About eight million people were under flood watches yesterday in coastal Central California, including the Bay Area. The latest in a series of lethal atmospheric rivers lashed the state last night; storms that began in late December have killed at least nineteen people.
The California Geological Survey reports that the state has endured more than four hundred landslides since December 30. Violent winds from the latest storms could topple trees in soils weakened by all the rain, threatening yet more power outages and misery in the state.
Floods are not the only natural disasters Californians are facing: there is more than a 99 percent chance of a major earthquake in their state in the next thirty years. Wildfires and drought have plagued their region for years as well.
And so, the question seems natural: Is California under God’s judgment?
Our question is obviously relevant to the nearly forty million people who live in the state. But as I hope to show today, it is just as relevant to the rest of us as well.
Natural disasters and divine judgment
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote an article for Christianity Today asking whether the virus is God’s judgment on America. In it I noted that “biblical judgments are against specific sins and sinners.” I cited Pharoah’s obstinacy that led to the plagues of the Exodus, Miriam’s racial prejudice that led to her leprosy, and Herod’s prideful idolatry that led to his death (Acts 12:20–23).
Then I noted regarding the pandemic, “No specific sins caused this virus. Nor are those who are afflicted with it more sinful than the rest of us.” For these reasons, I concluded that God did not cause the COVID-19 pandemic as his punitive judgment on our nation.
I can say the same regarding the storms battering California: they are not the consequence of specific sins committed by specific sinners. In this sense, unlike natural disasters in the Bible that are directly related to the rejection of God’s word and will, these storms have not been created supernaturally by God in judgment specifically against California.
However, this is not to say that natural disasters are unrelated to human depravity.
Since our first parents sinned, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). There were no storms or floods in the garden of Eden. The natural diseases and disasters we experience in our fallen world are a consequence of the Fall and God’s judgment on human sin (cf. Genesis 3:17–19).
“Need an abortion? California is ready to help”
Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with words that describe the spiritual condition of California and our nation: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Consider some ways California has made the news in recent times:
- California’s governor launched a national ad campaign with billboards proclaiming, “Need an abortion? California is ready to help.”
- The state requires that elementary school children be taught lessons endorsing LGBTQ ideology and does not allow parents to exempt their children from such lessons.
- It has made euthanasia even easier to obtain.
- The state Senate passed legislation (SB 1146) that would eliminate the ability of Christian colleges and universities to hire only Christian faculty and staff. Biola University warned that the bill would “eliminate religious liberty in California higher education as we know it.”
At the same time, some of the strongest evangelical churches, universities, seminaries, and ministries I know are in California. For example, I am deeply grateful for Greg Laurie’s ministry headquartered at the California church he pastors and his evangelistic Harvest events across the nation. Rick Warren’s ministry in southern California has been personally significant for me as well.
There are thirty-seven Christian colleges and universities in California, including some of the most influential evangelical schools in America. The state is home to more than forty schools of theology, including some of international reputation, and to innumerable Christian ministries.
“Humans are amphibians”
One of Satan’s most subtle temptations is to encourage Christians to trust in Christianity rather than in Christ. In this sense, California is a case study for the evangelical church in a secularized culture.
As someone who pastored large churches for many years, I can attest to the lure of self-reliance. When we construct massive church plants and build global ministries, we can easily think our work is advancing God’s kingdom. But human words cannot change human hearts. Even the most popular ministers and ministries cannot convict a single sinner of a single sin or save a single soul.
The more we rely on ourselves, the less we are relying on God’s Spirit.
One way God would redeem floods in California and other natural disasters in our fallen world is by showing frail humans our desperate need for his omnipotent strength and omniscient wisdom. This is true not just for political leaders who reject biblical morality but for Christian leaders who declare and defend it every day.
C. S. Lewis noted, “Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.” The key is to unite the two by using the latter for the former in reliance on God’s Spirit.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
The best way to live this day
Every natural disaster reminds us that we are one day closer to eternity than ever before. The best way to live this day is to live as if it were our last day. Then, one day, we’ll be right.
If it were today, would you be ready?
If not, why not?