Reading John Wesley’s Sermon (actually, it’s Charles’, I recently learned) , “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes,” reminds me again of how societies’ assumptions can change. The title alone strikes today’s reader as quaint, to say the least. An earthquake is a completely natural disaster. How does one “cure” earthquakes, unless some sort of controllable natural cause can be identified?
But, of course, with Wesley, it’s always about God, so our interest is theological and it raises the question of God’s action in the world. Wesley’s sermon clearly indicates that God directly causes the earthquakes for the sake of judgment: a holy God uses natural disasters to judge and awaken wayward peoples.
The sermon to which I refer was published in 1750, in response to an earthquake that the English themselves had felt. Wesley is capitalizing on this moment with an evangelistic appeal. And here is where the rub begins.
As I read, I was struck by how people today (in America) would likely respond. They probably would be quite offended with Wesley’s tone and claims. How could a loving God do such a thing?
So, we face two conflicting worldviews. Wesley’s view, shared by many of his day, was of a holy, just, God who is Governor and Judge of the world. God has every right to use all means available to bring about God’s holy purposes. “Our lives are in God’s hands,” and God can do as he sees fit.
By contrast, listening to folks today, even “conservative evangelical” Christians, God sounds more like an Attentive Helper, waiting to do our bidding. I may be overstating some, but how much?
Reading a sermon like this one (or any of Wesley’s, to tell the truth) provokes questions. Virtually all Christians would agree that God can do things like cause earthquakes, but we likely would conclude that God does not directly cause them. God’s loving nature does not will such evil on people. God uses other, more gentle means. Natural disasters like earthquakes are an inevitable part of the kind of world God created, but not directly relatable to human sin nor to God’s direct action.
Question #1, then, has to do with how God uses power. The harshness of Wesley’s view may trouble us, but so should the God-as-Attentive-Helper view. Practically speaking, it holds that God always uses power for our benefit according to (here is the kicker) how we understand “benefit.” In this view, we expect God always to avert disaster on our behalf. And if not, we have every right to be angry with God for not coming to our aid.
Two standard options arise to get God off this hook. We can conclude that God is not powerful enough to prevent such disasters. Or we can conclude that God isn’t good in the way we think God ought to be. God’s power can be used – from our vantage point – capriciously. Thousands of innocent victims can die in a natural disaster and God doesn’t seem to care.
Two bad choices, it seems. Either we have a God who is able and willing to interact with us in real life, or we have a God who is either only remotely connected or is unable to prevent horrible circumstances from happening.
What do you think? I know that we would prefer God to act according to our feelings and desires, but God is independent of our preferences. In this light, what do you think?