I Believe in God…and Monsters (1 of 3)
Pulling Back the Celestial Curtain on “Acts of God”
By Andrew J. Byers
As they near his property, something on the horizon catches their eye. Something out of place, disorienting—a moving creature in the distance, writhing and contorted. The form is human. The behavior is alien.
The faint image is unsettling and repulsive, dislodged from the sane order of life in which these well-to-do travelers are so fully invested. Yet there is an eerie familiarity about the figure on the dirt ahead of them. The closer they tread, the more gruesome the sight grows through the haze of dust. When the moment of recognition occurs, it is too macabre to bear, too discomfiting to digest. All categories are rocked and then breached.
The spectacle seems unmoored from reality. It is beyond registry, so fantastical that all they can do is to fall aghast at the appalling shape before them, scraping its festering flesh with a jagged shard of clay. They collapse, weep, tear their expensive clothing, throw dust on their heads, and say nothing for a week.
And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:12-13)
This is how Job’s friends found him. And this is how many aid workers and emergency medical personnel have found thousands of victims of natural disasters over the past several days and months in places as diverse as Japan, Pakistan, and Haiti.
The gnawing question: “Why?”
Christians in the Western world seem to have no problem relying on the breakthroughs of modern science to explain normal events in the natural world. Along with any educated secularist, we know that the clouds are hanging low and spilling water because of a confluence of variables like temperature and air pressure. Such technical sophistication has the potential to demystify the created order, which, according to Christian Scripture, is infused with the divine beauty and wonder of the Creator. But when images flash across our television screens from natural disasters of such proportions as the tsunami in Japan, the floods in Pakistan or the Haiti earthquake, then ancient suspicions are raised and we begin to think not just meteorologically or geologically but also theologically. In his recent article for The Ooze, Ed Brown refers to the tsunami that hit Japan as a “monster” that tromped over the shoreline “belching smoke and flame, swallowing everything in its path.” Some of us may wonder if a glance behind the celestial curtain would reveal that such monstrous phenomena are “acts of God,” events in which God decisively interrupts the “normal” ebb and flow of creation to exhibit wrath and fury.
But if a natural disaster can be labeled an “act of God,” then how “natural” is it? To ask an even more daring question, if the earthquake that rumbled Port-au-Prince to the ground and if the seawall that washed Sendai inland are indeed “acts of God,” then should we conclude that God is angry at Haitians and the Japanese? Evangelist Pat Robertson infamously made such a conclusion after the quake in Haiti. It is a conclusion that has been made by many Haitians themselves. Even in secular Japan, the governor of Tokyo attributed the earthquake there to the superstitious notion of “tembatsu,” or divine retribution (though who knows what political motivations may be behind his—now recanted—remark).
Attributing natural disasters to divine judgment is an easy step to make. The chaotic horror is more manageable if we can detect an obvious cause-and-effect relationship between sin and judgment. The formulaic simplicity permits us to believe we have some control over our own fate. If we will just be good little boys and girls, then disaster will be averted. The ground beneath our feet will not give way like it did for those unfortunate sinners on the west end of Hispaniola; the sea will not swallow us like it did those secular atheists busying themselves along the Japanese coastline.
This reflexive reaction of equating disaster with divine judgment was the approach of Job’s friends. And God rebuked them.
There is no question that, frequently throughout the Bible, natural disasters are understood as God’s judgment. There are times, however, when God is “not in the wind,” “not in the earthquake,” “not in the fire” (1 Kings 19:11-12). The unqualified association of catastrophe with divine judgment is challenged in a number of places, not least in the ministry of Jesus. In John 9, he corrects the disciples’ assumption that a blind man’s handicap was due to sin. In Luke 13, he references the deadly collapse of a structure in Siloam to counter this same notion, so intuitive for his audience, that disaster equals judgment; according to Jesus, the eighteen people who were killed in that freakish accident were no more deserving of judgment than the survivors.
So, to the gnawing, age-old question, “Why?” we cannot draw conclusive connections between catastrophic events and divine retribution. At the end of the book of Job, we find that the only parties “judged” are those that assumed the catastrophes were God’s judgment. Twice God says of Job’s friends, “you have not spoken of me what is right” (42:7-9).
We do not know what God is up to behind the scenes while tectonic plates shift and waves crash. There is something we do know with utmost confidence, and that is what he has called his servants to do for those who are thirsty, hungry, unclothed, and victimized. Humanitarian service is of more urgent need than theological speculation.
But theological speculation is still necessary. Christians need to have something to say about the character of God in the face of so-called “acts of God.” In the second installment of this three-part series, we will look at what Job saw when God actually did give him a glimpse behind that celestial curtain.
He saw monsters . . .
Andrew leads University Christian Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama. He blogs at Hopeful Realism and is the author of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.