An Act of God, or the Acts of God?
Having lived most my life in Johannesburg South Africa, weather and the elements were never an issue. If you ever mentioned the weather in a discussion it was more than likely because you were down to the bottom of the barrel in a conversation stalemate. The weather was as predictable as a tummy rumble in a three-day fast. (Please note: I originally wrote this article, An act of god, or the Acts of God in April 2011; this then, is an edited version to serve the purpose of this site).
Arriving in Australia five days after Black Saturday (7/02/2009)—the start of the Victorian bushfires—we experienced our first earthquake three weeks later. While it only registered 3.4 on the Richter scale it was a new and unnerving experience for us. Since then, we’ve had unbelievable sand storms in Sydney, locust swarms described by the secular media as “of Biblical proportions,” widespread devastating floods in the states of Queensland and Victoria and a cyclone in the mix too.
Christchurch, New Zealand has now suffered two massive earthquakes in the past six months – and of course the daily unearthing earth-tremors continue. I was in Christchurch a few days after the first quake and my first tremor measured 5.2 on the Richter scale, lasting for more than 20 seconds. This is by no means a long time, but it felt like an eternity as the earth groaned making me feel dreadfully frail. I got a small taste of what many where experiencing daily.
The earthquake and tsunami that has devastated Japan, north of Tokyo, and the subsequent nuclear threat is another tragedy in an increasing line of incidents that have shaken man’s confidence and revealed our fragility in the face of the elements.
There are now prophetic warnings by a prophet, who has several accurate predictions under his belt, predicting a quake/tsunami happening in the Bass Strait which, as you may know, lies between the island state of Tasmania and the city in which we live, Melbourne in the state of Victoria. In fact, there are an increasing number of prophecies targeting many areas of the planet.
These incidents are often referred to by the legal term “acts of god;” that is, they are beyond the scope of human control. The phrase is used to indicate that “no one is responsible” and is not technically meant as an accusation against God. However, you may remember the movie, “The Man Who Sued God” as a witty and irreverent play on this phrase in which Billy Connolly’s character sued the God’s ‘earthly PR department,’ the Church establishment.
Off the back of the recent surge in earth-shaking phenomenon, there are numerous and varied opinions raging from different corners of “church world”. On the one hand, we have those preaching a strong message of repentance proclaiming that God is judging the nations. On the other hand, we have those down playing any God-association in a noble attempt to avoid using His name in vain.
I am trying to listen as broadly and humbly to these, at times, contradictory voices. I’m certainly not a prophet and desire to listen to what God may in fact be saying through those He has graced as prophets. Yet at the same time I find I have to process this Biblically—at least as Biblically as I can— otherwise one can be pulled from the proverbial pillar to post or, in this case, from panic to paranoia.
My aim in this exercise then is to first attempt to understand these incidents in the light of the Scriptures for myself and then, to know how to best offer hope in the midst of these kinds of disasters in which so many suffer so much.
We are His Body; His heart, His hands, His feet and His voice. While the secular world may chalk these phenomena up as an “act of god;” we, as the ecclesia, are called to demonstrate the true Acts of God. We’re to reveal His compassion and show His sacrificial love in both word and deed at all times, especially in times such as these.
Please then hear my upfront qualification. This is my attempt to make sense of the times in which I live. You may have a very different take on the matter. My hope is that engaging in this discussion will help others as I process my own thoughts.
So, what do you mean by an act of god, or the Acts of God?
First, a general principle…
It seems Jesus went out of His way to correct the Jews’ cause-and-effect theology. They believed that if something ‘bad’ befell you (the effect); it was an indication that you were out of sync with God in some way (the cause). Of course, one may suffer if one is out of God’s will, but suffering is not guaranteed proof that one is out of God’s will. The entire Book of Job attempted to correct this erroneous thinking.
Job, you may recall, suffered because he was in God’s will. His concrete faith in God despite his suffering was God’s ‘weapon’ to confound the devil in a spiritual battle Job had no idea was waging ‘over’ him.
In contrast to this cause-and-effect theology, two incidents in Jesus’ ministry immediately spring to mind; first, the man “blind from birth” recorded in John, Chapter 9 (vv. 1ff).
Considering this man’s plight, Jesus’ disciples asked: “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). As mentioned, this question reflects a worldview typical of the Jews then and many Christians today: if he is suffering (the effect), someone must be to blame (the cause).
Jesus answered emphatically: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (v. 3).
This man’s suffering had no “accused” in some generational witch-hunt. There was no one to blame—a fact that did not go down well with the meddling Pharisees who were furious that Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath (vv. 13ff). In the face of the clear miracle before them, they still turned over every stone to find someone to tar and feather. Exasperated, they eventually condemned the healed man: “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?” (v. 34). The irony lay in just how much their religiosity blinded them from reality.
Jesus’ explanation—“but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (v. 3)—is very interesting. It seems to me that Jesus is reminding us that we live in a fallen world; God’s creation has suffered, and continues to experience, a degree of corruption. We live in a world where things erode, de-evolve, rust and run down1; where sickness and disease happen and yes, where platonic forces shift resulting in volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
Jesus’ words here also contain a wonderful promise, especially when He added: “I am the light of the world” (v. 5). God desires to reveal Himself through the fallenness of this world, restoring His creation from one degree of glory to another. He is the Light that dispels every dark spot that blights the created world.
In this man’s case, in John Chapter 9, he was healed of his blindness. In the case of a devolving, groaning earth; we have an otherworldly hope that in Jesus’ parousia2, He will restore His creation in fullness.
The second incident that I’m reminded of is found in Luke’s account (Luke 13:1ff). In discussion with Jesus, some people brought up the massacre of a number of Galileans at the hands of the cruel Pontius Pilate. As these Galileans were offering their required Jewish sacrifices in Jerusalem, apparently Pilate’s soldiers murdered them for some reason we are not told. Jesus’ answer indicates that those who brought up this incident may have again concluded that these poor victims were somehow to blame for their own demise.
Jesus said: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (13:2, 3).
His point? God was not punishing the victims of Pilate’s brutality for some wrong they had done; none of them merited this tragedy by virtue of some ‘sin’.
Then Jesus brings up another tragedy known to His audience; this time an incident that could fall into the “act of god” category; that is, it was beyond human control.
“Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (vv. 4, 5).
The incident in Siloam would surely have made the front page of the equivalent of a Jerusalem Herald; it would have left every Jew with this question on their mind: “What sin did these wretched fellows commit to merit such an awful death?” Again, Jesus made it clear that this was not the case; there were no sin (cause) to merit such a fate (effect).
In both accounts, Jesus teaches us that our response to hearing of the tragedy of others is to search our own heart—not point fingers. These kinds of incidents reveal the brevity and fragility of life—and ought to bring us to a sober fear of Lord; yes, compassion towards those who have suffered, yet gratitude towards God for every breath we still have to serve Him.
Thus, as a general rule, I ought to be slow to attribute God’s judgment to the suffering of others; instead, quick to search my own heart. If it is my time to die in similar tragic circumstances, am I ready to face my Maker?
Second, discerning the times…
With this first point, a general principle, settled in my mind I am able to—with a purer perspective, I think—consider a second common teaching of Jesus. He spoke of discerning the times in which we live; living with a sense of urgency should He return today (Matthew 24:36-44), while wisely investing in the next generation should He tarry (Matthew 24:45-51)3.
In my opinion, a lot of “discerning the times” is relegated to a focus on events on the world stage alone. While there is a place for this I’m sure, placing one’s overwhelming focus on it seems to be what Jesus actually cautioned us not to do.
Jesus taught, “Take heed that no one deceive you” and then continued “you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation … And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:4-8).
Notice first that He described the typical “signs of the times” that usually attract the headlines—“wars … famines … earthquakes …”—but emphatically explained: “but the end is not yet” (v. 6). He urges us to avoid fear—“see that you are not troubled” (v. 6)—and warns us to be wary of being deceived (v. 4). It seems to me that, at the very least, Jesus cautioned us to avoid being deceived by an over-focus on these secondary, on-the-world-stage events.
In my experience, it’s this over emphasis on global events that instils fear in God’s people. I’m convinced that any end times teaching that promotes fear rather than faith is not in keeping with Biblical truth; in fact, the very concept of “hope” in the New Testament is centred on the coming of Christ (see Hebrews 10:36-39; 11:1). Without a hope-injecting eschatology, we live by fear not faith, and will shrink back in the day of opportunity. We’re a confused army, we have a sword in one hand and a suitcase in the other; we’re not sure if we should fight or fly4!
Second, Jesus describes these “signs of the times” as “the beginning of sorrows”. What does this mean? Well, at the very least, Jesus was stressing what He had already explained: “the end is not yet”. These incidents are not indications of the end but merely signs of the age in which we live.
Thus, in referring to “the beginning of sorrows,” Jesus prepared His disciples—who were struggling to shrug off an idealistic view of what God’s Kingdom actually meant—to expect suffering as part of the package; dispelling any false notion that He was advocating a problem-free utopia in this age5. Yes, the Kingdom of God is here now, but it will increase, like yeast that leavens the whole meal (Luke 13:20, 21), until its full manifestation—in inverse proportion to the collapse of this fallen world and those who continue to ally with its demise.
This statement then, along with others, prepares us for the reality of the hardships we face in every generation; there is simply no place for an idealistic ‘triumphalism’ in our call to be overcomers (see for example, Revelation 2:10, 11).
In David’s square-off with Goliath, he never said, “Giant? What giant? I don’t receive this negative report!” Rather David said, “Yes there is a giant all right and yes, he is huge … but I come in the Name of the Lord … I serve a God who is much bigger still … and this giant is coming down!” David did not deny reality, he simply plugged into a greater reality (1 Samuel 17:1ff).
Should we expect an increase in these “acts of gods” as this fallen world unravels at the seams? For sure. Should we expect the world’s economies to collapse as we, as a society, continue to rape our environment, borrow from future generations to fund our present greed, gorge our every appetite and stroke our every whim? Without question.
In this sense, it seems to me, the Bible accurately explains that evil men will get worse and worse as a statement of the obvious (see for example, Matthew 24:12, 13; 2 Timothy 3:1, 12, 13; 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 9-12). It’s not rocket-science—and certainly not worth the hype that often surrounds “signs of the times” paranoia.
However, while God’s time clock is not set against events on the global stage, He has made it very clear where our focus ought to be: “And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
“And then the end will come”.
As we focus on our mandate to demonstrate the “Gospel of the Kingdom”6. This is where we’re fuelled with divine hope and faith.
As His Body—His heart, His hands, His feet, His voice—we are to “occupy until He comes” (Luke 19:13 KJV); serving a world spinning out of control, igniting Kingdom exploits to see His glory fill the earth. God’s time-clock is locked into His ecclesia’s faithfulness to His dominion mandate.
Few passages capture this tension between a “world imploding” versus a “church prevailing” better than Paul’s eighth chapter to the Romans. He describes the de-evolution of the world in powerful imagery: “For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with pangs together until now” (Romans 8:22). The very creation itself is groaning, suffering in birth pains … why?
“For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19).
Wow! This de-evolution— described by Paul as “groans” and by Jesus as “sorrows”—is not just inevitable, but pre-empts our full maturity as the ecclesia, the “sons of God”. An increase in the activity of the natural elements calls us to take our place as God’s Kingdom people, urging upon us a renewed urgency to see His Kingdom come and His will done on earth just as it is in heaven.
This is not a moment to shrink back; this is yet another moment to step forward as the ecclesia, the cabinet of the King7. Creation waits for us to fulfil our destiny; our original design, imprinted by God in our very origin: “fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion …” (Genesis 1:28).
Even before the fall, God created an earth that required subduing; a world that required His sons to fulfil their dominion purpose.
Third, a word on judgment…
In our English language, the concept of judgment has negative connotations; and in the mouths of fundamentalists, it tends to have menacing overtones. Too often, it’s incorrectly perceived as synonymous with punishment. So to claim that God is judging others through an earthquake, for example, is to portray God as fitful and angry; punishing His creation like some vengeful god of the Greek pantheon.
In Hebrew thought, judgment does not have these negative connotations; in fact, just the opposite. To the Hebrew mind, judgment is divine intervention bringing balance to the world in order for justice to prevail and truth to be established. It was anticipated with joy and expectation. The 98th Psalm is a powerful example of this eager anticipation:
“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! For He has done marvellous things … He has remembered His mercy … All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God … Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth, break forth in song … For He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world and the peoples with equity” (vv. 1, 3, 4, 9).
The psalmist declared: “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God … for He is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:3, 9). In other words, the Hebrews viewed judgment as salvation, not punishment; judgment refers to a revelation of God’s truth and justice that restores, or saves, a fallen and broken world.
Therefore, on the one hand, insensitively associating God’s judgment with the suffering of others can easily misrepresent God, and thus, for me is something that I’m loath to do. On the other hand, understanding the subject of judgment in its Hebrew context, we can conclude that God uses all things to bring His judgment—His truth and justice—to save His creation. Yet since Peter explains that “judgment begins at the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17) this means our default response is, again, not to point fingers, but to search our own hearts.
I’m convinced that if I say, for example, “God is judging the city of Christchurch through this earthquake” I am, to my English-speaking audience (one battered by enough religion already), misrepresenting God. I’d be claiming that God was punishing them; and I’d be perceived as condemning them from my ivory tower of self-righteousness. This, in my opinion, is not consistent with God’s heart, nor does it position me to offer the hope that is desperately needed.
However, if I conclude that God is using these earthquakes to address our hearts—yes, all of us—begetting a renewed sense of the fear of the Lord, soberness and vigilance; I am certainly closer to a Biblical understanding of judgment. And of course, in this light, pointing fingers is the last thing on my mind. Instead, in a spirit of repentance and intercession, I’m seeking how I should cooperate with God in bringing His salvation and hope to people so in need of it.
While I’ve avoided making any comments on my view of the nature of prophecy in general and the ones doing the circuit now in particular, I try to weigh such prophecy against the backdrop of the above thoughts. Having been enriched and enlarged by prophecy on many occasions, I treasure this gift from God. However, we’re taught to “judge” prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:29); to “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 c. v. 20). And as some of these current prophecies have eschatological notions, it’s important that we be discerning.
I’m totally unconvinced of where we are in the countdown to Christ’s return. (Yes, you read it correctly; I’m completely unsure of how close we are to Jesus’ coming). And according to Jesus, I’m in good company: neither was He when He walked the earth. Or at least this is my understanding of His statement: “But of that day and hour no one knows … but My Father only” (Mathew 24:36).
Whether we are in the last of the last of the last days8 or not is, in my opinion, not really the issue. The real issue is this: are we living in such a way that we “look for and hasten the coming day of God” (2 Peter 3:12)? Are we living this day—and every day—in preparation for “that Day”?
The sad reality is that it sometimes takes a natural disaster to renew this sense of urgency. And yes, through these tragic events unbelievers are often awakened to their fragility and more open to consider the claims of God on their lives.
Regardless of where we are in the run-in to the end, irrespective of what the natural elements do, our heart cry ought to be: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). This is not merely a nice theological sentiment; this is a burning, life-shaping conviction.
And with this urgency, let us actively be about our Father’s Kingdom business (Luke 19:13); bringing divine hope to a world that is so desperately devoid of it.
The last thing the world needs is more fear—it’s just about bursting at the seams with the toxic stuff already.
1 Science calls this the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
2 The New Testament does not actually use the phrase, “the return of Christ” or even the “second coming of Christ;” rather it refers only to His “coming,” a Greek word (parousia) used to describe the official coming of a king whose arrival would be permanent and whose impact would be lasting. The coming of Christ refers to the arrival of the King whose occupation is permanent and lasting. The implication is that King Jesus is coming to occupy; we are to prepare for the King’s return not for our own escape. We should be talking “occupation” not seeking a “getaway”.
3 In my opinion, all end times teaching should lead to this faith-injecting conclusion. Regardless of how you slice your eschatological bread, we have to live in the tension of this paradox:
Living a holy, humble life knowing Jesus could return immediately—“Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42).
Living a faith-filled, fruitful life knowing Jesus’ return might not be in our lifetime—“Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing” (Matthew 24:45, 46).
4 It seems to me that the correct metaphor would be that we have a spade in the one hand and a sword in the other; a spade to establish His Kingdom come and a sword to confront the principalities and powers that seek to oppose God’s purposes. How and when the “rapture” occurs is not the issue at all—that is, the rapture (or resurrection) is God’s responsibility, not ours. We’re called to overcome: praying for His Kingdom to come to earth; not bent on escape, hoping to flee to heaven.
5 The apostolic writers continued to prepare us in this regard; in fact, it is one of the most distinctive differences between the Old and New Testament perspectives. In the Old, God’s people shunned suffering as if it were a punishment from God; in the New, God’s people welcomed suffering as part of their warfare against darkness. If Christ, their King, had suffered; who were they that they should be immune to it? See for example, Acts 14:22; 1 Peter 4:12-17.
6 This phrase contains a mouthful yet is beyond the scope of this article. Simply, notice the stress on the “Gospel of the Kingdom”, not merely the gospel of salvation or the gospel of the church. Also, take note of the phrase “as a witness”; the Gospel of the Kingdom is to be demonstrated through our Christ-centred lives and Chris-filled communities as a “witness” lived not just a “word” preached (see 1 Timothy 3:15). Please view the articles on the Apostolic Mission page for more on this perspective; specifically, What is a Kingdom-shaped church?
7 The Greek word ekklesia, translated “church” in our English translations, was not a religious word in Jesus’ day; it was, in fact, a politically charged word. Jesus had a habit of using explosive contemporary words—such as “Gospel” and “Kingdom”—to envision His government on this earth.
The word ekklesia referred to people selected, called out from the general populace, to serve in a civil capacity as a governing arm or cabinet of a governor or king: technically, “a civil body of selected officials.” Yes, we’re called out of darkness into light but more specifically (and accurately) we’re selected to serve as the “cabinet of the King,” Jesus’ governing arm on the earth: the governmental executive of the Kingdom. Ecclesia is the English transliteration, and I tend to use this word most often. Please see the article, What does ecclesia mean?
8 The apostolic writers frequently used the term “last days” referring to the church age; the time period between the first and second coming of Christ (see Acts 2:17; 2 Timothy 3:1; 2 John 2:18; 2 Peter 3:3; Jude 17, 18; Hebrews 1:1, 2). Thus, they accurately defined the days in which they lived as the “last days”.
While we tend to turn Christ’s coming into a time-line on the calendar, the early church instead nurtured an eschatological attitude. And filled with this divine hope, the early church lived with a mesmerising sense of destiny and riveting sense of responsibility; believing that they could be, not necessarily would be, the generation that Jesus would return for. They gave themselves with abandon in such a way as to be the Bride who would wow Jesus’ heart that He might say, “Father, she’s ready! I’m going!” In a phrase, they were a “given generation”.
Every generation should nurture this same outrageous attitude of hope and live with this same gripping responsibility. Peter said Jesus was “being held back” – the literal meaning of “whom heaven must receive” – “until the times of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). What exactly must be restored before Christ’s return is a subject upon which many opinions are stacked. Yet our opinions here are not essentially important. What is essential to Christian doctrine is this: Jesus is coming back and we are to nurture an eschatological expectation, “in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11, 12).
You may also find, What do you mean by a hopeful eschatology? helpful.