Doctrine Ch.11 - Acts of God

In the Bible, the prophets predicted disasters and used them as warnings from God. Should we regard all disasters as retribution from God? This traditional church doctrine is rarely heard today—for good reasons.

When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1752, the pope recommended it, but many churches refused to install one. They believed that it interfered with God’s sovereign right to strike down sinners. Instead, they continued with the practice of ringing the church bells during lightning storms to call people to pray and to ward off the lightning. Unfortunately this resulted in many bell ringers being killed by lightning—an average of three a year in Germany (where, for some reason, they kept a count). Things didn’t change until 1769, when the church of Saint Nazaire in Brescia, Italy, was struck by lightning. This ignited the gunpowder stored in its large underground vaults—about one hundred tons! The explosion killed three thousand people and destroyed a sixth of the town. After this, most churches quickly fitted lighting rods to their spires.1

       The concept of an “act of God” started with the Laws of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code from about thirty-eight hundred years ago. Law 249 stated that if a man hired an ox and a god struck it with lightning, he did not have to pay compensation. Today, only insurance brokers refer to lightning as an “act of God,” although when lightning caused a serious fire at York Minster in 1984, many people related it to the service held there to consecrate David Jenkins as the new bishop of Durham three days earlier. Some newspapers had reported that this bishop didn’t believe in the resurrection. Was God agreeing with them and making his feelings known in this way?

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Plagues and AIDS

In previous centuries, the doctrine of divine retribution—that God punishes society’s evils through natural disasters such as famines and plagues—was accepted by all Christians. J. C. Ryle (1816-1900), Anglican bishop of Liverpool, was a famous advocate. He interpreted the eighteenth-century cholera outbreak in London as a result of “sabbath breaking, drunkenness, infidelity, blasphemy, fornication.”2 And he regarded insanitary conditions as merely a secondary cause—the primary cause was God himself. The doctrine of divine retribution is still occasionally invoked—such as when the AIDS epidemic first affected mostly homosexual men—but it is rarely taken seriously anymore. This means that there is no easy theological response when huge disasters occur, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which resulted in 230,000 deaths and 1.7 million homeless (mostly Muslims), or the Haitian earthquake of 2010, which left 316,000 people dead and 1.6 million homeless (mostly Christians). Every year we see more disasters on our increasing number of news channels and, as we watch the suffering of so many, the question stays the same: Why?

       Should we ascribe the killing of apparently innocent people to God when a natural disaster occurs? Jesus was presented with this question when he was asked about the collapse of a tower in Siloam, which had recently killed eighteen people, and the killing of innocent bystanders by soldiers in the Temple (Luke 13:1-5). Although the second example wasn’t exactly natural, it was outside the control of ordinary people, so it felt the same. The victims of both incidents didn’t appear to have done anything especially wrong, so why did God let them die this way? Did they have secret sins that God was punishing? As we’ll see, Jesus regarded these as undeserved disasters, but God nevertheless used them for his purposes.

       Old Testament stories such as the destruction of Sodom or the earthquake in King Uzziah’s day suggest that God does sometimes use earthly disasters as punishment. But were these disasters initiated by him in order to do his will, or were they going to happen anyway and God used them to carry out his will? The Bible accounts suggest the second option: God makes use of natural disasters that would happen anyway; he doesn’t initiate them in order to punish us.

       Sodom’s destruction is portrayed in the Bible as a natural disaster that God used as a punishment. When he spoke to Abraham about what was going to happen, he said that he would save everyone in the city if enough of them were righteous. Although we are not told how they would be saved, presumably it would be the same way as Lot—by evacuation. God isn’t pictured as having his hand on the button, waiting until Lot is safe before he presses it. Instead, the urgency of the angels who dragged Lot’s family out of the city implies that they had no control, which suggests that God was using a disaster rather than initiating it specially (Gen 19:15-17). It was a natural event that was going to happen whether the angels were ready or not, and they knew that God wasn’t planning to stop it. However, God was able to use it as a punishment by only rescuing the righteous.

       When an earthquake shook the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in about 760 BC, the fact that Amos had prophesied about God’s judgment just two years previously made people assume that God had deliberately chosen to send it. But there are good reasons to doubt this. The ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah, Uzziah (aka Azariah), was generally good (though he did bad things later, after the quake), and his people were no worse than previous generations (2 Kgs 15:3-4). And although Israel’s king, Jeroboam, is described as “bad,” in fact all Israel’s kings are labeled in that way. Actually, Jeroboam was better than most because he followed God’s guidance to rescue the people (2 Kgs 14:26-27). However, during these reigns there was a new evil, which Amos highlights: many people got wealthy at the expense of the poor. The wise foreign policies of these kings had made a lot of people rich (see 2 Chr 26:8-10; 2 Kgs 14:25), but as Amos complained, they didn’t care about those who remained poor (Amos 2:6-8). Perhaps that’s why Amos specified that their fine, strong mansions would be destroyed—though this was by fire and enemies, not by an earthquake (2:5; 3:11, 15). We should assume that, when the earthquake came, the houses of the poor and rich alike were destroyed.

       Amos concluded: “When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?” (Amos 3:6). He was reminding the people that everything comes from God—bad things as well as good things (which is how his prophecy ends, at Amos 9:11-15). When bad things happen, we should listen to what God might be saying. Of course, God wants all generations to listen to him, but this particular generation had a special opportunity to hear him clearly. In giving Amos this prophecy shortly before a natural disaster occurred, God got their complete attention by showing his foreknowledge. He used this event to present his timeless message in a way that would be remembered and acted on. Amos’ generation wasn’t worse than others, but it received and listened to a warning we should all heed.

Unless you repent

Jesus gave a similar message when he was asked about the disasters in his day. His conclusion was that those who suffered weren’t worse sinners than the others, but their suffering acted as a warning to all: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3). This is not exactly a comforting message to hear! So what was Jesus’ message about the innocent who suffer? In effect, it was that there aren’t any innocent people because we are all sinners. Actually, Jesus didn’t quite say that no one is innocent of sin, because he said “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” He didn’t say “we,” like any other preacher would, which implies that he didn’t count himself among sinners deserving to perish—but he is the only exception.

       Jesus was pointing out that these disasters can be considered minor compared to the judgment that will come to everyone. He didn’t acknowledge any surprise that people were killed in these disasters, because in a wicked and fallen world we should expect this kind of thing to happen. This is not the good and perfect world that God was planning for humanity before sin infected it. Jesus implied that the surprising thing is that we sinners should experience any good in this world.

       Jesus taught that we are all evil, and yet God nevertheless loves us. He warned that our occasional goodness doesn’t nullify our underlying evil nature. He said: You don’t give a stone to your children when they ask for bread, even though you are evil (Matt 7:9-11). In other words: “You might do good things, but you are still sinful.” Another time, when someone politely called him “good rabbi,” he reminded them that only God can really be called “good.” He didn’t want anyone to forget that compared to God, we are all fundamentally evil. We all need God’s forgiveness, even if we do good things a lot of the time. Despite this, Jesus proclaimed God’s forgiveness (Mark 2:5-11), saying that God is longing to do good for us even more than we are longing to do good for our own children (Matt 7:9-11).

       The mystery of natural disasters is not that God allows evil to happen to good people. Jesus’ message implies the real mystery of suffering is that there is so little of it. We experience so much undeserved good that we complain when things go wrong. In our fallen world there will always be disasters, and relatively good people will suffer alongside relatively bad people. But those who listen to Jesus will find a salutary reminder in those disasters. It is a reminder that a real judgment is coming that will be totally just and that God offers an eternity without disasters for those who turn to him in repentance.

1^ See Vladimir A. Rakov and Martin A. Uman, Lightning: Physics and Effects (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2-3 (
2^ J. C. Ryle, “The Hand of the Lord!” Being Thoughts on Cholera (London: William Hunt, 1865), 10 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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