Remember last week’s tornadoes? One pastor’s response

Aerial photo of Tuscaloosa after last week's tornado

I’m aware that the news cycle has moved on rather dramatically from last week’s devastating tornadoes that swept through Alabama and Georgia. But before it gets too far away, I did like this pastor’s theological reflection. Adam Hamilton goes through the usual laundry list of “reasons” God allows or causes natural disasters such as this one. Although he disagrees with them, he rightly point out that these explanations can offer comfort (to some) and assurance (to some) that “God is in control.”

“God is in control” is not a bad or untrue message, either. The question is, “How does God exert that control?” Hamilton writes:

But there is a different message many pastors will preach this weekend. They will tell their parishioners that God doesn’t send tornadoes. To find the answer to the “Why?” question, these pastors will suggest, one must turn not to a theologian or to the Bible, but to a meteorologist. The meteorologist explains that tornadoes are naturally occurring events that can, with varying degrees of accuracy, actually be predicted… These pastors may even take the time to explain the weather conditions that give rise to tornadoes. It is not God, they will say, but the collision of hot and cold air, that is the answer to the question, “Why?”

Then they will remind their people that just over a week ago, on Good Friday, Christians remembered that the Son of God himself was subjected to pain and suffering, tragedy and loss, such that he cried out, using the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They will note that a religion whose founder was crucified cannot be construed to teach that God’s people will never suffer. God seldom suspends the laws of nature, just as God does not remove free will to keep evil people from doing evil things.

Even before my series of articles and sermons last year in the wake of the Haiti disaster, I wrote this piece on theodicy, which some might find helpful.

4 thoughts on “Remember last week’s tornadoes? One pastor’s response”

  1. I agree that attribution of “natural disasters” as between “nature” and nature’s God is a tricky proposition. Nonetheless, in the Old Testament, God says, somewhere, “Is there a disaster, and I have not caused it?” Also, “predictability” does not necessarily disprove God’s providence. Who makes the cold and the hot come into proximity? And so on back down the line. Further, who made the laws of nature so that cold and hot colliding might cause tornadoes?

    I would further note that “general” predictability does not go so far as to determine the “exact path” that a tornado will follow. Case in point–we had a tornado downtown which blew out all the windows and did other damage to one skyscraper (eventually had to be imploded), but the one I worked in close by escaped with only one broken window pane. Who knows why as to which building in that instance, but nevertheless that “path” was somewhat “arbitrary” to that degree–as with other natural disasters.

    Jesus said not a sparrow falls (or flits) to the ground without our Father. Also, “our days are numbered.” God’s sovereignty certainly reaches to control of massive events that affect, among other things, the “longevity” of people’s lives.

    So, assuming a degree of control by God in such events, why do the disasters occur? First as to the “justice” of the matter (“Why do good people suffer and not the evil?”, as some prophets inquired.) The most important response is, “The final page has not been written.” All that is now a “wrong” will ultimately be made “right” come judgment day and the hereafter. See the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

    Second, the thing that is ultimately important is not the comfort and convenience of this life, but that in this training ground people make themselves ready for the next life. Sometimes the “earth” has to be “shaken up” before people will “look to heaven.” A world where there is no prospect of “sudden disaster” would very likely lull people to sleep as to spiritual considerations. Why change my life today when I can always do so tomorrow? Whereas, as another verse says, “Today is the day of salvation, so harden not your hearts.”

    Tom Harkins 05/04/2011

    1. By all means, predictability doesn’t disprove God’s providence. We are in complete agreement on that. This is the number one problem with atheists’ arguments against God. In one way or another, they always seem to come down to this: If there is a “natural” explanation, there is therefore no other explanation. This is a terrible argument, which I’ve written about many times before on this blog.

      A highly regarded contemporary theologian named Kathryn Tanner wrote an essay on Providence that blew me away in seminary. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, but I knew that if I could, my head would explode. But inasmuch as I did understand it, I liked it a lot.

      She argued that God doesn’t operate on the plane of causality, such that God sets a chain of events in motion—God causes x, which interacts with y, which affects z, etc. God operates from “above” the plane of physical causation in order to work God’s will in the world. And here’s the cool thing: God does so in such a way that doesn’t violate freedom—human freedom or the freedom of anything else in the universe, including those meteorological conditions that cause tornadoes. From her perspective, God creates everything radically free. (I would add that this picture conforms nicely with Genesis 1: “Let be” are words of permission—I give you permission; you are free.)

      So there is no competition between what humanity and the world do and what God does. God’s good will being carried out ultimately doesn’t depend on anything outside of God’s self. But if Tanner (among many other theologians) is right, then we’re not left with a choice between EITHER God OR physics but not both. I sense that that is what you are afraid is at risk in this discussion: if we can attribute something to “the weather,” independently of God, then God is not therefore in control. That’s a false choice.

      Furthermore, at this moment, God is suspending everything into existence. This is the fully Christian (as opposed to Deistic) view of Creation. God is, as one theologian put it, “the wellspring of all actuality.” Everything currently happening in the world is happening because God is actively enabling it—but, I strongly believe, God is doing so by letting free actors remain free, without violating the law of cause and effect.

      And this is good for us most of the time. Most of the time, our universe works out quite well for us. Most of the time, our world supports human life quite well. Often, when it fails to do so, that, also, is a consequence of free human choice. Why do we Americans disproportionately live on the coasts? Why do we insist on building in flood planes and in hurricane zones? We assume a lot of risk.

      And as theologian (and archbishop of Canterbury) William Temple put it a long time ago, when we pray that God would spare us from this or that natural disaster, we’re really asking God to make an exception to the laws of physics for us, even though the vast majority of time they serve us quite well.

      If God routinely granted exceptions to believers who prayed for them, then before long, we would fail to live in a predictable universe. I like counting on the fact that gravity will be there for me when I get out of bed in the morning. I don’t like gravity when I’m on the wrong side of a giant boulder hurdling my way. But maybe we don’t get to pick and choose. If we did, it would be a disaster for all of us, and this life-supporting world would no longer support life.

      And in this sense, we are relieved of the burden of ascribing everything that happens in the universe to God’s will. We pray in the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven because we understand that we live in a world in which God’s will is often not done. Maybe this just means things that humans cause, but I don’t know… Biblically speaking, the fall of humanity created some sort of cosmic rift between God and nature that I don’t understand. But C.S. Lewis speculates on this nicely in “The Problem of Pain.”

      I don’t even know to what extent I disagree with what you write, and I do agree with much of it. Nothing in life is guaranteed. God doesn’t owe me any more time on this earth, and look how much time God has graciously given me! It’s all grace! And God works through everything that happens, good or bad. God uses bad things, I believe, without causing them in the conventional sense.

      And if what I’m saying is close to true, then the difference between what God enables or allows and “causes” is often negligibly small (which is why I can’t “solve” the problem of theodicy to my satisfaction). And, besides, God takes responsibility for all of it. I’m all for complaining to God if we don’t like something that happens, because in a sense it is his fault. But he’s big enough to handle our complaints.

      I think we should follow Jesus’ own example in Luke 13:1-5. Jesus is given an opportunity to answer “why” and he remains very circumspect on the question.

  2. Brent, I like a lot of what you say, but I look at matters a bit differently in some respects. For example, I think God “acts” in history, and sometimes this is in response to prayers. “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything.” “Ask, and you shall receive.” “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Etc.

    However, God already knew when and what we would ask “before time began” (as well as everything else), so he “already” arranged things to happen in accordance with that “foreknowledge.” Yet, as I think you are saying, none of this is violative of our free wills. We are still asking of our own volition, and God is still acting when he does of his own volition. Thus, in the Garden, he knew he would be crucified, but it was still a “hard thing to do” when the time came and he “actually” agonized over it. Doubtless I am doing “minor” justice to the cosmic reality here, but that is basically how I deal with the question.

    As to God’s “deciding to act” with respect to natural disasters, I think God does sometimes “choose to cause them,” even if that choice was made “before time began.” In part that is simply because of “how he made nature” to begin with, and allows nature to “take its course,” which certainly supports “stability,” as I think you indicate. However, sometimes God does “intervene” even beyond “how nature normally operates” (and even if he decided that he would do that “long ago”). The scriptural “miracles” are certainly examples of that. I frankly don’t know the extent to which God “overrides natural laws” presently (I have some doubts about that), but that does not mean he does not (or did not) “massage” how natural laws operate in specific instances. “Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

    Thus, and again I find myself weakly addressing the point, I “decide” what I will wear in the morning, and that “decision” puts into play a different course of subsequent events than if I had decided to do something else. (Interestingly, and this only came to me at the moment, this morning I took the unusual step of wearing a suit, and as it happened I was called into a meeting with a client I had not anticipated.) Surely God can likewise “decide” to take specific action which causes natural events to take a different course than what they would have taken absent that decision. Specifically, I think God does (or at least may) “direct” the “specific” path a tornado may take which it would not have taken had he not made that decision.

    Those are my thoughts on this, and though “I think I also have the Spirit,” per Paul, nevertheless “we have these treasures in earthern vessels,” i.e., I am just as capable of error in my understanding as the next guy.

    Tom Harkins 05/04/2011

    1. Thanks for your response, Tom. I certainly believe God answers prayer and acts in history, too. I was just trying to articulate a way in which God does so without violating the freedom of everything in the universe. The Tanner essay I mention discussed this more fully than I can; it was a bit over my head. My takeaway from the essay was: This is how God works in our world; if we don’t understand it, that’s O.K. We’re finite and limited; God is eternal.

      As you imply, God’s foreknowledge means that God knows for all eternity how history will unfold, but how it unfolds—how God “sees” history—is very much dependent on our prayers and choices, all of which are guided at every moment by the God who sustains us.

      My main thing is grace: We’re not entitled to anything from God. Life is a gift at every moment. I wish I could live with that attitude most of the time!

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