Acts of God: Thinking Theologically about Natural Disasters and Other Evils

March 01, 2012

Acts of God: Thinking Theologically about Natural Disasters and Other Evils

1. Why, Lord?

It is right to cry out in anguish and mourn when disaster strikes. And when the questions come, let them come.

‘Why would God do this?’
‘Would a good God allow so many innocent people to suffer?’
‘Why didn’t God stop the devastation, or at least give some warning?’


More often than not, when we or our neighbours raise questions such as these it is because we sincerely and deeply feel them weighing upon us.

It’s perfectly understandable that questions like these arise, and it makes perfect sense to direct them towards God, since he is the creator of this world and is therefore responsible for it. (In fact, the idea of God’s responsibility is absolutely fundamental to thinking theologically about this world and its problems, as I shall argue.) But when we find ourselves reflecting quietly to ourselves on the reality of evil in the world and its theological implications, or when we find ourselves engaged in conversation with others about these questions, there are some common confusions we should take care to avoid.

For instance, in what way is God responsible for the events that transpire in the world? Notice the way God’s responsibility is implicitly conceived in the questions we sometimes ask. When we ask ‘why would God do this?’, God is implicitly thought of as a powerful, hidden agent who causes events for reasons beyond our comprehension or obscured from our view. On this way of imagining God’s relationship to the world, when disaster strikes God wills that it be so. And if disaster is a willed event, then there had better be a good reason for it. Otherwise, God looks guilty of malevolence or incompetence.

By contrast, when we ask ‘why would God allow this?’ or ‘why didn’t God stop this?’, God is thought of as an agent ready to intervene when the ordinary course of events gets out of hand, like the government regulator who steps in when the ‘invisible hand’ of the market threatens to push us into an economic crisis. In this second way of imagining God’s relationship to the world, we do not imagine him to be the cause of disasters per se, but when tragic events occur we nonetheless do wonder whether he has fallen asleep at the switch. When he fails to intervene, he looks guilty of indifference or negligence.

But are these ways of imagining God accurate? What I want to suggest is that neither of these ways of imagining God’s responsibility for worldly events will do. Not because it is wrong to think that God is responsible for this world. Quite the contrary. They will not do because they do not recognize how deeply God is responsible for this world, and further, because they do not take into account how in Christ God shows himself to be taking responsibility for this world in a quite unexpected and marvellous way.

This article is not intended to ‘answer’ the questions that arise because of evil and suffering; as if that were even possible. But it is an attempt to help us think truthfully, carefully and Christianly about these very profound and important questions.

 tsunami wreckage

2. The deeply responsible God

Since the 19th century, it has become commonplace for God to be regarded as a ‘hypothesis’ to be argued for or refuted.[1] However, from the perspective of classical Christian theology, to consider God as a hypothesis is already to commit a serious error—not a factual error, but something more like a grammatical error. God is not a hypothesis subject to falsification, but the answer to the question: why the universe rather than nothing? God names the reason why there is an order of facts at all about which we can formulate hypotheses. This is what it means to speak of God as ‘creator’: the order of reality as a whole is because of his creative activity.

The very fact that the idea of God has entered into the domain of ‘the hypothetical’ indicates that the word ‘God’ has come to refer to something other than that to which the term classically referred. In crude versions, the idea of God as the ‘ultimate cause’ (the reason why there is a universe rather than nothing) is replaced by the idea of God as the ‘first cause’ understood in a temporal sense: the first link in an infinitely complex chain of causes.[2] God is then the divine snooker player who hits the balls into motion. Clack, rebound, clack-clack. But notice that this now puts the idea of God in competition with the scientific investigation of the ‘origins’ of the universe. It makes the idea of God as creator look like an alternative ‘theory’ alongside others such as the ‘big-bang theory’, something the classical view did not do.[3]

The classical Christian view says that everything that is is and acts because God upholds it in its being and action. God is responsible for the whole lot— for what it is, that it is, how it is, and where it ends up. That is what it means to speak of God as the creator. And yet, the kind of ‘responsibility’ invoked here is importantly different to the kind of ‘responsibility’ implied by the snooker-player conception of God. God’s creative action is that which makes the independent set of beings and causal relations in the world exist. So, God causes you to exist, and that existing is what makes it possible for you to contribute your own action to the world (for which you are morally responsible). God causes the Earth’s crust to exist, and that existing is what makes it possible for the Earth’s crust to behave according to natural laws and to affect the other natural systems around it in the ways that it does (for which it is causally responsible but not morally responsible, because it is not a moral agent but merely a natural agent). God, for his part, is responsible for the whole lot, but that means being responsible for a world that is made up of independent agencies, both natural and moral.

For that reason, it is perhaps fitting to think of God’s responsibility for the world as a little bit like the responsibility that parents have for their children. A child’s deeds are not those of the parents but are the child’s own deeds; the parent may even oppose or disapprove of the child’s deeds. Nonetheless, the child’s independent life as a whole is something for which the parents are responsible in the sense of being answerable for it as its generative cause and its guardians. This is not a perfect analogy. But, at any rate, it does look like it will be a more fitting analogue than, say, the responsibility that a mining engineer has for her explosions or a snooker player has for his shots. Creating the universe is more like giving rise to an independent life that has its own actions than it is like setting off a causal chain of events that extends one’s own actions into the world.

So we see that an orthodox Christian view of God’s relationship to the world helps us avoid the error of identifying everything that occurs in the world with God’s own intentional actions, without at all denying that God is responsible for the world in a profound and demanding sense.


3. The sovereign over all creation

We can now also see, perhaps, why the metaphor of ‘sovereignty’ has held such a central position in the Christian tradition as a way of describing God’s relationship to the created order. As a monarch or government is responsible for what goes on within their jurisdiction, so in an analogous fashion God bears a solemn and deep moral responsibility for the creation as a whole, made up as it is of independent moral and natural agencies. And as the sovereign’s moral responsibility belongs together with the authority to govern, so God’s responsibility for the creation belongs together with a divine authority to rule. This is another imperfect metaphor, of course. But, like the image of the parent’s responsibility for the child, it does fit rather well with the classical doctrine of creation as I’ve described it. Like the image of the parent’s relationship to the child, it captures both the aspect of non-identity (the agency of the sovereign’s subjects is genuinely independent of the agency of the sovereign) and the aspect of responsibility (despite the independence of her subjects’ agency, the sovereign bears ultimate responsibility for what goes on within her jurisdiction).

Admittedly, the metaphor of ‘sovereignty’ is frequently used in Christian circles in a rather different way—roughly, to mean that God is in control of everything. In this common way of using the term, God’s ‘sovereignty’ is simply taken to be synonymous with his direct agency: though you may not see God at work, he is nonetheless imperceptibly manipulating events so as to achieve his pre-determined purposes. The traditional language of ‘sovereignty’ is employed, but it is reinterpreted to mean something like ‘pervasive control of worldly affairs’.

There are some biblical texts that superficially seem to support such a view; but it cannot be right. For instance, we can immediately see how this view stands in tension with the idea of creation as a sphere of genuinely independent being and action that is grounded in God’s creative activity. But, more than this, the overarching biblical narrative of sin and redemption takes as its premise that there are beings that actually oppose the will of God and actions that occur in disobedience to his commands. At every turn in the biblical narrative it is assumed both that God is the sovereign creator and that God’s sovereignty is contested and his will flouted.[4] Simply put, things happen that God doesn’t want to happen and despite the fact that he expressly prohibits them. Theologian David Bentley Hart makes the point well:

[…] disturbing as it may be, it is clearly the case that there is a kind of ‘provisional’ cosmic dualism within the New Testament: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles; but certainly a conflict between a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God on the one hand and the saving love of God in time on the other.[5]

That there could be conflict of this kind between creation and its creator makes perfect sense within the metaphor of ‘sovereignty’ understood according to the ordinary sense of the term. After all, we are all familiar with human societies in which a sovereign power is faced with rebellions, protests or other challenges— sometimes entirely legitimate challenges —to its purported sovereign authority. But it is hard to square such a situation with the idea that God exercises a pervasive control over worldly affairs.

The original metaphor of ‘sovereignty’ therefore has much to commend it over and against the notion of God’s ‘sovereignty’ that circulates these days. Not only does it sit more comfortably with the theological ‘grammar’ of God as creator; it also fits much better with the biblical narrative of sin and redemption.

But surely, you might say, there is biblical support for the idea of God being ‘in control’ of worldly affairs? What we are reaching for when we use the language of God being ‘in control’, it seems to me, is what is traditionally called the doctrine of ‘providence’: the idea that God has a loving and active involvement in his world and that he is able to bring good out of tragic and lamentable circumstances, and is gradually drawing the threads of history together towards the establishment of his universal kingdom. This is an authentic and deeply significant biblical teaching. But this does not say that everything that happens is itself the will of God. Rather, it says that when damage is done, when God’s world is vandalised by pointless, destructive and despicable acts carried out in defiance of God’s express will, it doesn’t matter how extreme the evil is, it does not exceed the reach of God’s justice, the depths of his love, or his capacity to redeem.

The doctrine of providence affirms that God does act in the world in specific and purposeful ways over and above his activity of upholding the created order in its own being and action—and rightly so. In the Scriptures we find God described as present and active within his creation in a myriad of ways—by his word, his law, his spirit, and through a variety of mediating agencies including kings, prophets, messengers, servants, armies, temples, mountains, bushes, storms, waves, plagues, locusts, donkeys, whales, and on it goes. The Old Testament accustoms us to the thought of God being present and active in creation through mediators of one kind or another. And then, in the New Testament, we find many of these Old Testament images and metaphors for God’s ‘mediated’ presence and action being used of a particular man: Jesus of Nazareth. This human life is represented as the ultimate ‘mediation’ or ‘incarnation’ of God’s own being and action in the world—the Word made flesh, the image of the invisible God, God with us. In all of these cases the biblical language around God’s action preserves the overarching recognition of the independence of the created order while also portraying the created order as being open to God’s involvement and indwelling in specific, purposeful, and often surprising ways.[6]

With this in mind, we now return to our central question: the problem of evil and especially natural disasters.


4. The God who takes responsibility

‘The problem of evil is a very simple one to state,’ writes H.J. McCloskey. ‘There is evil in the world; yet the world is said to be the creation of a good and omnipotent God. How is this possible? Surely a good omnipotent God would have made a world free of evil of any kind.’[7] A ‘theodicy’ is an attempt to square this circle: to demonstrate that the existence of evil can be reconciled with the existence of God.

Now, if by this we mean a demonstration that the very existence of evil does not necessarily entail that God does not exist, then what I’ve said so far might count as a theodicy, or at least as the beginnings of one. (I have argued, for instance, that God is not directly responsible for the evils of the world on an orthodox understanding of the doctrine of creation, notwithstanding that he still remains responsible in a profound and demanding sense for all that happens in the created order.)

However, if by ‘reconciled’ we mean a demonstration that the world, with all its depravity and brokenness, is morally consonant with the goodness of God, then ‘theodicy’ is an attempt to prove something that the Christian gospel itself emphatically rejects.

Theodicy in this second, strong sense gives the game away from the start by accepting that if there is evil in the world, and if God is both all-powerful and perfectly good, then evil must be a part of God’s good plan. By assuming a ‘consonance’ between the existence of evil and the existence of God, the ‘strong’ theodicist then feels obliged to show how evil might be necessary to God’s good plan, or at least how it might arise as an unavoidable by-product of fulfilling his good plan.[8] But this has disastrous consequences: what starts as a defence or justification of God turns into a defence or justification of evil. At this point it should be clear that, despite the best of intentions, the attempted defence of God has gone drastically astray and has led to a position that is deeply compromised both morally and theologically.

If we take our lead from the revelation of God in the Scriptures, we must say that God does not sanction or tolerate evil, nor does he require of us that we ‘reconcile’ ourselves to the evil in the world as though it were a necessary feature of his good creation. There may well be a genuine mystery about the origins of evil, but there is no mystery about God’s attitude toward evil:

[…] if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.[9]

In other words, if we look to the gospel for our understanding of how to think about the relationship between God and evil, what we find is not consonance but raging opposition. God is relentlessly and fiercely opposed to evil and will not be reconciled to it. Hence, against the ‘strong’ theodicist, we ought to insist from the outset that evil is not morally ‘consonant’ with the goodness of God and that evil is not a part of God’s good plan. 

Starting from such a polar opposite position to the ‘strong’ theodicist admittedly brings with it its own puzzles and problems. For instance, how did evil originate if it cannot be traced to the plans and purposes of God and if, furthermore, it is something God expressly prohibits and wills not to be? Furthermore, even if we have some way of accounting for the origin of evil within God’s creation, there is the puzzle of why it persists. Why would an all-powerful, perfectly good God not expunge evil straightaway from his creation? Given that evil seems to enjoy free reign in this world, is it plausible to believe that there is a God who is faithful in his responsibilities as sovereign over creation? 

You may notice that we are now asking questions about evil that the Bible itself addresses much more directly; in particular, the question about the faithfulness or ‘righteousness’ of God in the execution of his sovereign responsibilities recurs again and again in the Bible. What’s more, the ‘good news’ of the New Testament is frequently couched (especially in St Paul) as an answer to that very question: the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah, together with his death and resurrection, is presented as proof positive that God is ‘righteous’, that he has not let evil go unchecked, that he has not abandoned his people or forgotten his commitment to uphold the cause of the innocent. Out of loving faithfulness to the world he created and to his covenant promises, God in Christ has waged the decisive battle to judge sin, overthrow evil and defeat death. And what he began in the death and resurrection of Christ he has promised to complete when Christ returns. But, in a breathtaking reversal of prevailing Jewish expectations, God overcomes the unruly principalities and powers of this world not through military means but through the humiliating passion of the Christ, through suffering rather than violence. And, at one stroke, our fantasies of awe-inspiring divine intervention in this world of evil and injustice are both fulfilled and radically subverted by the utterly unexpected self-sacrificial, gracious and winsome nature of God’s saving action.

In Christ, therefore, something about God is revealed that otherwise we could only have hoped were true: that God is not satisfied with the way things are—he is neither malevolent nor incompetent; and that God is taking responsibility for sin and evil in the world and has not abandoned the world to its sorry state—he is neither indifferent nor negligent. In the face of evil and suffering, this is good news indeed.


5. Suffering and hope

Of course, this good news does not nullify the suffering and loss we experience in our lives. If anything, we feel it all the more acutely as we await the liberation of creation from its bondage to decay and the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19-23). And so we are rightly overwhelmed and moved to tears when, for instance, innocents are struck down by natural disasters. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope, for God is making all things new:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3–4)

In the meantime, God refuses to be ‘reconciled’ to what is evil, and so it must be with us. Rather, in defiance we ought to continue the fight against evil and to proclaim the good news: ‘Evil, your days are numbered!’ 

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? 
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:55–57) ©



[1] See Alistair MacIntyre in The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp3–29, esp. pp10f. A similar argument is worked out in great detail in Charles Taylor’s recent book, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] The theologians of the patristic and medieval eras also spoke of God as the ‘first cause’ (following Aristotle), but by this they meant ‘ultimate cause’ in the sense described here.

[3] This conception of God’s relation to the universe probably finds its classic statement in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Influential recent attempts at rearticulating this Thomistic approach include Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London: Continuum, 2005), and David Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action (London: Routledge, 1979).

[4] Exceptions to this, of course, are (i) Genesis 1–2, which depicts a pre-fall universe in which no one and no thing in creation yet opposes God and flouts his will; and (ii) Revelation 21–22, which looks forward to the future age in which the universal peace of God in creation is restored.

[5] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), pp62–63.

[6] The acts of divine involvement depicted in the biblical accounts are in some cases quite strange and even shocking. Consider, for instance, the ‘hardening’ of Pharaoh’s heart as a precursor to the liberation of Israel in Exodus 4–10 (cf. Rom 9:17ff.), or the use of foreign armies to execute God’s judgment upon Israel. Does God use evil means in these cases to achieve good ends? The Scriptures seem not to register a moral problem here. Such events are portrayed as manifestations of God’s righteousness, that is, of his justice and goodness; they are scarcely considered ‘evil’. And yet, when it comes to the question of the righteousness of God, even the writings of the Old Testament recognize that there is considerable ambiguity in the world around us and that doubts may arise; and, as we shall see below, this is a topic that the New Testament addresses directly.

[7] H.J. McCloskey, ‘The Problem of Evil’. Journal of Bible and Religion 30 (1962) p187.

[8] Most ‘strong’ theodicies are ‘greater good’ theodicies. That is, they argue that evil is a regrettable cost of achieving some greater good; or, in proverbial form, ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs’.

[9] Hart, op.cit., pp86f.

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