I offer the following difficult theme with, I hope, all respect to those who suffer and with prayer God’s blessings on the residents of Texas as they pull their lives back from the flood. And we will close with an appeal for donations.
Human beings are wired to look for cause and effect. The car won’t start; the battery must be dead! That bell keeps ringing; there must be someone at the front door!
But we don’t always get it right.
My favorite “false cause” story comes from the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Millions from Ontario through Pennsylvania went without power for hours. When it hit, a Conway, New Hampshire, boy was on his way home from school. As boys will do, he was hitting stuff with a stick. He swung with all his might at a telephone pole, and just as he connected, the lights went off all over town! He ran home distraught, telling his mother that the blackout was all his fault! In fact, young Jay committed a common logical error, “post hoc ergo propter hoc.”
The Eternal Quest for Cause and Effect – it’s one of the things that makes us human.
We who believe in an all-powerful God usually side with the view that all the forces of nature are under his control. The Book of Job brings this home: “He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’” (Job 37:6) My read of this is that God is involved in the details, that is, he didn’t just start the earth spinning and let it take its course.
I do not rule out proximate causes: prevailing winds, air moisture, temperatures, currents, they all have a role to play in why a hurricane forms here and moves there. Some argue that the flooding in Houston was exacerbated by the loose zoning codes, which allowed too much building on what were known flood plains. Others have argued that climate change has led to more extreme storms and also the new normal of forest fires in the western US. But these data cannot help us with the larger existential question: Why here and not there? Why Houston and surrounding areas and not, for example, Alabama or Mississippi?
Every time there is a natural disaster or a military defeat or a terrorist attack, a certain group of people (let’s call them the Christian Prophet Squad) speaks right up with The Definitive Bible Answer for Why This Happened. I mean those guys who claim to know just why 9/11 hit New York, or why Katrina hit New Orleans. What strikes me as strange is that, apart from the fringiest of the fringe, the CPS folks have been uncharacteristically muted this time. Even James Dobson, who regularly politicizes such crises, has said of Harvey, “my prayer is that we as a nation would not politicize this crisis in any way”!
I have a theory, but I’m not happy with its implications.
My theory: the Christian Prophet Squad has decided that New York and New Orleans suffered because they were Bad People; but that when the worst hurricane up to that time in US history hit Houston, it could not possibly have been God’s judgment, because, well, Texans are Good Folk. This means that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment, and Hurricane Harvey was just God’s gracious way of letting the world see how helpful and neighborly Texans are. Like many groups, today’s Prophets assign the meaning of an event by whether it hit the Children of Light or the Children of Darkness.
Am I reading the evidence wrong? Help me out!
Of course, we all interpret the news through our own spectacles: that is why one Prophet Squadder can imply that terrorist attacks on the US happen because we don’t have prayer and Bible reading in schools or because we have transgender bathrooms. I have seen a few claim that the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was primarily because of God’s judgment on the gay people who went there, but happily most Christians seem to be shouting that down; for once we say that, then should we not apply the same formula to the 2015 killing of nine at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston? And what in the world do we do with this headline, which happened at the same time as Hurricane Harvey?
Pat Robertson is a decorated Prophet Squad Commando, matched only by James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell. Falwell knew very well the cause of 9/11 (although he later apologized for voicing it): “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen.” Pat Robertson agreed with him (and like Falwell, he later retracted it), and added the US court system to the guilty list for 9/11. But there have been alternate interpretations, for example: “It may be no coincidence that it was the World Trade Center that was destroyed and the Pentagon that was hit. The former was the foremost symbol of the idol of finance. The latter is the symbol of self-dependent military might. And both are symbols of arrogance, unconcern and affluence.”
The Ebola outbreak? According to John Hagee, it was caused, unambiguously, by the Obama administration’s policy to allow the Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem.
The AIDS epidemic? From his vantage point in the US, a different Prophet announced that, “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” But if that is the case, how do we explain the fact that, in all the world, the hardest hit are Christians from Sub-Saharan Africa?
In 1755, all Christendom was abuzz with the question, “Why did that earthquake destroy Lisbon?” Everyone had their pet idea. A more recent one: Why did the devastating 2005 earthquake hit Haiti and not another country?Pat Robertson, Dean of the Prophet Squad, knows just why. They had made a deal with the devil two centuries before! “And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’” The Haiti earthquake was the devil exacting his payment. The Satanic Pact story is apparently not historically true, but even if it were – if the quake had hit some other place, wouldn’t the Prophets have been able to come up with a theory as to Why? (I invite the reader to randomly choose out any city at all; to imagine – heaven forbid – a bad earthquake; and then, using Google for a few minutes, to “figure out” why the disaster had to hit there and not somewhere else. It’s easier than you think!)
People are wired to try to make sense of bad events. Unfortunately, a few people crave credibility points by stepping in to say, “Yeah, I know the real reasons behind the headlines!” (I suspect it is no coincidence that people who are soldiers in the Christian Prophet Squad tend to be the same people who glom onto conspiracy theories.) But unless your name is Jeremiah or Ezekiel, or unless you have a verse that says “This tornado is due to Common Core or a shooting of a specific unarmed civilian,” we should be terrified to set ourselves up as God’s spokesman:
Deut 18:20 – But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak…that prophet shall die. And Jer 23:16 – Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.
These verses should be equally applied to those who claim the gift of prophecy and those who do not, as both claim to reveal God’s mind.
Back to Texas: at least one person suggests it was karmic revenge on Texas for voting for Trump. Others blamed the Clinton supporters. In fact, if you overlay the map of the hurricane’s damage over the map of the 2016 election, clearly the disaster hit counties that went red or blue, so that whole theory seems to be a wash:
Thornton Wilder is best known for his play “Our Town,” but for my taste, his best work is the Pulitzer winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It begins with a fictional fatal disaster, one that brought havoc to the locals: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Father Juniper, a monk who witnesses the appalling scene, becomes obsessed with knowing “Why?” He believes in God’s justice, and so he is forced to conclude that these five precise individuals, no more and no less, had to die that day in order that God’s perfect plan be completed. He tries one calculation after another, and compiles a massive book with all his evidence, but after six years he is no closer to answering the big question. His is the “scientific” approach: if one could only gather all the facts, then the Effect will be seen to have an identifiable Cause.
For my part, I have been privy to a horrible car accident where people concluded, “God punished him because of his overt sin and rebellion.” But years later, there comes along another accident involving missionaries, one so appalling that I shrink from describing it. So, now what do I do with these contrasting anecdotes? Likewise, after 9/11, there were plenty of people who stepped forward and showed that “God had kept them from going to the Twin Towers and thus spared them.” Yes, God be praised! But these anecdotes cannot explain why many other Christians didn’t have to go back home to retrieve the forgotten briefcase, did get all green lights, did catch the last elevator to the top, and did made it to the office just in time for the attack.
With all respect to the families of hurricane victims, I suspect that one could work Father Juniper’s logarithms on the late hurricanes and come to the same confusing end that he did.
We all know why God sent he Flood in Genesis. But even with the supernatural revelation found in the Bible, the answer to “Why did God destroy Sodom and not, for example, Hebron?” is multifaceted; I count maybe a dozen explicit reasons in the relevant Bible texts. How much more, then, should we be cautious about assigning a simple and simplistic cause-and-effect to modern disasters?
Luke 13:1-5 is getting a good airing out this week, since it records Jesus’ clearest statement on the issue of “Why does one person suffer, and another escape?” He refers to two disasters that were fresh on the minds of his hearers, a tower that fell and killed 18, and a bloody attack on some religious pilgrims.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
The lessons are two: first, if some victims of a disaster are more sinful than those who escaped it, it’s circumstantial; it is just as likely that they were more righteous than those who escaped. Second, disasters do remind us that bad things happen, and that in fact God has promised strong measures against those who continue in wickedness. My friend Robert Newman wrote some wise words about Harvey on Facebook a few days ago, and he cited the same passage. His conclusion, in part, was
…God has put us here on earth to love Him with all that we are and have, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Obviously, we are not doing this, so we deserve to be cut down. But we, the survivors of these disasters, are being given another chance; so use it!
We have our chance to walk with God today, and who knows if it will be our last one?
For the rest: God’s people should exercise extreme caution, walking in spiritual and intellectual humility, instead of “presumptuous audacity.”
And A CALL TO ACTION:
We must end with another call of God on our lives, “What should we do to those in great peril today?”
If we conclude, without proof, that Ebola or AIDS or a hurricane or a flood or an earthquake are specific God’s judgments for a specific reason, then logically this should mean that we should cross our arms and let his judgment flow unmitigated by our charity. Of course, most Christians will turn around and say, “Even if, as I believe, God is punishing people with Ebola, still we should act to help its individual victims.” But I believe that they say this because the Holy Spirit pushes them to do the right thing, even when it logically contradicts their (unsound) theology. One of God’s miracles in us is that we act right even though we aren’t thinking right.
Our help to the needy might include short-term help and rescue, but also longer term acts of justice which might consider whether people should, for example, construct houses that are sure to fall when an earthquake hits.
Thank God for those who have been able to physically step in and help the flood victims; for the rest, I invite you to donate to the charity of your choice. Beware, there are scam artists who take advantage of your generosity; and please, listen to what the aid organizations tell you they need rather than sending in something you think people might want.
I might also raise the issue: We Americans might want to think more globally, given that, at the same time as Harvey the flooding in SE Asia has been exponentially worse and the resources are much fewer. That’s why we decided to honor the Texas victims by donating to the Oxfam America’s fund for India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
And A PRAYER:
O God, our times are in your hand. In the midst of uncertainty lead us by your never-failing grace as we seek to be agents of healing and hope. Walk with us through difficult times; watch over us in danger; and give to us a spirit of love and compassion for those who suffer and mourn. And finally remind us that you have promised never to leave us so that even in the valley of the shadow of death your love may be felt, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
 That there is climate change in the past decades is undeniable, and to my knowledge not denied by any credible authorities. What is at issue is whether global warming has closed climate change (and experts always have distinguished the two) and whether global warming and climate change are at least in part, “anthropogenic,” that is, caused by human activity, most likely the steady increase in carbon emissions. From the little I know, global warming is a reality, as is climate change; and that the evidence strongly suggests that the correlation between increasing CO2 in the atmosphere and increasing global warming is due to causation, not coincidence.
 I leave for others the associated question known as “theodicy” = if God is good and all-powerful, then how do explain the presence of evil generally?
 Though it must be stressed that the rumor that Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on Ellen Degeneres seems to be a complete fake. http://www.snopes.com/katrina/satire/robertson.asp. He did, however, state that his prayers kept Hurricane Gloria from hitting Virginia Beach in 1985 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Uj7Jj4F8vA
 There are exceptions: Rick Wiles, radio provocateur, implies that Houston is underwater because they are one of the Top 5 Gay-friendly cities in the US. https://soundcloud.com/rightwingwatch/rick-wiles-hurricane-harvey-is-punishment-for-houstons-affinity-for-sexual-perversion. As is often the case with these statements, Wiles relies on innuendo (I’m just asking questions!) rather than direct language.
 According to Dobson, the Sandy Hook shooting was God’s judgment against gay marriage, among other things. http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/dobson-connecticut-shooting-was-god-allowing-judgment-to-fall-upon-us-for-turning-our-back-on-him/
 http://www.jpost.com/Christian-News/Christian-Pastor-warns-Ebola-is-Gods-Punishment-for-Obama-dividing-Jerusalem-379207 “There are grounds to say that judgment has already begun, because he, the president, has been fighting to divide Jerusalem for years now. We are now experiencing the crisis of Ebola.” Again, note the use of innuendo rather than direct statement: He doesn’t say, A caused B; rather, “Here is A, here is B” and you draw your conclusions.
 This is widely attributed to a person I mention elsewhere on this page, but as I cannot definitively trace it to its source, I leave it as anonymous.
 In the context of the event, Gen 18:20 says broadly that God is concerned “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave”; the verb “outcry” implies that people are complaining because of what the cities are doing against them. Gen 18:22-33 implies that fewer than five righteous people could be found in Sodom; Gen 19:1-11 describes the attempted attack on the angels, but in 19:13 they state that God had sent them to destroy it even before that incident (I note that, Genesis does not say the men of Sodom were “homosexuals,” but I do think it’s clear that they were going to violate them sexually; perhaps as a show of force?); Jer 23:14; 49:18; Ezek 16:49-50 (practices which might explain the “outcry” of people mentioned in Gen 18:20); 2 Peter 2:6-8; very surprisingly, only late in the canon, in Jude 7, is there a statement that the cause for their judgment was sexual sin; they practiced “sexual immorality” and “went after other flesh” (a more literal rendering than the ESV), which is almost certainly a reference to homosexual acts; also Rev 11:8. The other passages, and there are several, mainly use Sodom as an example of destruction, but without mentioning why it was destroyed. Given all these data, how strange that one theologian states without much ado that clearly Sodom was destroyed for its homosexual practices, period, and that if you don’t think so, well it’s simply that you were affected by political correctness. As a person who is interested in what the Bible says for itself, I find this sort of approach seriously unhelpful. See http://www.ligonier.org/blog/why-did-god-destroy-city-sodom/
“Why Would a Hurricane Hit Texas, not, for example, Alabama?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
Tagged: Bible, Christian, evangelical, Suffering