Hurricane Katrina


This article first appeared in the From the Editor column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 28, number 06 (2005). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/


It usually happens that a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina is followed by much discussion about God’s role in it. On one hand, some religious folk speculate that it was God’s judgment for some evil they believe was perpetrated by the victims. We cannot know with certainty whether God’s judgment was involved in any particular disaster, however, without specific, authoritative revelation from God. On the other hand, some see the anguish of the victims and ask, “Why doesn’t God prevent suffering?” This is an important question, and answering it properly and to the satisfaction of those who ask it is one of the most difficult tasks for any religious person, including the Christian apologist.

In a recent article titled “Katrina: Not God’s Wrath—or His Will,” Tony Campolo, a well-known Christian advocate for social action, argued that natural disasters and the suffering that follows cannot be a result of God’s wrath because God, being gracious and loving, does not give the guilty what they deserve and would not cause the innocent to suffer; and they cannot be a result of God’s will, as if “somehow all suffering is a part of God’s great plan,” because God is not the author of evil (James 1:!5). Campolo’s objection to the speculations and pat answers offered in the wake of tragedies has some validity, but his argument only makes the question more poignant: If God does not cause or will disasters and suffering, then why does He not prevent them?

Campolo suggests that maybe we should reexamine the answer offered by Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon, 1983). Kushner, whose young son died from a disease, argued that we know God is loving, and a loving God would prevent suffering if He could; so the fact that He does not prevent suffering must mean that He cannot prevent it. On other words, God is willing to prevent suffering, but He is unable to prevent it; God is all-loving, but He is not all-powerful. Campolo reiterates Kushner’s argument that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say that God is omnipotent (i.e., possesses unlimited power), but rather it says He is mighty, which means simply that He is the greatest force in the universe who will one day be victorious over all the forces of evil. So when Campolo says, “When the floods swept into the Gulf Coast, God was the first one who wept,” apparently we are to believe the reason is that God couldn’t do anything to prevent it.

I can sympathize with the difficulty of reconciling an all-loving and all-powerful God with the existence of evil and suffering, but looking to Kushner’s answer is not the way to go. First, his answer assumes that whatever God is able and willing to do, He will do right now. This is simply not true. God, who gives life and has raised people from death to life, is able to raise everyone from the dead right now if He wills to do so, but just because God hasn’t done it yet does not mean He is unable to do it or that He will not do it in the future. It is logically possible and biblically the case that although God allows suffering right now, He will prevent suffering in the future (Rev. 21:4). An all-loving and all-knowing God can have a good purpose for allowing suffering right now, even if we don’t know what that purpose is.[1]

Second, it is incorrect to conclude that God is not omnipotent simply because the Old Testament doesn’t explicitly say that God is omnipotent. God’s omnipotence is implied in many Old Testament passages (e.g., Gen. 1; Ps. 2; 46; 115:3; 135:6; 147:5; Isa. 43:13; Jer. 32:17) and His ability to prevent suffering is stated explicitly in others (e.g., Isa. 25:8; 35:10; 43:13; 65:19). The same is true of the New Testament (e.g., John 1:2; Luke 18:27; Eph. 1:19; Col. 1:16–17; Heb. 1:3). Including the promise to finally stop all death and pain (Rev. 21:4). Further, if we follow Kushner’s reasoning, we should also deny that God is a trinity, since the Old Testament does not explicitly say that God is a trinity.

Finally, at the very least, we can infer from both special revelation (the Bible) and general revelation (nature) that since god was powerful enough to create nature and natural causes from nothing and sustain their existence, He could control or eliminate them as a potential cause of suffering if He so wished.

A number of Christian apologists have pointed out these and many other problems with Kushner’s answer to the problem of evil and suffering. My reason for drawing attention to it weakness is to show that it is not necessary to sacrifice God’s power to maintain His compassion.

I can hear the objectors now: “Who cares about any of this when there are suffering people to tend to? In the wake of a disaster is not the time or place to debate some minute theological issue, but to act.” Campolo contends, “The best thing to do in the aftermath of Katrina is to remain silent, and not try to explain this tragedy. Instead of asking ‘Why?’ we should be asking, ‘What does God want us to do now?’” (Campolo breaks silence to say thing, of course, and to explain that God was unable to prevent the tragedy.) Granted, debating theological issues should not keep us from exercising God’s love by meeting the tangible needs of those who are suffering; but, we will not meet those needs better or more quickly by needlessly abandoning the truth about God’s nature and sacrificing His power to preserve His compassion.

In the wake of a disaster many are also trying to find meaningful spiritual relief and to make sense of the suffering. This includes the victims and relief workers, as well as the greater number of observers who are moved by the live global reports of suffering that they see almost daily in the media. It is at these very times that we need to understand correctly God’s nature in relation to suffering. Long after the physical relief efforts have ceased, a generation will continue to form its ideas about God from its experiences and discussion about these issues. A profound example of this is the generation of Jews who became atheists after the Holocaust. A correct understanding of God continues to matter even when dire circumstances must capture our attention.

—Steve Bright

[1] God created natural laws and human free will, which are good in themselves; but their existence allows the possibility for them to cause evil. Preserving natural laws and human free will is at least one good purpose for allowing the possibility of evil. The Bible states other good purposes for suffering, such as to demonstrate God’s grace and produce maturity, perseverance, and strength (e.g., Rom. 5:3; 2 Cor. 12:10; 1 Pet. 4:1; 5:!0). It also says suffering is God’s will in certain instances (eg., 1 Pet. 3:17; 4:19), and it clearly was God’s will for Jesus to suffer, even though He was able to prevent it (Matt. 16:21; 26:53–54).