Prophets of Disaster

As you’ve probably heard, last week a 60-foot-high Jesus statue in Ohio, nicknamed “Touchdown Jesus“, was completely destroyed in a fire after being struck by lightning. An adjacent amphitheater, part of the same evangelical church, was also burned and suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

The church has already vowed to rebuild the statue, but it seems to me they’re acting far too hastily. Why aren’t they considering the possibility that this destruction was an expression of God’s wrath at the church, and if they rebuild the statue, they’ll just be provoking him further?

In fact, according to the USA Today article, the statue was built with lightning rods, but they failed to protect it from this strike. If I were the kind of person given to thinking this way, I’d consider that to be even stronger evidence that this fire wasn’t just a coincidence but an expression of God’s will. Shouldn’t this church think very carefully about what they might have done wrong before going ahead with the rebuilding? Shouldn’t they ask themselves what they might have done to provoke God’s anger? And hasn’t it even occurred to them that this statue’s very existence was a blatant violation of the Second Commandment, which orders believers to make no graven images?

Of course, as an atheist, I don’t believe there’s any will or intentionality behind natural events – much less that there’s some Bronze Age thunder god who expresses his displeasure with humanity by wreaking catastrophes on us, like an abusive father beating his children for disobedience. Such ideas belong to the mythology of ancient eras. But this answer isn’t available to most Christian sects, who do believe in a god who uses natural disasters to punish human beings. They’ve said so themselves, many times, and they don’t hesitate to draw moral lessons when some disaster strikes a person or group they disagree with. Why, then, do they fall silent – why do they suddenly revert to the explanation of chance – when a similar disaster is visited upon the faithful?

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the Christian hate group Repent America issued a gleeful press release celebrating the destruction as God’s punishment for Louisiana permitting homosexuality and abortion. Now, in 2010, an enormous wildfire is burning in the state of Arizona, incinerating thousands of acres and threatening the city of Flagstaff. If you adopt the Christian viewpoint that sees hurricanes as a punishment for homosexuality, isn’t it equally possible that the wildfires are a punishment for the passage of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law? After all, the Bible explicitly calls on believers to shelter and care for the alien and the stranger. Yet no press releases have been forthcoming from right-wing Christian groups, and some of them have actually praised the Arizona law. Similarly, though deep-red states like Kansas and Oklahoma are frequently devastated by tornadoes, no Christian group ever seems to think that this might have anything to do with those states’ absurdly cruel anti-gay laws.

And it never works the other way, either: no Christianist group ever remarks on the lack of a natural disaster as evidence of God’s intent. To name one infamous example, Pat Robertson said in 1998 that the city of Orlando could expect earthquakes, hurricanes and possibly a meteor strike as punishment for participating in a gay-pride event. No such disaster occurred. Robertson (who, you may have noticed, has a shoddy track record as a prophet) also threatened the city of Dover, mafiosi-style, that catastrophe might be coming after the citizens voted out a pro-creationist school board. Again, no destruction followed. Do Christians take any message from this? Do they stop to consider that maybe God doesn’t hate gay people and evolutionary scientists as much as Pat Robertson does?

The reality is that natural disasters indiscriminately strike people of all faiths and creeds alike. Militant Christians just pick out the ones that occur to people they disagree with and label them as God’s judgment, while they ignore the ones that afflict people they agree with. Not only is this attitude sadistic and cruel, it exhibits the extreme arrogance of those who fantasize that they can speak for God, that they can see a divine plan in the workings of chance and have the right to tell the rest of us what it is. But the only thing that’s actually guiding their sight is their own callous imagination. The prophets of disaster tell us much about their own sense of morality, and how they’d like to hurt people they don’t agree with; but they have no insight whatsoever into the laws that guide the workings of the universe.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • vjack

    So true about it never working the other way (i.e., the lack of a disaster reflecting divine intent). The line of thought that leads Christians to conclude that natural disasters are punishment is explainable, but it doesn’t seem like explaining it diminishes it much. I suppose this is to be expected from delusional beliefs.

  • Aegis

    Well, there’s one good thing out of it: show me a damn fool who’s still praying for vengeance, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t gotten desperate enough to pick up a gun yet. At least their vengeance fantasies are remaining as such.

  • Stacey Melissa

    The one I always love to note is the extraordinary lack of natural disasters affecting Las Vegas, a.k.a. Sin City.

  • DSimon

    Sin City is protected by their patented Satantic Force Field ™, which filters out 98% of all non-evil particles.

  • NotARacist

    The “draconian” law in Arizona is anything but. All it does is make being in the country illegally a state crime (something which is already illegal under federal law), and allow state officials to enforce federal law (something the feds refuse to do). Specifically, it allows an Arizona law enforcement officer to inquire about and verify a person’s residency status only after they have already committed or are suspected of committing a crime. People aren’t going to be randomly stopped and asked for “their papers” as is being hysterically reported on the internet. In fact, the law specifically prohibits this type of abuse.

    Try reading the law before passing summary judgment on it and the people who support it.

    Not everyone who supports Arizona is a racist right-wing religious fundamentalist reactionary. Some of us just want our country’s borders to be secure, and the rule of law to be respected.

  • AnonaMiss

    I don’t think it’s fair to ask this particular church to account for the discrepancies between Pat Robertson’s remarks and their own actions. Like atheists, Christians are not a monolithic group, and many of them abhor the idea that god would use natural disasters to punish people. Not just liberal Christians, either – going strictly by the book, even Old Testament god said he would “spare” Sodom from his wrath if it had even 10 good people in it. (Whether or not he actually kept up his end of the bargain is another matter, one that Christians generally aren’t going to acknowledge).

    I think we should try to avoid lumping all Christians together in one basket and holding them accountable for the words and actions of all Christians, regardless of whether or not they agree with them. If we do that, then it is absolutely hypocritical for us to object to being lumped in with, say, Ayn Rand. (Stalin and Mao are the more usual suspects of course, but I think comparing Pat Robertson to either of them is a little extreme.)

  • penn

    I totally agree with AnonaMiss (#5). A lot of Christians (most?) don’t buy into Pat Robertson’s bs, so they shouldn’t have to defend it. I wouldn’t want to have to defend every position taken by Christopher Hitchens.

  • themann1086

    Clearly the statue was destroyed for heresy.

    There is only one Touchdown Jesus :)

  • Katie M

    Last week when that ship was struck by lightning while cleaning up the oil spill, did anyone say that it was God’s wrath?

  • keddaw

    @penn, you miss the point of atheism versus religion or any other belief system. Atheism is a single issue issue (?) which is that there is not enough evidence to believe in a higher power.

    If you were a neo-conservative you’d have to defend Hitch’s positions.
    If you were a Democrat you’d have to defend universal healthcare.
    If you were a Muslim you’d have to defend the 9/11 bombers (btw. why are they called bombers when none of them had bombs?)

    The only way out of this is to publicly decry their positions on things you disagree with. Silence is taken for tacit approval when you’re affiliated with people in these kinds of groups however atheism is a different kettle of fish.

  • javaman

    So why is god punishing us now? with the oil leak in the gulf? I just know he is behind this.Perhaps he is sending America a message to stop our oil dependent society? No that can’t be it , it probability has something to do with the gays ,abortions, and atheists.

  • Quath

    I think AnonaMiss makes a good point. However, I think a big part of this article is to show that many Christian leaders still try to make a connection with natual events despite a very poor track record. And yet these religious leaders still maintain their followers.

    For the Touchdown Jesus church, you know the idea that God controls the weather has to be a thought in their head. They seem to have a few basic choices on what to believe. One is to believe that God does control the weather which should lead them to abandoning the church to avoid future blasphemy. Another is to assume God does not control the weather or does not care about the second commandment. Are they abandoning the Old Testament of just undergoing some cognitive dissonance?

    I find such thinking leads to a dismanteling of God as found in this Ted Talk.

  • Modern Reject

    I’m fairly new to Daylight Atheism and let me just get it out of the way…I’m a Christian. I really enjoy this blog, for various reasons and I believe you raise some excellent questions in this post.

    In general, most Christians don’t go around predicting natural disasters and they certainly don’t do so as an admonishment to those they have moral disagreement with. Unfortunately there are the Pat Robertson’s of the world who give us all a bad rep, in this department. (We give ourselves bad reps in other departments too of course).

    I agree though wholeheartedly that some “prophets of disaster” willfully pick and choose who to condemn via hurricane or tornado and who to just bypass. It’s hypocritical, yes. But it is also a dangerous and mistrusted practice which most Christians disagree with as a whole.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    themann1086, are you sure that isn’t field-goal Jesus?

    Also, I may have found Safety Jesus:

  • themann1086


    We joked about that in 2007, but we couldn’t make field goals either, so…

    ND also has First Down Moses!

  • Sharmin

    This is a great post. I am often baffled by the idea that natural disasters are only “signs” if they happen to some groups while “god works in mysterious ways” if they happen to people of the “right” religion.

    I would agree with AnonaMiss (comment #5) that we can’t ask some Christians to answer for the actions of other Christians. The way I read this, though, was that we should be asking those who do blame LGBT people, atheists, etc. for natural disasters what they think of something like this. (Meanwhile, someone who does not blame these groups for natural disasters wouldn’t have to answer for someone like Pat Robertson. However, I’m still confused how they would reconcile the contents of the Bible — in which God does cause natural and supernatural disasters against those he does not like — with their beliefs.)

    @Quath (comment #11): Thanks for the link to the Ted Talk. It’s refreshing to hear a talk by a religious leader who’s willing to ask the tough questions and admit that he does not know. When he used the phrase “in the collective unconscious, in the soul of the human race” it sounded very poetic.

  • Jormungund

    If you adopt the Christian viewpoint that sees hurricanes as a punishment for homosexuality, isn’t it equally possible that the wildfires are a punishment for the passage of Arizona’s rather mild anti-illegal immigration law?

    Fixed it for you. What’s with people conflating legal and illegal immigration? Surely we all get the difference between the two.

  • cheribom

    In a similar vein, I have an *extremely* devout Christian friend whose youngest daughter is allergic to every possible food one could be allergic to, plus some. (Hives covered her entire body once when she touched a table on which garlic had been chopped earlier in the day). For me, I just think, “wow that really sucks, something in her body got screwed up along the way.” But why, as they praise god for everything in their life, do they not assume that god doesn’t want their child to live?

  • Antigone

    Rule of law? Hardly. Illegal immigration has been the auspices of the federal government since the beginning of the country. If this law wasn’t already fairly terrible (unless you think “suspicion of being an illegal immigrant” isn’t going to be used in a completely racist fashion, and if that’s the case I have a bridge to sell you) it’s unconstitutional in a very straight-forward, issue of federalism.

  • Emburii

    I checked your link, NotARacist, and nowhere in it is anything stopping random searches. Presence on any public or private land in the state is trespassing, and according to that page officers have a duty to make sure a ‘suspect’ is not breaking the law by, say, tresspassing. This gives them full latitude to stop anyone they think looks foreign just in case that person is in the US illegally. Then there’s the penalties for not having an alien registration card on one’s person, even if the person has had one legimately filled out and just left it at home or something. When slavery was still around, freedmen used to have to carry papers to attest to their status. These papers were ‘lost’ all the time by corrupt authorities. Any cop who dislikes immigrants on principle can get rid of that card, even if the person is carrying it as required, and then rely on his word against the immigrant’s.

  • Valhar2000

    Modern Reject:

    The practice is much more widespread than just those “prophets of disaster”. There are plenty of Christians who ascribe anything good that happens in their lives, any stroke of luck, to God’s love, but who do not then do the same when something not so good happens.

    The majority of the people who think this way will not agree with Robertson’s senile ramblings, certainly, but their own opinions on the subject of good or bad fortune are just as baseless.

  • Sharmin

    @Valhar2000 (comment #21):

    Modern Reject:

    The practice is much more widespread than just those “prophets of disaster”. There are plenty of Christians who ascribe anything good that happens in their lives, any stroke of luck, to God’s love, but who do not then do the same when something not so good happens.

    The majority of the people who think this way will not agree with Robertson’s senile ramblings, certainly, but their own opinions on the subject of good or bad fortune are just as baseless.

    You make a good point. There people who are much nicer in their interpretation or explanations of God’s actions, but their beliefs are not based on evidence either.

  • Cyberguy

    What you didn’t see in the burnt touchdown Jesus photo was the most shocking!

    The photo released publicly was only after some incriminating evidence had been removed. See the terrible truth here.

  • Kennypo65

    “Touchdown Jesus” sounds like a great name for a band, for a really bad band.

  • KShep


    Pull your head out. That stupid law requires the cops to demand proof of residency if they “reasonably suspect” the person to be illegal. Doesn’t matter if they do it before or after any crime has been committed. Just what criteria do you think they might use to “reasonably suspect” someone? I can tell you what won’t be used—white skin. How convenient.

    The real problem we have with the Arizona law is how legal residents will be treated. I have a young hispanic cousin there. When he hits his teens, it is certainly possible that he might encounter a cop or two while hanging around with his buddies doing what teens tend to do. If he has no proof of his residency on him (like most of us–who the hell carries around their birth certificate?), he could be arrested and held until someone provides the necessary papers to release him. Even then, it might not be enough, should the cop want to be a dick about it. And cops are never dicks, are they?

    This is the America you want to live in, that harasses it’s people like the old Soviet Union did?

  • Nathaniel

    Others have dealt with notaracist’s arguments. I just have to express my amazement that someone who would be inspired to write that post would actually chose Not a Racist for their screen name.

    Maybe he’ll soon be joined by Best Friend is Hispanic.

  • Ebonmuse

    The one I always love to note is the extraordinary lack of natural disasters affecting Las Vegas, a.k.a. Sin City.

    An excellent point, Stacey Melissa! And we could likewise note the peace and tranquility that reigns in Massachusetts, that Sodom and Gomorrah on the Atlantic that every day thumbs its nose at God by treating gays and lesbians as if they were human beings deserving of basic legal rights.

    Several people have brought up that all Christians shouldn’t be judged by Pat Robertson’s standard. That’s a fair point, but Robertson is far from the only Christian to claim that natural disasters are God’s punishment for sin. That belief has existed within Christianity for centuries, dating at least back to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and John Wesley, founder of the Methodists:

    And what shall we say of the late accounts from Portugal? That some thousand houses, and many thousand persons are no more! That a fair city is now in ruinous heaps. Is there indeed a God that judges the world?

    Robertson is the best-known modern Christian who believes this, but he’s far from the only one.

    Granted not every Christian believes this sort of thing, but to the ones that don’t, I have to ask: why not? Don’t they believe in a god who controls the natural world and works his will through it? Or are they saying that natural events happen through random chance and God isn’t involved? That would be a decidedly strange position for a Christian to take, very much at odds with two millennia of Christian theology.

    If a believer ascribes favorable coincidences to the workings of God’s will, as nearly all Christians do, there are no grounds for suddenly drawing back when some catastrophe happens and declaring that we can’t understand God’s will. An omnipotent and omniscient being is inescapably responsible for everything that occurs, and from there it’s only a very small step to believe that the ordering of events contains messages for us which we should try to understand. That was my point in the opening paragraph, to ask the people who own the statue if they’ve considered that. How can they be so sure that this wasn’t a message for them?

  • MS Quixote

    Hey Ebon,

    Great post, man. I’m in general agreement with you on most of it, and stridently so on some of it. I wish more Christians thought like you sometimes.

    If a believer ascribes favorable coincidences to the workings of God’s will, as nearly all Christians do, there are no grounds for suddenly drawing back when some catastrophe happens and declaring that we can’t understand God’s will.

    The Bible specifically says that all good things come from God. That said, we can know they do, even if the specific will for the specific instance is inscrutable, as it generally is.

    Similarly, when catastrophe occurs, we may have a general reason: the effects of the fall. This does not, however, deliver us a specific, knowable reason for any catastrophe, nor are we justified as Christians in ascribing meaning to it in manners as you’ve explicated in your article. Thus, in neither case can we dogmatically assert a reason for the event.

    We’d do better to ascribe catastrophe to Christian behavior, actually, if we’re bent on doing it at all–sort of a Jonah archetypical interpretation of events, whereby things are going poorly in the natural world based on the disobedience of the believer, not the occasional seafarer. Or, God coming in judgment of his people, as he did so often in the OT, is a profitable approach. That’s how it’s handled in my congregation, FWIW. We have a phrase for those who claim to know God’s specific reasons for such events in this day and age, and claim to speak directly for him: false prophet.

  • TEP

    This phenomenon is a good example of why religious ‘morality’ is such a dangerous thing, because it is probably how most religious commandments originated in the first place. Back 3,000 years ago, plenty of prophets behaved in much the same way – assuming that all disasters were as a result of people doing the things they don’t like (because Yahweh, being perfect, obviously held the same opinions they did). However, unlike the Pat Robertsons of today, a lot of the prophets of old had their views written down for posterity in scripture, so whenever they decided that a disaster was due to homosexuality, not being nationalistic enough or worshipping other members of the Caananite pantheon, their personal prejudices would get set in stone as a religious edict to be followed for all time. As such, religious ‘moral’ commandments are ultimately nothing more than the fossilised prejudices and predominant political viewpoints of 3000 years ago.

  • Christoph

    While it is true that we should not throw all Christians in the same boat as Pat Robertson, I also believe that it is letting many Christians off too easily to act like Robertson and his ilk are only one small faction of Christianity. The Robertsons, Falwells, Dobsons, etc., are many in and of themselves, and they lead congregations and followers that total in the thousands (perhaps even millions?). When they make foolish and hateful statements, I never see that their ratings go down, their followers boycott them or turn from them, or any Christian leaders of similar representation take them to task. This can only mean that those thousands of followers are in agreement with Robertson et al. by their continuing in their support. Usually what happens is that a person(s) outside of the Christian faith takes Robertson et al. to task and then suddenly the Christian community at large that had previously been so quiet that crickets could be heard to chirp is now stirred up like a beehive and will suddenly pile on the non-Christian critic for “painting all Christians with the same brush.” Yet ironically they still level no serious criticism at Robertson et al. and will make the non-Christian the focus of their wrath. We have seen this happen time and time again. Where was the en masse outrage from fellow Christian leaders when Robertson suggested that a nuclear device should be detonated in the Potomac to take out the State Department? Where were the accusations of being anti-American thrown at him? I have said it before and I will say it again, Christians at large may claim to not agree with Robertson et al., but they would rather be seen to support someone like him who professes faith, either actively or through their silence, than be seen as in agreement with non-Christians, which seems to be far more anathema to them than anything evil Robertson could say or enact.