Friday, March 25, 2011

59% of White Evangelicals Think God Causes Natural Disasters

That is the number according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Institute. But even more curious is the next number. 67% of white Evangelicals believe that the increased severity of natural disasters is evidence of the end times. On the other side, 52% see it as evidence of Global Warming.

I am already skeptical of statics and surveys. And the numbers above don't help to change my mind. Either I don't understand the statistics or my math skills are off. Last I checked 67% and 52% equaled 119%. So either their numbers are off or those surveyed were VERY convinced of their opinion.

In any case, what is troubling is that a majority of people are more willing to blame God or God's plan to end the world for the recent spat of natural disasters. That a majority seems to think that human activity does not have at least some contributing factor is worrisome. The 40% who see this as God's way of testing faith or the 29% who think it is God punishing nations (see above graph) is also curious.

If one is going to embark upon such a theological explanation one would needs to look at all of the factors. If God punishes nations with natural disaster then God is a fairly capricious God. What I mean is, I can't remember when that last time a major earthquake or tsunami hit, say, England, or France. I suppose we could make a serious case for those countries being punished in much the same way as Japan. So the question is then, why some and not others? Is there an invisible set of scales in heaven that when tipped a little to far then "pow" some sort of natural disaster is sent from God?

And what about all of the innocent people who also are killed? Those who did not commit evil. The story of Abraham's negotiations with God over the fate of a "few righteous" (as few as ten) in Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 suggests that God would, at the very least, rescue the "good people" before bringing a disaster upon a city or nation.

Or how about Cambodia during the time of Khmer Rouge? Here is a perfect example of evil. The atrocities committed against the people of Cambodia during this time were horrendous. Countless numbers of innocent people died. A former student of mine here at the seminary lost her entire family during that period. Yet, God never sent a tsunami to destroy those people. If ever a group of people deserved to be punished for their evil it was them.

Once again, I think Fretheim's suggestion that God created the world good, but not perfect is an appropriate way to think about things. And natural disasters are just that, natural. They are part of the created order. And we as humans only make things worse. Either through the way we pollute the planet, or our practice of building homes, schools and nuclear reactors on known fault lines, and then thinking that we can avoid the consequences. In such instances we demonstrate more evidence of the creature thinking that it is smarter than the creator.

Sometimes we blame the devil. Other times we blame God. I wonder how much we should just blame ourselves. We seem to be perfectly capable of creating our own messes and exacerbating the natural ones. Why would God or a devil need to get involved at all? We are perfectly capable of destroying ourselves and bringing about our own end.


  1. It's ironic that you write a blog called "The Biblical World" and yet reject the thoroughly biblical theme of a God who executes judgments on the earth.

  2. I think the 67% and 52% can be reconciled by assuming that some of the 67% believe that global warming is part of the end-times disaster scenario. Thus, they can say "yes" to both questions.
    I completely agree though. There is simply no discernible correlation between natural disasters and moral evil. Such theology makes God out to be like the teacher who punishes the whole class with detention because he can't figure out who shot the spitball.

  3. I believe that God is in control of His creation. Whether or not He caused these specific natural disasters or they occurred in the course of nature, God could have stepped in and prevented them from happening. But He did not. People can be not very smart and build on known faultlines, but again, God could step in and stop the unthinkable from happening.

    And what about the flood? God destroyed the world through the flood...His choice. Would this be considered a natural disaster?

    I have heard it countless times that we are in the end-times because of the increased incidence of natural disasters. I admit that I lean in that direction as well. I would be in that 67%.

  4. Mike,

    I am not rejecting the theme of God judging the earth. I am rejecting the knee-jerk reactions of those who think that they can blame everything on God or make oversimplified connections to the Bible with current events.

  5. A few thoughts...

    What do you mean by innocent? I could speculate and argue points based on your statement of "innocent" but that exercise could very well simply be me making short work of a straw man. Such a statement is terribly vague but very sensational.

    What do you mean by blame? Are humans "blaming" God in the sense that they feel they are in no way responsible? Blame and cause hold different meanings.

    Finally, your examples of England and France are questions people have been asking since at least when the psalms were sung, if not earlier. There's nothing new under the sun.

    As for cognitivediscopants comment, while it is thoroughly witty it is also mean spirited and poorly thought out. How can the modern church constantly emphasize the importance of community and accountability and then balk at the suggestion that a community may be held accountable for the actions of some?

  6. "I am already skeptical of statics and surveys. And the numbers above don't help to change my mind. Either I don't understand the statistics or my math skills are off. Last I checked 67% and 52% equaled 119%. So either their numbers are off or those surveyed were VERY convinced of their opinion."

    The voters could probably vote for more than one option.

    Otherwise, I agree with much of what you said in this post.

  7. Perhaps what it really suggests is that people need a better science education. The same forces that can destroy us are the same ones that make life possible on this planet. Additionally, I think it is bit naive to assume the severity of natural disasters is increasing considering the absence of data (as far as human experience is concerned) over geologic time (though global warming does predict more unpredictable and perhaps severe weather phenomena). I would argue that as our population grows, resources become more constrained, and the world becomes more interconnected (etc.), these events are 1) more noticeable and 2) have a greater impact on humanity. Personally, I think it is pretty clear that God let's nature take it's natural course (if he didn't, we probably wouldn't be here). We should not read His motivations into the events, rather the way in which we respond with compassion and mercy to those effected by them. I think that speaks for God more than anything anything in these natural events that cause human tragedy.

  8. Are you really a New Testament Professor or is that a joke?

    Another person trying to explain away things he can't understand. Why don't you do a head count of the "innocent" lives in Scripture that died due to natural disasters that God used. Might want to start with the flood, or Achan's family, or those who opposed Moses and their families - including children.

    And maybe you shouldn't be so sure of yourself when you say let's consider "all the factors" ... it might just be that God is considering a few factors you haven't considered.

    Just a thought.