I've been wanting to say something about the issue of God's judgment and natural disasters for over a week now, and I've just been too busy to say all I've wanted to say. I do recommend Jollyblogger's argument that suffering and natural disasters aren't quite so straightforward as we'd like them to be. That includes those who think this is a judgment from God, and it includes those who insist that there's no way a good God could use something like this as a judgment or wake-up call. Both views are, to my mind, thoroughly unbiblical. Also, I recommend Jeff Kouba's post arguing for a sort of skepticism about God's purposes. It runs pretty much along the same lines. See my comment for a couple places I'd revise his statements, but his major points seem exactly right to me. Also, the different strains of thought that Tyler Williams contrasts are worth considering, though I don't think these are as inconsistent as he seems to want to see them, and thus I wouldn't see one as disproving the other. Some of these posts link to further discussions, but those mostly left me a bit disappointed. I wrote almost the entirety of what follows before I read those posts or what they were responding to, but I thought those were both worth directing traffic to.
I've decided to post what I did come up with, despite not being happy with this as an overall package, but I don't think I'm going to get to making it as comprehensive as I had wanted to. That would have needed to be a series of posts anyway, so maybe it's better that I just post these relatively incomplete and undeveloped thoughts. Here we go. So keep in mind that this has been written over the course of a week, with focus on various parts but not others at any given time, without enough thought about the overall post or about what other things might be said. I do think all these things should be said, and since I did get the time to write them up I'm publishing it. I don't want to give the impression that the things I focus on the most are the things worth focusing on more than the other things that I merely suggest or that people I'm linking to or responding to would focus on. It's just that I haven't seen these particular things emphasizes as much as other things that I may agree with an may even want more emphasis on than some of these things.
Ezekiel at least twice (the first is in Ezekiel 18) says that God does not delight in the death of the wicked, and II Peter 3 echoes this in the New Testament. Jesus insists in Luke 13:1-5 that people who suffer under disasters are not necessarily doing so because their sins are any worse than people who happen to survive. He also says pretty clearly in John 9 that the blind man they were talking about was not blind because of any particular person's sin. There's no support in the Bible that particular calamities are always God's judgment on particular sins.
What that does not entail, however, is that natural disasters are never judgments. It doesn't even mean that there are any natural disasters that aren't judgments. All it requires is that some bad things are not the result of particular sins that all the people affected by are being judged for. I'm guessing that you could probably find dozens of examples throughout the Bible where people are suffering for something that is a judgment on someone else. A clear example would be in Jonah 1, in which God sends a dangerous storm that affects all the people on board the ship Jonah has bought passage on. It's clear that the storm is for Jonah's sake, because it stops as soon as he's tossed overboard. This is most certainly a judgment on Jonah, and yet God has no qualms allowing others to suffer for Jonah's sin.
It's true that with Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham asked if God would spare the cities if ten men were found. This is only upon Abraham's request, and as it turned out ten weren't found and the cities were not spared. Yet this isn't the only kind of case you find. It seems this concession that turned out not even to have made a difference was a response to Abraham's request and not normal policy. Were there not ten righteous people in Jerusalem when it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar? David's census-related sin in II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21 led to a judgment by God on Israel in which a great many people died. They weren't the perpetrators of the crime, yet it's described as a judgment.
It takes selective reading to miss these, and the Bible promises nowhere that trouble will never come on the righteous, even when that trouble is in part a judgment on the wicked. There's no way to read the prophetic or historical accounts of the exile to Babylon except as a judgment, and yet righteous people were part of that. This doesn't stop the biblical authors from treating that very same trouble as sometimes being the judgment of God on the wicked. The biblical authors simply assume that a judgment on some people might well affect other people. The New Testament authors say the same thing, though in they're case it's usually predictive. When Jesus foretells the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 13; Matthew 24; Luke 21), he says quite plainly that his own followers will be victims of the attack, and he insists that they get out as quickly as they can once it begins.
You could say all this, but it would be wrong to stop there. There's another side to it. In Romans 3, Paul catalogues a whole conglomeration of sayings from the Hebrew Bible to support his claim that no one is righteous. In some ways this conflicts with other statements in the Hebrew Bible. Job insists that he's righteous, and God admits he's right. The Hebrew wisdom literature, most notably the book of Proverbs, describes some people as the righteous and others as the wicked, as if people really can be and are righteous. While this is mitigated somewhat by books like Ecclesiastes that insist that there isn't a direct correspondence between our deeds and how our lives will result, it's still there to be mitigated in the firsty place. Abraham is declared to be righteous because of his trust in God (despite his clear lack of trust in God at times). Noah is said to be righteous, as are Daniel and his friends. Is this a contradiction with the numerous quotes, mostly from the psalms and the prophets? In many of the cases where someone is declared righteous, it's clear that the person is not absolutely righteous. Job accuses God of being an unjust judge and is condemned for it at the end of the book. Abraham didn't always trust God. David, the man after God's own heart, committed adultery and killed the woman's husband to cover it up. What seems to be going on here can be captured by the distinction between absolute righteousness and relative righteousness. No one is absolutely righteous, but some are more righteous than others in the same way that nothing in the real world is absolutely flat when you look close enough, but some things are more flat than others.
Christian theology is very clear that no one is righteous in this absolute sense, and Paul's account of this in Romans 3:10-28 is derived carefully from statements throughout the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah describes sin as making a separation with God, and even if some sins are much worse than others no one is exempt. All deserve judgment. Christian theology also insists that not all will face the ultimate judgment. Some will be shown mercy, but they do not deserve it. The kinds of judgments that people face in this life are nothing compared to the eternal suffering that Jesus taught would come to those who ultimately reject God's ways, even very religious people. Yet Jesus also taught that suffering in this life would come to his own followers, sometimes simply for the reason that they are his followers. He often described the world as hating him, and he told his disciples to expect the world to hate them too.
He also taught that God's judgment would come upon Jerusalem and eventually upon the whole world. He didn't teach that his followers would be removed just before it, as some popular teachings in the last couple hundred years have claimed. Paul says it will be cut short for the sake of those who belong to God, but nowhere does it say that it will be cut short for those who are believers but not for those who aren't. It says it will be cut short, and the reason given is because of those God has brought to himself. Yet that doesn't change the fact that it's a judgment on the world as a whole, a world that contains people who have had the penalty for sin removed according to the very theology of the Christian authors who write about this in the Bible.
The blessings and curses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 17-28 and many of the teachings in the book of Proverbs speak as if reward and punishment in this life will come as a result of how we live in this life. We must keep in mind that these are covenant curses and blessings and proverbs, not case law or detailed prophecy that's intended to apply to every situation in exactly the same way. I'm sure ancient Israel knew full well that the blessings and curses in the Torah were never intended to say that every instance of bad is a result of some particular failure to keep covenant. I'm sure they knew full well that not every case of good is a result of blessing from God because of doing good. They understood that these were general tendencies about how God has organized his creation. When the people reject God, and disaster befalls, it may well be because of their rejection of God. If things go well when people repent, it may well be a blessing for keeping covenant. There will be exceptions, but this is the general tendency reported in the scriptures, and it's something very devout people have witnessed over the centuries. Those sorts of tendencies do occur. If you want to take it absolutely, however, I'm sure Jeremiah would have a few words with you. The same is true of the proverbs that speak of how things will tend to go well when you live wisely and righteously.
The point is that there's some sense in which bad things that happen can be a judgment, and they should sometimes be a wake-up call. Someone who truly believes that God is sovereign and that God does reward the relatively righteous and punish those who are more wicked in this life should see events like this as a warning sign or a wake-up call. Any devout Christian will have serious complaints about wickedness rife within the United States, and I suspect devout Jews will agree. People have a natural tendency to think first of sins that they didn't commit, but that's their problem. It's not a problem with the general thesis that Christians and Jews have maintained for a long, long time. The reality is that most of us partake in the materialistic worship of the God of wealth, the sensualistic lusts of various aspects of everyday American life, and the selfishness of American individualism. There's much to like about the American dream, but there's much to criticize about how it's appropriated and implemented. Every empire in the history of the world has fallen, and each one had its ways of taking advantage of people and arrogantly seeing itself as the best thing to come around, an attitude that removes God from the throne and places an idol there. The American empire is much less a political entity than an economic and cultural one, and the average American contributes to it far more than in past empires.
I think this is a time not to complain about people who see hurricanes as judgment (though it may be good to point out the erroneous assumptions of some who do so) but rather to consider it as a warning that this idolatrous moment in the history of the world will come to an end as all do. It's a time to reflect on one's own contribution to the sins of the American way of life. It's a time to turn from those things and seek the God who alone is worthy of our highest efforts and desires, from whom the rest of what we should value should flow. Above all, it's a time to pray for our country, not just for those who are suffering as a result of the disaster, but also for those who are leaders in our nation who can shape the direction of the future of our country in a way that moves away from some of the deepest roots of unrighteousness. It's a time to pray for what those of previous generations called revival (some use this term today, but I think they mean something else). It's a time to pray for repentance, as Daniel did at the end of the exile in Daniel 9 and as Ezra did when he returned to Jerusalem later on and found the Torah not being observed in Ezra 9. What's notable about both prayers is that each man considered himself part of the sin, even if they had not committed it. May we too recognize our solidarity with our nation. Only then will we easily resist the tendency to blame God's judgments on other people and refuse to consider that we may also need to reflect on our own sin.