Why Katrina? Why Rita? Why us? Why now? Why, God, why?
In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the devastating flooding of New Orleans--twice--, many might find themselves asking these questions. Or maybe it is the more general question, "How could a good God allow such suffering, pain, and death in the world?" Or maybe even an accusatory, "Why didn't you stop this, God?"
These are some very real questions in need of some very real answers. It's interesting, and enlightening, to note the different responses from people of different faiths. Take, for example, the article "Don't Call Them 'Acts of God'", by Niall Ferguson at the LA Times. In it, Mr. Ferguson laments the fact that most people are quick to apply their particular religious beliefs to the question in a manner that condemns others while supporting their own views. Some radical Moslems rejoiced at the devastation as a just reward for America's crimes. Environmentalists blamed our pollution-happy society for causing global warming, which in turn caused the storm. He also mentions that the traditional Christian response would be to call Katrina a judgement from God, but notes that "few Christian churches risk such strong moral medicine these days."
Mr. Ferguson concludes that "The reality is...that natural disasters have no moral significance." But he then goes on to say that they "should serve to remind us of our common vulnerability as human beings in the face of a pitiless nature," which is itself a statement of moral purpose, and serves to bolster his own naturalistic/humanistic/atheistic beliefs while chiding religious people, at least by implication, for believing in anything higher than "pitiless nature."
But who is right in this matter? Is the death and suffering caused by natural disasters just random occurrences caused by blind forces in a purposeless and pitiless nature? Or is there some higher reason behind all this, some greater force at work?
What answer do Christians have to these important, soul-searching, often pain-filled questions?
First, we need to understand why death and suffering exist in this world in the first place. To do so, we must go back to the beginning--literally. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, God explains to us why we die, and why we suffer pain. God originally created a world that was completely perfect, with no sin, no pain, no death, no suffering. Adam, our first father, and Eve, our first mother, changed all of that by disobeying God's clearly stated command. Because of this disobedience, mankind, through Adam, fell from his perfect relationship with Almighty God, and God placed a curse on His creation for man's sake, withdrawing some of His sustaining power. The effects of that curse are pain, suffering, and death. All humans after that are born with a sinful nature, and actively commit sin from childhood. We are all under this curse of sin. Death and suffering in general is all our fault. No one is innocent.
See "They're Not Connecting It!", by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the articles linked at the bottom of this post for more in-depth discussions.
So ultimately, we are the cause of all the natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis, as well as the man-made ones like terrorist attacks and wars.
So that answers the general question of why God allows suffering and death. But more specifically, why did God bring or allow this hurricane to hit where it did? Why didn't He stop it? There are several possible answers to this question.
First, Katrina could have been a specific judgement on a sinful city. Regardless of how the world and even some of the church tries to portray that as a heartless answer, the truth is the truth. God hates sin and cannot abide it. He has promised, warned, and threatened that He will judge those who do wickedly. New Orleans was not exactly the epitome of godly, upstanding, righteous, moral living. God says many times in His Word that the wages of sin is death. Perhaps Katrina was payday for the many who lived their lives as if sin had no consequences.
Second, Katrina could have been a warning to us as a nation. America is becoming more and more ungodly every day and every year. Perhaps God is giving us a taste of what could happen if we do not repent and turn back to Him. Katrina was, after all, relatively limited in scope. It is not, by far, the largest national disaster possible. God does not punish with no warning. He repeatedly warns of coming judgement until we have no excuse. We have already gone through 9/11, huge wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides, numerous hurricanes, droughts, floods, and many other disasters. What will it take for us to wake up? Perhaps Katrina was meant as a warning to an increasingly sinful society.
Third, Katrina could be for our good as a nation. While that may seem hard to understand right now, it would not be the first time a natural disaster turned out for the good. The Great Fire of London cleaned out the old infrastructure so new and better ones could be built. There is already a huge rebuilding effort taking place, and promises are being made that the new New Orleans will be better than the old. For another thing, Katrina has drawn attention to the weakness of the levee system, and we are now putting forth more effort to fix it properly for when a worse hurricane hits. Despite the many doom-and-gloom predictions, the death toll has been much lower than originally expected. Perhaps we would not have been so lucky next time. Still another benefit from Katrina is that it exposed the holes in our emergency response systems at federal, state, and local levels. Perhaps after this we will be better prepared for whatever disaster we may face in the future.
A fourth possible reason for Katrina is to give Christians an opportunity to show God's love to people, and be a witness to the world of God's love. The response across America has been tremendous. Millions of people are giving money, food, clothes, water, medicine, and other physical necessities; while many others are voluteering their time and skills to rescue, clean up, and rebuild; still others are opening their doors to the evacuees, their families, and even their pets. I do not doubt for one minute that many people will be influenced to make decisions for Christ as a result of this outpouring. [Not trying to imply that only Christians have responded--people from all different religions have--but just illustrating the tremendous opportunity for Christians in particular to be a witness.] If even one person were to come to Christ through this hurricane, whether for the first time or in recommittment, it would be well worth all the physical and financial damage it caused. Perhaps Katrina was a blessing in disguise.
Finally, Katrina was meant to bring glory to God. We don't know how many, which ones, or to what extent the purposes above apply to this hurricane, but we do know behond a shadow of a doubt that it was meant for God's glory. He is the Creator of the universe, and Controller of the weather. The sheer size and power alone of the hurricane dwarfs man and all of his inventions and accomplishments, blowing away huge buildings like so many matchsticks. Yet that is nothing for God to create, for the very clouds are the dust of his feet (Nahum 1:3). God is also glofified in each of the four purposes discussed above. We can rest assured that God is in control, and that His purposes are always for the best. He sees the bigger picture. He sees what is down the road for us, both in this life and in eternity. In the end, whatever the specific purpose behind Katrina, the main purpose is to glorify God. [While to us it may seem to be mean of God to take the lives of so many people just to bring glory to Himself, we must remember that we are we and God is God. See Job 38-42 for God's response to one who questioned His right to do as He pleased.]
Ultimately, however, whatever is for God's glory is also for our good. Remember the curse of death that was brought on by sin? What if God had not made that curse? Then man would have lived on forever in his sinful state, completely separated from God. For God is a holy God and cannot tolerate sin. Nothing sinful and unholy can enter His presence. So God, in His love, provided a way in which man can escape his cursed body--through death. Yet even in death, his soul lives on, and would be in eternal separation from God, had he not provided a way to become free from the curse of death--namely, His Son Jesus Christ, who is the Life. Christ paid the penalty of sin on our behalf--He died in our place, so that if we believe in Him and accept Him as our Lord, we too can die to sin. Christ also rose again from the dead, breaking the chains of death, so that we too can "walk in newness of life"--both eternal life and spiritual life. So ultimately, death is a way of making it possible for fallen man to be restored to a relationship with his Creator.
The curse actually contains a blessing in disguise. So, for Christians, as we look at death and suffering around us, we can let it remind us of what Christ did for us so that we can be free from such pain. Death is not just a natural condition, one that has always been around and will always be around. It is the "last enemy", and will be abolished once it has fulfilled its purpose. As Christians then, we have hope of a future without death, without pain, without suffering. There is hope! Even in the midst of the darkess times, there is hope!
So, why Katrina? It's our fault--we deserve it--but God will work it out for good in the end. We don't know how, but we do know that He has His glory and our eternal good in mind. And praise God, death is not final--The Life killed Death so the Dead could live! Hallelujah!
For further reading on the proper Christian response:
"A Lesson From a Hurricane", by Ken Ham at Answers in Genesis
"Why is There Death and Suffering?", by Ken Ham and Jonathan Sarfati from AiG
"Why Us?", by Ken Ham, from Creation magazine
See also the other articles at the Death and Suffering Q&A page.