Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Wrath of Katrina

The beginning of the tidal wave coming ashore in Miss.
The funnel clouds form.
The rains begin.
The sky turns strange colors. The appropriate response to seeing such things is-- get in the car and drive as far away as you can as fast as you can.

This picture clearly was taken too close to the line of fire.
The funnel clouds touch down and the destruction begins.

These pictures are from Mississippi at the onset of Katrina. Were it not the case that human beings and their homes were in the way, various of these pictures depict a beautiful natural phenomenon.

Natural disasters are only natural disasters when they affect the life of higher sentient beings adversely. Over two thirds of the world is water, and indeed close to half the world is uninhabited. Had this hurricane happened on a remote Pacific atoll, we would not even be talking about it.

This raises some interesting theological questions, and not the ones suggested by Bart Ehrman in his recent book God's Problem. Four points are of relevance: 1) human behavior has to be held accountable when people refuse to get out of the way of a hurricane which cannot be stopped. For example, there was ample warning in New Orleans about the magnitude of the storm, and its general time of arrival, but many persons simply chose to ride the storm out. Many of them died. This can hardly be blamed on God; 2) There is another human factor in play as well. The over-heated waters in the gulf of Mexico contributed mightily to the magnitude of this storm. What caused the waters to be overheated? There are a variety of factors and several of them are human in origin: 1) the dumping of massive chemicals in the gulf; 2) the dumping of massive raw sewage in the gulf; 3) global warming which is in part attributable to human pollution. Even if you accept only one of these factors, there is still human responsibility to some degree, and then there is this. 4) according to Rom. 8 all of nature is groaning longing for the day of human resurrection when the world as well will be restored to an Edenic condition. Paul it appears subscribes to a theology that the Fall affected not just human nature but the whole realm of nature. In other words, human sin is the ultimate cause of much of what is fallen in nature. It is interesting to me that insurance companies only call natural disasters 'acts of God'. They don't call positive miracles that, only disasters. Here we have a theology that holds God responsible only when things go wrong.

And this brings up another point. To what extent has God set nature in motion and allowed it to take its own natural courses, bearing in mind that there are various factors human and otherwise that affect eco-systems and ecological patterns? While I do not believe that God is absent or has simply wound up the world of nature and let it run, unless you believe in absolute divine determinism, you cannot simply assume that everything that happens in nature reflects God's hand or will, especially if you have a theology of the Fall that affects nature. I do not pretend to have all the answers to these questions, but they are worth pondering. Think on these things.


Josh said...

I have put a lot of thought into the theodicy issue and have too the same conclusions. Some of my friends in the family dorms that I live in disagreed with me, holding on to a more Calvanistic/Piperian view.

And then . . . a tornado hit and destroyed over half of our campus (but no lives lost).

The discussion after the tornado was really different. And this is where I truly believe that the conversations about theodicy must begin and end: in reality.

Michael Gilley said...

Brother Ben,

Thank you for sharing these photos. It would be very difficult to keep from expressing the awe that is present in them. As I looked at each one, I noticed that we do not often get such a rare perspective of the storm. Usually, all we see is the destruction and brokenness afterwards. It brings to mind the prophecy of Nahum: the clouds are the dust of God's feet. While I agree that God is wrongly blamed for much that goes wrong, I still cannot fail to see God's work present through such circumstances. Through the cross death now brings life and the beauty of such a coming storm ought to remind us of that. Never shall we be so calloused as to shrug off the pain and loss of those afflicted, even if at their own fault, but in hope we can endure such times by turning to the Lord who gives life to dust and calls things that aren't as though they were. This is a beautiful reminder of God's miraculous power to transform our sin into something so much better than what we have. Thank again!

Nathan Stitt said...

Those are some of the most dramatic images I have ever scene, simply awe inspiring. We just had tornadoes hit here yesterday, but it was too hazy to see what things looked like from afar. I admit that if I had seen anything like what you've just posted I would have driven away as fast as possible.

Also, I've really enjoyed your blog, but not commented until now. I did blog last month about one of your older Lazarus posts but I digress... Keep it up.

Leslie said...

For example, there was ample warning in New Orleans about the magnitude of the storm, and its general time of arrival, but many persons simply chose to ride the storm out. Many of them died. This can hardly be blamed on God

This really hasn't been said enough. I spent most of my teen years in Pensacola, FL. and that is where most of my family is from. I know about hurricanes, and Ivan did a number on Pcola just a couple of years prior to Katrina. People need to learn to not be stupid. There's a point where it's safe to stay, and there's an obvious point where you need to go.

Something extra to think about: I lived in Japan for 3 years when I was younger, over half of which was spent in Okinawa. The week after my family moved there, a typhoon with over 185 mph winds hit the island (I believe it was called Yancey). Everything was more or less back to normal by the end of the week. Granted, it did some worse damage elsewhere, but it was still nothing compared to the problems of Katrina. Point being, we really need to learn to build things better here.

Anyway, very good thoughts, and beautiful pictures. Thanks, as always.

TheChristianAlert.org said...

These are amazing pictures.

Thanks for sharing.

Where did you get them from?


David said...

You make some excellent points about theodicy, but these are not images of Katrina or even of a hurricane. They are images of tornados from the midwest, published at http://www.mesoscale.ws/

Luke said...

Thank you for these thoughts Dr. Witherington. The question of theodicy is an issue we all must wrestle with at one point or another, and using the "storm" or "natural disaster" is the standard remark for a determinist to back up their claim that God does it all. I, like you, have a big problem with this view.

For one thing, it elevates contextualized situations in the Bible to a universal status. For example, since God causes the hail in Exodus 9 and people die as a result, then every time a bad storm happens and people die, then God causes it! Frankly, this is just the result of poor hermeneutics! I do believe that God is in control of the elements, but, as always, I believe he gives humanity freedom and this freedom alters his intentions and plans many times.

If you could show me a verse in the Bible that says God causes every natural disaster and had it pre-determined from before time when it would happen, then I would believe you, but there is no such verse! You can quote me a couple of proof-texts from the Psalms or the passage in Matthew that says he sends rain for the just and the unjust, but this hardly backs up the point, because nowhere do these say that God causes and had determined all things that come to pass!

I don't know if I would put as much blame on the fall as Dr. Witherington does. I personally think playing "the fall" card is just a cop out for most people. I do believe "the fall" (though it's never called this) brought sin into the world, but blaming things on "the fall" seems to take the blame off of ourselves. It is not Adam and Eve's fault that we sin, it is our fault.

I enjoy reading your blog Dr. Witherington. It is quite refreshing to read someone who disagrees with Piper and his ilk oftentimes b/c most scholars don't tread that ground even though many scholars disagree with that line of thinking. People need to know there are legit scholars that see this issue totally differently than the determinists do, and scholars who are wrestling with this issue instead of letting a catechism guide what they believe and say.

Nathanael said...

David is correct, brother.
Your article is wonderful.
But the pictures are not from Katrina.

Another source is www.snopes.com.
Anytime I get an email that I need to check up on, I visit their site.
Here's the link for these pictures.


Brian Jones said...

Dr. Witherington,

I wonder if the same tension I feel after looking at those pictures, the tension between awe and fear, is what it must have felt like to be in the presence of Jesus.

Thanks for sharing the pictures.

Brian Jones

Greg said...

Thanks Dr. Witherington for the interesting post. I agree with David though, some of those images are from the Midwest: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/worldnews.html?in_article_id=550731&in_page_id=1811

"In other words, human sin is the ultimate cause of much of what is fallen in nature."

I don't think nature fell along with us, but more, in line of what Paul was saying, was subjected to the futility of a fallen race. And seeing what we have done to nature, as opposed to acting as caretaker, that is not hard to believe. Imagine a slave groaning under the heavy burdens of his master and you can get a good idea of this.

Also, I don't hold to a theology where the Fall affected the very makeup of nature itself. That, I think, is going too far with the text.

Finally, I don't think it is too far or wrong to believe God set up nature to act as it does and also controls the weather. Ample scripture supports that idea and it would be hard to get around Job 38. If God controls the normal weather, does He suddenly give that control up when a natural "disaster" occurs? Would Katrina have been so horrible had it made land fall in an area that has had a drought for the last five years?

We do have to remember that it was God who caused the flood that destroyed wicked mankind back in the early days. So it is clearly within His power, and God also has a history of doing it.

Just because we don't like it, why then does that mean God is not responsible for it?

Ben said...

What do you do with Noah and the flood that wiped out humanity? Not disagreeing, just uncertain.

Falantedios said...

I too, have put a lot of thought into this issue, and I think there is a lot more to it.

Just as many Christians commit the opposite fallacy as those who "blame God for Katrina." How many times do you hear people thank God for (just as one example) the rain that waters their crops, but blame "bad luck" or "natural causes" when the same rain washes away someone's house?

Why does it diminish God's glory to give him credit? "I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things." (Isaiah 45:7 ESV)

We worship the God who sent his own perfect and innocent Son to die for us. Will he not do everything possible to manifest his glory so that people might seek him? The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only answer to suffering.

Not everything in nature directly reflects God's CHARACTER. That is the job of his image-bearers. But even those things he does not directly will, he allows, does he not?

1) How many rich people died due to Katrina? How many poor people have access to interstate transportation? How many invalids can just pick up and move? Only a few people just REFUSED to leave. Most were stranded by financial or health concerns. You can't outrun a hurricane on your own two feet (or in a wheerchair or on a gurney).
2) & 3) If Katrina was the strongest hurricane ever, your points about human factors at play (super-heated water and global warming) would be more credible. Did the water suddenly cool down in the past three years? Of the ten most intense land-falling Atlantic hurricanes, only Katrina and Andrew occured since 1969. Of the deadliest, only 1 was in the last 30 years!
4) I think your pointing to Romans 8 is spot-on correct, but it doesn't help deflect responsibility from God.

I believe the groans of every sufferer say the same thing: "This is my body, which is given for you." We groan because of the curse, which came because of sin. Stop sinning and turn to God, so that he will not need to continue delaying (in holy compassionate patience) the appearance of his Son and the accompanying restorative flood of fire. When the choking underbrush of sin and curse are burned away, the Edenic forest can grow again.

in HIS love,

PS - "Celebrating the Wrath of God" by Jim McGuiggan is the best discussion of theodicy I've found.

Joe said...

I will have to say something different. In the past I studied through the book of Job, an interesting thought struck me. Many people were affected by a series of events that are attributed to a wager between God and Satan. Satan acts and God allows it.

We are only told the story from Job's perspective, not his wife's perspective, his servants perspective, not his children's perspective. The same events had different impact on different lives.

From this, I do not think it is an unreasonable extension to look at other events described in Scripture and realize that they too describe events, causes, and effects, from one or a few perspectives.

Bottom line, God acts to punish, build faith, discipline His children, and any other reason He deems right. That is the Spiritual level. Man acts and suffers the consequences, or reaps the benefits. Both happen at the same time, it is not one or the other, it is both.

It seems to me that we make a false dichotomy by trying to assign 'blame' to God or to man. It is both God and man.

He is absolutely sovereign and I am absolutely responsible.

And yes, these thoughts are worked out in the crucible of real life. I have aggressive heart disease, first heart attack at 37, and a long string of surgeries, heart attacks, and hospitalizations later, I believe that God is responsible, and so am I.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi David:
These pictures were mostly taken in Port St. Louis Miss. So either you are misinformed, or I am. In either case it is irrelevant, as they are pictures of hurricanes and tornados, which is the point.


Michael said...

Hurricane pictures AND theology! This is so cool!

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for all these comments and correction. I will say one more time-- there is no ocean in the Midwest, and that first picture was taken in Port St. Louis Miss. The other ones are said to come from the same source, but if not, that's fine. I'm happy to be wrong about that.

More importantly, in regard to the question of what do you do with Noah's flood, perhaps you are forgetting that God said he would NEVER do that again.



Ben Witherington said...

If God has programmed indeterminacy into the system, and the opportunity for viable choices of limited free agents, then God had to allow certain things because of the way he set up the universe. It does not follow from this that all that God allows he condones or wills. To the contrary, God is never the author of sin, evil, for in God there is no shadow of turning, and no darkness at all.


Dave said...

Just a minor point of clarification Ben, in an otherwise excellent post. The town is called Bay St. Louis.

I am somewhat familiar with the area, as my wife's grandmother lives in Pass Christian, just east of Bay St. Louis. We have vacationed there several times, and I have been involved in 3 mission trips with our church there.

The photos and videos do not begin to do justice to the toll on property and human life. It is indescribable, and many parts of Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pass Christian remain untouched. On our church's most recent trip in mid-March (I was unable to attend) there were still mattresses and other debris in tree tops.

For anyone looking for Jesus in the midst of this storm, locals will tell you that they guess about 75% or more of the rebuilding effort has been done by the Church.

Kyle said...

"To the contrary, God is never the author of sin, evil, for in God there is no shadow of turning, and no darkness at all."

Unless you are a Calvinist, then God causes sin for His own glory - so we should rejoice when an evil is committed by His determined "agents," for in the end God needed it for His glory.

Greg said...

Dr. Witherington,

Can you define evil?

The thing with Noah's flood is that it's a very good example where God used weather to bring about total death and destruction. So if He did it once, why can't He do it again (not necessarily with a flood)?

What I mean by this is it set a precedent for the capabilities of God. If God has a good reason for doing something with weather that to us may seem horrible, there isn't anything within God's character to stop Him.

And per Job 38, if God has control over the "nice" aspects of weather, does He suddenly lose that control when a "bad" storm, like Katrina, comes our way?

Ben Witherington said...

Evil is by definition anything that violates the character and revealed will of God.


Sam Riffell said...

I was locking up our church tonight, and my 6-year old daughter asks "Why do we lock our church and our house?" I mumbled something along the line "because unfortunately some people rob and steal." She quickly followed up with "Daddy, why did God make robbers?" That was the start of a discussion of free will, which I handled pretty well IMHO. A moment or two of silence as she absorbed that, and then, from the backseat of the car came yet another question ... "So why did God make tornados?" Good thing I'd been keeping up on my blog reading!

Kyle said...

I think there are a lot of factors in something like Katrina. Perhaps there are fallen angels that in some sense have limited influence in our world, including the weather. Perhaps God purposefully reigns down natural evil upon people to wake them up, for maybe only in a world suffused with natural evil would people be attentive to their need for God. Indeed, experience shows that suffering often brings people into relationship with God. So I think there are myriads of morally sufficient and good reasons within the providence of God for something like Katrina to occur.

The goal of life is not human happiness in this life. The goal of life is the knowledge of God in Christ. Many things may befall us in this life that are utterly pointless with respect to our current happiness, but which produce for us a deeper knowledge of God and an eternal weight of glory that awaits us in God's everlasting Kingdom.

Duke of Earl said...

The Fall is responsible for human corruption, but is the Curse that God placed on the Earth in response that ultimately leads to the environmental instability that results in natural disasters.

If God upholds the general uniformity of natural phenomena as suggested by His infrequent use of miracles then He can simply let things happen.

He is sovereign, but that does not require Him to make everything happen. He knows which sparrow is next to fall, but not because He's the one that bumped it off.

Joshua Ballard said...

Programmed indeterminacy?

That seems rather determined to my mind.

Mike said...

The picture you have of a wave in Mississippi is actually water comming over a levee in Lousiana, taken by Don McClosky, the manager of Entergy's Michoud power plant next to the I-510 Bridge over the Intracoastal Canal, rode out Katrina at the plant, which is where he snapped the picture of the powerful storm surge.

"There were waves up on top of that, that were probably 15 to 18 foot on top of what you saw form the hurricane protection levee that was out there," he said.