Scripture Reference: Numbers 16, Job 37:6-13, Psalms 135:5-7, Jonah 1:4, Matthew 8:23-27, Matthew 24:4-8, Luke 13:1-5, Romans 8:19-20
The Lie That God Takes No Responsibility For Natural DisastersDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 31, 1999
Selected highlights from this sermon
Is God responsible for natural disasters? Ultimately, yes. In some cases, He’s indirectly involved by allowing the fallen Earth to run its course, or by allowing Satan to stir up a storm as in the book of Job.
In other instances, God Himself directly causes the disaster. The flood of Noah’s time, the earthquake that swallowed up the sons of Korah, and the storm on the Sea of Galilee were all caused by God and noted as such in the Bible.
Whether directly or indirectly, God is in control of all that happens. But the purposes behind devastating natural disasters are something we will probably never know.
The sun shines on the just and unjust alike. So too, disasters happen to both believers and unbelievers.
I’m told that in California after an earthquake some pastors got together for a prayer breakfast, and in the discussion they basically agreed that God had almost nothing to do with the earthquake. He played the role of an interested observer because, after all, the earth is fallen. And yet it’s interesting! I’m also told that when they closed in prayer, the man who prayed thanked God that the earthquake came at five in the morning and not during the rush hour. And I suspect all the other pastors probably said, “Amen.”
Now if God had nothing to do with that earthquake, if He was only an interested observer, because the earth is fallen, why do you thank Him so precisely for the timing? After all, the earth has faults, and these sometimes cause earthquakes. Does God have anything to do with these things or does He not? We live at a time when it seems as if there is an increase in what we call natural disasters. I think, for example, of the tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas – killer tornadoes. The wind went 250 miles an hour. Did you see those pictures some time ago - the swath of destruction, the thousands of homes that were in rubble and dozens of people killed?
I think of the earthquake in Turkey, and the earthquake in Taiwan. Great devastation! What was it? Twenty-five thousand people killed – something like that, and maybe a lot more than that. And if I had time in this message I would read you some of the accounts of the devastation and the suffering of those people.
And then was it not a tidal wave in Honduras, killing multitudes of people and leaving a half million people homeless? And long after the television cameras had left, long after CNN no longer broadcast news from the site, the people are left with this devastation. You have orphans, and you have widows, and you have poverty, and you have disease. Who can begin to calculate the amount of pain that has come to planet earth through natural disasters? But the question is, what is God’s role?
Now you may know that this is a series of messages titled Ten Lies About God (and why you might already be deceived). We’ve talked about the lie that you can go to God in any way and at any time in any name, the lie that He can be refashioned and made into whatever we want Him to be, the lie that He is more tolerant than He used to be, the lie that He has not suffered, and yes (Was it last time?), the lie that He is obligated to save the followers of other religions.
Today we come to another lie, the lie that God takes no responsibility for natural disasters. Now I personally don’t like that word responsibility because it tends to imply accountability or blame, but I could find no other better word to describe it. The answer, as we shall see, is, “Yes, God does take responsibility.” He says, “I did it.”
Now what I’d like to do in the time allotted me is to answer four questions. The first question is, “Is God indeed in control in natural disasters?” That question has to be looked at in some detail to convince the unwary and the skeptic.
The second question is, “Shall we charge God with evil if the answer to the first question is yes, causing such devastation?” Do we judge Him and say, “You did wrong?” That’s question number two.
Question number three is, “Can we still trust Him, now that we know this about Him?” Oh, I hope that we can. Can we still love Him? You know that one of the things that I desire from this series of messages is that we will love Him more and worship Him more fervently. We’ll see that the answer to that question, too, is “Yes.”
And then there’s a final question. What are the lessons that God wants to teach us? What is going on? What is the message that is being beamed to earth when you have devastation and when a good part of the country of Turkey moves two meters closer to Greece? What is God trying to say? That’s the agenda. Thank you so much for joining me as we go on the journey.
Question number one: Is God responsible in the sense that it is He who has nature under His control? Well, let’s begin by admitting that, of course, nature is fallen. God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you. Through pain and toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” What God did when man sinned is He cursed nature. God said, “I will not have a cursed man walking on uncursed ground. I will not have a sinful man walking in a paradise.” And so nature was cursed. And that’s where weeds began to grow. And that’s where the faults of the earth began to develop, and that’s where the weather patterns became confused, and you have tornadoes, and you have floods and all of those things that we cope against in life. That’s why the Apostle Paul says in the book of Romans, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” It too will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. At the end time when everything is wrapped up, the curse of nature is going to be lifted, and of all things, nature will participate in our reconciliation and redemption.
Nature is fallen and that’s why you have earthquakes. But the question is, does this somehow mean that God has a hands-off policy? Does He say, “The earth is fallen, I’ve given it over to the devil, and I am an interested observer?” The answer is no. We must distinguish between what we sometimes call the immediate cause of an event, and the ultimate cause. The immediate cause of an earthquake is that fault in the earth, that shifting within the earth’s crust – beneath the earth’s crust – and that’s what causes an earthquake. If you want to know what it is that causes a tornado, you speak to a meteorologist, and he will tell you that it has to do with those weather patterns and temperature and everything that goes into the making of that tornado.
So that’s the immediate cause, but back behind the immediate cause there is God who is the ultimate cause of all things. For example, the Scripture speaks very, very clearly about God’s role. You say, “Well, what about nature being fallen? What about the devil?” You know, in the book of Job (and we’re going to cover several passages today and I simply refer to it in passing) God gave Satan the ability to create lightning and a windstorm, and Job’s children were killed as a result of it. Now there’s no question about that. But does that mean nature is out of God’s hands? No, because God gave Satan permission to do that and prescribed precise parameters of what Satan could or could not do.
Some of you are old enough to remember, what was it? 1979? My, that was a long time ago, but do you remember when it snowed here in Chicago during the winter every single day, and especially on Thursdays? I remember commenting to my wife, “It’s Thursday. I don’t even want to get out of bed.” I mean what did we have? We had something like 79 or 80 inches of snow. There were debates as to whether or not this was of God or whether it was of the devil. And I remember saying at that time, and I haven’t changed my theology throughout the years, that it may be because of the devil, but God personally approves of every snowflake that falls in the city of Chicago.
Now, of course, we hoped and prayed that He would not approve of so many, but the simple fact is that God is still in charge, sometimes indirectly by giving Satan permission, by giving the earth permission, to have an earthquake, but it is God who could choose to not give Satan and the earth such permission. It’s still in His hands. Sometimes His control of nature is direct.
Come with me to the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is there and a tremendous storm comes up, and suddenly the disciples are terrified, and they wake Him, and He says, “Peace be still.” And we read that immediately there was a great calm. Of course, God spoke, that even the sea and the winds obeyed Him, the disciples said. And the same Jesus who spoke on the Sea of Galilee is the same Jesus who could have spoken and the earthquake would not have happened in Turkey, and the tidal wave would not have come to Honduras. All that He needs to do is to speak and nature obeys. It is under His command.
Look at the direct teaching of Scripture: “The Lord does whatever He pleases in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. He makes clouds to rise from the end of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain, and brings out the wind from His storehouses. He does whatever He pleases.”
Let me ask you a series of questions to stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance. Who was it that was in control of that flood during the time of Noah and prescribed how long it was going to rain, and the depth of the rain and its intensity, and when it would go away? Who was it? God!
Who was it that sent the plagues to Egypt, the darkness that could be felt and the great hailstones? Who was it that prescribed that and commanded it? Who was it that caused the earthquake and the sons of Korah fell into it? It expressly says God said, “I’m going to open up the earth and these people are going to fall in, in judgment.” Who is it that sent the storm during the time of Jonah? Boy, we sure don’t have to guess at that. It says in Jonah 1:4: “And the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea.” Who did it? God did it.
Now what about some of you skeptics? You say, “Yeah, but I am still not sure.” All that you need to do is to walk with me in a thunderstorm and your theology will become precise and biblical because if you were walking in a thunderstorm with the lightning dancing at your feet and sizzling overhead, you would pray just as fervently as I, proving the fact that at the end of the day you do believe that somehow God is in charge of us, and if you can get His ear, maybe you’ll live. Of course God’s in charge.
Now think back over all the instances that I gave you. What is the common thread through most of them? It is that God was judging people. Now this is very interesting and incredibly important. In the book of Job (and you may turn to that if you wish; it’s chapter 37) there is a man by the name of Elihu. Elihu is so theologically accurate, and so brilliant that some people have actually thought that it’s a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ. I mean Job’s friends can’t solve the problem of evil, and Elihu is a young theologian. He’s waiting in the wings and he can hardly wait to speak, and when he speaks, you ought to listen because I tell you, Elihu really “was on the money.”
You’ll notice in chapter 37 of Job (I pick it up at verse 6): “He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’” And if God says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ it falls. You notice it says (I’m going to skip to verse 10): “By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. At His direction they swirl around the whole earth to do whatever he commands them.” Is that control, or what?
But notice verse 13: “Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen.” Well, that’s interesting. He uses clouds to punish men. Just ask Noah whether or not God uses clouds to punish men. He sure does. When He wants those clouds to give out all those buckets and torrents of water, He uses them to judge men. But the same clouds, in a different context, He uses to water the earth to refresh the earth and to show His love to man.
There you have the two purposes of nature and God’s relationship to it. On the one hand, nature reveals the judgment of God, that is, the convulsions of nature, those disasters that we’re talking about. On the other hand, nature also reveals the love of God, the beautiful sunshine, the calmness that we can enjoy, and the beautiful trees and the heavens that declare the glory of God. And nature reveals both characteristics of God. In fact, if nature, in its fallenness, did not have that negative side, that side that reveals God’s judgment, it would be giving us a misunderstanding of God. There you have it. On the one hand you have judgment. On the other hand you have love, and nature reveals both. Does this mean that whenever people are in a natural disaster it means that they are being judged by God? Hold it! Don’t ask that question yet. We’re going to answer it in just a few moments. You must be careful not to draw a false conclusion based on other passages, but for now I just want you to see that God is in control. Nature reveals His love to us. Indeed He sends rain on the just and the unjust. And nature also reveals His judgment of a cursed world.
Let’s go on to question number two. Question number two is can we charge God with evil? I mean look at the devastation in Turkey. Look at what people have gone through. And God is in the heavens, and God commands and it is done. Now is God to be spoken of as doing evil? Well, we must be very, very careful here and tread carefully.
Let me begin by saying that number one, the rules that apply to us most assuredly do not apply to God. They don’t! For example, if a little child were in a swimming pool and we didn’t pull the child out, and we stood there and watched the child drown, saying, “Well, the child fell in of his own free will, so why should I bother pulling him out?” we would be charged probably with negligence, maybe with manslaughter. Who knows what? God sees situations like that every day and does nothing. He allows people to drown. Our responsibility is to keep people alive as long as we possibly can. Could you imagine if God operated by that set of standards? Nobody would ever die. We’d all live forever because God would keep us alive from here until who knows when.
The simple fact is there is a big difference between those of us who have been given life and the One who is the giver of life. And the Scripture is very clear that God can both give and He can take. And Job, you remember, says, “Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not also receive calamity at his hand? And He has the right to give us both. In fact, many of the Ten Commandments don’t apply to God. For example, one of them is “Thou shall not steal.” It’s impossible for God to steal.
You know the Bible says it’s impossible for God to lie. We could add another impossibility. God can’t steal because He owns everything. Could you imagine something in the world that God has taken from somebody? No! God owns everything – the cattle on a thousand hills, the property that we are trying to buy. All of these things are owned by God. He leases them out and we take ownership and think they are ours. They don’t apply so let us keep in mind that God is God and we are the creatures.
Let us also remember that He does things from the standpoint of eternity and not the standpoint of time. You know, you think of an earthquake, perhaps the one in Mexico or Turkey, as we’ve mentioned, and you ask the question, “What are God’s purposes?” The simple fact is let’s have the humility to admit that there may be thousands of purposes that you and I know nothing about.
I came across a quote one time that literally took my breath away, and you know, every so often you have a quote that is so filled with theology and yet difficult perhaps to accept, but nonetheless true. The quote is this: “If I had the power of God for 24 hours what changes I would make on this earth!” said one theologian.
Let me just stop there before I give you the rest of the quote. Could you imagine that? You have the power of God for 24 hours. What changes you would make on the earth! I mean, wow! It would be incredible, the changes that would be made. But now the rest of the quote says, “But if I also had His wisdom I’d leave things as they are.” Can you accept that?
If we could see God’s eternal purposes we would know that His plan is on schedule. We would leave things as they are. Our God is in the heavens. He has done whatsoever He has pleased. All that He needs to do is to act consistently with His own nature, and as we learned in a preceding message, let us keep in mind what that professor at Notre Dame said after 30 years of lecturing. “I know two things. First, there is a God, and I’m not Him.” That’s worth learning.
No, we cannot charge God with evil, but question number three, can we trust Him? Question number one: Does He take responsibility? Yes, it says in the book of Amos, “Shall disaster come to a city and God hath not done it?” The obvious answer is, “Yes, of course God did it. He is God.”
That’s question number two: Do we charge Him with evil? No, we don’t charge Him with evil. He does as He pleases.
And, by the way, we always think of the negative part of the disaster, but remember that Jesus said that God also sends rain on the just and the unjust and sunshine. Sometimes we’re not very appreciative for all the times when there aren’t those disasters going on, but let’s go to a third question. Can we trust Him? Well, I, of course, think that it is only this kind of theology that means that God is worthy of trust.
Let’s suppose that it were true that God was only an interested observer of the natural disasters. You know, He kind of abandons the world and says, “It’s under sin, and there are faults in the earth, and you know, let them just take their course, and I’m staying out of this.” Let’s suppose. Would that give you a lot of confidence in terms of your life? Do you know what could happen? A stray lightning bolt could smite you or me dead, and suddenly we’re lying there on the sidewalk dead, and God still has work for us to do. And God says, “Oh no. I can’t believe this. (laughter) You know, that’s what happens when nature is out of control. Some of my servants, you know, die.” And next time, by the way, when I speak on whether God knows the future, that’s going to be one of the arguments. There are many evangelicals today who say that God does not know our future decisions, and that’s next time’s message. I’ve already prepared it. I’m steaming on that one. (laughter)
My dear friend, listen to me very carefully. If nature is out of God’s hands then I am out of God’s hands, and I’m a victim of nature because some earthquake somewhere, some natural calamity could smite me and somehow I die outside of God’s appointed time and purpose. No, it is the fact that God controls nature. It is that that gives me the confidence to trust Him, and if I die in such a calamity I say I die according to God’s will and God’s purpose, and because of that I die abundantly satisfied because God is God. Of course we trust Him.
And also the shaking of the earth is a reminder of our unshakable God, isn’t it? Do you know what earthquakes (and so forth) should do? As soon as the earth begins to quake people are trying to run to someplace. They are trying to flee to something solid. Well, the Bible would teach that we should do that too. And that something solid is God.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea(talk about a natural disaster), though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
Yes, we trust God, and we trust Him because He is sovereign, and that means that we are within the hollow of a sovereign hand.
A fourth question! Question number one: Is God in charge of natural disasters? Yes. Question number two: Do we charge Him with evil? No. Number three: Is He still trustworthy? You’d better believe it. In fact you had better trust Him.
Question number four: What are the messages of natural disasters? What’s God really trying to say anyway? This past week I learned that when that earthquake took place in Turkey there was an altercation between a cab driver and a lady journalist. They were both Muslims and they were discussing as to why the earthquake happened. Now mind you they both agreed that Allah did it. The Muslims have a very strong view of God’s sovereignty, so they both agreed that Allah did it. That was not their question. Their question was, “What made him so mad that he did it?” And the cab driver told the woman that it was because of women like her who refused to be veiled. That was the problem. (laughter)
And she thought it was because of boorish and judgmental men who walked around. (more laughter)
Well, let’s see if we can shed a little bit more light on this question of what’s going on. Take your Bibles and turn to Luke 13. We have an insight here that is very important for us to understand these tragedies. Luke 13:1: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Now we come to an event that could be called a natural disaster. Now maybe there human error - maybe the tower was not built well, but it falls into that general category of accidental death. Verse 4: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Wow!
First of all, let me say that it is clear that sunshine is on the righteous and the unrighteous, and so are natural calamities. The people in California are not more wicked because they have the earthquakes. It’s not because the people in Turkey or in Honduras (name the country) are greater sinners than other people in the region. It’s not because Kansas and Oklahoma are greater sinners because they seem to get the tornadoes. No, no, no! That’s not it! And so let’s keep that in mind. You see the simple fact is that God gives these things indiscriminately.
Now, let me be clear. Remember the message that I preached that God is more tolerant than He used to be and that was a lie? I said that He was not more tolerant. I explained that in the Old Testament the judgments were immediate. You sinned and you were instantly put to death, or there was an earthquake that would swallow you up. That’s not the way it is in this era because God is dealing entirely differently. And so that’s why in this era what you find is that just because people died does not mean that they are greater sinners than others.
Well what are the lessons? Number one, death is inevitable. It will come. It will happen. There was a couple that moved from California to Missouri because of the earthquakes in California and they died in a tornado in Missouri. You can’t escape it. C. S. Lewis said something that appears harsh, but it is true. He said that war does not increase death. Everybody who has ever died in a war or a natural disaster would someday die because death is inevitable. You cannot escape it. When you are reading about these tragedies – 50 people killed here, and a hundred over here and a hundred thousand over there - what you should be doing is seeing your own obituary because you and I are going the same way. Not through the same calamity, but we too are on our way. We too have been born to die. Death is inevitable.
The second lesson is judgment is coming. Notice Jesus said that unless you repent you shall likewise perish, not in the same kind of disaster, but calamity is going to overtake you. There’s no question about it. And when you look at the judgments in the book of Revelation many of them were judgments of nature. God was saying, “These little events (and I call them little now because of the comparison), these earthquakes and tidal waves and tornadoes are little cameos, little insights into the total picture of what is coming because what is coming is far worse.
Just listen to this: “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb,’ for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
When you read about a tornado in Kansas or an earthquake in Taiwan, be reminded that there is a lot worse coming. Unless you repent you shall likewise perish. You read the rest of the book of Revelation and you find one judgment after another, one calamity of nature after another as God judges and God judges and God judges. It is during this era that He is restrained.
You know liberal theologians sometimes say, “I don’t believe in a hell. I believe that all that God is, is pure love.” Oh my goodness, where have you folks been? You don’t even have to read your Bible to know better than that. You just need to read the newspaper. If God can permit the tragedies that we are reading about that are beyond our comprehension in this world, if that can be permitted, if that that can be (shall I use the word?) ordained, if God says, “Yes, I’m doing this,” wow! It’s not very hard for me to believe in hell personally because God is not only love.
What did Elihu say? We read the words: “He sends the clouds for judgment to punish, but He also sends the clouds at times to show His love and nature reveals both.” The love of God and the judgment of God!
And by the way, isn’t it interesting that Jesus in Matthew 24 said that in the end time there is going to be an increase in earthquakes. He said that there are going to be earthquakes in different places, and this, he said, is the beginning of pangs. It’s the beginning of the end time. Now I don’t want to be a sensationalist, but have you ever noticed this? I think that in the last couple of years, and maybe months I’ve heard of more earthquakes that it seems I’d heard about in my previous existence almost. God judges the world. That’s the second lesson.
Third, we escape judgment by repentance. Look at the text. Unless you repent you shall likewise perish. Judgment is coming. You know, even if we say that the drowning of the Titanic going under the water was not really a natural disaster because there was so much human error (you know the whole story) but still here you have a ship going down with (What was it?) 1,522 people. And later on the White Star Office in Liverpool was the area where friends and relatives were notified as to whether or not their friends on the boat were among the dead or the living, and it is said that they had a huge cardboard sign. And a man would come out of the room with a name, and then he would go to the side that said, “Known to be lost,” and the other side that said, “Known to be saved.” So when the messenger came out every eye was glued on him. Which side was he going to go to? And number two, whose name was he going to pin on the cardboard.
Somehow I can think that maybe (I’m not dogmatic) that’s the way it’s going to be in heaven. I can imagine that there’s going to be a mother there who is going to wait to see whether or not her son is going to show up in heaven, whether he will be among the saved or the lost. Children waiting for their parents! And God is telling us today that unless you repent, you shall likewise perish. You may not perish today, but you will perish.
So what do we do? We take this business of natural disasters, and we say to ourselves, “We don’t understand it all, but we believe that God is using His megaphone to get the attention of the world. And people are beginning to think about their death and their mortality. I don’t know about you, but I do. I do it especially when I find out that someone with whom I went to school has died. And I’m saying, “He’s far too young to die.” People who went to school with me should not die, but when they do, it’s a reminder of my mortality.
I had intended earlier in the message to quote the poem by Cowper. I shall quote it here, as we think about the mystery of God and His messages to us in natural disasters.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
and works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust Him for His grace;
behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
Then listen to this:
Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Yes, He stands behind natural disasters. Yes, He is trustworthy. Yes, unless you repent, you shall likewise perish. By the way, have you repented? I’m talking now to those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior. Could you imagine standing before God, having heard this message, and giving Him an explanation as to why you didn’t believe?
Now Father, we thank You for your greatness and for Your sovereignty. We thank You that You are the Lord and that beside You there is none other. And we ask today that You will cause men and women to repent. I think of the many who are listening to this who have never believed on Jesus. They’ve come to Moody Church today perhaps being brought by others, perhaps just having wandered in, but they have never cried out to You and said, “Save me. Become my Savior.” May they do that right now I pray.
And why don’t we just be silent while you pray to God.
Oh Father, complete the work that You have begun in our hearts. May we tremble in the presence of a God who can cause such devastation, and may we flee to Christ for mercy. We pray in His name, Amen.