Did God really send natural disasters to punish people? David Instone-Brewer tackles the story of Sodom in Genesis 19
Most cities are built in dangerous places. Some are built on lowlands near the coast where there are natural harbours, but it’s here that they are in maximum danger from tsunamis. Some are built on shallow points of rivers where they can be bridged, but where there is also the potential for flooding. And others are built where veins of valuable metals and fuels come close to the surface, but these occur at geological fault lines which are liable to produce earthquakes. All this means that natural disasters hit a disproportionate number of cities and, when they do, God often gets the blame. It’s understandable that people might jump to this conclusion because the embarrassing message of Sodom seems to be that God sends natural disasters on purpose to punish people – Sodom was destroyed by some kind of volcanic activity just after God said he would punish the people. But this isn’t the only way to interpret the story. Because the text tells us that God and his angels destroyed the city (Genesis 19:13,29), we might assume that God specifically initiated this disaster. But we can also understand this in the sense that everything originates with God because he is the creator of everything – from diseases to medicinal plants, and rain which waters crops or brings floods. There are also clues in the Bible that this disaster was going to happen anyway, as part of the natural geology of the planet. And rather than purposely initiating the disaster as a punishment, God stepped in to carry out a dramatic rescue. One clue that the disaster was inevitable is that the text clearly suggests that the angels had no control of the destructive forces. When Lot delayed leaving, they couldn’t stop or even postpone the disaster, they could only grab the family’s hands and drag them away from the city (Genesis 19:16). They told the family to run fast without looking back, but Lot’s wife stood and stared. Perhaps she wanted to see what was happening, or perhaps she was sad at leaving a city that she loved – but she died as a result. We can’t assume that this was a punishment. The narrative merely implies that she didn’t run away from the danger quickly enough, as the angels had instructed. Apparently they couldn’t prevent the disaster or protect individuals in the disaster area. God said he would send the angels to see how evil Sodom really was (Genesis 18:21). My guess is that God already knew the answer, but sent the angels as a test to see how they’d be treated. Lot gave them hospitality, but late in the night a mob consisting of every man in the city beat on Lot’s door, intent on gang-raping them (Genesis 19:4–9). God had agreed with Abraham that if there were even ten people in the city who weren’t wicked, the whole city would be saved. As it was, the angels could find only one family to rescue. Another clue that disaster was inevitable is that God had already decided Sodom would be destroyed before talking to Abraham (Genesis 18:17) – and probably before he designed the geology of the planet. What was undecided until his discussion with Abraham was how many of its people he would rescue – whether it would be just the few righteous or the whole city. In the end, their overwhelming sinfulness meant that only a few were evacuated. The disaster was inevitable, but everyone in the city could have survived. How could the angels have saved the whole city if they weren’t able to stop the geological maelstrom itself? The answer lies in their instructions to Lot after they’d dispersed the mob by blinding them: they told him to go and warn others who were close to him. Lot duly spent all night trying to persuade his prospective sons-in-law to leave the city, but they only laughed at him. At dawn the angels called a halt to Lot’s efforts saying that if he and his family didn’t leave immediately, the disaster would kill them too. The whole city could easily have been saved. If the men had come to Lot’s house to greet his guests instead of to rape them, the angels could have warned them of the impending disaster. Sodom was not large by modern standards – even a major city like Jericho contained only two or three thousand people, and Sodom would have had roughly the population of the village I live in – so every household could have spent the night preparing for evacuation at dawn. Jesus used this disaster as an object lesson for those who reject God’s warnings about evil. He said that if the city had repented it would have been saved. He was talking about saving the people rather than the buildings, because he said the ‘city’ would be present at judgement day (Matthew 11:23–24). Presumably those who were rescued would build a new ‘Sodom’, just like the survivors of Tyre built a new ‘Tyre’ near their flattened city. Another disaster in the Old Testament was the earthquake in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in about 760 BC. Amos prophesied about God’s judgment two years before the earthquake happened (Amos 1:1), so people assume that God deliberately chose to send it. But that’s a difficult conclusion to accept because the people living at the time were no worse than previous or future generations. Judah’s king, Uzziah (aka Azariah), was generally good, though he did some bad things after the time of the quake. And Israel’s king, Jeroboam, was better than most because God used him to rescue the people (2 Kings 14:26–27). The details suggest that God sent the prophecy before the earthquake occurred to try to get people to listen to the accompanying warnings about future judgements. When the prediction about a disaster came true, it meant that Amos got everyone’s attention. And Zechariah also used this earthquake to make his message about final judgement more vivid for those living in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:5). It appears that God used a geological event to present his timeless message in a way that would be remembered and acted on. Amos warned all generations that God will one day judge us all. As with the disaster at Sodom, this interpretation implies that the catastrophic earthquake that hit Jerusalem was going to happen anyway, but God used it to warn people about his anger at sin in general. Jesus had the same understanding of disasters. He said that those who suffered in the natural and political disasters of his day weren’t worse sinners than anyone else. And he used these events to warn everyone, just like the prophets did, saying, ‘unless you repent, you too will all perish’ (Luke 13:2–3). There is still a difficult question to answer: what about the innocent who suffer? In the story of Sodom, the disaster seems, perhaps, more acceptable because those who fell victim to it were clearly wicked. But Jesus said, in effect, that there aren’t any innocent people because we are all sinners, and these ‘little’ disasters are nothing compared to the judgment due to us if we don’t repent. The real mystery of natural disasters, according to Jesus, is not that God allows evil to happen to good people, but that there is so little suffering – much less than we deserve. He didn’t acknowledge any surprise that people were killed in such catastrophes; in a wicked and fallen world, we should expect that relatively good people will suffer alongside relatively bad people. Jesus implied that the surprising – and amazing – thing is that we sinners should experience any good in this world. In the story of Sodom, God’s rescue plan for those who would listen to him demonstrates his overwhelming desire to save us from what we deserve. Those who listen to Jesus’ message will hear a salutary warning. Disasters are not specific punishments at the hand of God; they are a reminder that a real judgment will come which will be totally just and much more severe. The good news is that God offers an eternity without evil for those who turn to him in repentance.