Misfortunes and even disasters are part of life. Are they natural phenomena, are they judgments from God, or are they both?
Hurricane Sandy has just swept through the east coast of the US, killing at least 100, leaving six million without power and causing at least $3 billion dollars in damages. In March 2011, an earthquake (magnitude 9.3), tsunami and radiation accident in Japan killed 15,870 and caused $235 billion in damages. In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Leogane in Haiti, killing at least 316,000. Disease epidemics relentlessly cycle through populations. Such catastrophes occur constantly somewhere in the world, and terrible suffering and loss is an inevitable result.
While similar disasters have occurred since the dawn of time, mankind’s response to them has changed over the centuries. Historians identify two basic approaches, the Metaphysical Approach and the Rational Approach. In the “metaphysical approach”, disasters are caused by direct divine action. In the “rational approach”, disasters are caused by specific natural phenomena, such as microorganisms, wind patterns, seismic activity, environmental contamination and the like. These labels, invented in the past two centuries, illustrate the dismissive attitudes of moderns towards their forebears who, not having the same depth of science and technology that we enjoy today, favored the metaphysical approach.
The Assumed View in the Past
Modern commentators often assume that in most of human history disasters were attributed to the direct action of God (or gods) more so than natural phenomena. The Hebrews at Jericho thanked Jehovah for the collapse of the walls and the conquest of the city (Joshua 6), while present day observers would more likely credit an earthquake, especially since Jericho was located at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, a seismically active area. Later they praised God for their victory over the heavily armored infantry and chariots of the Canaanites (Judges 4:15), even though the physical mechanism was a sudden thunderstorm and flash flood (Judges 5:19-22). Centuries later Sennacherib and his Assyrian army were defeated by the angel of the Lord (2 Kings 19:35) in an episode that looks suspiciously like pneumonic plague. Time and time again ancient writers give the gods credit for events that today we would attribute to purely natural processes.
Nonetheless, the ancients knew that natural causes played a role. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) wrote “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” Many ancients noted that diseases tended to occur in low lying, highly humid areas near bodies of water. Diseases also congregated in areas of great pollution. Physicians from the past reasoned that since the air seemed different (often more fetid) in such areas, and since people in those areas shared the same air, the air must be the cause of their disease. This is called the miasma (Greek – “pollution”) theory of disease. It was prevalent throughout the Eurasian continent until the coming of the germ theory, made possible by improvements in biology, chemistry, physics, and in optics, such as Antoine van Leeuwenhoek’s (1632-1723) microscope.
This dual understanding of events is well illustrated in the eastern Mediterranean. Homer and the Bible often attribute events to divine action, although the Bible recognizes the contribution of natural events. Thucydides and Tacitus, for example, explain events with a natural focus – geography, economics, psychology, society, and technology – while attributing nothing to the work of the gods. Thus the ancients, those that moderns often denounce as “primitive”, understood natural and supernatural aspects of happenings in the world.
The View in the Present
Today disasters and other natural phenomena people are seen primarily in “rationalistic” or natural terms, and people are mocked for suggesting that God may have had any part. Earthquakes are caused by natural seismic activity, and epidemics are caused by complex strings of events that invite but also defy comprehensive analysis. Hurricanes develop from changes in temperature and pressure over bodies of water, and we are told that it is foolish to search for the hand of the divine in them. When an American preacher suggested that the 2010 Haiti earthquake might be part of the judgment of God against the Haitians for the violent slave rebellion of 1791, he was derided without mercy. Right or wrong, this would not have happened in a culture that understood natural disaster as primarily a metaphysical event, or a culture that acknowledged natural and supernatural causes to each circumstance.
This change in thought developed over the past three centuries, but a catalyst was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. On All Saints Day (1 November 1755), a very holy day in the Roman Catholic Church, a devastating earthquake, tsunami and fire struck Lisbon. It killed an estimated 50,000 people in Portugal and the neighboring countries, and destroyed nearly every church and religious building in the city. The red-light district, however, was essentially unharmed. Philosophers from Voltaire to Rousseau pondered this event and concluded that the disaster could not have been punishment for sin; the churches suffered the most and the “most sinful” were left unpunished. Rather they explained this event as purely natural; no god played any role at all. Even if someone insisted that God was involved, it could not have been the God of the Bible, because such a catastrophe in a faithful Catholic country seemed inconsistent with the idea that a benevolent and all-powerful God watched over His creation, and especially those who served Him. The new paradigm has stuck; now to say that God caused any natural event or is even involved in any event, at least in the West, is to invite ridicule and even persecution.
Problems with the Metaphysical Approach
The main difficulty with seeing disasters through purely metaphysical eyes is that it limits one’s ability to understand, respond to and prevent them. Assuming that earthquakes are nothing more than the will of a god discourages trying to find ways to predict them and mitigate their damage. Seeing only the anger of demons and deities in an epidemic prevents discovering the microorganisms that cause and the environmental and social conditions that define the epidemic. Unless we know those, we cannot decrease the suffering and death that the epidemic causes. Humans have made nearly miraculous strides in our understanding of disasters and other natural phenomena and our lives are much safer as a result.
Problems with the Rational Approach
The difficulties with seeing disasters through a singularly metaphysical paradigm are so obvious that we fail to notice the drawbacks of seeing disasters through a singularly rational paradigm. Indeed, while the ancients used both a metaphysical and a rational approach to understanding disasters and other events, modern man seems to be trying to disregard the metaphysical portion entirely. We post-Enlightenment thinkers thus limit our ability to understand the world, or at least the world as understood by those who do not share our views.
This is a problem, because if there is a Creator God, He would certainly use His creation to accomplish His will. 21st century man certainly has the scientific and technological edge on 1st century man, but identifying a naturalistic cause for disasters does not automatically eliminate a metaphysical cause. For example, it is entirely possible that a tornado, while generated and sustained by physical elements and the laws of nature, still does the work of God. The Bible certainly teaches this. If man considers himself somehow more than the sum of his atomic particles, he must at least consider that the rest of the universe could be more than the sum of its atomic particles. If man has more than just a rational, mechanistic side, the universe probably does too.
One unintended consequence of viewing disasters in a purely natural and mechanistic means is that these disasters become meaningless. The forces of nature seem random, or at least they are not looking out for us in the way that a compassionate God would. Mother Nature has no interest in whether an individual human, or even the human race, lives or dies. Random subatomic movement has no plan and no concern for its consequences. Impersonal forces are not interested in punishing us, protecting us, developing us, or doing anything that people typically say that God is doing through hardship such as disasters.
We intuitively understand this, and yet we crave to find meaning in disasters and the inevitable suffering that they bring. While a man in the mountains of Colorado may be scorned for saying that God allowed Hurricane Sandy to devastate New York City to accomplish His purposes, a man sitting atop his flooded house in South Queens will almost invariably seek meaning in his loss. Perhaps he will attribute it to punishment for some specific sin or lifestyle, or perhaps he will simply affirm that God is making him stronger.
The Apostle Paul suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” which he believed was given by the Lord to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). After the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on 26 January 1986, killing all aboard, President Reagan did not speak of the technical reasons for the disaster. Rather he focused on the metaphysical meaning of the astronauts’ work and their untimely demise, concluding that in a way they had not anticipated before the accident, they had “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.” In reality, the heart of man has changed very little – he needs both rational and metaphysical explanations for whatever befalls him. When we are not touched by a tragedy, a rational explanation will do. When we are, the rational explanation is useful, but what we really need is a metaphysical one.
Some may argue that while we still use both metaphysical and rational explanations for natural disasters and their consequent suffering, modern metaphysical arguments seek meaning from the individual, not from God. Each man must assign his own meaning to tragedies. This attitude fits well with our tendency to deify man, but it quickly evaporates in the face of real suffering and death. The harder we try to make ourselves, individually and collectively, the center of all things, the more we fail.
The End of the Matter
What, then, is the meaning of the suffering that inevitably accompanies disasters and many other natural phenomena? In some cases, misfortune is the direct result of an individual’s sin. Gehazi coveted the wealth of Naaman and contracted leprosy as a result (2 Kings 5:25-27). In other cases, one person’s sin causes suffering to other people. David’s disobedience to God brought pestilence to his people (2 Samuel 24:15-17). The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah brought destruction upon themselves (Genesis 19:1-29). Most earlier commentators believed that natural disasters were the direct punishment of God on sinners. The work Four Anonymous Sermons on the Plague from the Toledo Homiliary certainly suggests such. However, during Jesus’ ministry He stated in no uncertain terms that you cannot necessarily draw a causal link between individual sin and natural disasters (Luke 13:1-5). In the Bible, Job was broken by the loss of his family, his wealth, and his health, and even when God restored him, Job never learned why he suffered. Usually it is impossible to know why God allows misfortune to affect people.
Why did God send (or at least allow) Hurricane Sandy, the Japanese tsunami and the Haitian earthquake to wreak such havoc? The most Christian answer is that we do not know. Hurricane Sandy, the Japanese tsunami, and the Haitian earthquake were terrible tragedies; the suffering they caused cannot be fathomed. However, neither can they be robbed of meaning with purely naturalistic explanations. The Bible believing Christian has but one option; to understand that God works through natural processes that He has made to accomplish His perfect purposes. We often do not know what the final purpose is, but we know that God has a purpose infinitely greater and more beautiful than our own. His kingdom will benefit, and so will we.
 Stathakopolous D, Crime and Punishment, Plaque in the Byzantine Empire, Little LK (ed), Plague and the End of Antiquity, Cambridge Press, 2007, p106
 Luttwak, E. The Missing Dimension, in Johnston D. Sampson C. (eds), Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1994, 8
 Stathakopolous D, Crime and Punishment, Plaque in the Byzantine Empire, Little LK (ed), Plague and the End of Antiquity, Cambridge Press, 2007, p160-170