"Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters?"

“Why would an all-powerful and all-good God allow natural disasters?” asked Peter. “If God is powerful and good, he is surely at fault for the devastation and deaths caused by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes wildfires and so on. But how could a good and powerful God ever allow such evil to occur? That’s why I do not think the Christian God is real.”

Preliminary Comments

Before responding to this objection, let’s notice something important. Peter’s objection actually depends on a Christian worldview for it to make any sense. In other words, the question of how a good and sovereign God could allow natural disasters only makes sense if Christianity is true. The irony pervading the question of how a good and powerful God could allow natural disasters is that such a question would never even occur to a conscience that has not in a profound way been determined and shaped by the moral universe created by God.

So for natural disasters to even be a problem, Peter is already showing his dependence on the Christian truths of good and evil. Take away Christianity, and you take away the basis for the objection. If Christianity is false, the objection rings hollow. For instance, if Peter rejects the existence of God and says that the natural world is all there is, what basis does he have to argue that a deadly natural disaster is evil? Such events are simply the outcome of blind, impersonal natural processes, according to his own worldview. You see, to even make the argument, the objection relies on Christianity because without it, there is no basis for good and evil. I’ll put a point on it and say that for this objection to be made, the God Peter wants to disprove must exist, otherwise the question is meaningless.

Let me mention an important qualification that is often neglected. We need to remember that human actions can and often do play an important role in disastrous events. Human injustice, foolishness and greed can turn a natural event into a disastrous event. 

For example, thousands of people who died from the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004 lived along the coast in areas zoned by the authorities as unsuitable for housing. After the tsunami, some survivors said they lived along the coast because it was the only place they could live. Good government should have attempted to work out a solution for such a housing crisis. Many lives could have been spared. That same year, another deadly tsunami struck Indonesia. Warnings were sent to government officials, advising them to clear the area, but in several regions these warnings were not made public.[1] And of course it doesn’t help that in many of these areas there are no building regulations or builders cut corners which vastly increases the risk of injury and death.

On May 31, 1889, the city of Johnstown in Pennsylvania was destroyed by a flood after the South Fork Dam broke. Over two thousand lives were lost in the span of a few minutes as a towering wall of water crashed through the city. Rain levels were abnormally high before the flood, but research has shown that the fault of this catastrophic event lies primarily at the feet of wealthy members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club who neglected to repair the earthwork dam. Water levels also rose at a dangerous pace because hillsides were heavily deforested, causing rainfall to gather rapidly in the Little Conemaugh River.[2]

These are just a couple of examples of how a natural event can turn into a devastating disaster because of human injustice, greed, negligence, and foolishness. One senior scientist who has studied this topic carefully concluded that “the deaths caused by natural disasters can often be attributed almost in their entirety to actions taken by people, which turned a natural process into a disaster.”[3]

And so we need to be more restrained in our conclusions about disastrous events. We should remember that some disastrous events are largely caused by the choices and actions of people. Sometimes disaster results directly from human greed, foolishness, injustice, or abuse of the environment.

The Problem of Good

Peter is absolutely right that Christians believe God is good. The Christian worldview says that God is good and does good to all. His abundant goodness is revealed in all of creation. We live because God gives us breath, and everything we enjoy comes from him (Acts 17:25). He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall (Matthew 5:45). All of creation depends on God for provision. Psalm 104 celebrates God’s comprehensive care of creation, reminding us that our lives are moment-by-moment pervaded by his goodness.

The question Peter asks relates to the problem of evil, but what about the problem of good? What about the good we experience? If we interpret disaster as evidence against God, why shouldn’t the good we experience every day be interpreted as evidence for God? And yet that’s not how we are prone to think. The human heart is quick to find reasons to say, “There is no God,” but slow to recognize the many reasons to say, “There is a God, and he is good!” Why do we want to blame God for disaster, but not recognize him for the good that we experience every day of our lives?

Creation, Fall, Redemption

Now let’s try to respond to the question. Christians do not presume to know all the reasons God has for allowing natural disasters. To know something like that, one would have to see the beginning and end of all things, one would need to have a divine vantage point upon all of time. But no Christians claims such knowledge. Our understanding is limited to what God tells us in the Bible.

We can summarize what God says in Scripture with the Christian doctrines of creation, fall, and redemption. If you understand what is meant by these three words, you can understand how the presence of natural disasters does not require the denial of God’s goodness and power or existence.

Let’s unpack that. First, the doctrine of creation teaches that God made the world and it was good. There was no death, no natural disasters that suddenly and tragically blotted out human life. God created man to reflect his own character and rule over the creation, but man rebelled against God and brought ruin and corruption into the world.

And so we have what Christians call the “the fall.” That’s when our first parents sinned by rebelling against God. Sin ruined mankind’s relationship with God and brought a curse upon creation. Creation remains good, but now everything is subject to frustration, futility, and death because of sin. In short, the origin of natural disasters is mankind’s moral rebellion against a good and gracious God. 

The fall does not mean that God lost control of the world he made. Even natural disasters are under his rule. Nor are they without a purpose. Again, we don’t know the hidden purposes of God, but such events do serve as a reminder that life is not guaranteed, that we all deserve death, that we all face the judgment of God and therefore while it is still day we should seek after God and turn to him (Luke 13:1-5). In other words, natural disasters tell the living it is time we turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ.

That leads to the final word, redemption. The fall is not the final word of Christianity. Redemption is. God did not abandon humanity or the world to the curse even though that’s exactly what was deserved. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into this fallen and cursed world, and Jesus overcame the world. He overcame sin by taking sin’s guilt upon himself and bearing in his own body the curse of God upon the cross. He overcame death by being obedient unto death and on the third was raised. And the risen and reigning Christ has promised to return and make all things new. Death, pain, and natural disasters shall be no more.

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

[2] David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood.

[3] Christopher Ash, Where was God When that Happened?, 42.