Science Ch.27 - Sodom’s Natural Disaster

Seismologists can’t make accurate predictions yet, though God predicted Sodom’s destruction. This is described like a natural process because it couldn’t be delayed when Lot dawdled.

Most cities are built in dangerous places. Some are built on lowlands near the coast, where there are natural harbors, but this location puts them in maximum danger from tsunamis, hurricanes, and coastal erosion. Others are built beside rivers at their shallowest points, where they can be easily bridged, but this is also the point most likely to be flooded. And others are built where veins of valuable metals and fuels come close to the surface, but these occur at geological fault lines that are most liable to suffer earthquakes. All this means that natural disasters hit a disproportionate number of cities and, when they do, God often gets the blame.

       It’s understandable that people might jump to this conclusion because the message of Sodom appears to be that God sends natural disasters to punish people. Sodom was destroyed by some kind of geological activity just after God said he would punish the people – but this isn’t the only way to interpret the story.

       The text tells us that God and his angels destroyed the city (Gen 19:13, 29), so we reasonably assume that God specifically initiated this disaster. Of course, we can also understand these verses as an affirmation that everything ultimately originates with God. He makes the rain that waters crops and also causes floods; he created an earth containing volcanoes that fertilize fields with their ash, but they also destroy homes. There are clues in the text that this disaster was part of the normal processes on this planet so it was going to happen anyway. In that case, rather than purposely sending the disaster, God used this aspect of his creation to bring punishment, though he also stepped in to carry out a dramatic rescue for anyone who was willing to listen.

5-minute summary

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Seismic event

We don’t know exactly what happened. The text says “the LORD rained down burning sulfur ... out of the heavens (Gen 19:24). This suggests a massive volcanic event. There is evidence for earthquake activity in the area, and this may have been associated with liquefaction – when the ground is turned to mud that flows and buries everything in its path. This may have been accompanied by released inflammable gases that burned everything in the area.1 Our mental image of the disaster has been influenced by the art of John Martin, who toured England with his wall-sized canvas of the destruction of Sodom. For his awed paying viewers, this was as amazing as IMAX is today.2

       One clue that the disaster was inevitable is that the text clearly suggests that the angels had little control over the destructive forces. When Lot delayed leaving, they couldn’t stop or even postpone the disaster; they could only grab the family’s hands and drag them away from the city (Gen 19:16). They told the family to run fast without looking back, but Lot’s wife stood and stared. Perhaps she wanted to see what was happening, or perhaps she was sad at leaving a city that she loved – but she died as a result. We can’t assume that this was a punishment. The narrative merely implies that she didn’t run away from the danger quickly enough – like the angels had instructed – so she suffered what Lot also feared: “this disaster will overtake me” (19:19). From this it seems clear that the angels couldn’t prevent the disaster or protect individuals in the disaster area if they didn’t move fast enough.

       The angels did not go to Sodom to initiate the destruction, but to discover how many people should be rescued from a destruction that was due to happen. The text records the Lord saying, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me,” and the two angels left immediately after he said this (Gen 18:21-22). The people are the focus of Abraham’s negotiations (Gen 18:23-33), and it seems that God sent the angels as a test to see if they should be rescued, based on how the angels were treated. Lot gave them hospitality, but late in the night a mob consisting of the men of the city beat on his door, intent on gang-raping them (Gen 19:4-9). God had agreed with Abraham that if there were even ten people in the city who weren’t wicked, the whole city would be saved. As it was, the angels could find only one family to rescue.

The possibility of rescue

Another clue that disaster was inevitable is that God had already announced Sodom would be destroyed before talking to Abraham (Gen 18:17) – and presumably God knew this would happen long before the people of Sodom decided to put their city in this geologically rich though also dangerous location.

       Abraham’s negotiation assumed that the righteous would live or die along with the wicked: “Far be it from you … to kill the righteous with the wicked” (Gen 18:25). But God had a better plan: to rescue as many as responded to the call to be saved. In the end, their overwhelming sinfulness meant that only a few were evacuated. The warning went out to other families, but they ignored it (Gen 19:14). The disaster was inevitable, but everyone in the city could have survived.

       How could the angels have saved the whole city if they weren’t able to stop the geological catastrophe itself? The answer lies in their instructions to Lot after they’d dispersed the mob by blinding them: they told him to go and warn others who were close to him. Lot duly spent all night trying to persuade his prospective sons-in-law to leave the city, but they only laughed at him. At dawn, the angels called a halt to Lot’s efforts, saying that if he and his family didn’t leave immediately, the disaster would kill them, too.

       The whole city could have been saved. If the men had come to Lot’s house to greet his guests instead of to rape them, the angels could have warned them of the impending disaster. Sodom was not large by modern standards – even a major city such as Jericho contained only two or three thousand people. So the message could have quickly spread to every household, who could have spent the night preparing for evacuation at dawn.

Repentance and judgment

Jesus used this disaster as an object lesson for those who reject God’s warnings about evil. He said that if cities like Tyre and Sodom had repented, they would have been saved. Jesus didn’t mean that the physical location wouldn’t have been destroyed if the people had repented, because he said that “the land of Sodom” would stand before God at judgment day – that is, the people, not the location (Matt 10:15; 11:23-24). The Sodom that would have been saved was the people – while the physical location was doomed by the natural disaster. Presumably, those who were rescued would have built a new Sodom, just like the survivors of Tyre built a new Tyre near their flattened city.

       Another disaster in the Old Testament was the earthquake in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in about 760 BC (Amos 1:1).3 Amos prophesied about God’s judgment two years before the earthquake happened, so we might assume that God deliberately chose to send it. But there’s a problem with this: the prophets didn’t say that people living at that time were worse than previous or future generations. Actually, Judah’s king at the time was Uzziah (aka Azariah), who was generally good – though he did do some bad things after the time of the earthquake (2 Chr 26:16-20). Perhaps Judah suffered an earthquake aimed at their neighboring half-nation of Israel, ruled by Jeroboam, who was “bad” (2 Kgs 14:24). However, all of Israel’s kings were labeled as “bad,” and Jeroboam was actually used by God to rescue the people (2 Kgs 14:26-27).

       One thing that was new during their reigns was wealth. The wise foreign policy of both kings made a lot of people rich (see 2 Chr 26:8-10; 2 Kgs 14:25), and Amos complained that they didn’t care about those who remained poor (Amos 2:6-8). This perhaps is a clue about the earthquake, because Amos specified that the palaces would be destroyed. However, Amos said they would be destroyed by fire and enemies, not by an earthquake (2:5; 3:11, 15).

       These details suggest that God didn’t send this earthquake as a specific punishment. Instead, before it occurred, he sent the prophecy in order to try to get people to listen to the accompanying warnings about future judgments. When the prediction about a disaster came true, it meant that Amos got everyone’s attention. And Zechariah also used this earthquake to make his message about final judgment more vivid for those living in Jerusalem (Zech 14:5). It appears that God used a geological event to present his timeless message in a way that would be remembered and acted on.

       Amos’ warnings weren’t directed at a generation that was more sinful than others, but he warned all generations that God will one day judge us. As with the disaster at Sodom, this interpretation implies that the catastrophic earthquake that hit Jerusalem was going to happen anyway, but God used it to warn people about his anger at sin in general.

       Jesus had the same understanding of disasters. He said that those who suffered in the natural and political disasters of his day weren’t worse sinners than anyone else. And, like these Old Testament prophets, he used these disasters to warn everyone, saying: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3).

       In the story of Sodom, God’s rescue plan for those who would listen to him demonstrates his overwhelming desire to save us from what we deserve. Those who listen to Jesus’ message will take in the salutary warning.

       Disasters are not always sent as specific punishments from the hand of God, but they can all act as a reminder that a real judgment is coming that will be totally just and much more severe. Their purpose is, according to Jesus, to remind us of the good news that God offers an eternity without evil for those who turn to him in repentance.


• The angels couldn’t delay the destruction of Sodom, so they had to grab and drag Lot’s family to safety, and they couldn’t save Lot’s wife, who hung back.
• Saving “the city” does not mean saving the buildings, because Jesus said the city would stand before God’s throne – that is, he referred to the people.
• Amos, Zechariah, and Jesus pointed to natural disasters as warnings of God’s coming judgment, and not as a punishment of those actually killed by them.
• Proposal: God can use natural disasters to punish and to warn, but the Bible does not tell us that he produces specific disasters to do this.

1^ For a discussion of what actually happened, see Jessica Cecil, “The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” BBC History (
2^ See John Martin, Sodom and Gomorrah, Wikimedia Commons (
3^ Amos says Jeroboam II still reigned, and he died in 753 BC.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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