As sure as night follows day, the arrival of any notable natural or man-made disaster is swiftly followed by pronouncements from TV evangelists that the calamity is God’s judgment on the sinfulness of its victims. There is nothing new in this. The Old Testament prophets were forever attributing any setback suffered by the Hebrew people to their waywardness. The only new wrinkle is that now liberalism has been added to the roster of sins warranting God’s retribution. Never mind that liberalism is found nowhere in Holy Scripture; it has nevertheless become a latter-day abomination unto the Lord and handmaiden to the devil in certain evangelical circles. Thus, televangelist Jerry Falwell went on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club to insist the 9/11 terrorist attacks were God’s way of demonstrating his pique at being banished from the nation’s courts and schools. Robertson linked Hurricane Katrina to abortion, while megachurch pastor John Hagee noted that Katrina came the same day a gay-pride parade had been scheduled in New Orleans. More recently, disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, back on the air after a four-year stint in federal prison for fraud in the 1990s, declared that floods in Houston from Hurricane Harvey were the Lord’s judgment on America. “God is not mocked,” he declared ominously, while hawking $175 buckets of disaster preparedness food from an outfit called Tasty Pantry.
Hurricane Harvey was frequently described in news reports as a flood of “biblical proportions,” a reference to the 40-day deluge in the Book of Genesis that wiped out nearly everything except for Noah, his family and a boatload of animals. Floods are a common motif in ancient mythology from the Near East and elsewhere, leading to speculation that they may embody tribal memories of some actual primordial deluge. Regardless, there would have been no concept of a natural disaster as such. A flood or other catastrophic event could only happen because God or the gods instigated it to punish humanity. As the Lord told Noah before the flood, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.”·
Needless to say, hurricanes and floods are an extraordinarily blunt instrument for meting out divine justice. Based on recent experience with mega-storms, those who suffer most are the poor, the aged and the infirm – the ones who probably couldn’t afford Jim Bakker’s pricey buckets of disaster preparedness food. Even early on, at least one of the Old Testament patriarchs had qualms about the rough justice dispensed by Jehovah. "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham asked the Lord when he learned that God was about to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. Later, Moses had to talk Jehovah out of destroying the Hebrew people in a fit of pique after having gone to all the trouble of delivering them from bondage in Egypt.
These days we like to think we have a more sophisticated understanding of natural disasters than the Old Testament prophets did or those latter-day televangelist wannabes. But we should not assume that God’s judgment is entirely absent from the gathering storms. Climate scientists – think of them as weather prophets -- have been warning for some time that the burning of fossil fuels is causing a dangerous buildup of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane, trapping heat in the atmosphere and raising air and water temperatures. Higher temperatures cause faster evaporation and more moisture in the atmosphere. The result is more extreme weather. The purveyors of fossil fuels and their political allies have stoutly denied man-made climate change -- as have the evangelicals, who have their own axe to grind. However, Jim Bakker is right about one thing: God is not mocked. The Lord may not be hurling lightening bolts from the heavens. But he may be dispensing an even rougher form of justice than anything contemplated by the Old Testament prophets: he appears to have left us to our own devices.