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.
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.
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.