Home > Opinion > God and nature: Biblical reflections on the Queensland floods and cyclones of 2011

God and nature: Biblical reflections on the Queensland floods and cyclones of 2011

Colleges Crossing, Chuwar. January 2011. Photo by Lewis Yu www.gospelstudio.com.au
The first creation story in Hebrew Bible tells us: “God saw everything that he had made and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) . Yet the creation was not good for the people who died in Toowoomba, the Lockyer Valley and elsewhere, or for the people who were friends and relatives of those who died. Nor was it good for people who suffered loss of income or property. For some, the worst was losing those tangible objects associated with treasured memories. Creation turned against people in the floods of the past two weeks, and proved to be chaotic, destructive and evil.

Is God in control of nature?

If we do not see God as merely the originator of the creation, but as the sustainer and life-giver, as the best wisdom of countless generations of people testifies, what happens when creation becomes deathly? Has God forsaken God’s creation?

Some do not see God as involved in creation at all, confining God to the human or the personal, but that is not part of the Jewish or Christian scriptures or tradition .

Parts of Scripture and those traditions envision God as vertically above the earth on the clouds, from which, of course, Queensland’s deluge has come! Of course, we no longer hold to a three-storey universe, with heaven above, a flat earth in the middle, and the underworld below. This, of course, is mythical language, not literal or scientific language. In fact it is likely that the ancients from whom these stories come were not literal or scientific thinkers at all, but knew full well that they were using metaphors to speak of mysteries.

Some envisage God as being further out in space, but that is to make God distant. Even if we interpret this as a metaphor for transcendence (God’s holy otherness), it leaves out God’s immanence (God’s presence in creation and with God’s people).

Perhaps these metaphors of height point to the fact that we recognise the greatness, or the authority of God as, for example, when we speak about “higher education”, or the “High Court”. But if so, has God forsaken authority?

Was God asleep when the floods hit?

Was God apathetic? Or, reminiscent of Elijah’s taunt to the prophets of Baal, perhaps God was taking a siesta (1 Kings 18:27)!?

In that story, Elijah prayed for rain, and the rain came. Sometimes, in times of drought, we are called to prayer. The assumption is, of course, that God is able to make it rain, and that God can control the forces of nature. But if God can bring rain, it logically follows that God can stop rain. If so, then could God not have prevented the devastating rain which has caused Queensland’s current problems? After all, Psalm 32:6 tells us: “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.”

As post-Enlightenment Western Christians, naturalistic explanations are part of our world view. We know that the vast quantity of rain which has fallen on this State is caused by a La Niña effect . But does that exhaust our explanation? Is it not possible to understand the science of climatology, and also see God as being at work in creation, perhaps as “persuasive love” (Charles Birch)?

While the ancient Jews saw God creating the universe as “good”, they were also aware of the destructiveness of nature. Often this was described as the chaotic, threatening waters, inhabited by sea monsters, such as Leviathan. The inhabited land was separated from the chaotic waters in Genesis 1. Catastrophic flood waters destroyed the earth in the Noah story.

There is no escaping the embarrassing fact that, in that story, God punishes and destroys.

Preachers will also have to contend with the covenant promise to Noah that floods would never again destroy the earth (Gen 9:11,15).

A treasured story in the gospels is that of Jesus stilling the storm (Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:36-41; Luke 8:22-25). We may interpret this psychologically, as Jesus stilling the turmoil in our own lives, but that was probably not the original writers’ intention. Whatever its symbolic meanings, it is likely that the Gospel writers saw this as Jesus, with God’s authority, stilling the destructive powers of nature. But God did not still the deluge in Queensland.

We tend to see God as intimately involved in the life of creation, the pan-en-theistic view. But if we subscribe to this, where was God in the flood? Was God in the flood? Did God allow the disaster? Was it the judgment of God? Can God be somehow seen to have caused the flood?

Pr Daniel Naliah of Catch the Fire Ministries thinks the flood is God’s judgment on Queensland, because Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, a Queenslander, spoke against Israel.  This presumes, of course, that Israel is always in the right, while some of us who read the prophets of Israel and see the God of Israel as requiring God’s people to act justly, wonder about Israel’s treatment of Palestine.

Such a view also conveniently overlooks the fact that Jesus refused to agree that there was a simple link between wrong-doing and judgment (Luke 13:4; John 9:2,3), and that he saw the forces of nature as not being selective (Matt. 5:45).

It also presumes that God is a God of judgment.

Christians see the clearest revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ (rather than in a written text as the Muslims, or personal convictions of the self, as in some recent forms of spirituality). Jesus saw God’s supreme quality as compassion. We surely know that God is compassionate towards people who are suffering.

Many scientists see a link between human-caused global warming and extreme weather events. If that is so, then there is reason to repent, not of criticism of Israel, but of our profligate lifestyle. Such repentance of course entails actual, costly change.

But if God’s primary quality is compassion, as Jesus asserted, I see God in those who helped neighbours, in those who sheltered those whose homes were flooded, in the efforts of the emergency services and defence force personnel, in those who opened and attended church halls, those who gave money, prayed, counselled, phoned words of encouragement, and emailed messages of concern.

In the Hebrew Scripture, Job understandably laments his terrible suffering, as we in Queensland do. Job rails against the injustice of it all, as we may also do. But ultimately, like Job, we do not understand God’s ways. After realising the wonder and mystery of God’s ways in creation, Job confesses, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (Job 42:3).”

What we do know is that God says to us “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Isaiah 43:2).

As for the rest, like Job, we are left with the mystery of how God is present in creation, when nature turns against us.

Rob Bos is Director of Pilgrim Learning Community

Photo : Colleges Crossing, Chuwar. January 2011. Photo by Lewis Yu www.gospelstudio.com.au