Poll: Nearly 4 in 10 Americans Say Natural Disasters Sign from God

When Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara called the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan tembatsu -- or "divine judgment" -- he expressed a kind of theological cause and effect shared by nearly 40 percent of Americans.

Ishihara later apologized for his remarks. But a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Survey shows some support for his original sentiment: 16 percent of Americans agree that natural disasters are a sign from God, while 22 percent mostly agree.

A slight majority -- 51 percent -- disagreed natural disasters are a sign from the Almighty. Yet a slightly larger majority, 56 percent, said they believe God is in control of everything that happens in the world.

In a way, the poll examined the age-old philosophical dilemma: "If God is good, why is there so much disaster, tragedy and pain in the world?"

"On the one hand, people are confirming straightforward theological affirmations of a personal God that's in control. But many won't draw a straight line between what's happening on the ground and that God," said Dr. Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of PRRI. In a way, the poll examined the age-old philosophical dilemma: "If God is good, why is there so much disaster, tragedy and pain in the world?"

Others had their own take on the poll’s results. "Increasingly, Americans want a God who loves and doesn't judge,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.

Kula maintained traditional theology, "that natural disasters are punishment for sin, is rejected by God in the (Old Testament's) book of Job, but it is a dominant strand in every tradition." According to Kula, “tragedy has nothing to do with the victim's behavior. It is simply the mystery and vastness of nature."

But Eric Metaxas, author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God, said that "according to the Bible, the world is NOT the way God wants it to be.”

Metaxas said he believes God created "a perfect world that somehow -- in the Garden of Eden -- became broken. ... The rest of the Bible is the story of God trying to restore what was broken.”

Events like earthquakes and tsunamis, said Metaxas, are examples of that brokenness "that God is in the process of redeeming and (that) He is with us in the suffering."

The poll results revealed differences of opinion on the subject among various Christian denominations. Nearly 6 in 10 (59%) of white Evangelicals said they believed natural disasters are a sign from God. But a much smaller minority -- just 31 percent of Catholics and 34 percent of non-evangelical Protestants -- agreed.

The perceived increase in the number and severity of natural disasters is evidence to 44 percent of Americans of what the Bible calls The End Times, prophesied in the Old Testament's book of Daniel and the New Testament's book of Revelation. Fifty-two percent disagreed, according to the poll.

Dr. John Rankin, president of the Theological Education Institute, cautioned against drawing conclusions from the number of earthquakes and global disasters.

"People have tried to get a timetable on the End Times since A.D. 100. The book of Revelations doesn't give any time frame. It just gives us seven cycles repeating." What it shows, said Rankin, is that "God is incredibly patient.”

There was much more widespread agreement on one poll question: Despite America’s own economic woes, 83 percent of those polled said it was important to provide Japan and other nations suffering from natural disasters with financial assistance.

The PRRI survey interviewed a random sample of 1,008 adults 18 years of age or older between March 17-20. The survey has a margin or error of plus-minus 3 percentage points.