Over the past few weeks parts of the country have been hit by two category four hurricanes: Texas, devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and Florida, which most recently felt the impact of Hurricane Irma. Harvey has claimed at least 70 lives, and Irma more than 40, and untold hundreds of millions of dollars in property has been damaged or destroyed. In the wake of these natural disasters, it has been a wonderful encouragement to see the world in general and the church in specific rising up to meet the needs of our fellow human beings. Humanitarian efforts and the prayers of thousands have gone out to assist those whose lives have been so violently and drastically changed by these weather events. When we help those in need we have the glorious opportunity to image our life-giving God who likewise provides for us in our time of need. Let us show him to those who suffer as a result of these hurricanes by helping them in their time of need.
When natural disasters such as these occur, it can be tempting to try and discern the reason(s) for why they have happened, or why, in particular, God has either allowed or caused them to take place. Unfortunately, some (usually high profile) Christian celebrities sometimes foolishly connect the occurrence of natural disasters to sinful behaviors or political ideologies. But the Bible does not tell us how or why we should link specific natural disasters to other circumstances in the world. In other words, we have no biblical justification for saying "Hurricane Harvey happened because _______________." We simply have no basis for knowing specifically why a natural disaster has taken place.
That being said, the Bible does guide our thinking when it comes to the occurrence of natural disasters. Although it does not give us specific reasons why a disaster occurs, it does give us at least four general principles that we should consider, especially in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
1. Natural disasters remind us that this world is not as it should be. All of us intrinsically know that when people have been killed by a natural disaster, it is not right; it is not good; it is not the way the world was meant to operate. God created the world perfectly, and in his perfect creation there were no natural disasters. The entrance of sin into the world brought with it death and destruction. The world became a dangerous place to live when mankind fell into sin. Since then, the world has been "subjected to futility" and in "bondage to corruption," and has been waiting eagerly for the time when it will be remade once more into a perfect dwelling place where that corruption and futility will be no more. (Rom. 8.20-22) When we hear about the death and destruction that has take place as a result of the recent hurricanes, it is a reminder to us that the world is a sinful, fallen place where bad things happen.
2. Natural disasters remind us that Jesus is coming back. Over the past couple of weeks I have seen several social media posts about how the existence of these two very severe hurricanes so close in proximity to one another is a "sign of the times," or in other words, a fulfillment of biblical prophecy that Jesus' return is more eminent than it was prior to the hurricanes or had the hurricanes not occurred. It is true that natural disasters such as these remind us that Jesus is coming back, but it is not accurate to say that his return is more eminent now that the hurricanes have taken place. When the Bible speaks of "signs of the times" it does not do so in such a way as to give us clues about the exact date or hour of Jesus' return, but rather as a general reminder that he is coming to recreate the heavens and the earth into a glorious dwelling where life will flourish and death and destruction will be abolished. Hurricanes and other natural disasters point us to his future return, and encourage us to long for his return and for things to be made right again.
3. Natural disasters remind us that we're all going to die. We are all close to death, be it by a natural disaster or at the hands of a drunk driver, or simply an accident. In Luke 13 Jesus comments on an accidental disaster that had taken place in Jerusalem: a tower had collapsed and killed 18 people. Jesus says that it was not for any specific sin that these people were killed by the tower collapse. They were not more evil than others. The tower simply fell on them because...it fell on them. In the past year I personally have lost two acquaintances due to accidental circumstances: one by a drunk driver, and the other by an accidental drowning. Both of those acquaintances were relatively healthy men in the prime of their lives who, on the day of their deaths, certainly did not plan on their lives ending. But the reality is that death is close to each of us, every day. When we think about natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it should remind us that we are all close to death, and that one day, much sooner than we think, it will be our time to die.
4. Natural disasters push us towards the cross. Natural disasters not only remind us that we are all going to die some day, but they also encourage us to be ready to die. Because we live in a world that has been disastrously affected by sin, and because death is close to each of us simply because we get out of bed in the morning, it behooves us to be ready to face it. Again in Luke 13, as Jesus comments on the collapse of the tower that killed 18 Jerusalem citizens, Jesus says that the lesson to be learned from such a tragedy is to repent - to turn from our sin. When we see suffering as a result of natural tragedy, we should realize that our time is coming, and that we need to be ready for it. Each of us were born into a sinful state, separated from God. In that natural, sinful state we are not able to live at peace with God. But God has reconciled this - our most basic human need - by sending his Son into the world to live a perfect life and die a perfect death, and then rise from the dead. By grace through faith in Jesus, we can be ready for when our time comes. When we hear reports of death and destruction, we should be reminded of the folly of sin and our own need for redemption, and cling ever tighter to the cross and the redemption offered by and through the one who hung there.
In the wake of these recent disasters, the church has a wonderful opportunity to be Jesus to the world. We can be his hands and feet as we meet the needs of those who have been touched by tragedy and loss, and we can be his witnesses to this world that is devastated by death and destruction of the life-giving, glorious truth of the gospel: death is coming for each of us, but it is not the end. There is a Savior who will rescue us from its effects so that we need not fear when the rain comes and winds blow.