A book which takes on such a difficult topic as the relationship between God and natural disasters can leave one with a feeling of helplessness. This book however ends on a strong note of hope. As mentioned above, the promise of God is of a new heaven and a new earth where all suffering will be no more. Fretheim points out from the life of Jesus that while he stilled storms and healed people, he didn’t do this in all cases. He didn’t heal everyone in his vicinity for example. Instead,
“Jesus’ actions point to a future world, thereby signalling that the kind of world Isaiah envisioned is on its way. Jesus provided signs of a different future that God has in store for the natural world.”
The relational, loving character of God is what comes through most in this book. This is quite an achievement in a book about the relationship between God and natural disasters. From the very beginning, God has wanted us to be co-creators. This means that, to a very significant extent, the future is in our hands. As Fretheim says,
“The future is partly settled and partly unsettled. It is partly settled, yes: there will be a new heaven and a new earth. But the future is also unsettled: our words and deeds in our world will make a difference in the shape of creation’s future.”
The issue of God and natural disasters is one that has perplexed the most inquiring of minds for thousands of years. It has led many to faith and many away from faith. In the end there is mystery and we can never fully fathom the ways of God. What we can do though is trust, and, like Peter, when asked by our Lord if he wanted to join those who were leaving Jesus, responded, “to whom else would we go; you have the words of eternal life.” Fretheim’s book encourages us to trust in a God who is good, despite what we see around us, despite the indescribable pain of those in the midst of suffering. His explanations are biblical, well thought through and compassionate. I recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand how it is that we can worship a God of love in a world where disasters fall indiscriminately on the just and the unjust.
Recommended further reading:
This final chapter focuses on the value and importance of prayer. This is another area in which God gives us responsibility. For many of us with an activist mindset, prayer can often be neglected, so it is pertinent that Fretheim reminds us of its importance. The basic point that Fretheim makes with regard to prayer is that it “is a means in and through which God gets things done in the world.” It is a way of giving us power, but at the same time it is not a “substitute for action.” Many of us have an idea that using prayer as a substitute for using the gifts that God has given us is acting in faith. Therefore, many people will not see a doctor because they would rather pray, and then they are surprised when they do not get healed. Such an attitude, explains Fretheim, far from being an act of faith, is actually an act of faithlessness, for it fails to recognise once again the relational character of God. As Fretheim points out from 2 Kings 20:1-7, prayers and actions can work together.
What this chapter also reveals is that God is open to changing the divine mind. Such is the loving character of God that,
“God is open to taking new directions in view of new times and places; God is open to changing course in view of the interaction within the relationship, including prayers. Yet, never changing will be God’s steadfast love for all, God’s saving will for everyone, and God’s faithfulness to promises made.”
Chapter 4 focuses on suffering in the Old Testament. One of the main points that Fretheim brings out in this chapter is that, as a relational God, Fretheim convincingly argues that God will honour the relationship between God and humans at any cost. Fretheim admit that this opens God up to charges of neglect, but that “in honoring this basic character of the Creator-creature relationship, God chooses to use constraint and restraint in exercising power in the life of the world.” The main point that Fretheim seems to want to make here is that suffering is a necessary part of living on this earth. This will be difficult to hear for many people ni a society that is deeply committed to the alleviation of pain at any cost. But the message of Fretheim’s book aligns with the life and ministry of Jesus in showing that compassion involves entering into the suffering of others. The fact of life is that love inevitably involves suffering.
Further to the above, suffering did not enter the world with sin. Fretheim points out that “human sin can intensify…suffering possibilities, but no necessary relationship exists between human suffering and human sin.” It is unfortunate that this needs to be emphasised, but there has been so much pain caused by statements by Christian leaders over the years about the causes of suffering that the fact that there is no necessary relationship between suffering and sin cannot be stressed enough. Fretheim does an admirable job at stressing this point.
As can be seen so far, the points that Fretheim brings out in this book will be quite challenging to many Christians, particularly those in evangelical circles. However, as an evangelical myself, I found myself consistently impressed with Fretheim’s use of Scripture to illustrate his arguments.
It is from his biblical understanding of the character of God that Fretheim makes further assumptions about the natural world. For instance, there are good and necessary parts of the creation that can also lead to deep suffering. An example of this is cell mutation, which, while being a “necessary dimension of creaturely development,…can also lead to suffering” and that “even if there had been no sin, cancer and other diseases had the potential of developing in such a world.”
By choosing to create the world in this way, God’s character is open to defamation and critique. But, as Fretheim points out, this is no different to God’s relationship with the church. Most Christians would readily accept that “God’s work in the church is often associated with the work of agents like ourselves, and God’s reputation suffers because God is thereby associated with an awful lot of, say, incompetence.” God does not choose to intervene when we represent God so poorly, so why should we expect the same to happen in terms of natural disasters?
One of the great features of the Christian Gospel is that suffering is redemptive. It is not meaningless, and will be used by God for good. The great hope spoken of in Revelation is of a new heavens and a new earth where there will be no more suffering and no more pain. Fretheim emphasises this when he says that “God will enter deeply into the sufferings of this world and use that very suffering to bring suffering to an end.” Our role is to work with God to help relieve suffering. By doing this we are working with God to bring in the kingdom. God has already played the decisive part, “taking [the world’s] suffering into the very heart of the divine life, bearing it there, and then wearing it in the form of a cross.”
This chapter focuses on the suffering of Job, starting with the emphasis that “the key reason for Job’s suffering is his experience of natural disasters.” One of the points that Fretheim emphasises throughout the book is that natural disasters are an outworking of the way that God has created the world, and in fact are “a key agent of God in the continuing creation of the world.” Science tells us that without the movement of tectonic plates, there would almost certainly be no life on earth.
One of the ways in which Fretheim emphasises that the earth was not created perfect in the sense that we think of the word. It is well-attested that earthquakes and other such events were occurring well before humans appeared on the scene.
What Job experiences in his sufferings is that God does not intervene in stopping them from happening. As mentioned above, God does not micro-manage the universe. Fretheim even says that “one point of these speeches (between God and Job) is that God’s governance of the world is not all-controlling.” The world that God has created can be a dangerous world, but as also mentioned above, “without such potentially dangerous dimensions of the natural order, there would be no human life.” As I read this section of the book, my first thoughts were that this is fine, but it still begs the question of why God did not make a world which could preserve human life more. Fretheim addresses this by stressing the following points:
In this chapter, Fretheim looks at the story of Noah and the Flood and raises the issue of disasters being the judgment of God. There has been much harm done by various Christian leaders in referring to particular disasters as God’s judgment over particular sins. Fretheim takes the angle that such pronouncements are dangerous and unbiblical, and that therefore, when thinking of judgment, we need to look at natural disasters as consequences of humanity’s sinful behaviour. As Fretheim states it,
“That human sins, including the sins of violence, have consequences, including violence (see Gen. 6:11-13), is testimony to a functioning of the moral order, and this reality can be named the “judgment” of God.”
He adds that “it is questionable whether the word “punish” is the appropriate translation for any Hebrew word in the Old Testament.”
This is not to say that all disasters, or even most, should be looked at this way. Earthquakes for example cannot be said to be the result of human activity. As far as I am aware, there is currently no reliable evidence linking tectonic plate movements to the activities of humans.
Once again Fretheim stresses the relational aspect of God’s character when looking at the idea of judgment. Through our Western lens we tend to look at judgment in legal terms. We need to remember, Fretheim says, that “if God is viewed as the divine judge behind the bench, remember that God is also the spouse of the accused one in the dock!”
According to Fretheim, God’s judgment is always a reflection of the goodness of God. God’s judgment is always over grief and God’s character is never compromised. As Fretheim emphasises, “although God may give the people up to the effects of their sinfulness, God does not finally give up on them.” The character of God is such that it is God who also suffers over the consequences of natural disasters. God’s suffering and judgment is also manifested in human judgment. To this end, Fretheim says, “if there were no divine judgment on sin/evil, then human judgment toward that which is oppressive and abusive would not carry the same weight.”
For many Christians, the opening passages of the Bible that relate the creation story have been interpreted as clearly saying that God made the world perfect and, when sin entered the world following the Fall, that perfection was marred. Such a reading of this text makes sense on first appearance, both theologically and philosophically. If God is God, why would this Creator of the Universe make a world that is anything less than perfect? However this is where Fretheim demolishes this argument with clear biblical insight.
In interpreting the Genesis accounts of creation, Fretheim presents a God who is relational and who therefore decides to create in community rather than alone. Therefore God allows humans to be co-creators after the seventh day of creation. To illustrate his argument, Fretheim explains that, for instance, the command to “subdue” given to the first humans in Genesis, assumes that the earth was not fully developed, that Genesis does not present the creation as a finished product. For a creative God, the act of creation is ongoing, and “God continues to create and uses creatures in a vocation that involves the becoming of creation.” Such is God’s love for and confidence in the creation that “what human and nonhuman creatures do in creation counts with respect to the emergence of ever-new creations; they make a difference regarding the shape that the future of the creation takes.”
Fretheim backs this view up with a quote from none other than the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who has said that “God does not create merely by calling something into existence, or by setting something afoot. In a more profound sense he `creates’ by letting-be, by making room, and by withdrawing himself.” In other words, God does not micro-manage the universe.
One of the theological points I struggled with in the book was Fretheim’s use of the term ‘divine council’ as being involved in the initial creation act. Genesis 1:26has God saying “‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. I have always interpreted the ‘our’ in this to refer to the Trinity – the ‘eternal community’ as Larry Crabb puts it. As God is relational, it makes sense that the creation would occur as a result of relationship. Fretheim however appears to see the ‘us’ and ‘our’ differently. He states that “a remarkable majority of scholars understand…the divine council [in terms of] the heavenly assembly that engages the deity and does God’s bidding.” I put this issue to Fretheim, additionally pointing out that when he talks about the creative activity of God, he says that “all that it means to be divine must be at work in the creating of that image. This reality may be reflected in the use of the phrases ‘our image’ and ‘our likeness.’” However, because we are made in the image of God, and not in the image or likeness of that which is not God, this seems to contradict Fretheim’s previous statements about the divine council being involved in the creation, unless the divine council – those beings that are created by God – are also divine, which would be unscriptural. It would seem to me that the ‘us’ in ‘Let us make’ is the same as ‘our’ in ‘our image’. Fretheim responded to this question by saying that the “us, our” can include the divine council without compromising monotheism or “image of God” language. He adds that it is not uncommon that angelic beings make an appearance in human form and they too are in the image of God.
One of the main points that Fretheim brings out early in this book is the fact that humans, as made in the image of a Creator God, must also be understood as creators themselves. This goes back to the relationality of God. To emphasise this point, Fretheim states, “God is a power-sharing God, indeed a creation-sharing God, and God will be faithful to that way of relating to those created in the divine image.” The responsibility God has placed with humans is remarkable. From the Genesis text, Fretheim explains that we can see that “how the human beings in their God-given freedom decide will determine whether there will be a next human generation. In some basic sense, God places the very future of the human race in human hands.”
 Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 88.
 Lawrence J. Crabb, Connecting (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1997).
 Genesis 18.
Quite simply, this is one of the most profound books I have ever read. In a world where we are seeing a plethora of natural disasters, many of which are the type forecast by climate scientists to be what we can expect more of in the future, Fretheim’s excellent volume is timely indeed.
Just this year we have seen major earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, unprecedented flooding in the eastern states of Australia, and cyclones which have threatened to wipe some towns off the map.
In this book, Fretheim reveals aspects of God’s creation that the biblical texts reveal as quite obvious when you read them, but which we often fail to consider because of the particular cultural lens through which we read the text.
Over the next week or two I will look at the main arguments in each chapter, including the introduction and conclusion, and will make comments on the points made by the author. This post starts with the introduction.
The introduction to the book makes the following points:
I went camping on the weekend with some other blokes who are part of a men’s group I am in. Part of our time included a couple of hours alone on Sunday morning, out in nature, just taking it in, not thinking too much, not analysing it, but just being part of it.
I begin by walking along a track along a river. As the track winds closer to the river and then further from it, I find myself wanting to be drawn to the fast and gently flowing water, so clean and clear. So I find a little clearing and sit down by the river, somewhat mesmerised by what I can only call the gentle rush of the streams of life-giving water flowing past me.
As I sit down, a cockatoo flies overhead, its screech piercing the silence. Sitting there amongst the wildness out in nature, with the ferns and trees standing in the stillness all around me, I feel like I am intruding on their territory. But then I realise I am not intruding, for I too am part of nature. I am out here too, just observing. I belong here too.
I am reminded of what Bill Plotkin says about nature, that it is without self-consciousness. As he puts it, it is just there, without any apparent wish to be otherwise, without even a glimmer of identity crisis. As I sit there I realise that the birds flying overhead, the ferns growing all around me, the bush, the scrub, would all be here anyway if humans had never existed. It doesn’t need us. It makes me respect it more. It doesn’t fight back; it is vulnerable, helpless, open to abuse, and impossible to control. I realise that this is a great definition of love: vulnerable, open to abuse, yet still giving unconditionally.
As I sit there, a small fern is right next to me, touching me. One of the light branches is actually resting on my arm, like it is reaching out to me, without fear and despite its helplessness, almost like it is reassuring me. This was the same fern that I was fleetingly tempted to rip out of the ground as I was about to sit there by the river so I could get a better view. Such is my selfishness when I am disconnected. I was glad I didn’t act out my fleeting murderous intent.
To some this may sound like some New Age claptrap. To the contrary, God’s love is revealed in nature. I am reminded that Jesus told his hearers to consider the lilies, that they don’t worry about how they look (Luke 12:27). It is good to see nature as Jesus sees it.
After a while of sitting by the river, I get up, leave it and walk further along the trail. As I walk through this wild land that the Black Saturday bush fires had swept through just two years before, I imagine the fires racing through here, taking all before them, leaving nothing in their wake. Total destruction. But then I wonder: purely in terms of nature, is it destruction or is it part of the renewal cycle of life?
As I walk on I see hoofprints in the dirt. They remind me of another wonderful side of nature: the contrasting gentleness and yet wildness of a horse. Then I look around me, seeing green fields in the distance, peaceful and beautiful. Out here, away from the distractions of everyday life, I am aware of my responses. I realise how fragile nature is and I see that looking after it is something to be done for nature’s sake alone and not just for its effect on humans. Nature has value in its own right. After all, God said it was good. Nature reflects the glory of God.
I walk further, up a steep hill, my heart pounding each time I stop. After a minute I walk off the track into the bush and notice the quieter sounds around me, not just the bird noises overhead, but the gentler sounds of what may be little creatures in the scrub. I walk back down the hill and notice a green shoot, fragile and tiny, growing on its own out of the dirt. I am struck not simply by what this might symbolize, but what it is, nature pushing through where it is not expected.
I walk on and I notice an ant on the ground which has stopped moving, maybe when I stepped near it. I bend down to observe it, gently prodding it to see if it is still alive. It moves slightly, then stops again, so I prod it again, and it moves slightly again, and starts walking, over the bumps and grooves in the dirt made by my boots. I notice that it doesn’t need to walk straight in the grooves, to be ordered like I think I have to be. It just walks wherever it sees is best for its purpose.
This was my morning with nature. It is something I think everyone of us should do with some regularity. We spend too much of our time inside these days, trapped in front of our screens, slaves to technology. And the more we are enslaved, the more we miss the goodness of the vast, wild awesomeness of the pure, natural world that God created simply because it is God’s nature to create. We do well to immerse ourselves in it.