No deaths have been reported from Tuesday's Virginia-centered earthquake. The most serious damage appears to be four cracks that have closed the Washington Monument indefinitely and some damage to the National Cathedral. As a result, not many people are interpreting the earthquake as either a judgment from God or a sign of the End Times, and that's a little surprising.
Apparently tongue-in-cheek, the Christian Post asked yesterday whether it was mere coincidence that the earthquake occurred during Pat Robertson's "Signs of the Times" special on The 700 Club. Fans wanted him to explain the earthquake in biblical terms, but he said on the show, "I can't claim any kind of particular revelation." Over at World Net Daily, Joseph Farah wrote, "Look, this earthquake turned out to be a warning only, without loss of life or serious property damage. But there will be a bigger one coming, as everyone should understand." He added, "Occasionally God really does shake things up as a sign to us of the consequences of disobedience and indifference to our Creator."
A blogger over at Buzzfeed did collect "20 Ridiculous Explanations For The East Coast Earthquake." In these tweets or posts individuals mostly connected the earthquake to God's judgment for gay marriage or another societal ill. "Perhaps the message is from our Lord God in that: We need to STOP removing Jesus out of schools and the public forum & replacing God with garbage! Much of the new anti-Jesus policies to include same SIN sex marriage etc. originates in State Capitals or DC!" wrote one.
Such comments provoke much mockery, but the belief that God speaks to humanity in the events He allows to occur has permeated American society throughout its history. The message was almost always, "sin brings judgment."
In colonial days, for example, Puritans interpreted earthquakes, floods, and severe weather of all sorts in this way. Thomas Prince titled a 1727 sermon prompted by recent earthquakes, God Shakes the Earth Because He is Wroth. "Let our flesh still tremble for fear of God, and let us be ever afraid of His judgments," he said.
"There have been many sudden deaths in this county which should not pass without some remark," wrote Rev. Increase Mather in the late 1600s. "For when such Strokes are multiplied, there is undoubtedly a speaking voice of Providence therein." On another occasion Mather saw continuing attacks by Indian raiders as evidence of God's punishment: "But God saw that we were not yet fit for Deliverance, nor could health be restored to us unless a great deal more Blood be first taken from us."
As much as I admire the Puritans in many ways, however, I think they were mistaken. I don't think we can go beyond the words of Jesus on this issue, and he addressed exactly this question twice in the Gospels.
Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 13, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Again, John 9 tells how Jesus encountered a man born blind. "His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
For now, when it comes to tragedy and disaster, that's about all we can say.