Matthew Schmalz in Salon:
Seeing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, conservative Christian pastor John McTernan argued recently that “God is systematically destroying America” out of anger over “the homosexual agenda.” There were others who disagreed over the reasons for God’s anger, but not necessarily with the assumption that God can be wrathful. Ann Coulter, a conservative political commentator, for example, said jokingly that Houston’s election of a lesbian mayor was a more “credible” cause of the hurricane than global warming. And, from the other side of the political spectrum, a Tampa University professor tweeted that God had punished Texans for voting Republican. He subsequently expressed regret, but was fired. It is true that many religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, have seen natural disasters as divine punishment. But, as a scholar of religion, I would argue that things aren’t that simple.
…The question of God’s anger is intimately connected to the problem of human suffering. After all, how can a loving God cause indiscriminate human misery? We first need to look at how suffering is portrayed in the texts. For example, it is also in the Book of Isaiah that we find the story of the “Man of Sorrows” – a man who takes on the sufferings of others and is an image of piety. While the Bible does speak of humans suffering because of their sins, some of the most moving passages speak about how innocent people suffer as well. The Book of Job relates the story of a “blameless and upright man,” Job, whom Satan causes to experience all sorts of calamities. The suffering becomes so intense that Job wishes he had never been born. God then speaks from the heavens and explains to Job that God’s ways surpass human understanding. The Hebrew Bible recognizes that people suffer often through no fault of their own. Most famously, Psalm 42 is an extended lament about suffering that nonetheless concludes by praising God. The Hebrew Bible’s views on suffering cannot be encapsulated by a single message. Sometimes suffering is caused by God, sometimes by Satan and sometimes by other human beings. But sometimes the purpose behind suffering remains hidden.