It has been a year since the catastrophic tsunami that swept the coastlines of nations on the Indian Ocean. More recently, Americans are still reeling from a series of hurricanes that devastated the southern U.S. and particularly New Orleans. In the wake of these events, the polemic continues unabated between those who see such catastrophes as punishments and those who deny it.
Having previously written articles on how God usually acts in history through secondary causes (such as natural disasters1), I now wish to deal with objections by those who do not wish to considering these events from the prism of Divine punishment.
The first point is that no one can deny that these disasters leave a sinister wake of destruction, death, untold human suffering and huge economic loss. Indeed, they do have all the appearances of a chastisement.
This is so true that even those who try to deny Divine intervention and hence a design from on high that explains these catastrophes, cannot avoid admitting a sense of punishment. Thus, they replace Divine intention with nature’s whims. Frequently they will employ expressions (taken from actual articles on hurricane Katrina) such as: “nature’s vengeance,” “nature’s fury,” “wrath of nature,” or “Neptune’s vengeance.”2
Of course, one can only speak about nature’s “vengeance,” “wrath” or “fury” in a metaphorical sense. Attributing God’s characteristics to nature leads one to fall into pantheism.
Thus, behind the metaphor, and avoiding pantheism, we can see that no matter how hard one tries, one cannot avoid the perception of Divine chastisement when looking at these catastrophes.
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As emphasized in previous articles, even when God rewards or punishes men using extraordinary interventions in history, He usually avoids acting in such a way as to make His own action unmistakable in the eyes of man. He does this so that man can gain merits by believing through an act of his will which itself is illuminated by his intellect under the action of Divine grace, rather than being struck by obvious, unmistakable and undeniable evidence of His action.
Thus, only in very exceptional situations such as the opening of the Red Sea for the Jews to flee the troops of Pharaoh, or the miracle of the Sun at Fatima, is God’s intervention in events crystal clear.
Why did God punish the Indian Ocean region with the tsunami rather than other, perhaps more sinful, areas of the earth? Why did hurricane Katrina devastate the city of New Orleans but leave the sinful French Quarter nearly unscathed?
Given our limited intellect, we cannot answer these questions with all certainty. However, we must conform to what the book of Ecclesiastes says:
And I understood that man can find no reason of all those works of God that are done under the sun: and the more he shall labor to seek, so much the less shall he find: yea, though the wise man shall say, that he knoweth it, he shall not be able to find it.3
What really matters is not determining the ultimate reasons why God punishes some and spares others, but to understand that there is no injustice at all on His part.
In today’s profoundly interrelated world, great catastrophes have a global impact. Images are quickly broadcast everywhere. One event can affect many other nations politically and economically.
Sin undeniably deserves punishment, be it in this life or the next. Likewise virtue deserves reward. The fact that God punishes or rewards some people already on earth and for others reserves His reward or punishment for the next life does nothing to alter His justice.
Therefore, one cannot claim that since the more sinful parts of the world were spared from the tsunami, or since the most sinful quarter of New Orleans was spared , then, there was positively no Divine interference.
As Saint Paul teaches, the just man lives from faith.4 Faith obliges us to believe in Divine Providence and in God’s intervention in history.5 It is not a dogma of faith that tsunamis or hurricanes like Katrina are God’s punishments on a humanity immersed into sin. However, prudence calls on us to consider this hypothesis very carefully as it helps us to better understand Divine justice and the malice of sin.
- Luis Sérgio Solimeo, “Is The Voice Of God Resounding In The Recent Catastrophes?” and, Idem “Tsunami: Natural Causes and Supernatural Consequences”.
- Cf. Niall Ferguson, “Katrina rains down calamity… so we, of course, look for a scapegoat”, The Daily Telegraph, Dec. 29, 2005,
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, “Can Bush survive nature’s fury?” The Age, Sept. 6, 2005, at www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/can-bush-survive-natures-fury/2005/09/05/1125772460627.html#.
Ernie Yanarella And Dick Levine, “Katrina unmasked myths of homeland security”, Kentuky.com posted on Sept. 12, 2005, www.kentucky.com/mld/kentucky/news/editorial/12608692.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp;
My Brother’s Keeper Katrina Relief Effort www.rthunder.com/katrina_relief/katrina_relief.htm.
- Ecclesiastes 8:17 (Bible Douay-Rheims).
- Cf. Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11.
- Cf. footnote 1.