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Are natural disasters truly “acts of God”?

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 01/21/13

Does God send hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes as a punishment so that sinful people will suffer? Or, is He indifferent to such suffering?

Millions of innocent people suffer the effects of natural disasters, as we are seeing in the United States right now with Hurricane Sandy. We do not always know the reason why God allows natural disasters, but do know that God is not indifferent to such suffering. We know that in the beginning, God made Creation and pronounced it good. When Adam and Eve sinned, however, evil entered the world, and this disorder even affected nature (creating the possibility for natural disasters). Natural disasters are not “acts of God” but the result of the corruption of nature. Yet even in these disastrous circumstances, Christ’s own suffering is united to his people, as He seeks to bring all men and women to him.

Many people suffer when catastrophes strike, including those who are innocent of serious sin or wrong-doing. 
Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, uses the Biblical story of Job to show us that suffering is not always sent as a punishment. He explains how Job was afflicted by “innumerable sufferings” and that Job's friends claimed “he must have done something seriously wrong. For suffering—they say—always strikes a man as punishment for a crime; it is sent by the absolutely just God and finds its reason in the order of justice.” 
“In their eyes,” Blessed John Paul says, “suffering can have a meaning only as a punishment for sin, therefore only on the level of God's justice, who repays good with good and evil with evil.” This is the same claim that people make when they claim that all natural disasters are “an act of God.”
Blessed John-Paul says that the story of Job demonstrates that this claim is false. He writes, “While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. Revelation, which is the word of God himself, with complete frankness presents the problem of the suffering of an innocent man: suffering without guilt.”
In a New Testament example, Christ alludes to a situation when 18 people died as a result of tower collapsing.  He said, “those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!” (Luke 13:4-5) Here, Jesus reminds us those who suffer are not necessarily more sinful than those who don't.
Suffering may sometimes be sent by God as punishment for sins, but not always. Regarding why God allowed any particular natural disaster, God's intentions are a mystery, and we should refrain from speaking on behalf of God.
When God first created nature, everything about it was good. When sin entered the world, however, nature was also affected.  The corruption of a perfect creation by sin brings about  natural disasters.
Before the Fall of Adam and Even into sin (and thus all humanity), there existed a harmony between man, animals and nature, with man being given stewardship of creation. The first chapter of the Bible tells us: “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Genesis 1).
When Adam and Eve committed the first sin, one of the effects was that this harmony was broken.  The Lord said, "Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, as you eat of the plants of the field” (Genesis 3:17-18).  God is not ordering the corruption of creation here, as many commentators have remarked, but crying out in lament at the inevitable consequence of of the corruption and death evil brings.  Original Sin not only affected the soul of each man and woman, but also brought disorder into the natural world.
The Catechism teaches us, “The harmony in which they [Adam and Eve] had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed…Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.  Because of man, creation is now subject "to its bondage to decay"” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 400).
Because of the Fall, nature is no longer perfectly ordered. While there is much good in nature, disasters such as floods, hurricanes and tornados also occur. These events do not come from a direct “act of God,” but rather are the result of the workings of an imperfect natural world.  This imperfection does not come from God but from evil.  It’s natural then—and right—for men and women to be horrified by the consequences of natural disasters—these are testaments not to the character of God but the character of evil.
While God did not send the suffering that results from natural disasters, in His Providence, He appeals through our suffering to draw closer to him—the God who did not spare His only Son but allowed him to bear the full weight of evil through crucifixion.
The nature of the world changed with the Fall, but it changed again with the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. When Christ died for us, He gave us the possibility of eternal life. As Christians, we recognize that physical suffering is temporary but alienation from God has eternal consequences. Blessed John Paul II writes, “Man ‘perishes’ when he loses ‘eternal life’. The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God, damnation.”
While God does not send natural disasters, Fr. John Flader explains in an article for the Australia-based Catholic Weekly, that the suffering brought on by these events can be opportunities to receive grace and, therefore, to avoid the ultimate suffering of separation from God. Fr. Flader writes, “God allows natural disasters to happen because, in his infinite wisdom, he knows that they can serve his purpose of bringing souls to eternal life. Out of evil God brings good: ‘We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him’ (Rom 8:28).”
“Indeed,” Fr. Flader says, “much good comes out of the immense suffering involved in natural disasters. People are led to realize how fragile their life is, how uncertain their days on earth, and they are often moved to repent of their sins and to draw closer to God in trustful prayer.”
We have all seen instances where people change for the better because of the way in which they respond to horrific circumstances: firefighters who risk their lives for others; families who put aside their differences and draw close together in times of crisis; people who learn to value prayer over material things they may have lost in a natural disaster. Amidst the suffering in this world, there is the opportunity to cling to Christ and to hope for eternal happiness with Him.
Our own response to natural disasters should be to draw closer to the Lord in our sufferings, to recognize that we can rely on Him and Him alone for our ultimate happiness.
Many places, with varying levels of prosperity, beauty and status, have been completely devastated by natural disasters throughout the years. These disasters can quickly take the lives of rich and poor alike and often make people reexamine their priorities of faith, family and friendship.
Blessed John Paul II teaches us that “Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption.” When we suffer we can unite this suffering to Christ, Who innocently suffered death for our salvation. God is present in natural disasters – not as One who sends malicious punishment – but as the Lord to Whom we can turn during disasters and the only One who can provide eternal happiness.  He knows what we suffer because Christ suffered for us in order to bring about a world in which, one day, all things will be made new, and natural disasters will be no more.

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