Hurricanes and bad theodicy.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 September

The Atlantic hurricane season begins in June and ends in November: Weather agencies keep track of all the warm-weather tropical cyclones which crop up in summer and fall. (They give ’em names, in alphabetical order, and mix up the names every year.) The heat lets ’em grow in speed, size, and moisture, and warmer-than-usual weather means they grow extra large; often into full-on hurricanes. And if they make it to land, they create extra mess.

The United States is was hit with two hurricanes in 20 days. Hurricane Harvey flooded southern Texas on 26 August. Hurricane Irma is currently working on the west coast of Florida. At its largest, Irma was a category 5, with 185 mph (295 kph) winds; this prompted widespread evacuations in Florida, and rightly so.

Of course these aren’t the only natural disasters we get in the States. We get wildfires: I live in California, which has fires every year. Has ’em in drought; has ’em in flood years. Fire is how brush naturally clears, but humans built houses in all those places, so we can’t just let the fires burn anymore. (We also get earthquakes, but most of them are small, and most of our buildings are earthquake-proof.)

Still, between the burning and the flooding, we wind up hearing the very same stupid thing from Christians as we do every year: “All these disasters are part of God’s plan.”

Really? Tell me, oh diviner of the divine will, why God decided to ruin the homes of all the good Christians in Texas and Florida. Or burn down the homes of all the good Christians in Montana and Oregon. Or kill good Christians in Chiapas, Mexico, with an 8.1 earthquake. Or any of the other ways nature wrecks stuff and takes lives.

Most of the time they’re pretty sure God’s smiting sinners. And even if you didn’t ask, they’ll tell you exactly which sins God’s busily smiting. No surprise, and no coincidence: They’re the very same sins they especially don’t approve of. Seems God thinks like they do. And rather than patiently deal with these sins on a case-by-case basis, and lead these folks to repentance and restoration, God’s again taken a page from their book, and decided to just punish the state entire.

Interestingly, in such a way that any sinners who happen to be wealthy, can usually get most of their wealth back with a little hassle, and go back to their sinful lifestyles with nothing more than a few interesting stories about how they braved a disaster. While in the meanwhile, the devout, obedient Christians who happen to be poor, who happened to suffer the collateral damage from God’s wrath-fest? Still destitute. Still ruined.

Doesn’t sound at all just of God. Which should kinda be our tip-off God has nothing to do with it.

Who’s in charge of the weather again?

Ever heard the story of when Jesus stopped a storm? Of course you have. I’ll retell it.

Mark 4.35-41 KWL
35 Once that day became evening, Jesus told them, “We can cross to the far side.”
36 He dismissed the crowd, and they took him in the boat, as-is. Other boats came along.
37 A great windstorm came along, and the waves rocked the boat and quickly filled it.
38 Jesus was aft, sleeping on a cushion. They woke him and told him,
“Teacher, don’t you care we’re dying?”
39 Getting up, Jesus told off the wind, and told the sea, “Quiet! Shut up!”
The wind stopped. It became very still.
40 “What are you, cowards?” Jesus told them. “Haven’t you any faith?”
41 They were greatly afraid, and told one another, “Both the wind and the sea listen to him!
So what sort of person is he?”

Y’know why Jesus’s act of stopping the weather freaked them out? Because who’s in charge of the weather? “Oh that’s easy,” any little kid might tell you: “God.”

So if God’s in charge of the weather, who’d Jesus shout, “Quiet! Shut up!” to?

Here’s where the little kids get confused. “…God?” they respond, suspecting that answer has to be completely wrong, but little-kid logic won’t grant ’em any other conclusion.

Problem is, that’s the answer a whole lot of Christians have permitted to marinate in the back of their brains, all their lives. God’s in charge of the weather. God makes the sun shine and the clouds rain. God makes the sun rise and set. God makes snow, sleet, hail, and thunder. God makes tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, solar flares, and volcanic eruptions. Y’all got the gender confused: “Mother Nature” is Father God.

Christians aren’t alone in confounding nature with God. Most religions have. Some of ’em claim nature and God are the same thing; that God is everything, and everything is God; it’s called pantheism. Others say no they’re not the same thing, but God is everywhere in nature, and nature is everywhere in God, so functionally they’re the same, so panentheism. How’s it different from the idea God is omnipresent? Depends on the Christian. But most of us are generally aware nature reminds us of God, and isn’t the same thing, and isn’t a reliable source of revelation. The rest of us? They look for omens, read stuff into coincidences, and check their horoscopes.

Nature is amazing, complex, and powerful. So’s God. So it’s understandable how humans might confuse the two. Makes sense why people worship nature, or figure nature spirits are the mightiest spirits. But nature’s a creation, same as us humans. (Who are also natural.) It’s something God made, something separate and distinct from him.

Here’s more that many Christians don’t entirely realize: Nature’s part of a fallen cosmos. God originally called it good, but it’s no longer as God originally intended it. When the first humans let sin corrupt us, we began to die instead of living forever, and it threw off the entire balance of nature. When God cursed the ground to fight us instead of work for us, Ge 3.17-19 to do the opposite of his original intent for it, it lost its original purpose, and became corrupt and meaningless. It too is looking forward to Jesus’s return, so it can get back to where it once belonged. Ro 8.19-22

So, like humans, nature doesn’t always obey God’s will. Sometimes it even defies him. Once, he had to get roused from his nap so he could tell it to shut up. He wasn’t in the wind and waves; he was in the boat. Then, nature obeyed him. But before he commanded it, it was doing its own thing, as usual.

“Acts of God” are not acts of God.

Anyway, thanks to those Christians who presume nature deterministically follows God’s will, this attitude has seeped into our culture. It’s why insurance companies, lawyers, jurists, and other legal entities, refer to natural occurrences—namely the occurrences we don’t like—as “acts of God.” When lightning strikes your house, it’s an “act of God.” When an unexpected sinkhole sucks it under, it’s an “act of God.” When a tree from two houses away manages to fall and hit your house instead of the neighbors’, or a space station falls out of the sky and crushes it, it’s an “act of God.” And so on.

No, these judges aren’t legally blaming God for all the accidental evil in the universe. It’s just a saying. But it’s based on seriously flawed theodicy. If God micromanages the universe, once we work every effect back to its cause, the first cause of all the evil in the cosmos would be God. Every gust of wind, every shift in temperature, every tug of gravity, every time two atoms rub together: God causes every event to happen, indirectly or directly—and probably directly. When a minor gas leak causes your house to explode, God was behind that gas leak; God caused that explosion. It was all part of the plan. Wish God woulda told us before the photo albums went ka-blooey, but still: God did it, and he knows best.

Or there’s the variant belief, which isn’t far different, and appears to let God off the hook: God doesn’t cause every event, but passively permits every event. God didn’t cut your car’s brake lines; that was your bookie. But God let him do it, and allowed you to remain unaware of it till you were roaring downhill at 150 mph, plowing into a bus full of nuns. Horrible tragedy, but at some point God’ll miraculously transform it into something beautiful, ’cause everything happens for a reason.

So in that scenario God’s passive, and the previous one he’s aggressive. Awful either way.

But as I hope I’ve made clear, God’s not behind everything. He is behind some things: When Israel was conquered by their neighbors, God said he was behind it, fulfilling the terms of his covenant with Israel, which said if they sinned, he’d continue the cycle, help their enemies smite them. Dt 28.25 He not only let ’em suffer the consequences; sometimes he hastened them. 1Sa 13.14 He still does this, y’know. Various Christians who think they can get away with secret sins till they die, are stunned when they’re found out. ’Cause God tells on them. Ac 5.1-11 He doesn’t always wait till the End to deal with evil.

So God can certainly cause any of these so-called “acts of God.” The problem is when we presume he’s caused all of them. It’s a lie, which slanders God and causes doubters to think he’s evil.

Accidents happen.

Accidents are also called “acts of God.” Same reason: Too many Christians presume God controls those as well as weather.

Ecclesiastes was written to make it crystal clear many things happen for no reason. God does have a plan, but outside his plan, we live in a futile creation, a meaningless world. Where things make no sense, things have no value, things lack purpose, things fall apart. Things suck.

God takes accidents into consideration. If you were murdered, ancient Hebrew custom was for your family members to hunt down your murderers and bring them to justice. But if your death was an accident, God arranged so the killer could flee to a “city of refuge” and couldn’t be extradited. Nu 35.9-34 Yes, it can be argued these “accidents” had God at the back of them: “They weren’t premeditated, but God’s hand fell upon them.” Ex 21.13 KWL Still doesn’t make every accident “God’s hand.” (For that matter, if it is God’s clear intent that someone die, but he makes it look like an accident, isn’t that sorta deceptive of him?)

Look, most coincidences are pure accident. We read meaning into ’em. Our brains are wired to do that, and they get it wrong all the time, because we want there to be meaning in the universe. So if I happen to have exactly the same amount of cash in my wallet as the jumbo-size bag of pork rinds, it’s not a sign from God for me to buy and eat the pork. It only means I want the pork, and here’s a handy excuse for me to get it.

Some coincidences are useful. If I’m wearing the same shirt as a stranger, it might trigger a conversation between us, and I might lead that person to Jesus. Some coincidences are useless: That same stranger might steal my watch.

But to blame God for coincidence is to misunderstand the universe, and God’s role in it. If God’s behind absolutely everything, it turns everything into a miracle… which might feel good for a while, or at least till we begin to realize that because our world is fallen, there’s a lot of evil in it. And if God’s behind everything, he’d also be behind all that evil. Again, a lie which slanders God.

If God’s behind absolutely everything, it obliterates free will. Nothing I do is actually my own will; it’s God’s, and I’ve been tricked into thinking it’s mine. Nature isn’t doing its own thing; it’s all God. Even God’s free will is gone, ’cause now he’s required to be involved in everything, and not only the things he chooses to get involved in. Despite the various scriptures where God chooses to stay out of things, exercise self-control, and be patient.

So if a person falls down the stairs, or if a hurricane makes the stairs fall down on them: Unless God takes credit for it, we have no business saying, “God did it, and I can tell you why.” Plenty enough false interpreters in the world without us adding to ’em.