‘son of man’ of Psalm 8:4] for a little while lower than the angels” and “crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet” (Hebrews 2:7–8 ESV, quoting Psalm 8:3–4 in Greek translation). The Son left his Father’s throne to share our vulnerable and pitiable condition. He didn’t come among us “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” was “in every respect … tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NRSV). The Son of God “learned obedience through what he suffered,” and when he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him,” the Father heard him and delivered him from death (Hebrews 5:7–8 ESV), exalting him to share his heavenly throne (Hebrews 1:3–4). And through his deliverance, all who become the Son’s brothers and sisters will be delivered, too (Hebrews 2:12). Indeed, only in fellowship with the Son can we find enduring deliverance from all the woes that afflict God’s yet unrenewed creation.

The story the Bible tells us, from creation in Genesis to new creation in Revelation, lifts us above the place where we each stand and the time we inhabit to grant us a vision of creation from the very throne room of God. That vision assures us that unceasingly and “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28 RSV). But the words of the psalms and events like those of our late summer remind us that we must each find our way through the threads of God’s cosmic tapestry that we are passing through, and each experience for ourselves in some fashion the “futility” to which God’s creation has been “subjected” before we can enter with the whole renewed creation into “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20–21 ESV).

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others.  Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

Topics: On-Topic Today, Personal, Ministry Opportunities

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