Schneider Aviel

Faith and Natural Disasters

Nothing exemplifies the rift between the biblical past and modern times quite like our view of natural disasters and whether or not God still has a hand in them

| Topics: Natural Disasters
Flooding in Tel Aviv in December 2021. Can God's hand still be seen in natural disasters?
Flooding in Tel Aviv in December 2021. Can God's hand still be seen in natural disasters? Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

The natural disasters mentioned in the Bible are easier for many to understand than those of our day. The Bible is filled with stories of floods, fires, locust swarms, earthquakes and plagues that were once conceived as punishment and judgment from God.

Today, natural disasters are often explained scientifically. The question is, does this weaken God’s status? And is everything happening by itself today, or is God still in control? Does God determine, as in the past, when and where the earth trembles and the sea floods the shore?

The Bible spells out quite explicitly God’s direct role in various natural disasters. The Great Flood, the fire and brimstone from heaven that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and the 10 Plagues upon Egypt, which God detailed for Moses prior to unleashing His wrath.

King Solomon in chronicling the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem spelled out that forces of nature are God’s tools and are used to educate His people.

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:13-14)

Every believer, whether Jew or Christian, understands that the Almighty caused and ended natural disasters in the past. This comes from reading the Bible, for this is what the Bible teaches us. God created the world in six days. A natural disaster here or there is not an issue for Him. Believers don’t question that. In the Bible everything is plain and clear. Every misfortune, every catastrophe and every pandemic shows us our limits. As humans, we think we have everything under control and don’t realize how small and inferior we are. At the same time, God speaks to people to induce them to repent.

Earthquake in Haiti, 2010. Photo: Sophia Paris/Flash90

But as soon as natural disasters hit the headlines in our time, questions are asked. That was the case in the Indian Ocean in 2004, when a tsunami killed more than 226,000 people in the region. The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 killed 222,000 people, and a storm in Myanmar in 2008 claimed 140,000 lives. But also during the heat wave in Europe in 2003 or in Russia in 2010, a total of 125,000 people died. Not to forget the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

All of this raises questions. Even today, when the world has to deal with an insidious virus. In the face of such calamities and catastrophes, people ask questions, and they are justified. Is God behind it? What does the Bible say? Has the end time arrived? If all of this had happened in biblical times, it could easily be blamed on God. But in our time we see things differently.

Another question arises, namely whether God actively causes a disaster, or only allows it to happen. What’s the difference anyway? Frequently during such calamities, people recall the prophet Amos:

Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it? (Amos 3:6)

But today people question: What does a terrorist attack, a nuclear disaster, a hurricane, an earthquake or a global pandemic have to do with God?

Was it God who actively caused (or perhaps only allowed) the coronavirus pandemic in China at the end of 2019? Or was it rather the devil’s scheme? And if so, why didn’t God stop him?

It’s kind of strange that natural disasters are taken for granted as acts of God without praising and thanking Him for the years, decades and even centuries that mostly saw peaceful weather.

Many people question God’s goodness because of these natural disasters and calamities. We have to learn to admit that there is a lot we don’t know. From the story of Jonah we understand that God Himself acted. He caused the storm and ordered the fish to devour Jonah. With Job, on the other hand, the initiative came from the devil. God gave Job over to Satan’s power for a set time. So God did not actively cause Job’s suffering, but rather allowed it to happen.

Biblically, a calamity was a punishment from God due to human sin. In Israel’s case, God had chosen them, and still the people deviated from Him. Many wonder if this formula is still valid in our time. Might it be that today, as in Bible times, God “spoke and raised a tempest that lifted the waves of the sea,” as written in Psalm 107? In Isaiah 45:7, God tells us:

“I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

Jews and Christians who hold fast to this and describe every natural disaster as a punishment or work of God, are often condemned as fanatics by those around them.

Flooding in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, November 2015. Photo: Edi Israel/Flash90

As a result, many believers today are more careful about explaining terrible earthquakes, floods or plagues in such terms. What is conveyed simply and clearly in the biblical model is more complicated in our world. We are eyewitnesses and hear many other voices around us that are also witnesses of the times. In the Bible, we only hear one voice and it speaks for God. The Bible speaks of an active God, which is sometimes lost in Christian theology today. Today, the Church finds it difficult to speak of an intervening God in a plausible way. In our day it’s more convenient to imagine a passive God. Therefore, anyone who sees the coronavirus pandemic as a punishment from God is labeled a fundamentalist. Biblically correct, perhaps. Politically correct? Probably less so.

Two-thirds of American believers see the coronavirus pandemic as a message from God, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) on behalf of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“Because of the pandemic, people are looking for a deeper meaning to their lives.”

  • 31 percent of believe that God is asking humanity to change.
  • 40 percent of Americans see God at work in the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami in which 16,000 people lost their lives.

Orthodox Jews likewise saw God as responsible for the accident on Mount Meron in Galilee in spring 2021. Forty-five dead and 150 injured was the result of mass panic.

In summary, many religious Jews and Christians see COVID-19 and other calamities as punishments, warnings or signs from God. From a biblical point of view, theoretically, people are absolutely right. But with our knowledge and modern world of thought this is often difficult to explain.

I compare God’s work in the forces of nature with Israel’s rebirth 74 years ago. Israel’s existence in its biblical homeland after almost 2,000 years of exile is a miracle, like a force of nature in world politics. A supernatural event. Of course we can explain step-by-step the political development leading to the founding of the State of Israel, but that does not detract from God’s role in it. The majority of the Jewish people understands this. Ultimately, each person must decide for themselves how active they want God to be in their lives.


 

Natural disasters will be the focus of our upcoming May-June digital magazine. There’s a lot of great feature articles on this topic coming from a range of Israeli experts.

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