Natural disasters and Signs of Time. A biblical theology of tragedy?

Dr. R. Battista, Librarian and Teacher at Facoltà Avventista Teologica, Firenze;

I am sure that all those who, like me, have attained a mature age, have some memories of the trend in the history of the Adventist movement that link natural disasters to eschatology, and on the basis of several apocalyptic contexts.

Those interpretations had as a motive the awakening of conscience in view of the parousia; that is the visible, objective, shocking, ultimate, irruption of God in human history.

The Parousia finds indeed room in Christian theology but for his unthinkable character, ends up becoming a sort of myth projected in a million light-years distant future.

The event of the Parousia, which becomes in the collective imagination, of even the most sincere Christian believers, a kind of science fiction film; loses any historical connotation. In fact, also with Christianity for too many centuries, being fed with an idea of God being transcendent, accessible, mostly through the liberation of the soul from the body.

The God of history would be recognized, therefore, only in the event; while wonderful of Incarnation, to the detriment of the hope of Advent. In the rich liturgy of historic Christianity, there is a place for sacred seasons and holidays that commemorate the birth of Christ and his resurrection, but there is almost nothing that brings on high, the hope of his Second Coming.

Perhaps for this reason in some circles, there is a kind feeling for the Jewish holidays, which can be read in the eschatological sense, even for Christians.

Maybe to restore the objective, the real dimension of Parousia, one can connect this event to several catastrophes ( In the prophetic discourse of Jesus, in the Synoptic Gospels, in the parables of the Kingdom, in the visions of 'Revelation, the coming of the Son of Man - which by its nature is shocking - is represented as a sharp, great cry, that happens in consequence to a number of other dramatic events).

However, the very basis of any present or future consideration, is the fact that the God of the Bible is the God of Creation. In Him there is no destructive connotation (as in Indian religion, where the god Rudra-Shiva plays this function, the function destructive, being coherent and inherent its nature).

It 's true, however, that the God of the Bible has an attribute to play the role of the judge, being however this aspect of his act, linked to the tragedy of sin, rather than an emanation of His nature.

It should be remembered, before addressing the specific issue: the evil in the Bible is not a constitutive aspect of reality, in constant dialectical relationship with the good. Evil is emptiness and darkness; it is the absence of good. Unlike some Eastern spiritual orientations, the darkness in the Bible is not a reality simply waiting to become light but on the contrary, the darkness consistent with the definitions of physics, is the absence of light. Similarly, destruction and disaster, resulting from disorder and randomness, come form the disturbance of those harmonic balances that the Creator put in place. However, in this the economy of sin, they are constantly in upheaval.

Now, if some of the laws of the physical world confront us with the close relationship of cause and effect (law of gravity, etc..), it is not so for all things, especially those related to human behavior in the moral sphere.

The Bible does not affirm a law of causality in the real world- strict and absolute- like the law of karma.

The books of 'Ecclesiastes, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, represent a reality of the world full of contradictions in good as in evil (the suffering of the righteous and the innocent).

Indeed, you cannot even speak of a law of disorder, as the disorder itself, would be the result of the breakdown of balances, which cease to govern in a particular scope of creation.

By the term disorder, according to the biblical categories, we define a non-sense, something that does not exist except in terms of denial of something established by God. Therefore, when it comes to disaster and tragedy, we can - in my opinion - rightly speak of the absence of God.

According to a survey in the USA, for many Evengelical Christians natural disasters are Signs of the End Times. But in what sense?

In the Adventist tradition, as we said, the connection between natural disasters and signs of periods of time has been done. This is in no way strange since the Bible, especially the 'Apocalypse, establishes a relationship between overall deterioration of the physical and spiritual life of (and in) the planet and the end of this economy of sin. What demands our attention is the link between natural disasters and God's will and power: between the physical accidents and the individual or collective moral responsibilities; and then again, between the end of this economy and the crisis that will precede and accompany the parousia; which, in God's plan, does not mean destruction, but the New Creation.

All of these elements if crushed against each other, improperly interpreted, may lead to very serious allegations in the field of theology. Until the construction of images of God, idolatrous and distorted. An example would be the biggest disaster described in the Bible, the flood, was not preceded by any sign of the eras (if not the preaching of Noah). Indeed, the characteristic feature of the event was to be totally unpredictable and without any warning sign. Nevertheless, the flood is presented unequivocally by the Bible, as a judgment of God (we will devote a separate article to the topic of natural disaster as God's judgment).

At the beginning of the First Jewish War (at the end where Jerusalem was destroyed), Eleazar, Simon well destroyed (in 66), the twelfth legion (called fulminata) of Gaius Cestius Gallus, creating illusions of victory. However, Christians did not believe in it, preferring to listen to the prophetic words of Jesus, which called for an escape in time. The sign in that case was "positive", well-wishing, but the outcome was extremely disastrous.

Going back to the issue of the evangelical faith, we will refer to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service found the following data:

- 31% of Catholics and 34% Protestants belonging to the traditional churches believe that disasters are divine signs.
- 67% of evangelicals believed that natural disasters are evidence that we are living in the last days.
- 58% of the entire sample consider that the evidence of global climate change.
- 52% of Republicans (we always talk about U.S. data) believe that natural disasters are a sign of the end of time.
- 53% of white evangelicals think that natural disasters are God's punishment for the sins of the world's inhabitants (Daniel Cox, director of the PRRI).

The data from this survey is, as you can see, quite controversial. The percentage of those who feel that disasters are divine signs, may not necessarily believe that we are living in the last days, as those who believe that we are at the last moments could also mean disaster as the result of climate change related to human responsibility. Disasters, in this way, would be understood as a punishment that humanity would be self-inflicted by his wrong choices.

However, in addition to human responsibilities more directly attributable to actions explicitly defined (especially pollution and wars), we must never forget that the nature that we experience, within this economy of sin, always alternating periods of prosperity to deep crisis ; and this even before the Industrial Revolution. Think about the plague of the '300 that halved the population of Europe, that one of the ‘600, the famines that decimated European countries such as Ireland, which hit at least three times between the XVIII and XIX century (culminating in the potato blight, 1845-1848).

Long before the ozone hole, sensitive and compassionate poets defined nature as “stepmother”. The first among them, for dignity and history, there is the God of the Bible, which is foreseen

in Genesis 3:17-19: Then to Adam He said, «Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it': "Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return».

Therefore, to conclude this first part of our discussion, we want to return for a moment, to the last sample of the survey mentioned above: that 53% of white evangelical who read the disasters caused by God as a punishment the sins that we (all) commit.

To deal with this, we will do an examination of the main biblical texts cited by proponents of this theory, to compare them with other biblical texts which, in my opinion, might call them to question. A premise: the first thing we ask when tragedies happen such as occurred on September 11, or assassinations of presidents, etc. is:

a) who are the perpetrators of the crime?

b) who are the masterminds? (with the variant who is really behind: conspiracy theory),

c) could such event have been avoided?

Sometimes we do not get too much, even though we are talking about human situations. For things bigger than us, it will be necessary not only a specific attention, but also the spirit of humility and prayer. Otherwise, damage will be added to the damage.


Raffaele Battista

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