A vocal minority of Christians often blame natural and man-made disasters on god’s wrath. This can be seen time and time again. Pat Robertson is a great example of the tired old “God’s angry” trope. Even recently, the Rev. Al Sharpton asked whether or not god was angry with Texas and sent heavy downpours to punish the big state. It’s nothing new… literally. This idea dates back millennia, and two thousand years ago it was used as a Pagan accusation against Christians.
First, I’d like to put first century Pagans into context. For the purpose of this post, these Pagans inhabit the proto-Christian region under Roman occupation. They worship multiple gods and call on these gods for basic survival needs. They do not believe in the salvation of the soul, nor do they necessarily believe in an afterlife. Their primary objective in worship is to satisfy the gods so that they will bring rain, help crops grow, provide personal and reproductive health, and so on. The Pagan religions, in this sense, helped people cope with lives filled with misery, drought, famine, disease, etc. When the gods were pleased with Pagan rites, such as animal sacrifice and prayer, the gods intervened and helped the Pagan survive the harshness of the first century.
You can imagine, then, how the Pagans felt when Christian groups began springing up in the Roman Empire and converting Pagans to a foreign religion!! Whenever there was a natural disaster or a famine or a disease, the Pagans blamed the Christians for angering the gods. This sometimes led to violent reactions against the Christians and—although the Roman Empire took no role in Christian persecution in the first and second centuries—Roman guards were either powerless to or uninterested in stopping it.
In other words, this idea that a divine supernatural agent becomes angry and punishes entire human societies for the misdeeds of others is not unique to a minority of vocal Christians (or any other contemporary religious followers). This idea dates back at least 2,000 years, probably much longer. What interests me, therefore, is how this idea has managed to survive for so long, even after changing and adopting new leadership. Furthermore, how has this idea survived this long when—especially in the twenty-first century—we learn everything we need to debunk this idea in high school? We can explain natural and human behavior sufficiently enough to know there are no supernatural hands causing tragedies. Yet, somehow, a few loud Christians still believe and preach this stuff.
For a conversation about this phenomenon in the early Christian context, see W.H.C Frend’s Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965) and Robert Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). Additionally, Bart D. Ehrman dedicates part of a chapter (pages 196-200) to this phenomenon in his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005).