Are wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters, climate change, and pandemic signs of God’s wrath?
A judge in Nebraska threw out a 2007 lawsuit filed against God by state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who had sought permanent injunction against the Almighty for bringing “acts of terrorism” against the Cornhusker state. Chambers…asked that an order be issued demanding God to cease and desist from causing ‘fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects, and the like.’ Judge Marlon Polk threw out Chambers’ case because the defendant in the case a.k.a. God, could not be served with a summons.
Seals and Bowls
The Book of Revelation narrates acts of God that would solicit a lawsuit from Ernie Chambers. God pours out seals and bowls of wrath on the earth. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wreak havoc on humanity, bringing conquest, war, famine, and death. Martyrs cry out for vengeance. Humanity hides from earthquakes and celestial disasters. Huge percentages of the population die. The Bottomless is opened. The springs and rivers and the sea are filled with blood.
John uses colorful language not to describe literal events that will unfold, but simply to say that terrible things will take place, but God is still in control. He describes not the end of the world, but the end of the Jewish and Christian world that his readers have always known. Rebellion, persecution, martyrdom, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem have left his readers feeling like the sky was falling. John paints this poetic picture to accentuate the way believers felt during this time, and to address their worries about the end of days.
Acts of God?
The problem with calling everyday wildfires, windstorms, and tsunamis “acts of God” is that these occurrences are natural events, caused by laws set in motion at the foundation of the world. God does not plan every weather pattern. But according to biblical authors, extraordinary events like the ones mentioned in Revelation, or like the Great Flood, or the destruction of Sodom, or the plagues of Egypt, are not natural occurrences but supernatural ones. They are exceptions to the rule, not God’s usual method of dealing with humanity. The problem comes when people try to read divine retribution into every hailstorm or hurricane.
In 2005, many religious leaders said that Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution against both the immorality and Voodoo practices of the New Orleans area. Evangelist Pat Robertson said that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was the wrath of God for a pact that previous generations had made with the devil. Of course, natural disasters aren’t the only things people point to as examples of God’s anger. Some religious leaders claimed that Ebola was God’s wrath against “sins including corruption and immoral acts such as homosexuality.”
Many biblical authors believed that God at times uses war, natural disaster, and disease to bring divine wrath. Yet not every occurrence is an indication of God’s displeasure with specific people and sins. In fact, we human beings are perfectly capable of destroying things on our own—without divine participation. And Jesus himself seemed to disagree with the Bible’s narrative of divine wrath.
Fire on Our Enemies?
In Luke 9:55-56, when Jesus’ disciples wanted to call fire down on their enemies, it says, “But He turned and rebuked them, [and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”] And they went on to another village.” Jesus’ Abba God is a loving Creator, who wants to bless rather than curse. When people presume exceptions to that rule, Jesus reminds us that compassion is God’s way. In Matthew 18:14, Jesus says, “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.”
Jesus’ words remain true today, that God does not want people to perish. Though many biblical authors believed God to be wrathful and destructive, we see that Jesus heals, and never afflicts. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus, who said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).” If Jesus wouldn’t call down wrath from heaven, then the Father doesn’t do that, either. Imagine the Prince of Peace compelling Putin to invade Ukraine, as Pat Robertson suggested! It would never happen—God does not inspire actions like this. In fact, it’s blasphemous to suggest that God could inspire something as demonic as war.
Does God Cause Suffering?
Death and destruction are part of the human experience. Every creature that has ever been born will die. This isn’t the wrath of God, but the consequence of the human condition. In many cases, it’s the result of people making decisions—like how we choose to follow COVID protocols, whether one country invades another, or the way we treat the environment. God does not send the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—those specters are something we humans have created ourselves.
The book of Job is an example of a righteous man who endured great trouble. Job’s friends said that his suffering was God’s judgment on a sin that he had committed. The story’s narrative contradicts this notion, however, insisting on Job’s innocence. The author says that Satan, not God, is the the culprit. Romans 8:28 says, “…We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” Some believe that this means God sends disaster as well as blessing to work the divine will. To the contrary, it means that regardless of pain, God can still bring triumph, just as in the life of Job.
Equal Opportunity Suffering
Along with many modern people, ancients believed that tragedy was always a sign of God’s wrath. Yet Jesus contradicts this notion by saying, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).” Jesus often dealt with people who wrongly attributed disasters to the wrath of God. In response, He said, “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:4-5).” While God did not cause this tragedy, Jesus says that events like this bring our own mortality more readily into focus and cause us to consider spiritual things.
All Creation Groans
Death and suffering are an unavoidable part of life. Rather than being the result of specific sins, they are inherent in creation. In Matthew 24:8, Jesus describes wars and disasters as “birth pangs.” Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now (Romans 8:18-22).
When we see suffering in the world, should we interpret it as the wrath of God? It’s better to first understand that Jehovah is not Zeus, ready to smite people with lightning bolts. God is not a wrathful punisher, but a loving divine parent ready to give grace. Second, consider that the Book of Jonah demonstrates God’s purpose in permitting suffering is to bring people to a point of change. God is not a bloodthirsty punisher who takes delight in destruction but does bring good out of tragedy.
What Revelation Says About Suffering
What did these passages about God’s wrath mean for the original readers of the book of Revelation? That while persecution under Roman oppressors was terrible indeed, they could look forward to a day when all suffering is over, and the world is made new.
What will it mean, to a last generation of Christians, if there is at some point a final generation? That just as pain in the body alerts a person to the need to draw their hand back from the fire, suffering also helps a person realize the need for spiritual renewal. If Christianity gets to the point where it will die out within one generation, it’s because we’ve been doing it wrong. If that’s the case, maybe we will learn from the world’s suffering and pull away from the way we’ve been doing it, to follow Jesus in the true way of love that he demonstrated.
What does it mean to us today? That while suffering is a part of everyone’s life, God wants to bring about our good. Through a careful study in Revelation, I hope that we’ll learn that not every disaster or tragedy is an act of God. If that were so, it would paint God with a terrible and torturous kind of brush. As we read about suffering in the book of Revelation, I hope we’ll realize that God loves us, and that even through tragedy God is drawing us into a divine embrace.
Scripture quotations taken from the NRSV.