In my previous post, “Describing the Devastation Caused By Hurricane Dorian,” I described how the media used biblical terminology to describe the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian. The destruction caused by Hurricane Dorian has caused untold suffering to thousands of people in the Bahamas. Despair and hopelessness are present in the lives of those people most affected by the storm. The effort at helping the victims to deal with the emotional crisis caused by this tragedy shows the compassion of people everywhere. Most of us will never be fully aware of the hidden tragedies faced by the thousands of people affected by Hurricane Dorian. One question lingers: where was God in this tragedy?
The Bible says that God is good and that he has determined things that will come to pass. The Bible also teaches that in His sovereignty, God controls all things in the world He created. But if God created all things, then is God the author of evil? In other words, how can evil exist in the good world that a loving and caring God has created? How do we justify the evil, suffering, and pain caused by Hurricane Dorian? These questions are related to the issue of “theodicy.” In dealing with the problems of evil and suffering, theodicy is an attempt at justifying the goodness and righteousness of God in the face of evil in the world.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines theodicy as an “explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The term literally means ‘justifying God.’ Although many forms of theodicy have been proposed, some Christian thinkers have rejected as impious any attempt to fathom God’s purposes or to judge God’s actions by human standards.”
Several answers have been proposed to explain tragedies such as Hurricane Dorian. Some people believe that after God created the world, God established permanent laws, which we call the laws of nature, and allowed the created order to work by itself according to these laws. Under this view, God is separated from the world and exercises limited powers over the created order and is bound by the laws He established in the beginning.
Those who accept this view believe that the world functions like a machine that has been set in motion and cannot be stopped. Thus, the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian is part of the laws of nature God set in motion in this inflexible system in which the natural laws cannot be changed. Under this view, God gave nature independence and power and placed nature under inflexible laws, and then left the world and allowed nature to function by itself, devoid of divine direction.
Another view has been developed by Gregory A. Boyd, in his book God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. Boyd said that natural disasters are caused by the work of an evil agent whose work is to inflict evil and suffering upon the world. According to Boyd, “the earth is virtually engulfed by cosmic forces of destruction, and that evil and suffering are ultimately due to his diabolical siege” (p. 55). Boyd concludes that even though the Book of Genesis emphasizes that creation is good, there is evidence in the structural foundation of the cosmos that demonstrates open hostility against the creator. Because of spiritual rebellion against God, creation has fallen into a state of war against God and it is expressed in the Old Testament by the personification of the hostile waters (p. 85).
This cosmic struggle means that something about the environment of the earth was and still is hostile toward God and toward human beings. John Levenson, in his book Creation and the Persistence of Evil, has taken a similar position. He says that although God has mastery over these forces of chaos, “creation itself offers no ground for the optimistic belief that the malign powers will not deprive the human community of its friendly and supportive environment” (pp. 47-48). For Levenson, these adversarial forces were not vanquished in primordial times, but continue to pose a challenge to the creator. Thus, as in the days of Noah when a flood destroyed the world, the destructive force of Hurricane Dorian came as a defiance of God, not as a manifestation of God’s will.
A third view is that God is limited in what he can do. Harold S. Kushner, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said that we cannot ask God “to change laws of nature for our own benefit, to make fatal conditions less fatal” (p. 116).
According to Kushner, people cannot pray for the impossible or the unnatural. He also believes that pockets of the chaos present in Genesis still remain today. Events in nature follow fixed natural laws but once in a while events happen that follow outside of the natural order. A hurricane does not reflect God’s choice. Hurricanes happen at random and this is another form of chaos. Thus a hurricane is not “the will of God, but represents that aspect of reality which stands independent of His will, and which angers and saddens God even as it angers and saddens us” (p. 55).
A fourth view accepted by many people is that the hurricane was a punishment of God upon the sins of the people. In the same way that God punished the generation of Noah with the great flood and punished the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with an earthquake, God sent Hurricane Dorian to punish sinful people for their sins.
The Old Testament teaches that natural disasters can be understood as punishment for sins against God. In his prayer at the dedication of the temple, Solomon gave several reasons for people praying in the temple. In his prayer to God, Solomon said: “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and . . . when famine or plague comes to the land, or blight or mildew, locusts or grasshoppers . . . and when a prayer or plea is made by any of your people, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Forgive and act. When they sin against you-for there is no one who does not sin-and you become angry with them and if they have a change of heart . . . and say, `We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly;’ and if they turn back to you . . . then from heaven . . . hear their prayer and their plea, and . . . forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you” (1 Kings 8:35-50).
Natural disasters can be understood as divine punishment. But how should we understand what happened to the people in the Bahamas? The arguments presented above may be valid ways of understanding the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian, but are these views the right answer to what happened? I do not believe that Hurricane Dorian was a punishment upon the sins of the people who live in the Bahamas. I believe there is another way of understanding the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian. My next post will present another way of understanding the work of God and the tragedy caused by Hurricane Dorian.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on Hurricane Dorian
Hurricanes and the Goodness of God (forthcoming)
Boyd, Gregory A. God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.
Levenson, John. Creation and the Persistence of Evil. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1988.