We had an interesting exercise in my seminary class last week, and I thought I would post it. The class is Overview of Christian Teachings, a basic theology class. we were studying the nature of providence and the professor provided the following prompt. My response is below.
“The editor of Faith & Values has called asking you to write a short article to be published this coming Saturday that addresses the following question: Is God responsible for the hurricane that devastated New Orleans (by causing it or permitting it to happen)? The editor requires that you are to write from your own convictions and conclusions on this issue, and not simply report possible solutions that have been posed with respect to the problem of evil throughout history or your own denomination’s point of view (although they may be cited in support of, or as a way of explaining, your own view). You have, for better or worse, accepted this assignment.”
The great natural tragedies of our day present quite a conundrum to the committed Christian such as myself. Tragic “acts of God” (as insurance companies like to classify them) always raise the question, If God is good and all powerful, why didn’t God stop this? Such is the classic question posed to the area theological of theological inquiry known as theodicy, which deals with the question of the reality of evil in our world today. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most poignant examples where this question is being asked today. Could God not have saved New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf coast? As someone who has led a group of teenagers twice to the cost of Mississippi to help the community there rebuild from Katrina’s devastation, this exercise is not just academic. I have seen, talked to, and volunteered my time for the people who lived through the nightmare in August of 2005.
The first question we must deal with is God’s goodness. Like many attributes of God-loving, merciful, wrathful, jealous-God’s goodness can be easily misunderstood by the unreflective thinker. If there is a creator God, and if he is good, then God defines good; good does not define God. The temptation is for us to use the reasoning, “I know what good is; therefore, if God does something that is not good, he either cannot exist or is not good.” In reality, we must start with God in order to define what good is, regardless of our notions.
The second question that we must deal with is God’s power. Although classic Christianity holds that God is all-powerful we also believe that God has given human beings some measure of free will. In the case of New Orleans, much went wrong apart from the wind and the rain. Human beings decided to settle along the Gulf coast; human beings chose to build homes below sea level; human beings constructed a system of levees incapable of guarding the city from possible flooding. That God is not culpable in these human acts fits with classic Christian belief. Thus, much of the devastation of Katrina was wrought as a result of human beings who settled in New Orleans. That is not to say that they were necessarily sinful or wrong, but it is to say that human beings face consequences to their actions.
Human beings are not, however, able to control the weather. Only God can alter the climate, and the Bible points to many occasions when he is said to have done so. He parted the Red Sea, caused drought to fall on many lands, flooded the earth, and more. Certainly it is not outside the realm of God’s power to alter the weather from its normal, created laws and mechanisms. Where the question arises is if it is outside of God’s goodness not to intervene in the weather where there might be calamity as a result, as in Hurricane Katrina.
The grand story of the Bible tells that God created the universe, along with human beings who can act freely for Good or evil, and that human beings have been on a crash course of messing things up ever since. God, for whatever reason, has chosen to give human beings the space to be free, make mistakes, and even cause harm to one another. However, the Christian faith also tells us that God as both, simultaneously, allowed human beings to retain their free will at the same time that he has defeated all evil, death, and corruption through Jesus Christ. This paradox of God’s restoration of humanity and our ongoing freedom is quite the mystery. The salvation of humankind has already been achieved, yet it has not been realized. In the same way, we might say that God’s power over all creation to work only for the good has been achieved, but it is not yet realized. We long for the day when it will be so, but that day has not yet some.
The deaths inflicted by Hurricane Katrina were deaths that God has already defeated. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory?” Death might be real in our world, but death does not win. As Christians we believe that death has been defeated in Jesus Christ. While the answer to the question, “Is God responsible for Hurricane Katrina” may never be answered while we are on this earth, we do know that God is responsible for the resurrection that comes from such death. In this resurrection we find hope. In this resurrection we find life, even in death.