I was recently asked about why God allows natural disasters. This is a good question, as there have been some terrible disasters in recent weeks, including hurricanes and an earthquake. We should be reflecting on where God is in all this.
But there is a difference between where God is in the midst of disasters and why he allows them.
Facing our assumptions
When we ask why God allows natural disasters, we are making a certain assumption. Asking this question assumes that the normal situation is a world without natural disasters but for some reason, at certain times God allows some disasters to sneak through or God creates the disaster for some specific reason.
This latter idea is why some people suggest that the latest disaster is God’s punishment for some sin or lack of faithfulness. I will say that I strongly disagree with such claims. That’s not to say that God would never do such a thing, but we can never be confident that is the reason. It is dangerous to interpret disasters as God’s punishment.
This assumption about the “normal” way things work also comes into play with physical illness. When a person gets very sick and dies, we ask why God allowed it. There is an underlying assumption that either people shouldn’t get sick or that God will heal every time we ask. While I do believe that God does heal, there is no biblical promise of universal health or automatic healing. The real normal situation is a world where people do get sick and die. Healing is the exception rather than the rule.
This brings us back to natural disasters. Why does God allow them?
A necessary evil?
Is it possible that a planet that can support life will naturally have earthquakes and hurricanes because of plate tectonics and complex weather systems?
Perhaps it is not a matter of God sending certain storms for certain purposes but rather a natural outcome of the planet God has created.
But couldn’t God create planet that could support life but not have disasters? Perhaps. But believing that God is all-powerful (omnipotence) doesn’t mean that God can do everything. There are plenty of things God can’t do.
- God can’t create a square circle.
- God can’t create a married bachelor.
- God can’t create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift.
It is possible that natural disasters are necessary results for a life-permitting world.
But even if God could create a world without disasters, there may be reasons that he does not. God’s purpose for humanity is not for us to be happy and comfortable (even if it is nice when that happens).
God’s purpose for us is to come into relationship with him and to love other people. It is often during disasters that we find both people relying upon God and people reaching out in compassion toward those in need. It may be that God has a purpose not for each specific disaster but for disasters in general.
One of the responses to the problem of suffering is the concept of freewill. That is most often used as a way to look at moral evil. Crime and war is part of the price of our being free to choose our way.
I would suggest that freewill comes into play when it comes to natural evil, that is suffering such as results from disasters. I have observed that the level of suffering and death as a result of disasters is often related to human choices. Nations that are marked by corruption and oppression of the poor seem to have higher death tolls than those who care enough to build an infrastructure that protects against disasters.
Humans can choose to create a world where people are much safer in a world that experiences disasters. Will we make those good choices?
This may not be a satisfying answer for some. We may wish that God would act miraculously to stop every disaster. But God has not promised to do that. God does not promise to prevent the storm, he promises to be with us in the storm.
Although the “why” question is valid, at some point we need to shift to “when.” When disasters strike, what will we do to alleviate the suffering?