I first visited Joplin, Missouri in February, 1998. At the time it was a pretty Midwestern town of 40,000. For weeks I participated in Revive America seminars which saw scores of pastors unite, pray, confess their sins and seek God for renewal. One Sunday many churches closed their doors to worship together in a new found display of unity. At the end of the service we all signed a covenant together to seek God’s face for spiritual awakening in America.
In my journal, I recorded these words on February 19, 1998: “Joplin was a real highlight city–one of the best we’ve done in the past four years. God is really moving there–and I’ll never forget my time. May God’s vast awakening continue, to His glory alone.”
Today, thirteen years later, much of Joplin, Missouri lies in ruin–decimated by the most deadly tornado in America since 1950. The tornado’s 200 mile-an-hour winds caused hundreds of deaths, wiped out over 2,000 homes, and left more than 900 people injured.
I ache for my friends in Joplin–and other communities that have experienced these recent calamities.
And I have a question: Is God to blame for these natural disasters?
Is it just me, or does it seem like the upheaval in nature has increased over the past few years? Maybe it’s just the 24/7 news coverage and pictures that make it seem so. First we saw photos of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Next was the Japanese earthquake and tsunami which caused a huge nuclear energy scare and greatly impacted the world’s second largest economy.
Then came the recent tornado season in the Midwest with over 1333 reported tornado through May 27–definitely above the average and causing destruction to thousands of homes and businesses.
And most recently many people have been washed out by the flooding of the Mississippi River and its impact on thousands of homes and millions of acres of land.
What in the world is going on?
Well, if you’re a secularist, you simply believe that it is all Mother Nature–a streak of bad luck in an overpopulated world–that probably has something to do with climate change or global warning.
But if you are a Christian who understands there is a God, there is a devil, there are accidents, and we live on a planet corrupted by man’s original sin, then the question goes much deeper. How do these four things play into the confluence of bad weather and the destruction that it brings?
I don’t profess to have a final answer. But I do believe we need to humbly pray and start asking some deeper questions about the apparent weather chaos. We can begin by admitting that weather is not just the random occurrence of natural forces. The most reliable book in the world–the Bible–makes it quite clear that there are a number of possible factors in weather patterns on earth.
First of all, the Bible is clear that the God of the Universe uses weather and physical events on earth to reveal truth and draw people to change their lives. In the 8th century B.C., God brought a vision through the prophet Amos “two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1) during the reign of King Uzziah that spoke of the land being shaken by God (8:8), houses being smashed (6:11), altars being cracked (3:14) and even the Temple at Bethel being struck and collapsing (9:1).
As Stephen Austin writes, “The prophet’s repeated contemporary references to the earthquake is why it bears his name. ‘Amos’ Earthquake’ impacted Hebrew literature immensely. After the gigantic earthquake, no Hebrew prophet could predict a divine visitation in judgment without alluding to an earthquake. Zechariah says “Yes, you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah” (Zechariah 14:5). The panic caused by Amos’ earthquake must have been the topic of legend in Jerusalem because Zechariah asked his readers to recall that terrifying event 230 years later.”
The prophets said for centuries that God used famines, earthquakes, invading armies, and pestilence to bring people to repentance. This is why even insurance companies categorize natural disasters as “acts of God.” This is a valid, historical view.
As C.S. Lewis famously stated: “Judgment is a severe form of mercy.” When we don’t listen to God in our hearts, he uses environmental means to get our attention. The goal is always repentance i.e. a changed life and hope for the future.
Secondly. the Bible states quite clearly that the devil, Lucifer or Satan, has some delegated powers to bring physical calamities upon people. This was the case of the trials of Job whom God allowed Satan to sift to prove and strengthen his faith (Job 1:12-19). In this particular story, fire, invading tribes, and violent winds were used by the enemy to test and impoverish Job. In the end, God used Satan’s physical testings to bring Job to repentance and actually expand his prosperity (42:5-10).
Third, there we also know that we live in a world where accidents, both of man and nature happen to people in every culture. The world is no longer a Paradise, but one where “the whole creation groans and travails in childbirth” until it is set free from its fallenness (Romans 8:18-30). Thus many of the physical disasters and calamities we face might not be the direct hand of God or Satan, but simply the fruits of a fallen and imperfect world that are allowed by the Creator.
For example, no one knows what forms a tornado, but scientists agree on a few general points. The most common tornadoes come from rotating thunderstorms, called supercells. In a supercell, the updraft of warm air rotates counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, reaching speeds of up to 175 mph and forcing cool air to descend. The updraft can pull cool moist air — which would ordinarily fall from clouds — back up into the sky. The saturated air then condenses to form a rotating wall of clouds, typically toward the back of a cloud in rain-free zones.
With enough strength, the spinning effect creates a funnel, hits the ground and creates a tornado that can last several seconds to more than an hour. Damage can range from superficial, such as roof damage from a falling tree, to completely sweeping away a structure, leaving only the foundation.
Tornadoes are measured on the Fujita scale, created in 1971 by Dr. T. Theodore Fujita of the University of Chicago. It rates the twisters by intensity and area, grading them from weakest to strongest: F0 (Gale), F1 (Weak), F2 (Strong), F3 (Severe), F4 (Devastating), and F5 (Incredible).
The damage caused by tornadoes grows exponentially. An F1 storm can cause moderate damage, peeling tiles from roofs and pushing parked cars; an F3 storm will tear walls from houses and uproot trees. An F5 storm, the most dangerous and deadly, will carry cars through the air and damage even concrete buildings.
The deadliest storm in the U.S. was called the Tri-State Tornado; it swept through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, killing 695 in March 1925. The biggest outbreak of tornadoes happened in April of 1974, when 148 tornadoes ravaged 13 states. In the end, 310 people lost their lives.
Joplin’s tornado was also an F5.
Nature can be beautiful, but it also be brutal.
A final possibility for human suffering is the curse of human sin. Notice the graphic word picture in Isaiah 24:1-6: “Look! The Lord is about to destroy the earth and make it a vast wasteland. See how he is scattering the people over the face of the earth. Priests and laypeople, servants and masters, maids and mistresses, buyers and sellers, lenders and borrowers, bankers and debtors–none will be spared…The earth dries up, the crops wither, the sky refuses to rain. The earth suffers for the sins of its people, for they have twisted the instructions of God, violated his laws, and broken his everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth and its people. And those who live in it are guilty.”
This possiblity involves God but stresses man’s part in the curse of creation. None of this scenario is God’s fault. It’s the direct result of man’s sin.
So why was there a devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri on May 22?
We don’t know for sure, but it clearly could have been an act of God, or influenced by Satan, or simply involved fallen creation, and/or was a direct result of a curse because of people’s sins.
The people of Joplin–many of whom I know and love–need to be asking these questions. Humbly. Repentantly. Looking to God for clarity in a world where we see through a glass darkly.
If God is speaking, we had better listen to his correction. If Satan is on the loose, we need to bind him and cast him out. If we simply need to recognize our vulnerability in a fallen and cursed world, then we must humbly do so and move forward with his grace and help.
In all cases, we must rise up with compassion and help those who are suffering. Even when God disciplines, he also heals and restores through acts of compassion by his people.
In this world, we will probably never know the exact answer to these questions. But from our ponderings and prayers, we would be wise to give the same answer that Jesus gave when he was asked why a tower fell killing eighteen people.
He replied, “Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you unless you repent you will also perish” ((Luke 13:4-5).
If we don’t start there, in the future, we might just lose much more than a home or business. We could lose our soul.
America and the world: We need to pray, repent, and seek God about what is happening. That proper response just might lead to both personal and corporate revival.