In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in the intensity and frequency of catastrophic events in the world. These events include the aerial attack of September 11, 2001 and the monstrous tsunami in December of 2004. Many attempts have been made to explain these terrifying events including the hostile agenda of the devil and the instability of nature’s cycles. However, they have all denied the contribution that God has made in these calamities. They claim that God is a God of love who would never inflict such evil. However, the people of the Protestant Reformed Churches have held a different view.
They have insisted that these events are controlled providentially by God and are in fact his judgments on a wicked world. This view is condemned as novel and inconsistent with the loving God of Scripture. However, this view is far from novel since it has been the actual view of the Church throughout the ages. I would like to demonstrate this by identifying the roots of this view in the early church, specifically in the writing of St. Augustine. In Augustine’s City of God he asserts without a doubt that catastrophes are the judgments of God.
The original intention of the City of God was to interpret the catastrophic destruction of Rome in 410 A.D. by the Visigothic raiders. During Augustine’s life (354–430), the Roman Empire was the world. The infamous Sack of Rome, therefore, was an earth-shaking event that evoked much scholastic interpretation. The intellectuals of the day interpreted the disaster as the punishment of the gods who were angry at Rome for adopting Christianity as the state religion. It was against this view that Augustine wrote the City of God in which he claimed that the God of the Christians was actually behind the calamity. This true God exercised judgment on Rome for its long history of wickedness.
The city of Rome in antiquity was a center of pagan worship, and as such it was a quagmire of iniquity. From the very beginning, Rome was a hotbed of drunken partying, sexual immorality, bloodlust, and every sin possible. Augustine calls this wickedness of Rome a “spiritual disease, degeneration, decline into immorality and indecency.”1 This figure of Rome as a society with a “spiritual disease” and “declining into immorality” represents the sinful condition of all humanity for Augustine. The Rome of his day and earlier was not just one isolated society of sin, but rather, its repugnant immorality was a picture of the sinful society of all mankind. According to Augustine, then, everyone head for head was guilty of wickedness.
Augustine turns the attention of his readers to the concept of sin and guilt resting upon all human beings. Augustine attributes sin and evil to all humans head for head. His pagan contemporaries had a very different notion of evil which they attributed only to the very worst of criminals. But Augustine accuses all humans of being sinful. In this regard he says,
The fact is that everyone, however exemplary, yields to some promptings of concupiscence: if not to monstrous crimes, abysmal villainy, and abominable impiety, at least to some sins, however rarely or—if frequently—however venially (Bk. 1.9).
Augustine is here explaining why Christians had to suffer side by side with the pagans in the devastation of Rome, and he does so by pointing out that all humans are guilty of sin. It is a condition in which human beings live. No one can completely avoid the “promptings of concupiscence.” In the case of seemingly pious people, Augustine points out how even they are corrupt with sin.
He contends that everyone, including the most virtuous Christian, is guilty of the sin of omission. He says that even good men are guilty of sin when they refuse to admonish and condemn the sins of the wicked men around them. This sin of omission is enough to incur the temporal judgments of God. Augustine says that
For the most part, we hesitate to instruct, to admonish, and, as occasion demands, to correct, and even to reprehend them [wicked men]…Thus, good men shun the wicked and hence will not share in their damnation beyond the grave. Nevertheless, because they wink at their worse sins and fear to frown even on their minor transgressions, the good must in justice suffer temporal afflictions in common with the rest—even though they will escape the eternal (Bk. 1.9).
Consequently, he sees all mankind as worthy of the temporal judgments of God because of their sins, even though good men (believers) will escape the eternal. It was on the basis of those sins, says Augustine, that “God in His anger filled the world with calamities” (Bk. 1.9).
In the case of Rome, thousands of Visigoths invaded the city and reduced much of it to rubble. They destroyed and pillaged both public and private buildings. In Augustine’s view, God sent these barbarians to destroy Rome, making them the agents of His judgment. They were unknowingly executing the will of God by their devastation. Augustine refers to them as the executors of God’s will. He says that “the hardships and cruelties they [Romans] suffered from the enemy came from that Divine Providence who makes use of war to reform the corrupt lives of men” (Bk. 1.1). The barbarians, then, were merely the instruments through which God providentially executed “hardships” and “cruelties” on the Roman people. Augustine attributes those afflictions to God saying that the barbarians were merely His agents.
Furthermore, Augustine recognizes certain virtues in the barbarian invaders which he also attributes to God. He points out that the barbarians showed great mercy toward the refugees who gathered inside Christian churches and basilicas. He uses words such as ‘mercy,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘clemency’ to describe the way in which the barbarians treated those who sought refuge in the houses of God. He says that “It was something entirely new that fierce barbarians, by an unprecedented turn of events, showed such clemency…” (Bk. 1.7). This new thing was “to the credit of Christian civilization” (Bk. 1.7) and was the result of their being used as the agents of God. This clemency, according to Augustine, further demonstrates the fact that God was governing the actions of the Visigoths. In this respect, he enjoins his reader,
Let no man with sense ascribe this [clemency] to the savage ways of the barbarians. It was God who struck awe into ruthless and bloodthirsty hearts, who curbed and wondrously tamed them. God who long ago spoke these words by the mouth of the Prophet; ‘I will visit their iniquities with a rod: and their sins with stripes. But My mercy I will not take away from them’ (Ps.88: 33, 34) (Bk. 1.7).
Augustine recognizes that this virtue found in the barbarians is a profound indication of God’s work. God “tamed” them from their “bloodthirsty” ways and compelled them to do His will. This is the providential work of God through which He still today sends catastrophes and wars as a temporal punishment for sin.
Whenever He sees fit, God sends judgments in the form of calamities on a society because of its immediate sin and deep guilt. This may come in the form of a natural disaster killing hundreds of people or a horrible war leaving cities and countryside desolate. According to Augustine, though, these judgments do not strike at all times because then the wicked might think “that no score remained to be settled at the Last Judgment” (Bk. 1.8). He thinks that if God sent horrible calamities at every waking moment, then people might think that His wrath was exhausted in this world. But on the other hand, Augustine says, “if God did not plainly enough punish sin on earth, people might conclude that there is no such thing as Divine Providence” (Bk. 1.8). So these judgments which God sends on people in this life are meant to be a temporal manifestation and foretaste of that eternal judgment which awaits only the wicked.
Moreover, these judgments which surface throughout history are part of a recurring cycle in which sin and guilt give rise to these calamities issued by the hand of God. With these “temporal afflictions,” then, humanity is scourged “as often as it pleases God” (Bk. 1.9). The calamities which have descended upon humanity throughout history demonstrate the continuity of sin through the ages and the consequent temporal judgments of God upon it. According to Augustine, this cycle of sin and consequent judgment is part of the fallen world we live in. It will persist to the end. The barbarian attack of his day was merely one instance of that dreadful cycle. He would look at the wars and catastrophes of today as further examples.
It should now be obvious that the Protestant Reformed view of catastrophes is not something brand new and un-Christian. This view was taught already by early church fathers such as Augustine who taught that God used catastrophes as temporal judgments upon a deserving, sinful human race. Also in today’s world, then, the attack of September 11, the giant South Asian tsunami, and hurricane Katrina were all the temporal judgments of God. Like the destruction of Rome in 410, these events were sent and controlled by God. For the Christian who loves God, this truth is a great comfort. We know that God controls all the events of time and is directing all things according to His will. Since He is our Father, He is always concerned with our well-being. Thus, we know that even in the dreadfulness of catastrophe, all things are working together for our good.
1 Augustine, City of God, Bk. I.33, trans. Walsh, Zema, Monahan, and Honan ed. Vernon J. Bourke (Doubleday, New York, 1958).