Remember when we were naïve? Remember the day when our species would experience natural disasters, whether flood or famine, and attribute them to supernatural causes? Our fantastical forebears, from Africa to India and Athens to Rome, all understood such calamities as sent from the gods. Come hell or high water, we knew whom to blame.
But of course, we’ve evolved. Modern science has effectively squeezed the juice out of those fanciful interpretations and enlightened us to the way things really are. We now know what causes destruction. Wildfires and derechos, hurricanes and landslides, melting icecaps and eroding ozone, all have a shared source. We know where to place blame. It sits squarely at our feet.
The Story We Tell
Don’t misunderstand me. My intention is not to absolve humans of their God-given vocation to responsibly steward and cultivate the Creator’s good creation. Nor do I seek to dispute (or endorse) the science surrounding climate change. My issue is that our society has settled on only one way to tell the story. We’ve landed on one explanation for physical phenomena and ecological pain. It’s as if natural disasters are on trial in our society, and all the principal witnesses have collaborated to make sure they get their story straight. Their fingers are all pointing at us.
We know where to place blame. It sits squarely at our feet.
My guess is that singular testimony would have seemed strangely simplistic and naïvely insufficient to our imaginative ancestors. Now, it’s not as if they had no idea about natural causes. They weren’t unscientific buffoons. The very cultures that ascribed fertility (and infertility) to the gods were also keenly aware of human sex organs and cycles. They’re the same generations who figured out crop farming and animal breeding. While not modern, they did practice medicine.
So it’s not the case that, without the benefit of a microscope, they couldn’t figure out where barley or babies come from. Perhaps a better explanation for their supernaturalism is that they simply couldn’t bear the full weight of responsibility when those treasured gifts didn’t come—or when crops or kids were diseased and died.
In my opinion, our modern mythologies aren’t merely simplistic—telling only one story—but they also seem unnecessarily depressing. Twenty years ago, when Americans were reeling from the AIDS epidemic, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11, evangelical pastors and popular television evangelists were lambasted for their words that suggested such horrific calamities could be the judgment of God. Those preachers were, in effect, blaming us for devastating storms, personal illness, and terrorist attacks. Such religious punditry and speculation, if practiced today, would likely earn the moniker of “toxic.” Their words would be labeled “spiritual abuse.”
Blame and Shame
Yet one must wonder if the constant fear-mongering and finger-pointing on the topic of climate change in our day is not somehow also toxic for our culture. Should we call it material abuse?
When evangelicals observe human disease and natural disaster and blame us, they’re laughed out of the building. Yet today, scientists, pundits, and politicians seem to blame us (and each other) for everything that is bad.
According to the left, humans are to blame for the spread of racism, COVID-19, Ida, and the disaster in Afghanistan. According to the right, those same problems can also be ascribed to humans (though normally different). Whether personal choices or public policy stand to blame, one thing we can all agree on is that our problems are human problems with natural causes. Every single day of the 24/7 news cycle, our scientific gurus and political preachers bury us and each other with shame and guilt—then tell us how we’re responsible to dig ourselves out.
That doesn’t sound like a very good story to me.
But what would happen if we chose to inhabit a different story? What if we explored with our ancestors the bliss of ignorance or recovered the levity of naiveté?
Recovering the Gospel Story
I’m not being a romantic. Nor am I suggesting that we return uncritically to the ways of the past. And I’m certainly not advocating that we abandon all that’s been gained through science. (I even received the COVID vaccine!) But I am asking what we might gain by letting go of some of our scientific certainty that seems to shame everyone. What if, instead, we allowed some supernatural witnesses to take the stand and share a little mystery? I’m wondering what benefit there might be if we listen to the voices of those who don’t throw all the world’s problems on our shoulders.
What if we explored with our ancestors the bliss of ignorance or recovered the levity of naiveté?
According to the Christian witness, the best news is that God is willing to take the blame for all our problems. Yes, the Bible is honest about human failure. It even provides an ancient account for disease, disaster, and death that originates with human choice. But the Christian gospel—our good story—is that the God who created all things good, and who gives us all the good that we enjoy, became a human to absorb the storm and sickness that human sin first created. The cross of Jesus is the divine act when God raised his hands to take the blame for human failure.
Heed the Advance Warnings
But there’s another way that God bears responsibility for all earth’s calamity. According to the Bible, disease and natural disasters aren’t blind effects with blind causes. They are divinely inspired visual aids to help us see ultimate reality. They are flashing lights designed to save us from a greater catastrophe. Jesus calls war, disease, and natural disasters labor pains. As such, they’re actually a kindness of God. They’re like a contraction that tells you to pack your bags and run to the hospital. They’re like a fever spike and loss of taste that sends you to the ER. They’re like an advance warning system that tells you to seek higher ground and avoid the tsunami wave.
According to the Bible, disease and natural disasters aren’t blind effects with blind causes. They are divinely inspired visual aids to help us see ultimate reality.
The Christian God claims to rule over all creation. Natural events are not outside his control. He even intends horrible disasters for our good. This truly is a mystery. Because humans are surely to blame for the troubles of this world. Yet the Christian story is far more complex and nuanced than the singularity of naturalistic causation and humanistic salvation. And I believe it is a far better story.
I believe climate change is not just a human consequence or even a divinely given labor pain. The Bible teaches that creation itself is groaning in childbirth (Rom. 8:22). The earth is awaiting something better after all this trouble. A new life. A new creation. A new climate. A world where there will be no more sorrow or crying or pain. A world only possible because God in Christ was willing to take our blame.