Pointed theological questions emerge amid disasters such as Harvey and Irma. Is God angry? Why did God let this happen? Where is God in all this? Interpreting disaster from a Christian perspective is difficult, but Jesus gives us some pointers.
Upon hearing that Pilate had some Galileans killed at the Temple, Jesus asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? …Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:1-4). Jesus is subverting the widespread assumption that disaster is divine retribution for specific or excessive sin.
Interpreting disaster as divine retribution is riddled with theological, ethical, and biblical problems. Theologically, it discounts human free will and freedom within creation. God is not the immediate cause of everything that happens. Human hands wielded the weapons that slay the Galileans. And Jesus gives no indication that God knocked over the tower of Siloam.
Ethically, the primary problem with interpreting disaster as divine retribution is that it blames victims. Ethical problems accrue when this line of interpretation is applied selectively. For example, televangelist Pat Robertson publicly suggested that the 2010 Haiti earthquake was divine retribution for specific sin, but did not make a similar claim about the Nashville flood of 2010. Could this inconsistency betray a tendency to demonize the destitute, since victims in Haiti were largely impoverished, or a tendency to demonize people of color, since victims in Haiti were largely black?
There are also biblical problems with interpreting disaster as divine retribution. The Old Testament character Job suffered multiple disasters precisely because he was so righteous, though his friends assumed he had sinned. The disciples voiced a similar assumption when they encountered a man blind from birth and asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born like this?" Jesus said neither (John 9:1-3).
The point is not that sin is without consequences but that victimization should not be ascribed to God. There is a better theological response to hurricanes than Reverend Al Sharpton’s suggestion that Harvey might have been “God’s rebuke.”
After asking whether the victims of Pilate and the tower were worse sinners than others, Jesus says, “No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.” Disasters such as hurricanes are not to be viewed as God punishing others’ sins but as an occasion for our own repentance. We might repent of our indifference toward everyday victims, our inaction in the face of human suffering, or our tendency to see others’ sin as deserving punishment and our own sin as garnering grace.
When he heard about Pilate killing Galileans, Jesus himself was a Galilean en route to the cross where Pilate would have him killed. Christians affirm that Jesus on the cross was God in the flesh. The God of the cross is found not in the instigation of disaster but in solidarity with the victims.
Pastor Noel Schoonmaker
First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN