In the Opinion section of Sunday’s New York Times, literary critic James Wood (who I mentioned a few months back was at the n+1 panel on Evangelicals and Intellectuals and subsequently mentioned in my opinion piece on that subject) contributed an essay entitled “Between God and a Hard Place.”

The essay explores two ways that God has been attributed to the earthquake in Haiti and offers a bit of historical perspective to the genre of preaching he refers to as the “earthquake sermon.” In the span of two paragraphs we travel with Wood through London and Lisbon, hear the voices of Leibniz, Voltaire and even John Wesley before landing on our very own “earthquake-sermonizer,” Pat Robertson.

In mentioning Leibniz, Wood obviously directs the reader to the concept of “theodicy.” For those not familiar with the term it is essentially the continued belief in the goodness of God in the face of evil. Robertson’s response, Wood explains, is “classic theodicy.”

It seems that James Wood is not the only writer considering this idea around the events in Haiti. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at the New Republic (where Wood worked before moving to The New Yorker) offers a critique of theodicy on similar grounds as Voltaire’s original critique depicting it as an unfounded optimism. After offering quotes from former Presidents Clinton and Bush as well as Ban Ki-Moon and Bernard Kouchner in which the common threads are hope and optimism, Wieseltier concludes, “What else were they going to say? But something is amiss with this notion of policy as theodicy. For it may well be that anything is not possible.”

Wood’s reflection continues beyond the theodicy of Pat Robertson onto the reflection of President Obama on the Haiti disaster and decides that though “the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness,” that the President was actually using language in which “punishment and mercy lives on unconsciously, well after the actual theology has been discarded.”

These terms set, Wood’s essay comes to the conclusion that “either God is punitive and interventionist, or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively non-existent.”

But, of course, there’s a third option (and probably fourth, fifth and sixth options as well) that, though perhaps marred in contemporary parlance, may in some way be even more theologically accurate. That is, frankly, “Shit happens.”

Certainly God is sovereign. It is a great mystery that perplexes everyone from children in Sunday school to the most learned theologians; God gives us free will and yet knows what will happen. God created the world, gave it laws of nature, set it in motion and knows how it will end.

There are certainly examples of God using natural disasters in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, as a means of carrying out his will on earth. But as John Mark Reynolds points out at Evangel, a passage in Luke addresses the question of “whether natural disaster are because the victims are somehow worse than others.”

Apparently, a tower fell and killed eighteen people and Jesus says quite explicitly, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Human nature seems to always trend toward the extremes. Either God causes earthquakes and therefore is mean or God doesn’t exist. Many of us, however, live out our lives in the middle. Content to grasp at the mystery, constantly trying to illuminate the dark glass through which we now see. In light of this, the hope that rises from a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti is founded in a belief that though we can’t always understand God, we believe God is good. We are not left to the extremes of evil or non-existent, we are content that God is better, smarter and more loving than us and, ultimately, somehow, in control.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to It Happens: The Theology of Natural Disasters

  1. Jordan says:

    Bang on Jonathan. Cheers.

  2. Enough says:

    How about this from Dawkins, brutally honest, short and sweet:
    “Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for ‘sin’ – or suffering as ‘atonement’ for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.”

  3. Jonathan,

    You’re right to ask how Christians can interpret such events as incontrovertible evidence in favor of God. I think this is simply because anyone interprets everything as evidence for his or her current paradigm. Atheists see further evidence of the non-existence of God, Christians, the existence.

    But Dawkins is uncharitable. While the Judeo-Islamo-Christian tradition is known for religious violence and a rather narrow view of God, it is not the only religion, nor is the historical manifestation of religion the “true” form of Christianity.

  4. JP says:


    “Shit happens”? Really? Is that the one thing you’d want to say to the hundreds of thousands of devastated families dealing with the absolute wreckage of their homes and very lives? Are those the words on-the-grounds Christian workers ought to be telling them in the struggle to grant Haitians the hope and courage to continue on?

    What is the meaning of that phrase? Its meaning is essentially this: “Shit merely happens. Shit has no significance. Shit is not part of any greater design. Moreover, shit is not worth redeeming. It’s just shit.”

    So fine. It’s one thing to say “shit happens” when you stub your toe, or burn your morning toast, or even get your bike robbed. But to say that an event on the magnitude of this scale—hundreds of thousands of people losing their lives, and an entire country depopulated—is merely “shit happening,” is certainly insufficient for those professing belief in a God who is sovereign over all and from whose nothing on earth is hidden.

    You may balk at the debated distinctions between God’s ‘designing’ / ‘ordaining’ / ‘permitting’ such natural disasters. But if the alternative is to advocate the event’s flat-out unrelatedness to God, then such debates are easily worth having.

    The Haiti earthquake—along with all creation—is by no means outside God’s jurisdiction. “Shit happens” therefore simply will not do. Your final sentence seems to recognize this, even as it stands at odds with that two-word phrase.

  5. JP,

    Thank you for your response and for challenging my thinking on this.

    I will try my best to answer your concerns and to defend my assertion that “shit happens” is a reasonable and Christian response to the tragedy in Haiti.

    I’ve thought more about this since this initial response and I recognize that there is a missing component to my argument, a point that informs my ideas, but is admittedly absent from their defense. That is, the phrase “shit happens” should be understood in the context of a fallen world, a world that exists in a constant state of divine judgment. I suppose the only indication that this understanding provides the context for my thoughts can be found, albeit obscurely, in my reference to the passage in Luke.

    The lesson there is that because of our original sin, the whole world is broken and fallen and is a place where horrific earthquakes can indiscriminately take the lives of thousands of innocent people. Therefore, God is in no way absent from a world in which shit happens, it is precisely our decision not to live as he ordained that causes the shit to happen. In that way, earthquakes are the result of God’s judgment of our collective sin, just as sickness, depression and mosquitoes are.

    Yes, shit happens. But it happens in the context of a fallen world where our decision to live apart from God is weaved into the fabric of human existence. I don’t believe that God threw an earthquake at Haiti as Zeus might throw lightening, rather tragedies happen everyday not because God pushes the tragedy button, but because the judgment for our turning away from God is a world filled with tragedy.

  6. JP says:

    Thanks much for the clarification. With that thoroughly Christian presupposition in place we are much more on the same page. Though I still think the way that phrase is usually understood by people is as I described above, and therefore I don’t think it’s the most helpful/clear way of conveying what you are trying to convey. Maybe a clearer way to say it is: ‘Curse’ Happens. That may sound cheesy, but actually (especially now in light of Wes Anderson’s latest film!), that may indeed be another way of saying the original phrase, with the substitution both removing the vulgarity and clarifying the Christian sense in which it is to be taken.

  7. LM says:


    I was wondering if you could clarify something you wrote in your reply to JP?

    Given our understanding of plate tectonics, how do you support your following statement?

    “…because of our original sin, the whole world is broken and fallen and is a place where horrific earthquakes can indiscriminately take the lives of thousands of innocent people.”

    As Christians, I presume we would both agree that sin entered the world at some stage. However, earthquakes have been happening since year dot – long before the world fell, and I would contend so, too, have other natural disasters. I don’t believe they are a function of original sin, but are a brutal fact of life. As long as there have been people, there has been the potential for some volcano erupt on top of their heads, a flood to wash them away or an earthquake to bury them under a pile of rubble.

    Is this a fair assessment? If so, what does this mean with respect to the above quote?

  8. Jesse says:

    Richard Dawkins would probably hate it, but I like Dr. Voddie Baucham’s take on this question.

  9. Jonathan says:


    Great question. To be honest I’m sure how to reply to that. I guess I’m not sure that I agree that natural disasters pre-date the fall. But I suppose it depends on when you place the fall. In my perception of it, we don’t really know of anything that pre-dates the fall because, depending on how you interpret the Creation story (and I don’t interpret it literally) not long after there was man there was sin. So how can we know if earthquakes, etc always happened, even pre-fall, or just have been happening for as long as people have been sinful? Which, I think, for all intents and purposes, is forever.

    The only distinction, I think, worth making here is that there is some kind of pre-fall ideal that we believe we will return to upon Christ’s return. Will there be earthquakes in the new heaven and new earth? I don’t know.

    Sorry for this less than helpful, convoluted answer. I should’ve maybe just said “I’m not a theologian” and quit while I was ahead, but where’s the fun in that.

  10. LM says:

    Thanks for the reply Jonathan.

    Personally speaking, I think that one has to relent and accept that the forces that went into making this world possible simply must have been there from the start. It is curious (though entirely understandable) that these forces are now seen primarily as the enemy – the destroyer of life.

    Perhaps the beginnings of an answer can be found in the first chapter of Genesis.

    And God saw that it was good

    Creation was good, never perfect. This seems to suggest that there was always a next step in the plan, and that death is as much part of this plan just as it is part of our life. This also suggests that fallen world or no fallen world, the new heavens and the new earth is to be the culmination of the afore mentioned plan.

    People like N.T. Wright suggest that sin has become somehow intertwined with death. Changing it and empowering it beyond whatever God had originally desired. Quite how this idea fits into natural disasters is not entirely clear to me. I suspect that getting buried alive under rock would have been as painful and deadly pre fall as it is post fall. Perhaps this is not a totally satisfactory answer, but it is one that I personally find to at least give one a basis for some deeper thinking.

    Maybe you would be interested in reading this article from David B. Hart entitled Tsunami and Theodicy. (He was later to write a book entitled “The Doors of the Sea” based, I believe, on this same article.) There is a powerful quote from the article found below.

    As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

  11. Roger Chambers says:

    There certainly must be a happy medium between the two extremes of the theology of a “wrathful God” purposefully “punishing” a city / country with what is actually a natural occurence in a geologically active planet, and the rather Taoist belief that “shit happens.” If we are truly rational beings, a premise that some would vehemently deny, we would recognize that these events are a natural occurence, and to a large extent, beyond our limited means at the present time to predict accurately, let alone prevent. We can, however, improve our chances of survival by better building codes, education of the public, and preparedness with various emergency services and planning for such disasters which are to some extent predictable. This is true, even if we do not understand exactly where or when or specific effects these disasters may have depending on the location of the epicenter, depth of the quake, and so on. Chile is certainly better prepared to deal with such a situation than Haiti, due to many reasons, including but not limited to, a more vigorous economy, much better enforced building codes, and having in place at least a moderately effecitve disaster relief plan, as well as better education of the public on such possibilities. I will address these issues more in depth in a forthcoming article that I will post links to when complete.

    It is like a congressman (unknown exactly who) recently quoted in news clips saying, “Congress does two things very well: nothing at all, and over react.” We should not just throw our hands up in despair at such tragedies and do nothing, but we should recognized that these things do iindeed happen, and we can respond in ways that will mitigate the disasterous consequences at least to some extent.

  12. Have herpes or HPV Cure it now Naturally

Leave a Reply

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.