Australia is no stranger to seasonal bushfires. Stories and images of this season’s fires are impossible to miss. While the current disaster is hardly the worst in recorded history (the 1974–75 fires consumed in excess of 95 million hectares, compared to the present approximate 11 million hectares; and the 2009–10 season resulted in 173 human fatalities, compared to the present 28), it is heart-wrenching to think of such widespread destruction. Estimates suggest the loss of anywhere between half a billion and a billion animals, with ecologists credibly fearing the complete extinction of certain species.
People around the world have watched in shocked awe. Prayers have been prayed, money has been raised and donated, and brave firefighters have stood on the frontlines, striving, it seems, in vain to fight back the raging fires.
In the midst of this, many Christians have wondered what God is doing in Australia. Why has he allowed such widespread devastation? Why has he permitted the deaths, and possible extinction, of so many animals? Why has a sovereign God not stepped in to stop the raging fires?
At least one high profile Christian leader thinks he has the answer. Stephen Anderson pastors Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona. Pastor Anderson, who has been banned from more than thirty countries for his unbiblical and hate-filled attitude toward the LGBT+ community, believes, according to a post late last week on his church’s Facebook page, that “if Australia weren’t banning and deporting preachers of the Gospel, they [perhaps] wouldn’t be under the judgment of God.” The post was accompanied by a map of the Australian fires and a video of a sermon by Pastor Anderson at a sister church titled “Natural Disasters as Judgment from God.”
Pastor Anderson, and his church, appears to be making the same error that Jesus addressed during his ministry:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: 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.”
According to Jesus, we should, in the absence of divine confirmation, be slow to assume that disaster befalling a particular people can be traced to a particular sin. Faithful Word Baptist Church simply has no grounds for assuming that seasonal bushfires are God’s judgement for rejecting gospel preachers. We might respond to Pastor Anderson and his church with Jesus’ words spoken elsewhere: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).
Faithful Word Baptist Church has taken a wrong approach to learning from the Australian bushfires. But Christians cannot avoid thinking about them. So how should we think about this disaster and others like it? Let me propose a few reflections.
First, God is actively involved in what is taking place in Australia. In fact, if God was not actively involved, nothing happening there could rightly be labelled a “disaster.” Remove God and bushfires are merely natural. “Disasters” are simply the world the way it is. Richard Dawkins is right: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.”
The Bible, on the other hand, portrays a God who is not aloof from his creation. Indeed, the God of the Bible claims to create calamity (Isaiah 45:5–7; cf. Psalm 115:3). Whatever else we conclude about the fires, we must affirm that God is in them. (At the same time, we do well to note that, more often than not, God’s providence over nature is peaceful, which is precisely why disasters are so disastrous.)
Second, we must at least recognise that God can and does, at times, use “natural disasters” to arrest our attention, or even as acts of judgement. God warned Israel of famine and drought as a consequence of covenant faithlessness (Leviticus 26:18–20) and actually made good on that promise a number of times in the scriptural account (e.g. Ruth 1:1; 1 Kings 17:1). Second Chronicles 7:14 is a promise that many Christians embrace, but we often fail to recognise that it comes on the heels of v. 13, which warns of natural disaster as a consequence of sin.
At the same time, we must be careful of speaking where God has not spoken. In the absence of divine confirmation, we cannot assume, as Faithful Word Baptist Church has done, that the bushfires are a direct act of divine judgement for particular identifiable sins. Job’s response is perhaps wiser at this point: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:4–5). While disasters are, broadly speaking, evidence of human sin (Romans 8:18–22), we must be cautious about applying blame for particular disasters to particular people and particular sins.
Third, while the Bible claims that God is behind calamity, he is not uncaring and indifferent to suffering. God rebuked Jonah for callously wishing judgement upon Nineveh, which would include the loss of human and animal life (Jonah 4:10–11). While we cannot always understand his ways (Isaiah 55:8–9), we can be sure of his character, which should drive us to worship (Exodus 34:6–8).
Fourth, tragedies of this nature should remind us of the frailty and brevity of life (Isaiah 40:6–8; James 4:14), which should drive us to mourn and pray for those affected, reflecting soberly on the fact that some will not be prepared to meet their Creator. Disasters provide us wonderful opportunity to offer practical service to help alleviate suffering but we must, at the same time, allow such “acts of God” to point us to the reality of the ultimate act of God on the cross. The same God who mysteriously does not spare the lives of people and animals in disasters also did not spare his only Son, but gave him up for all who would believe in him. And he did so to save his people from final judgement, which natural disasters, even when they are acts of divine judgement, can only prefigure. People may long for rescue from a raging bushfire or an devastating tsunami but how much more do they need rescue from the irreversible judgement of a holy God on the final day. While we cannot promise safety from natural disasters, Christians can promise eternal safety from eternal judgement in Jesus Christ.