Amid the destruction and death caused by Hurricane Sandy there are stories of hope and redemption. A young man named Mike, washed out into the bay from his home on the Jersey Shore, managed to make his way back to shore and the shelter of a neighboring home. There, in the dark, he wrote a desperate note asking anyone who found it to “tell my dad I love him,” and ending with the words “God all mighty help me.” Unlike over 100 other victims of Hurricane Sandy, Mike survived. He was reunited with his father. For Mike, God was a source of hope in the midst of a terrible tragedy and ordeal.
But already the voices have started. Already, fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other clerics are calling Hurricane Sandy God’s justice and God’s punishment on the wicked people of New York, New Jersey, and New England.
It’s the same as after every tragedy and natural disaster. While hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people suffer and die, there are those who, instead of seeing God’s mercy and God’s help in the midst of human suffering, see only God’s wrath and God’s judgment upon those whom they believe God has condemned.
The judgment of the self-righteous
But the judgment is really upon those who set themselves up as righteous and call down the wrath of God upon the unrighteous.
To all rational and merciful people, these supposed prophets of God have judged themselves by their own words. They have shown themselves to be self-righteous and prideful, believing that they are worthy to stand in God’s place and condemn others. They are so busy using the Bible as a cudgel against their fellow human beings that they have neglected to read this scripture and apply it to themselves:
If natural disasters are God’s punishment upon the wicked, what will these self-proclaimed prophets say when disaster strikes their communities and their homes? Then their harsh judgments will fall upon themselves. They will have fallen into the pit that they have made (Psalm 7:15-16, 57:6).
And what about all the innocent people who died in Hurricane Sandy? What about the Staten Island woman whose two young sons were swept away from her as she tried to save them from the flood? Was God punishing her, too? Was God punishing those two innocent young boys, Brandon (2) and Connor (4)?
Decent, caring people cannot believe this.
And the Bible is clear: God does not kill the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:20-33). In fact, the God of the Bible loves both the evil and the good, and does good both to the just and to the unjust:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse you and persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust. . . . Therefore be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45, 48)
Is there judgment upon the wicked? Of course there is. But the wicked bring that judgment upon themselves. However, that is a subject for another article.
Does God cause disasters?
For now, let’s look at this question: Does God send disasters upon humankind? Based on the Bible, it seems to be an open-and-shut case. Consider this passage from the prophet Isaiah:
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.
There are many other passages in the Bible that speak of an angry God sending destruction upon the wicked. It won’t do to claim that the Bible doesn’t really say that God is angry, wrathful, and sends judgment and destruction upon the earth. It does. We can’t avoid it. We need to face it head-on.
So . . . is God really a wrathful being who metes out death and destruction, as he is often portrayed in the Bible?
How do you read the Bible?
Let me ask another question:
Where in the Bible does it say, “Everything in this book must be taken literally, at face value?”
The Bible simply doesn’t say that. God doesn’t say that.
The idea that everything in the Bible must be taken literally is purely a human invention. It’s not based on the Bible. It’s not based on sound doctrine. It’s not even based on the long Christian tradition that has come down to us from the earlier centuries of Christianity.
Fundamentalists who insist that we must read the Bible literally are ignoring the Bible itself when they make such statements. And though they would like us to believe that this is how the Bible has always been read, it has only been in the last few hundred years that certain large groups of Christian ministers have promulgated the idea that everything in the Bible must be taken literally.
These ministers are ignoring their own marching orders from the Apostle Paul, who says:
God has made us able as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)
In fact, the Bible is very clear that it is full of parables and deeper meanings, and that what is written in the Bible must be probed for deeper meanings. For more on this, please see my article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”
In short, the Bible itself does not teach that the Bible must be read literally. Quite the contrary. The Bible teaches that it must be read spiritually, as a divine parable containing deeper meanings.
Why does the Bible say that God is an angry destroyer?
Does the Bible lie to us, then?
No, the Bible does not lie.
The Bible talks to us in a language that we fallen, faulty, and often spiritually dim-witted humans can understand. And it does so to achieve a specific goal: causing us to reconsider our evil and faulty ways and start a new and better life that is driven, not by self-love, but by God’s love, and guided not by intellectual pride, but by God’s wisdom.
Sometimes, in order to achieve that goal, the Bible must bring us up short. Sometimes the Bible must put some brick walls in front of us using our own faulty views of how God and spirit work.
It’s not that God actually is an angry destroyer. It’s that if some of us didn’t believe this when we’re on a very low spiritual level, we’d never shape up. Like a parent disciplining a wayward child, God must sometimes appear angry in order to get our attention; but underneath it all, God feels only love and concern for us when we are on a path toward destruction.
The principle that God appears to us according to our own spiritual state is declared eloquently and succinctly in Psalm 18. Many translations seem to miss the point of the passage. Here it is in a very literal translation from the original Hebrew. The Psalm is speaking of God when it says:
With the merciful, you reveal yourself as merciful;
With an upright man, you reveal yourself as upright;
With the pure, you show yourself as pure;
And with the crooked, you show yourself as perverse.
It’s not that God actually is all those things. Merciful, upright, and pure, yes. But is God “perverse”? I don’t think so. Much like criminals cursing the judges who pass sentence on them as a result of their own criminal actions, when we are crooked, God looks perverse to us. And the Bible speaks to us in language that we can understand even when we have some very faulty ideas about God and spirit.
So yes, the Bible does say that God is an angry destroyer. But the real message is: God is in control. If you are engaged in or tempted by evil and destructive things, you’d better shape up, or you’re in trouble!
The deeper truth conveyed by the “wrathful God” images in the Bible is this: God loves us very deeply, and God is reaching out to us in every way possible to get us to turn away from our destructive lives toward better ways of living.
The deeper truth behind the “destroyer God” images in the Bible is that “evil will cause the death of the wicked” (Psalm 34:21). Really, it is not God, but our own evil and destructive ways that will cause our eternal death if we stubbornly persist in them. But as a loving parent, God is willing to take the heat of looking like the “bad guy” if it motivates some of us to “straighten up and fly right”:
So . . . Did God send Hurricane Sandy to punish the wicked?
In a word: No.
God does permit evil and destructive things to happen to us for God’s own reasons; but God does not cause evil and destructive things to happen to us. This is a huge topic, which we’ll take up in a future article.
For now, it’s enough to know that behind the prophetic image of God as a wrathful destroyer, there is the deeper truth that God is pure love and pure mercy toward all. God is a God who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
God did not send Hurricane Sandy to punish the wicked. Hurricane Sandy was a natural disaster.
But God is “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1) for all of the survivors who are willing to look to God for help. And for those who perished in the storm, God is already receiving them into eternity with loving arms.