As if the tragedy of earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador and fatal flooding in Texas isn’t bad enough, the world is subjected to the predictable voices of those who claim that these disasters are signs of divine retribution. There have always been, and perhaps always will be, those who speculate that God uses natural disasters to punish humanity and those who try to pinpoint the end of history when God’s judgment will be rendered.
These issues have been around so long we even have terms for theological discourse concerning them. For example, Theodicy attempts to deal with how and why a benevolent God allows evil and suffering. And, Eschatology is the study of questions about the final events of history or the ultimate destiny of humanity.
Our response to human tragedy and our beliefs about God’s intentions probably say more about our own personality and outlook on life than about God. It is understandable when people are hurting and need to assign blame for the events that caused harm. And people whose experience of life involves heavy doses of righteous indignation and divine retribution naturally want God to take charge and straighten out everybody they disapprove of.
For my own part, I’m impressed with the complexity of the physical universe. The more science discovers about things like quarks, chaos, leptons, and pheromones, the more my view of the Divine Being expands. Why would God go to so much trouble just to perplex humanity and then to destroy us? Isn’t it just as likely that God created all things for good and gave human beings the resources to discover ways to cherish and protect creation and its creatures? For me, life is one big epiphany!
When I peer into suffering, I see the God of compassion not causing harm but caring for those who are hurting. When I ponder the end of history, what comes to mind is not a so-called “rapture” or celestial supreme court, but instead a cosmic “Ah-ha” experience in which “every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess” (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11, and Philippians 2:10,11).
The issues are far from settled and the discourse will continue. Those who need a wrathful God and an end of things characterized by judgment and retribution have plenty of preachers and churches to reinforce their viewpoints. However, I am grateful to be a part of a tradition that believes “the universe is good, that it is the work of a single loving God who creates, sustains, and directs it” (Book of Common Prayer, 846). I am privileged to foster a view of the Christian hope, which is “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world” (Book of Common Prayer, 861).
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?… Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 35, 37-39)
I suggest that participation rather than speculation is a more appropriate faith-based response to disasters like these. Episcopalians can make a contribution to Episcopal Relief and Development through a parish church or directly. If you are a member of another religious body, consider participating in the relief agency associated with it. I suggest also that a prayer is more helpful than a scare. Here’s one that is adapted from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.
God of consolation, grant to those who suffer and sorrow at this time of devastation in Ecuador, Japan, and Texas the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have the strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing without hope but clinging to your goodness and love, through Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life. Amen.
I’ll see you in Church!