Mount Pleasant just narrowly dodged a direct impact by a major hurricane. Texas, Florida and the Caribbean were not so lucky. For the next few weeks the images of devastation and destruction will pour in, many of us will give to the disaster relief efforts, and people in our culture will obsess and argue over the why of these intense hurricanes.
But a more important why question to answer is one that almost all humans will ask when faced with devastation, a question that we Christians particularly must face—how can a God whom we claim is 100% good and 100% able to prevent things like this from happening allow such suffering and devastation to happen to His creatures? And why is the destruction so seemingly senseless, blind, and unrelated to the moral lives of those who suffer so much through these events? In other words, how should a Christian understand and speak about a Category 5 hurricane devastating entire islands, causing unspeakable human suffering and loss, and doing so without any regard for the righteous and the unrighteous?
Hurricanes are Natural Evils
Before we answer the question “Why does God allow these things to happen?” we must carefully define what “these things” are. Hurricanes (along with all other natural disasters, diseases, accidents, etc.) are what theologians and philosophers have traditionally called natural evils—evils that are unrelated to the direct actions of moral beings. Moral evils, on the other hand, are ones done by humans (war, murder, slander etc.) Natural evils are natural phenomena, ones that, as far as we know, are not caused by specific human action, ones that cause human suffering, and ones that God could have miraculously prevented if He so chose.
Where did natural evils come from? They were a result of Adam and Eve’s sin. God created the world with none of these evils and with complete comfort and safety and eternal life for human beings. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and make themselves their own lords, disobeying God’s one commandment and choosing life apart from Him. In response, God cursed the life apart from Him that his people chose, telling Adam that the creation would no longer serve him, but bear thistles and be difficult to live in. The rest of Genesis shows us just how pervasive this curse was, with its constant famines, competition for resources, and even infertility.
Romans 8:20 says this clearly: “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it”. God subjected the world to futility, to physical breakdown, to natural disasters, to the “natural” processes that lead to human death and to every instance of natural evil from the inconvenient to the catastrophic—all in response to Adam and Eve’s sin.
One important side note before we move on to the most important question of “why?” is this: If all the natural evil we see in the world is judgment for Adam and Eve’s sin then individual instances of natural evil are not necessarily judgment for an individual’s sin. In other words, if you wake up with a terminal disease tomorrow or if a tornado from Irma’s aftermath destroyed your house and left all of your unrighteous neighbors safe and intact that does not mean that the Lord is punishing or judging you. More often than not, natural evil just happens because we live in a fallen world, under the curse and judgment of Adam and Eve’s sin.
Hurricanes are Living Parables
So why hurricanes? Why so much natural evil and the suffering that comes from it? The first reason is simple: God cannot lie about the consequences of choosing life apart from Him. If God is to be true and not a liar, human beings who are sinners must live in a dangerous world where devastating things can happen to them at any time. Consider what would have happened if God had allowed Adam and Eve to sin and yet allowed the world to be perfect and not futile or dangerous. Would they have returned to Him, or ever sought Him? No. God would have been allowing them to go to eternal judgment comfortably if he had allowed life apart from Him to be easy and without danger. Peter Van Inwagen says that if God always miraculously protected people from natural disasters “He would be a deceiver…he would engender an illusion… [that] human beings can live successfully in separation from God”.
So natural evil is first a result of the fact that God must speak truth to humanity—that he must allow something as horrible as human sin to have the continuous horrible consequence of natural evil in the world. But Romans 8:20 also shows God’s mercy in this: God subjected creation to futility “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”. God’s purpose is the return of God’s highest creation, mankind, to Him, to obtain the glory of the sons of God. The purpose of natural evils, as terrible as they can be, is to bring us into eternal life by being living parables—pictures of our danger as sinners and of the horribleness of human sin. The prodigal son did not “come to his senses” until he was knee deep in a pig trough suffering from hunger. The story almost seems to say—he looked around at the muck and felt the pain in his belly and said “I’ve done this to myself. In fact, this muck is me; it’s my disobedience and stupidity”. So too the natural evils in the world speak to us.
Natural evils are parables with a purpose, severe signposts to lead us back to the Lord. They are living and breathing pictures of the horror of sin and the devastating consequences of life apart from God. They are a severe mercy—a difficult but necessary object lesson about the immense danger and difficulty of life apart from God. Children don’t really understand the stovetop is dangerous until they touch it. Similarly, sinners won’t really understand how horrible sin is until they, with the Spirit’s help, see its horrible consequences played out before them in all of the natural evils in the world.
In this way, natural evils actually function like natural glories. The good wonders of creation speak to us of God’s reality and glory (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20), and the good gifts and provisions of life teach us of God’s steadfast love (Psalm 36:7-8). The same way that a glorious sunset, a good cup of coffee or a friendship that lasts decades give us a living glimpse of the goodness and glory of God, so a catastrophic hurricane, debilitating disease or senseless and random accident teaches us of the horrible nature and dreadful consequences of sin.
Make Meaning from Hurricane Irma (and all of the Natural Evils that Touch Your Life)
I participated gladly in Charleston’s collective sigh of relief when the “cone of uncertainty” turned west and the worst of Hurricane Irma missed us (and I was shocked at how bad the storm and flooding still was for parts of the city!). But in the last few days it has been incredible to me how quickly we can go from collective panic to life as usual. So here’s my encouragement to you after all of this: don’t let this near disaster be lost on your soul. Don’t let the storm pass with only a sigh of relief.
After you’ve done the obvious and necessary things like praying for people who’ve been devastated and giving money or even our time for relief, sit at the feet of our Lord and take up this severe lesson for your soul. Think about how you felt when Irma was poised for a direct hit on Charleston as a Category 3 or 4 (the nervousness, the obsession with being prepared, the desire to escape Charleston five days before landfall just to be sure) and ask yourself—“have I taken half as much care for my soul or the souls of others when I know full well there is a day coming that will make the worst devastation from the worst hurricane look like nothing for those who don’t know Jesus?” When you see those tragic pictures of people next to the rubble that used to be their lives, first pray for them, then consider giving to help them, but then say to yourself “this is just a tiny parable of the loss and devastation my sin deserves. Praise God I will escape it through Jesus”.
This is a difficult teaching, a mercy very severe. But the glory of the Gospel is that our God isn’t just up in Heaven dictating these consequences to us and speaking so painfully to us, He is with us in our pain, He subjected Himself to the consequences of sin in Jesus, out of love for us; to one day free us forever from them. We can seek to understand the evil of the world as people who will be one day forever free from it.