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.