Are Tornadoes the “Fingers of God”?

Conservative Christian theologian John Piper recently weighed in on the rash of tornadoes that hit the Midwest and South last week. He had this to say:

Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?

If God has a quarrel with America, wouldn’t Washington, D.C., or Las Vegas, or Minneapolis, or Hollywood be a more likely place to show his displeasure?

We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.

Reading Piper’s post gave me three thoughts, which I’ll share with you as follows.

Does God Cause Natural Disasters?

I don’t think I would have completely agreed with Piper here when I was an evangelical. First, I definitely believed that the devil could use the power of nature to cause destruction. Second, I definitely believed that sometimes weather just happened, though God could of course interfere at any time. While God could reach in and change the weather at any time, I believed that the weather generally ran on some sort of a default.

I think sometimes what you’ll find is that Christians disagree on just how much God interferes with nature or the world on a daily basis. While Christians generally say they have some sort of personal connection or relationship with God, they differ on whether God steps in to answer prayer or interfere with the weather or other natural disasters. Some see a more hands-off God and others a more hands-on God. Piper definitely falls in the latter camp.

And of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of thinking. For example, some televangelists blamed Hurricane Katrina on the wickedness of New Orleans. Similarly, some blamed the Haiti earthquake on Haiti’s practice of Voodoo. It seems like any time you hear of a natural disaster, you’re also going to hear the claim that God caused the disaster as a punishment for wickedness. So yes, the belief that God can and does cause natural disasters is alive and well.

Here we get to the heart of the problem of evil. Whether God causes natural disasters that kill thousands or simply allows them to happen, what you have is a God who either causes or allows mass death and suffering. While I think either view is problematic, the idea that God is directly causing deaths by directly creating natural disasters is horrifying. It’s not surprising that the ones who reject the idea that God ordered the Old Testament genocides are generally the same who reject the idea that God directly causes natural disasters, and that Christians who believe God ordered the genocides and that they were justified and acceptable are often the same who hold that God simply doesn’t prevent natural disasters.

Does God Take Innocent Lives? 

Of course, in this case, as Piper points out, there was no obvious evil deed that might have brought the tornadoes on. Why Indiana, or Illinois, rather than D.C. or Hollywood? This seems like a very good question. You would think that if natural disasters were God exercising his judgement you would see the disasters hitting nonbelievers, or followers of non-Christian religions, or practicers of immorality, not ordinary Christian people in the upper Bible belt.

How does Piper answer this problem? He offers three reasons.

1. God strikes faithful Christians because he knows that only they will respond with “blessed be the name of the Lord.”

2. A disaster anywhere is a warning to people everywhere. “Every deadly win in any town is a warning to every town.”

3. God has said that his judgement will come on his own people first. Apparently a good number of Bible verses say this.

To read a further explanation of each of these points, check out Piper’s article.

For good measure, Piper also throws this in there:

We are not God’s counselors. Nor can we fathom all his judgments. That was the lesson of Job. Let us beware, therefore, of reading the hand of providence with too much certainty or specificity. God is always doing a thousand things when he does anything. And we see but a fraction.

In other words, we can’t understand God’s mind. We can’t understand his actions. But we know that they are just. This is generally the line of reasoning I followed as a believer. It strikes me now, though, that it’s really a bit of a cop-out. It says, “Natural disasters strike good people as well as bad people? Well, who are we to understand the mind of God or his actions.” It ends questions, it ends discussion, it ends thought.

But more than that, a God who willfully and intentionally causes the deaths of innocent people, and even of his own people, is capricious and cruel.

How Does Prayer Affect Things? 

This is actually something I was thinking about before I read Piper’s article. I don’t have time to dig up the news articles I was looking at, but after this storm I read a number of them, and one spoke of a family praying for God’s deliverance right before a tornado claimed most of their lives while another included the testimony of a woman who said that God saved her family through the storm. By this logic, prayer saved one family, but not the other.

Realizing that we don’t actually see prayer having tangible effect was one of many things that helped me leave religion. As I’ve written before, I grew up being told that God always answers prayer, but that sometimes he says “yes,” sometimes he says “no,” and sometimes he says “maybe later.” This really becomes meaningless. You can pray, but that doesn’t mean God will do what you ask for. He might just keep you alive through a tornado, or he might decide not to intervene and instead let you die. In this case, what’s the point of praying at all?

While I was taught that God answers prayer, I was also taught that prayer was about keeping the lines of communication open with God. While this understanding makes more sense than the former (mainly because it doesn’t predict any changes in the physical world), it’s also a very different understanding. Seeing prayer as just talking to God is not the same as seeing it as something that actually heals or changes the weather. It also, of course, opens a question: if God is all-knowing, why do we need to tell him how we feel? At the time, I resolved this by saying that God still wants us to tell him what we’re struggling with or what is bringing us joy, even though he already knows.

Conclusion

One last thought I had after reading Piper’s article was that the biggest or at least most direct danger of Piper’s thinking is its tendency to reduce our attempts to understand weather and forestall natural disaster. If hurricanes are God’s judgement, should we search for ways to change their paths or even to mitigate their effects? If tornadoes are God’s judgement, why should we set up tornado sirens or build tornado shelters?

You might this a step further and apply it to health and disease. If Piper thinks that natural disasters are orchestrated by God, it’s not a stretch that he might think that disease is as well. So why fight disease? Why develop vaccines? We actually saw this directly in the arguments made by some in the 1980s and even today that AIDS is just God’s judgement on gay people and that we therefore shouldn’t search for a cure.

The belief that God is intimately and every day involved in the physical world does have real consequences. It matters whether you think tornadoes are “the fingers of God” or simply a natural weather phenomenon. This is the main danger I see in Piper’s way of thinking.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Paul Durrant

    I’d thought that arguments of this type had been abandoned since the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake.

    I’m astonished to see the idea of natural disasters being God’s punishment still being taken seriously by anyone.

    • Kevin Alexander

      The human mind is ill equipt to handle the idea of chaos. We try to find agency for everything that happens. I doubt that there are many meteorologists who believe that god sends tornadoes.

  • Ron403

    “You might this a step further and apply it to health and disease. If Piper thinks that natural disasters are orchestrated by God, it’s not a stretch that he might think that disease is as well. So why fight disease? Why develop vaccines?”

    Oh my. Such a passive way of being.

    In the end I ask, why bother living? What’s the point to life of such a world view as Piper?

    • Binjabreel

      You ask this like it’s a hypothetical, but plenty of people screamed about penicillin being used to cure syphilis as subverting the will of God.

      Hell, people scream about that NOW, they just don’t have as loud of a megaphone as they once did.

  • Sqrat

    The idea that God might find it necessary to intervene in the physical world to achieve his inscrutable purpose is somewhat at odds with the ideas (1) that God is the “first cause” of all things and (2) that God has perfect foreknowledge. Based on the latter two ideas, one could just as easily concoct a theology that holds that God knowingly caused a Midwestern tornado in 2012 way back at the beginning, when he engaged in his act of creation. Imagine God sitting at his workstation and seeing the following message: “Creating this universe will result in Midwestern tornado in 2012. Create anyway? Y/N”. But God is just as responsible for the tornado under this alternate theology as he is under the theology that says that God decided to “send” the tornado just before it appeared.

    On the other hand, one could concoct a theology that says that God did not cause the tornado because he did not send it, and that his supposed “omniscience” does not extend so far as knowing all the consequences of even his own actions (so that he did not know, way back when he created the universe, that this would result in a Midwestern tornado in 2012). But in that case one must still ask, “What did God know, and when did he know it?” Even if the tornado “just happened,” when did he realize that it was going to happen, and when did he realize that it was going to kill people? Did he have any foreknowledge whatsoever of the tornado? If he did, why did he do nothing to stop it? If he did nothing to stop it, then one must conclude that he was still responsible for the deaths caused by the tornado, even if he did not cause it. He was responsible by an act of omission rather than by an act of commission, but he was still responsible. Either God willfully caused those deaths, or he willfully allowed them.

    • http://kagerato.net kagerato

      This is the issue with assigning God infinite powers like omnipotence and omniscience. (It may be unnecessary even to state omniscience separately, since having the power to do all things almost certainly requires knowing everything in order to be aware of all the actions that can be taken.)

      If we are to argue that God has no moral character and no real interest of any kind in the world, then omnipotence doesn’t necessarily conflict with observed reality. God then becomes an arrogant, selfish jerk with no time for meddling in the affairs of piddling humans.

      Unfortunately, that kind of God doesn’t really inspire much worship and praise. God must be good in order to be worth serving, clearly. So we can’t just strike the benevolence premise unless we wish to allow religion to collapse like the house of cards it is.

      Instead we look for contrived explanations of how omnipotence and benevolence can possibly be reconciled with the observable world (to make a long story short, they can’t). Hand-waving explanations like “free will” and “works in mysterious ways”, as though these could somehow be a defense for genocide, slavery, and countless other evils being actively propagated by the God in question.

      The entire ‘free will’ vs ‘determinism’ philosophical debate is essentially about defending religion. Neither concept makes any sense whatsoever when compared to reality. Determinism is the most extreme form of nihilism possible — whatever will be, will be and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Free will, on the other hand, is equally a justification of existing power structures, since it claims that you have the capacity to influence countless things that, in fact, you have little to no control over. These concepts impose one of the worst false dichotomies ever conceived on humanity.

      Sure, you have will. It’s not “free” in the sense of being disconnected from its environment, and it’s not “free” in the sense of being absolute or inviolable. You exist in a mutual feedback loop with the world around you, including all of its other actors and forces working about. If there can be such a thing as “fate”, it is merely the collective sum of those forces operating in a way that is beyond your influence.

      None of this can be used as a moral justification of anything at all. It is simply vacuous of moral content. Yet theologians and “high-minded” philosophers expect you to take this seriously as a complete and fully formed argument as to how mutually contradictory concepts, at odds with reality, are just not mutually contradictory at all.

      Of course, “mysterious ways” is no more an explanation either. It’s merely descending into the most extreme abuses of raw utilitarianism and totalitarianism. It is easy to tell, because an answer which justifies everything at the same time justifies nothing whatsoever.

      The Problem of Evil goes completely unsolved to this day, and the religious don’t care. Even their leaders don’t care, because anyone who thinks about this issue long enough to realize there is no genuine solution to the problem is too clear-headed and anti-authoritarian to ever be a good little zealot to begin with.

  • Kevin

    I have noticed that tornadoes tend to strike states that have strong anti-gay marriage statutes/constitutional amendments.

    Yahweh either has appalling aim for a Sumerian storm god, or he’s sending a message that is not being received. Maybe something like … oh… “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

    • Kevin

      Forgot one…”Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    This is an extreme minority view. Even at Calvary Chapel, where people saw God’s hand in everything, no one thought natural disasters were God’s work, mainly because it was too hard to explain the victims.

  • michaeld

    To my mind natural disasters being gods work would be more credible if they happened randomly ie earthquakes away from fault zones, a hurricane descending from the artic sea through russia. Also with more accuracy with specific churches and believers being impervious to these events. So if a massive earthquake leveled los angelas and every jewish temple, house etc was spared any damage at all. Maybe a skyscraper falls and literally crumbles and falls aside rather then damage a church that kind of thing.

    If you don’t really believe that then you have to make excuses about gods magical disaster powers be it, nature, other beings, or some divine plan.

  • rp

    When you are taught that the dead have gone to heaven and that the act of dying is being called home, how can you fault god for calling his people home? All those dead have gone on to their rewards and it’s those of us who are left to live without our relatives, friends and neighbors who suffer the loss.

    In any rate, doesn’t that get god “off the hook” for causing deaths among the faithful?

    rp

  • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila Crosby

    I remember in July 1984 York minster had a serious fire, shortly before the new Anglican Archbishop of York was due to be ordained. Since his theology was controversial (the tabloids said he didn’t believe in God, but I think he sort-of believed it was a picture-book truth, or something like that) there were quite a few cries of “Act of God!”

    Then in October 1987 a tremendous storm hit the south of England, pretty much exactly slamming all the places that had voted for Margaret Thatcher shortly before. And I didn’t hear a single peep about any “act of God.”

    More seriously, I think believing that God micromanages the weather is one reason why so few Americans worry about global warming. That and the Koch brothers’ massive disinformation campaign, of course.

  • catgirlthecrazy

    To me the whole “Why the midwest and not DC or Hollywood” question is bizarre. Tornadoes hit the Midwest waaaay more often than they hit the coastal areas, a fact that has been true for years. In fact I think there are few if any parts of the world that are as tornado-prone as the American Midwest. Piper’s question seems to ignore that fact, which is bizarre to me, even by inconvenient-fact-ignoring-Christian standards.

    Also, as someone who grew up in DC, I can tell you that if natural disasters are a metric of God’s displeasure, than God can’t be all that angry with us. It’s rare for us to get storms that take or destroy very many lives, like hurricanes and tornadoes do. The worst we usually get is some storm (e.g. violent thunder storm, edge of a hurricane, blizzard, etc) once every few years that knocks out the power and/or shuts down the roads for a few days.

  • Binjabreel

    I’ve always loved when I’m debating a real, hard-line fundamentalist and they trot out the, “God is good, he’s just good on a scale that’s so unimaginably transcendent that it encompasses things we humans see as evil with our limited perception.”

    Because that opens them up to my favorite counter argument: “Then it’s meaningless to say God is good. We might as well say that God is orange, but his orangeness is of such a transcendent quality that it encompasses all of the other colors of the rainbow.”

    • Binjabreel

      Also, I love that an ad for a bedside “earthquake alert alarm” ended up at the top of the page.

      Personally, my earthquake alert alarm is that holy crap there’s an earthquake!

  • http://skjaere.livejournal.com/ Skjaere

    I also wonder whether part of the argument isn’t that what happens on Earth is sort of inconsequential, because human lives are the blink of an eye in the face of eternity. I feel like that was an argument that used to be trotted out a lot more, historically. “Life is unfair? You suffer and die? Doesn’t matter! If you follow the rules and stay in line, you’ll be rewarded with eternity in heaven! Screw up, and you’ll get a whole lot worse than this.” It’s a good way to justify or dismiss almost anything, and to keep people from making trouble.

  • Marie

    I know I’m late coming to this post, but for what it’s worth, I used to teach Sunday School at a church that used Piper’s curriculum. He’s a hardcore Calvinist. Essentially his position is that God controls EVERYTHING, including evil and the weather. Anything and everything that happens in the world, down to the flap of a butterfly’s wings, happens because God is willing it to happen.

    His arguments absolve the devil of any real role or accountability for anything; Satan is just God’s pawn. There was even a unit in our curriculum called “God’s providence over Evil,” which included God creating and directing natural disasters.

  • god’s fingers are making me type this

    Why do tornadoes hit the midwest more than Washington D.C. or Vermont or Canada, say? Is it the hand of god? Or does it have something to do with massive amounts of cold air blowing south from the Rockies and hitting moist, hot air from the Gulf of Mexico? As we know, such a combination creates the perfect conditions for tornadoes galore, which is why the U.S. does, in fact, have more tornadoes than any other country in the world. If it’s god’s judgment, god’s been judging the U.S. long before it was a country–and probably before any people lived on the continent.


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