On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, Texas in what the Washington Post called an unprecedented “1,000-year flood event”, dropping more than 50 inches of rain within a few days. Only two weeks later, Hurricane Irma delivered “significant devastation” to the U.S. Virgin Islands and pummeled the entire state of Florida. Boasting wind speeds of up to 185 mph, this 400-mile-wide, category 5, super-hurricane is the second most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record. Anticipating up to 15-foot storm surges, 650,000 Florida residents were ordered to evacuate their homes in what has been heralded the “biggest evacuation in history.” Even Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina declared states of emergency as Georgia expected to be hit with its first category 3 or greater hurricane in over a century.
Were this not devastating enough, Hurricane Jose was nipping at the heels of Hurricane Irma, threatening to strike the same locations. As a category 4 hurricane, it marked “the first time on record that the Atlantic has had two hurricanes with 150-plus mph winds at the same time”. And weeks later, Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico which was still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irma. This category 4—nearly category 5—hurricane wrought massive devastation and knocked out 100% of the electrical grid.
During this same time, 10 western states suffered from 62 active forest fires, including the largest forest fire in the history of Los Angeles which ignited on September 1. But these are only the last in a long line of natural disasters and record-breaking severe weather in the year 2017. Severe weather incidents between January and April were more than double the national average for the last 10 years. For the first time on record, Massachusetts experienced two EF1 tornadoes in February, and Minnesota likewise experienced three rare early-season tornadoes. According to Peter Höppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research, “The number of tornadoes observed in the first quarter of 2017 was twice as high as the average for the last 10 years.”
The unusual presence of a coastal El Niño instead of the more common central Pacific El Niño generated a surge of disasters. During the first half of 2017, the United States experienced the second highest number of natural disasters on record. Among these, Denver suffered its costliest hailstorm, Silicon Valley experienced its worst flooding in a century, and the southeast was hit with the worst deep freeze in a decade. Thus far, 10 natural disasters costing over $1 billion in damage have struck the United Sates mainland in the year 2017.
Surprising as 2017 has been, records are meant to be broken. We ought not be surprised by the mere fact that a natural disaster is stronger than its predecessors. However, the abundance of record-breaking events in such a short space of time should give us pause. At what point should we question whether these concurrent record-breaking ‘acts of God’ are, in fact, from God? Could it be that God is using nature as His megaphone to communicate to us?
We cannot be certain whether these are from God, but it is reasonable to suspect that they may be a result of Him lifting His hand of blessing and protection. The magnitude of these events, combined with their timing, is surprising enough to prompt us to question whether God may be using them to challenge our complacency and to provoke us to evaluate our relationship with Him.
Second Chronicles 15:1–7, recounts how God “troubled [Israel] with every sort of distress” in an effort to capture their attention, to incite them to forsake their wickedness, and to return to God. As a nation, we celebrate and flaunt the very sins that compelled God to judge other nations in the past (Lev. 18). Could it be that God is using these natural disasters as part of a process of troubling our nation with every sort of distress in a fervent attempt to call us to repentance? The very fact that we cannot definitively reject such a suggestion should give us pause. It reveals that we know that we are not right with God. It reveals that we know that we have embraced sinful behavior that is deserving of divine judgment. Clearly there are some things we need to change regardless of what the cause behind these natural disasters may be.
It is not important that we be able to definitively identify God’s role in these events. What is important is that we know that our conscience is clear before God. And natural disasters conveniently encourage us toward such evaluation.
This article is excerpted from the paper “Does God Use Natural Disasters to Judge People and Nations?“
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