Are Disasters “Acts of God”?
WHEN an earthquake shook the ground beneath their feet, some ancient people believed that an underground creature had stirred. It was also thought by many that thunder, lightning, and storms were evidences of conflicts among their gods.
To try to avert disaster, such people practiced religions that they hoped would appease those gods. “For the greater part of history,” says the book Disaster! When Nature Strikes Back, “man has tried to explain the natural catastrophes that he endured . . . through folklore, mythology, and religion.”
In English-speaking countries today the phrase “act of God” is often used in a legal sense. Yet, one 19th-century jurist explained: “I have myself never had any doubt but that this phrase does not mean act of God in the Biblical sense of the term . . . It means an extraordinary circumstance which could not be foreseen, and which could not be guarded against.”
True Acts of God
To help clear up confusion over the meaning of the phrase “act of God,” we first need to understand the criteria, or conditions, that an event must meet to be a true act of God.
The Bible clearly tells us that God is Almighty. (Exodus 6:3) But it also says: “Perfect is his activity, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice; righteous and upright is he.”—Deuteronomy 32:4.
Knowing that Jehovah is just, upright, and consistent helps to fix the criteria that enable us to determine when a catastrophe is truly an act of God. Some key factors are: (1) It is always in harmony with God’s purpose; (2) God gives advance warning before acting; (3) he gives instructions to obedient ones for survival.
With this in mind, consider two occasions when God did act to bring a disaster. One was during the time of Noah, over 4,300 years ago.
A True Act of God
What were the conditions on earth in Noah’s day? “The badness of man was abundant in the earth and every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all the time. And the earth came to be ruined in the sight of the true God and the earth became filled with violence.”—Genesis 6:5, 11.
Hence, God determined to wipe wicked humans off the earth by bringing a global disaster. The Creator, as “Landlord” of the planet, was fully justified in doing so because of mankind’s depravity.
However, God took note of the outstanding integrity of Noah and his family. He promised them safety during the coming cataclysm if they obeyed his instructions. (Genesis 6:13-21) Did Noah and his family adhere to this arrangement? The Bible account says: “Noah proceeded to do according to all that God had commanded him. He did just so.”—Genesis 6:22.
Was Noah’s obedience worthwhile? Yes, for the apostle Peter relates that God “kept Noah, a preacher of righteousness, safe with seven others when he brought a deluge upon a world of ungodly people.” (2 Peter 2:5) Truly, God cares for his servants, communicates with them, and sees to it that they are preserved when he acts. As the Bible states: “The Sovereign Lord Jehovah will not do a thing unless he has revealed his confidential matter to his servants the prophets.”—Amos 3:7.
Another Act of God
Another act of God took place several centuries after the Flood. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah faced destruction from God because of their gross immorality. Not even ten righteous persons could be found there, only three—Lot and his two daughters.
What was the attitude of the people in those cities? As an example, note the reaction of the men engaged to Lot’s daughters when they were told to get out of the city because destruction from God was imminent: “In the eyes of his [prospective] sons-in-law he seemed like a man who was joking.”—Genesis 19:14.
Earlier, when God’s messengers stayed with Lot, the men of Sodom “surrounded the house, from boy to old man, all the people in one mob.” Why? They kept calling out to Lot: “Where are the men who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have intercourse with them.” They wanted to inflict their homosexual perversions on God’s agents! Thus, because of such immorality, divine destruction wiped out the cities.—Genesis 19:4, 5, 23-25.
That this was another act of God is made clear: “By reducing the cities Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes [God] condemned them, setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come; and he delivered righteous Lot, who was greatly distressed by the indulgence of the law-defying people in loose conduct.”—2 Peter 2:6, 7; Jude 7.
Disasters That Are Not “Acts of God”
A close scrutiny of catastrophes that some call “acts of God” reveals that, in fact, many are man-made. Others, of course, result from natural forces such as earthquakes and hurricanes.
Although the Bible foretells many man-made and natural calamities as part of the identifying marks of these “last days,” nowhere does it present instructions that guarantee immunity from them at this time. (2 Timothy 3:1-5; Matthew 24:3-12) Why not? Because such things are not acts of God. However, God’s Word does explain why good and bad people alike suffer from them.
When the first humans disobeyed God’s plainly stated instructions, they invited disaster. “You will positively die,” God had warned. (Genesis 2:17) The apostle Paul shows how far-reaching were the effects of their actions by saying: “Through one man . . . death spread to all men.”—Romans 5:12.
But more was involved. The first couple’s disobedience meant rejecting God’s guidance and care. No longer did they want God to be Ruler over them and their home, planet Earth. By forfeiting God’s oversight, they also lost his protection from disasters.
What does all of this mean for us? It means that “time and unforeseen occurrence” befall all of us. It means that we cannot know what will occur that might make us victims of the unexpected. As fish caught in a net or birds taken in a trap, so, too, “the sons of men themselves are being ensnared at a calamitous time,” as, for example, “when [death] falls upon them suddenly.”—Ecclesiastes 9:11, 12.
So while law courts may consider natural catastrophes to be “acts of God” in a legal sense, in actuality they are definitely not God’s acts.
Another Act of God Nears
Describing the climax of the present system’s last days in which we have been living since the year 1914, Jesus warned: “There will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning . . . , no, nor will occur again.” (Matthew 24:21) That event will bring an end to the present unrighteous system of things. Its climax will be “the war of the great day of God the Almighty”—Armageddon. That will indeed be a calamity for all those who remain a “part of the world.”—Revelation 16:14, 16; John 17:14; 2 Peter 3:3-13.
What kind of judgment will this be? It will be selective, removing only “those who do not [choose to] know God and those who do not obey the good news about our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10) But it will not be a disaster to those who listen to God’s warning and instructions, as did Noah and his family. This event will certainly be an act of God, since he will protect his servants. That makes it different from other disasters, which take the lives of good and bad alike.—See Isaiah 28:21.
How can we be sure that the coming “great tribulation” will be an act of God? We can be sure because it meets the criteria:
(2) Advance Warning: For almost seven decades now, Jehovah’s Witnesses have sounded a clear warning of this system’s end, and they have preached the good news of God’s incoming Kingdom. Their work has grown in scope until there are now over three million Witnesses throughout the earth. (Matthew 24:14; Acts 20:20) We encourage you to ask them about their message the next time they call at your home. Do not be like those in Noah’s day who, as Jesus said, “took no note” and perished in the Flood.—Matthew 24:37-39.
(3) Instructions for Survival: The Bible urges: “Fear the true God and keep his commandments.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) The key to survival is learning what God’s instructions are and then following them. Jesus put it plainly: “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3) Jehovah’s Witnesses will be happy to show you what God’s instructions are.
God’s Word also promises: “Hope in Jehovah and keep his way . . . When the wicked ones are cut off, you will see it.” (Psalm 37:34) You can show that this is your hope by listening to Jehovah’s instructions now and following them. That will identify you before God and man as one who is trying to do His will and thus come in line for survival. “The world is passing away . . . , but he that does the will of God remains forever.”—1 John 2:15-17; Matthew 28:19, 20.
The prospects ahead are indeed encouraging for those who learn about the coming act of God and who take the necessary steps for survival, as they will be ushered into a new era under the rule of God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 6:9, 10) But in that new system, what will be done to protect people from man-made or natural disasters?
Divine Disaster Prevention
With God’s Kingdom in full control, what a time of peace and restoration that will be! The benefits of submitting to the rule of God’s installed heavenly King, Christ Jesus, are marvelous to contemplate.
Consider what Jesus did when he was on earth that demonstrated what he will do in Kingdom rulership: He cured the sick, healed the crippled, opened the eyes of the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, made dumb ones talk, and even raised the dead!—Matthew 15:30, 31; Luke 7:11-17.
That is why the Bible assures us that under Kingdom rule God “will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”—Revelation 21:4.
What Jesus did on earth exemplifies the help he will give to his subjects in the coming new system. And what of protection from natural disasters? Recall that on one occasion Jesus prevented a disaster by calming a windstorm. His disciples were awestruck and said to one another: “Who really is this, because even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:37-41) Thus, with complete control over the elements, the powerful heavenly King of the new system will see to it that never again will natural disasters harm man.
Whatever damage man-made or natural disasters have already inflicted on our planet and its ecosystems, God’s Kingdom will be certain to remedy. The Bible’s promise is: “Even the wilderness and desert will rejoice in those days; the desert will blossom with flowers. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! . . . Springs will burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”—Isaiah 35:1-7, The Living Bible.
A uniform educational program will teach all in the new system to work well and to care for their fellowman, as well as for the earth. “Righteousness is what the inhabitants of the productive land will certainly learn.” (Isaiah 26:9) With that earth-wide divine education, and mankind lifted up to perfection mentally and physically, faults attributable to imperfection will disappear. No more will selfish interests lead to shortcuts in work procedures that could lead to accidents.
Today, man-made and natural disasters affect all of us. But the disaster that we need to be concerned about most, the “great tribulation,” is the act of God that will bring this wicked system of things to its end. That act of God will open the way to a new era of righteousness for those who do not let the truth slip by them at this time. For them it will certainly be demonstrated that “the true God is for us a God of saving acts.” (Psalm 68:20) So those who display godly wisdom now will enter a new system where they will “reside in security and be undisturbed from dread of calamity.”—Proverbs 1:33.
[Box on page 6]
Factors That Are Present in an Act of God:
(1) It is always in harmony with God’s purpose.
(2) God gives advance warning before he acts.
(3) He gives clear instructions for survival.
[Picture on page 7]
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was another act of God
[Picture on page 9]
Jesus demonstrated his power over natural forces by calming a dangerous storm