Religious Questions: Does God cause natural disasters?

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, file photo, water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise in Houston. For small businesses, the recovery from hurricanes and other natural disasters can take years, if they can recover at all. Business owners in Houston have only just started assessing their damage and how to move forward. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

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Question: Is God responsible for natural disasters, such as tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes and drought?

All of the major Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have competing interpretations on this question of natural disasters, or more generally how active God is in the world.

In one camp, theologians believe God created the world and set things in motion but is not active in the day-to-day realities of life on earth. An analogy often used in this line of thinking is one of God as a clockmaker. Once the clock is made and wound, the clockmaker may make minor changes but the clock largely runs on its own. In this sense, natural disasters would be the natural result of global weather patterns.

The other line of thinking believes God is very much active in the world and, therefore, natural disasters. Theologians in this camp believe a disaster is the result of human sin and God's wrath. Televangelist Pat Robertson drew attention and criticism for this belief in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti when he said the disasters were a sign of sin and punishment from God.

The Islamic tradition largely follows the idea that God is responsible for natural disasters, just like God is responsible for natural beauty, said Emran El-Badawi, University of Houston Middle Eastern Studies program director. However, the determination of whether the disaster is a sign of wrath or a test of faith is not something humans can know, he said.

"The Qur'an accepts that ancient people were punished for their sins with floods, fires and wind, but it makes no explicit connection between God's wrath on one hand, and floods, fires or wind on the other," El-Badawi said in an email.

Rabbi Craig Lewis of Mizpah Congregation also would caution people from determining the intent of natural disasters. The line of thinking would feed ideas of certain groups of people being superior to others, he said.

"I would dissuade people from thinking that, as if God picks and chooses where to bring them for various reasons, because I think that opens the doors to some very dangerous ideologies," he said.

God created the world, including people and the systems that create natural disasters, Lewis said, but humans cannot understand why things in the creation happen. Lewis said he would point people to the passage of 1 Kings 19 in which the prophet Elijah watches wind, an earthquake and fire destroy the landscape but knows God was not in the wind, earthquake or fire.

Instead, God comes to Elijah in the form of a gentle whisper after the destruction. God is a comforter, Lewis said, and people should look for God not in the disaster but in how people respond to those affected by a disaster.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.