Does God punish people through natural disasters?

By some counts more than three hundred thousand people were killed in the 2010 Haiti earthquake while an additional three hundred thousand were injured and one million rendered homeless. The scale of human suffering is truly unimaginable.

And then, even as people were still struggling for their next breath while buried in ten tonnes of concrete, along came the post hoc prophets making things worse by volunteering their opinion as to the workings of God's mysterious will. Chief among them was Pat Robertson who declared the unthinkable: the earthquake was in part the fault of the Haitian people.

And he didn't mean simply that legislators with their inept building codes and corrupt contractors with their shoddy workmanship carried some of the blame. That's a no-brainer.

On the contrary, Robertson's claim was that seismic plates rammed against one another, buckling, melting and shaking the earth, because of the actions of human beings walking around hundreds of feet above on the surface.

Not that the actions of the human beings was the immediate cause of the quake, as if somebody stepped in the wrong place and set off a chain of seismic events. The immediate cause was God. Apparently God reached out his thumb and forefinger and pinched the plates under Hispanolia. But it wasn't a willy nilly pinch. He did it because of the actions of those living on Hispanolia. It was a just punishment for sins heaped up for two centuries. You see, according to Robertson the nation of Haiti apparently made a Faustian pact with the devil two centuries ago. As Robertson declared, "They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal."

So if Robertson is to be believed, the rebellious Hatians got what they asked for. Yes, they were liberated from the French but they have had a series of punishments ever since, this quake being just the most recent.

Beyond the Robertson sideshow

Now you might be wondering: has Haiti been cursed with natural disasters or have Christian conservatives merely been cursed with Pat Robertson? But even if we can universally impugn Robertson's moral insensitivity and surprising credulity, the deeper, underlying issue he raises is not so easily ignored. We can summarize Robertson's claim like this:

(1) Haiti's earthquake was a divine punishment for the sins of human beings living in Haiti.

But whatever we think of (1), the fact is that it depends on an underlying premise which requires its own examination:

(2) At least some natural disasters are a divine punishment for the sins of human beings.

This brings us to the nub of the problem. While Christians were virtually unified in their repudiation of (1), those same Christians widely accept (2). And that introduces the problem for in virtue of accepting (2) they leave it open, at least in principle, that (1) might turn out true as well. And this introduces a serious tension. You see, the moral revulsion of Christians to Robertson's claim is of the "certainly not" type (that couldn't be true). But the actual beliefs of Christians about providence and punishment entails a "possibly so" (that may be true).

With that in mind, here's what I want to do. First, I'm going to briefly consider why Christians widely accept (2). And from there, I'm going to consider some of the implications for accepting that (2) is true and thus that (1) is possibly true.

Natural disasters as divine punishments?

In his book Where Was God? Erwin Lutzer takes the bull by the horns by explicitly arguing that natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and floods are sometimes punishments on human populations. His first point is that all the evil and suffering of the world is a punishment for that primal sin in the garden: "Natural disasters are judgments, for the obvious reason that all death and destruction is a judgment of God." (Tyndale House, 2006), 63. Consider, for example, Genesis 3:17: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life." This passage describes a punishment for Adam's sin. The punishment is that the ground will often be hard to cultivate and thus it will be hard to sustain oneself and one's community through agricultural practices.

If a community's marginal existence struggling to raise crops is a punishment for Adam's sin, is it likewise a punishment when a community enters a period of severe drought which results in mass starvation such as the famine we currently see in Somalia? Erwin Lutzer seems to believe this may be the case (though he would stress that we can't know which natural disasters are intensified punishments apart from revelation). In effect, the general curse as a punishment for Adam's sin can be intensified with specific additional horrors directed at particular populations due to the sins of those populations. As Lutzer puts it: "In natural disasters, God intensifies the curse that is already upon nature and, for that matter, upon us." (63)

So we can distinguish two levels of punishment. To begin with, there is the initial punishment of Adam and Eve which brought death and suffering into the world. In addition, the patterns of suffering and disorder introduced at that time can be intensified at later times as a further punishment for the ongoing sinful and self-destructive actions of human beings.

Lessons from Lamentations

Consider the book of Lamentations. On the one hand the book is not directly relevant to our topic since it is dealing not with natural evil but rather with the actions of armies that defeated and decimated Jerusalem. However, that distinction is not actually that important. Whether we're talking about the ravages of the Babylonian armies or of a string of natural disasters, the issue is the same: the residents of Jerusalem were judged en masse for the indiscretions of the population. And God was the special primary agent of that judgment.

The book begins with a clear affirmation that it is God, rather than the Babylonians, who is the primary agent of Israel's misery: "Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the LORD brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?" (Lamentations 1:12) Indeed, God has trampled "Virgin Daughter Judah" in the winepress of his wrath (v. 15) by summoning an army to defeat them. Remember, he could just as well have trampled them with an earthquake or flood.

Of course the very nature of these kinds of disasters is that they do not select out and target those who are immediately culpable. Many others are swept up in the dragnet of misery. Within Jerusalem the misery extends to the infants and children who cry out for food:

They say to their mothers,
"Where is bread and wine?"
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers' arms. (2:12)

The severe conditions created by this direct punishment even extend to the point of women cannibalizing their own children. And it is not that these individuals are merely the collateral damage. On the contrary, the suffering of all the people, the children included, is inflicted by God as part of his punishment of Israel:

"Young and old lie together
in the dust of the streets;
my young men and young women
have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
you have slaughtered them without pity." (2:21)

Judgment in Haiti?

If (2) is true then (1) is possibly true. And thus, if it is possible that God inflicts suffering on infants as punishment for the sins of people, then it is possible that God inflicted suffering on Hatian infants for the sins of Hatian people.

With that in mind, meet Landina Seignon (pictured above). She was in a hospital in Port-au-Prince at the time of the earthquake, a six week old infant being treated for severe burns sustained in a house fire. When the hospital collapsed she was buried in concrete and discovered two days later, amazingly still clinging to life with a massive head wound and no right arm.

If you accept (2), you are committed to accepting (1), and with it the following:

Possibly, God afflicted six week old Landina for the sins of the Haitians in the same way that he afflicted six week old Israelite infants for the sins of the Israelite people. Possibly, Landina was crushed in God's anger while other infants in the hospital and city were slaughtered without mercy for the sins of the Hatians.

This suggests that criticism directed at Pat Robertson is misplaced. Perhaps instead of targeting his misplaced confidence in (1) we ought to reflect further on our commitment to (2).

The Christian Post