The sun will be turned to darkness…before the coming of the … day of the Lord.
Eclipses, hurricanes, and earthquakes have dominated the twenty-four hour news cycle in recent days and weeks. Total solar eclipses seem infrequent and are magnificent, but entirely harmless (unless, of course, viewed with the naked eye) and predictably regular; hurricanes and earthquakes, especially when of the magnitude of Harvey and Irma or the earthquake that took place a few days before I sat down to write this (9/11/17), occur with greater regularity, but can cause great damage and loss of life, and are notoriously unpredictable. All share the capacity to evoke in human beings a sense of awe and wonder, even of fear and dread. They eerily remind us of the power of nature.
For the same reasons, they also tempt some to see them as portents and to seek in them some dire expression of God’s explicit will. Surely, such demonstrations of power represent divine warning (eclipses) or divine wrath (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, epidemics), some say. Recently, for example, none other than Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz (see www.annegrahamlotz.org/2017/08/07/gods-judgment-coming-america/), Pastor Mark Blitz (see www.wnd.com/2017/08/eclipse-warning-history-shows-america-headed-for-judgment/), and no doubt scores of other lesser-known preachers and pastors have declared the recent solar eclipse to be a divine warning for America to repent. Further, Blitz has likened Harvey’s impact and import to those of the biblical Flood (see
www.conservativedailynews.com/2017/08/first-eclipse-now-hurricane/) and by now, no doubt, someone has incorporated Irma into the scheme. Such equations of natural phenomena with the admonitory voice of God are, it seems to me, dangerous, disingenuous, and detrimental.
The danger in such pronouncements takes at least two forms. First, it engages in victim-blaming, disregards God’s reputation for justice, and manifests little awareness of the complex biblical discussion of the question. One need cite only three texts to illustrate that God’s administration of justice in the world is far too nuanced, even mysterious, to conform to the “sinners merit punishment: you have suffered disaster:: you are a sinner” syllogism. As early as Gen 18:25, Abraham insisted on the converse position that, as the Judge of all the earth, God would surely not commit the injustice of punishing the righteous along with the unrighteous. Job rejected the syllogism as championed by his “friends” until, in the end, God affirmed Job as in the right. Jesus reminded his disciples that God “manages” the weather, in particular, with no intention of micro-targeting it. Instead, sun shines and the rain falls on both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45).
Pronouncements such as those cited above are also dangerous for those who make them. They bespeak a spiritual arrogance, suggesting, as they do, that the speaker knows the mind of God to a degree of intimacy surpassing understanding. Yet the Bible repeatedly warns against too readily assuming the role of divine spokesperson (cf. Deut 13; Jer 27-28; Mark 13; etc.) and specifically against fascination with signs, seasons, and times (esp. Mark 13 and parallels; 1 Cor 1:22; Gal 4:10). All preachers and teachers must struggle against the temptation to identify our opinions and biases with the will of God.
Such pronouncements are also disingenuous. Assuming for the moment and for the sake of argument that hurricane Harvey represented God’s warning to someone, how would we know whom God intended to address? Lotz, Blitz, and others like them blame the whole gamut of “liberals,” especially those in or sympathetic with the LGBTQ community, for Harvey. Yet, Houston, the largest city in TEXAS, hardly makes the best target for such a warning – it is no San Francisco. Far from a hotbed of liberalism, it is home to mega-churches such as Second Baptist (arguably, the largest Baptist church in the world), Lakewood Church, and Windsor Village UMC whose pastors are among the SBC’s fundamentalist leadership (Ed Young) and the nation’s leading advocates for the so-called “prosperity gospel” (Joel Osteen, Lakewood; Kirbyjon Caldwell, Windsor Village). If I were so inclined, I might suggest that God’s warning addressed a different audience.
I am not so inclined, however, because such pronouncements are also detrimental to the cause of Christ because they contribute to the popular perception of Christianity as anti-intellectual, even superstitious. One need not deny the evidence of science in order to believe in a creating, sustaining, loving God. The time has long past for some Christians to abandon their warfare with science. Solar eclipses occur, on average, twice a year. They occur because of the geometry of the solar system. They are geometrically predictable. Individual eclipses are visible only from parts of the globe, but that, too, is geometry. I believe that God created the geometry, but I see no evidence that God manipulates its regularity to send messages. Instead, I view them, even or especially in their predictability and grandeur, as I view the birth of a child – mundane, everyday, natural, yet profound signs of God’s creative power. Hurricanes (and tornadoes) are less predictable in occurrence, but also result from the geometry and geography of the world. In a world with a tilted axis, with oceans covering almost three-quarters of its surface much of it along the equator, with a sun the size of ours and at our distance from it, and with continental–sized, asymmetrical, and unequally distributed landmasses, there must be hurricanes (and tornadoes). – Incidentally, as my mother used to remind me, when I complained of the heat and humidity in the South, without them, we could not grow tomatoes and okra. I love tomatoes and okra: no hurricanes, alas, no tomatoes. – There have been hurricanes for as long as the world has been so configured. Again, I believe that God created the geometry and the geography, but I see no evidence that God manipulates the temperature of the Atlanta Ocean off the coast of Africa and the steering currents to target hurricanes for the purposes of punishing or of sending messages. Earthquakes occur along fault lines where two tectonic plates meet. They produced the Rocky Mountains, the European Alps, the Appalachian mountains, the Jordan River Valley (Rift), and Death Valley – all wondrous, majestic, and beautiful. When they shift and if people live in the vicinity, there will be disaster. They are going to shift because God apparently decided to shape the world through the mechanism of tectonic plates. Yet again, I believe that God created the geographical parameters of this world, but I see no evidence that God manipulates tectonic pressures to send messages to the Californians or the Mexicans or the Italians or the Japanese.
Still, the Bible does contain a “doctrine” (the word may be too strong) of the (nearly inevitable) relationship between a deed and its consequences. According to this viewpoint, it is not so much that God “punishes” people for their wrongdoing as it is that wrongdoing warps the world in which one lives and (nearly) inevitably “comes home to roost.” This is the idea in the mind of the author of Lamentations 1:14 who has a personified Jerusalem say, “[God] bound my wrongdoings into a yoke, God’s hands tied them together, God placed them on my neck…” (my translation). Can you imagine opening the door to find God standing there with all of your wrongdoings tied into a bundle and hearing God say, “These are yours; I have brought them back home to you”? It is the idea behind discussions in Leviticus 26 and Jeremiah 3, for example, of sin “polluting” the land.
If I hear a warning from God in hurricanes Harvey and Irma it is this: by our treatment of the environment and our hubristic patterns of housing development, to name just two of our “wrongdoings,” we have sown the wind. Harvey and Irma are the whirlwind. God’s message is not that God manipulates God’s world, but that we have abused it and brought imbalance that is already weighing on our necks.