How Could a Loving and All-Powerful God Allow the Catastrophic to Occur?

Severe weather montage. From left to right starting at the top:
F5 tornado; wildfire; thunderstorm and lightning; flooding;
hurricane; ice storm; giant hail. Source: Fallschirmjager.
On August 29, 2005 at 6:10 a.m. Central Daylight Time, Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 3 hurricane bringing with it devastating floods, battering winds . . . catastrophic destruction. More than a million people came under evacuation order. Damage in dollars totaled 81 billion; a mere $40.6 billion of which was in insured losses. More than 3,000 deaths were – directly or indirectly - attributed to the storm. More than 400,000 jobs were lost.

The fall-out from this tragedy spilled out all over the United States in terms that were not only physical and material but also emotional and spiritual. Some folks expressed deepening fears about, concerns over, our safety as a nation. One blogger hinted that the storm was God’s answer to the gambling casinos in Biloxi and/or to Southern Decadence Day, an event scheduled in New Orleans for - what turned out to be -- the weekend of Hurricane Katrina. Others, of course, saw the event as evidence that we are nearing the end of the end-times, linking the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, 9/11, the London bombings, and Hurricane Katrina to the Luke 21:11 prophecy: “There will be great earthquakes, fearful events and great signs from heaven…”

But others wondered how New Orleans could have survived as long as it had, lying well below sea level surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico with inadequate levees that were ripe for breeching, just waiting for the right conditions for disaster to be met. The human-made dimensions of this catastrophe, they insisted, had to be recognized in the midst of any discussion of Hurricane Katrina.

Others pointed fingers at the government. President George W. Bush addressed the nation and attempted to assure Americans that elected officials were concerned that people be safe. He also sought to assure the country that healing could be found not only from the losses of life and property but from the divide that was in evidence between the haves and the have nots. Relative to this, the question was asked by one New York Times reporter: “How could self-interested, shortsighted politicians put off reinforcing the levees?” The same reporter also asked, “How could God allow the negligence, racism, indifference or hardheartedness that long gnawed at the social fabric of New Orleans or the blindness or incompetence of officials who should have understood the brewing human storm, as well as the meteorological one?”

At a joint White House news conference with the President of Iraq, President Bush admitted that Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government.

Natural disaster? Punishment for sins? A sign that the end is near? Evidence of human folly? A breakdown of leadership? Why were we hit by this catastrophe and what are we to salvage, what are we to learn, from what's left as we look back at Hurricane Katrina?

Just as it was in the days immediately following the attacks of 9/11, so it was following this storm: many who - pre-event - might not have thought to look to the church for answers, came looking. Two thousand eight hundred and nineteen people were killed on 9/11 but it is estimated that, in the aftermath, 422,000 New Yorkers suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. Thousands poured into the churches around the country looking for answers. I visited a great number of congregations around that time and was disappointed to see the inadequate ways in which so many were responding. The United States, as a nation, is still feeling the after-effects of Katrina and 9/11 and lots of folks are still wrestling with questions. We haven’t forgotten. We still live with the specters of what have been called "natural evil," under which Hurricane Katrina" would naturally fall, and "moral evil," under which we might consider 9/11.

Natural evil. On December 26th of 2004, an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean generated a tsunami that killed more than 280,000 people in Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand and other countries. On the anniversary of Katrina, Hurricane Isaac bore down on the Gulf Coast. At a point, tens of thousands were without power and 4,000 were in shelters. Seven deaths have been attributed to the storm. As I write this, meteorologists are keeping tabs on two hurricanes in the Atlantic: Michael, a Category 3, and Leslie, a Category 1. High season for storms such as these won’t end till November. At least 80 people are also now known to have died and another 730 have been injured in a series of earthquakes that hit the Yunnan and Guizhou provinces of China last Friday.

And that is the challenge I’ll be facing in this entry. As a foundational passage to keep in mind as we enter into this, let's look to Romans, chapter 8:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God . . . And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger 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, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither 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.”
Radar image of Hurricane Katrina from the
U.S. National Weather Service.
Moral evil. Today, we are appalled by the genocide in Sudan and appalled by human trafficking, the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. We are appalled by murder and child abuse. Moral evil. Human evil.

In the wake of what we perceive as “evil,” one question is raised again and again: How could a loving, all-powerful God allow such things to happen?

And if we are honest, probably each one of us when we’ve come face to face with our own times of personal suffering - when we believe our own lives have been catastrophically hit by evil - have either raised a fist to God or cried out in lament: "Why Lord? How could you let this happen?"

How do we sort through the realities of evil, pain and suffering in the light of a good, gracious and giving God? This is the province of theodicy, reconciling a good God with the existence of evil.

Traditionally, considerations of this subject move in two directions: the aforementioned moral evil and natural evil. The questions that are attached: Why does God allow suffering? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, can’t God stop both moral and natural evil? And, if He can, why doesn’t He?

As Will Reaves noted in a Christian News and Research article: “That these perennial questions arise in response to every tragedy, war, and disaster shows the enduring nature of our doubt and the magnitude of the question. Both ‘natural’ evil (such as hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes) and ‘human’ (or moral) evil (such as genocide, terrorism, various forms of injustice) challenge our ability to make the reality of an omnipotent, loving God sensible in the wake of suffering."

John Stott has said that “the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” There is perhaps no greater obstacle to faith than that of the reality of evil and suffering in the world. Even for believing Christians, there is no greater test of faith than this: that the God who loves us permits us, at times, to suffer.

I've noted that there are basically two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil speaks to the actions of free creatures. Murder, rape and theft are examples. Natural evil speaks to natural processes such as earthquakes and floods. In this entry, I will focus on the latter.

Various approaches are taken to the problem of evil and suffering. These include the philosophical approach that considers the questions from the standpoint of the skeptic who challenges the possibility that a God exists who would allow such suffering. And there is the religious approach to the problem of evil. This is the problem of evil considered from the standpoint of the believer whose faith in God is severely tested by trial. This latter approach is what I’ll address here as this requires us to appeal to the truth revealed by God in Scripture. In addition to consulting scripture, I’ll also be borrowing liberally from articles written by Albert Mohler, Rick Rood and others.

So…we’re going to try in this to understand natural disasters in the light of Scripture and we’ll consider some of the reasons that God may have for allowing the catastrophic to occur.

There are certain foundations we need to lay as we go.

First, we need to remember that the Bible clearly reveals God as omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). The Creator rules over all creation. Not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge. He knows the number of hairs upon on heads. He rules and reigns over all nations. Not an atom or molecule of the universe is outside His active rule.

Second, the Bible is just as clear in showing God to be absolute righteousness, love, goodness, and justice.

So…Could God prevent natural disasters? Absolutely. Does God respond to prayers regarding the weather? Of course. One example is recorded in James 5:17 where we read: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Another example is found in Mark, chapter 4, where we find Jesus rebuking the wind, ordering the waves to be still, calming the storm.

Does God sometimes cause natural disasters as a judgment against sin? Yes. In the book of Numbers, chapter 16, we read how God caused the earth to open up. He used an earthquake to swallow rebels who had challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron.

Is every natural disaster a punishment from God? No. In Matthew 5:45, we’re told that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

In much the same way that God allows evil people to commit evil acts, God allows the earth to demonstrate the consequences that sin has had on Creation. Again, Romans 8:19-21 tells us: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

In these verses, Paul is referring back to the book of Genesis and reminding us that the fall of humankind into sin had effects on everything, including the universe we inhabit. Everything in creation is subject to frustration and decay. We live in a fallen world that, like its human inhabitants, is waiting for renewal, waiting for the new heaven, for the new earth. Because of sin, throughout the ages, the world has been tainted. We experience illness, death, disease, natural disasters, all types of suffering.

God created us - not as robots forced to do His will - but as individuals with free will. He desires that we use that will to love Him and to love one another. An old confession of the faith states: “God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any way to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”

So why would a loving and all-powerful God allow the catastrophic - citing, for our purposes here, especially Hurricane Katrina - to occur?

Let’s go back to where we began for a look at the possibilities.

Was this a natural disaster? Hurricanes travel in clusters and hurricane activity waxes and wanes in cycles. There were predictions months before Katrina hit that the Gulf would be in for some heavy, heavy activity. And people were warned. A poll of evacuees living in shelters in the Houston area after Katrina revealed that three-fourths had heard about the evacuation order. More than two-thirds said they didn’t evacuate because they didn’t realize how bad the storm and its aftermath would be. More than half said they had no way to leave.

Natural disasters often cause people to reevaluate their priorities in life. Did the Lord turn the evil for good by sending people to help the suffering, by moving Christians to minister and counsel and pray and tell people of the hope they can find in Jesus? Yes.

Was this a case of divine discipline? The Old and New Testaments make it clear that suffering can be an avenue of God’s discipline in our lives, similar to the discipline a loving parent administers to a child. A loving parent stops a child from putting his hand on a hot stove. The child “suffers” at the moment by being denied access. But the parent sees the big picture and disciplines the child. So, too, God can discipline us.

Hebrews 12:10-11 illustrates this. There we read: “God disciplines us for our good that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Was the hurricane a sign that the end is near? It has been said that we have been in the end times since the days of Jesus. While we are told to be on the watch, we are also commanded not to spend enormous amounts of time speculating on when the end will come.

Did the hurricane put human folly on display? Yes. Did we see a breakdown in leadership? Yes. Did some human beings make some bad choices? Yes. Can God bring great good out a terrible tragedy? Romans 8:28 tells us, yes, He can. We may not know the reason for suffering in any given situation. But we can affirm, with relief and joy, that in “all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” The Psalms are full of cries for deliverance from trouble as well as the assurance that God is with us and will deliver us from suffering.

I don’t know why God allowed Hurricane Katrina to cause such devastating damage along the Gulf Coast and I wouldn’t dare to assert otherwise. God may have had a different reason for every individual touched by the storm, including you. But, you know, as Charles Spurgeon explained: when we cannot trace God’s hand, we must simply trust His heart.

You might be surprised to learn that when a poll was taken of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in shelters in the Houston area just days after the storm, eight in ten said that their faith had been strengthened through the ordeal. And 90 percent were hopeful for the future. More than half of their homes had been destroyed. Almost three-fourths didn’t have insurance to cover their losses.

The great hope that we have in the midst of suffering is that, in a way that is beyond our comprehension, God is able to turn evil against itself. And it is because of this truth that we can find joy even in the midst of sorrow and pain. We are even counseled in scripture to rejoice in trial, not because the affliction itself is a cause for joy (it’s not), but because in it God can find an occasion for producing what is good.

And God is not only aware of our suffering. He feels it. As Paul Little has noted: “No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first passed through the heart and hand of God. Christians follow Jesus who the scripture reveals as the “Suffering Servant.” He understands our sorrows. He walks with us in our trials, in our sorrows.

Suffering can provide an opportunity for God to display His glory and to make evident His mercy, faithfulness, power and love in the midst of painful circumstances. Perhaps you have a testimony to offer in support of that truth. It’s a testimony that must be voiced, that must be shared with those who are struggling in the darkness that is the world apart from Jesus Christ. He does not leave us alone.

As in the case of Job (who was tested through trial after trial and eventually came to offer an outpouring of thanks to the Lord for the lessons learned therein), our faithfulness in trial shows that we serve Him not merely for the benefits He offers, but for the love of God Himself (Job 1:9-11).

Trials also provide an opportunity for believers to demonstrate their love for others, to compassionately care for those in need. And, as we are comforted by God in our own afflictions, so we are better able to comfort others in theirs. Suffering also plays a key role in developing godly virtues, and in deterring us from sin. Oftentimes, we learn obedience in times of trial.

And evil and suffering can awaken within us a greater hunger for heaven, for that time when God’s purposes for these experiences will have been finally fulfilled, when we’ll understand far more than we do now, when all tears will be dried, when pain and sorrow shall be no more.

I’d like to close with some images and leave you with a question. 

Following Katrina, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a cover story about what people carried away after the storm. The article opened with these words: “When people are uprooted by a natural disaster, what they salvage assumes great importance. Some of the objects the displaced clung to were sensible, chosen to provide comfort in the dehumanizing anonymity of an emergency shelter. Some were practical, items that would ease the process of rebuilding. Some were emotional, touchstones of a past that would never be replaced. Upon such fragments, a blanket, a photo, a shard of stained glass, a future, may, must be built. Pat Walker fled her flooded trailer with her memories - a cardboard box containing two bound books, some letters and a few cards. Linda Temple gathered vital documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards for her four children, ages 3 to 8. John Cummings, a 68-year-old father of eight children ranging in age from 16 to 40, returned to his home in a New Orleans suburb to get his daughter’s clothes. His youngest child, a junior in high school, needed to have some of her old clothes, not just replacements, he said. ‘There’s nothing like that favorite skirt.’ James Savage brought the family’s silverware, wrapped in a pink towel. It was ‘my grandmother’s,’ the man said. Angie Rogers had time only to take her black macramé purse containing her glasses, a comb and her id. And Tom Cruise (not the movie star) wouldn’t leave without his dog. After the storm, Jayne Davis made her way back to the condominium complex she’d called home. The only possession she could find was a large bronze cross. ‘We should have this blessed,’ she told her husband. He replied, ‘I believe it already is.’”

My question for you today is: What will you salvage from Hurricane Katrina and other "catastrophes"?

Unpacking that, what I mean by that is: What lessons will you learn? Will you learn to cling to the cross and find the blessings there even in the midst of trials? Will you look for ways to minister to others in their times of trial? Will you examine the priorities in your life and welcome the Lord’s continuing development in you of godly virtues?

Can you, with Paul, affirm that - in ALL things - we are more than conquerors through the Lord who loves us, convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord?

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