The last raindrops haven’t dried from Harvey, and already we’re told that Irma is poised to pummel Florida. At the other end of the climatic spectrum, a bone dry summer has given way to devastating wildfires across Oregon, Washington, and Montana. The Southeast never wants to see rain again; the Northwest fears it never will.
Such events are typically called “natural disasters.” They are the result of “Mother Nature” acting out, like a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. And there is something to this. Creation has an inherent impulse toward homeostasis. The disasters, from this angle, are simply the course-corrections of the created world. They’re still disasters, to be sure, but natural all the same.
Without ignoring, much less denying, the ecological and geophysical forces at work in such disasters, however, as Christians we have theological reasons for being reticent to call them “natural.” Indeed, from a biblical point of view they are anything but.
Groaning. That’s what the Apostle Paul would call our seemingly incessant cycle of hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and storms. The groaning of a creation that is in the travails of labor. He writes in Romans,
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:20-22 ESV)
According to Paul, these disasters are not natural. They are the convulsions of a world accursed by human sin. And they are regular reminders that the new creation is conceived but not yet brought forth.
This is the problem with calling Hurricane Harvey (and its ilk) a “natural disaster.” It normalizes something that, from God’s point of view, is far from normal. In the beginning there were no famines. When the Creator uttered His “let there be” not a single twister threatened the midwest, nor a tsunami the coast. All was very good.
The way things are now is not the way that things are supposed to be. This is not natural; it is, however, expected. As Jesus warned us, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24.6-8 ESV).
But as any mother can tell you, knowing they’re birth pains doesn’t make them hurt any less in the moment. Which is why, in order to find hope, we can look only to the most grave and unnatural disaster of all: the death of God’s Son. Christ Jesus bore on the cross the weight of sin and all its effects. He did not resolve for us why these disasters happen, but by His death and resurrection He did ensure that they are temporary.
Until then, we groan and pray with every unnatural disaster, Come, Lord Jesus.
Not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:23-25 ESV)