Do Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, Jose, and Katia herald the coming of the apocalypse? Or is humanity really behind these 'natural' disasters?
Millions of faith-adherents believe that humans cannot alter nature—only God can do that. One of the most prominent evangelical politicians, Senator Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in an address to the Senate. “The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change climate. Man can’t change climate.”
Senator Inhofe is by no means alone. Only 49% of white evangelicals in America said in a poll that they thought natural disasters were caused by climate change. By comparison, 77% of this group stated that "the severity of natural disasters is evidence of what the Bible calls 'the end times' (the apocalypse). Past resolutions of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest body of U.S. Evangelicals, reveal a skepticism of climate science.
Victims of Hurricane Irma invoke the apocalypse. Catherine Clayton, a resident of the British Virgin Islands, said “It is like an apocalyptic doomsday scene here. No trees, leaves or greenery. It’s the most intense thing I’ve ever seen.”
Indeed, we are living in times that our ancestors have been dreaming about for thousands of years, as Rabbi Avraham Sutton taught. We have extracted, burned, and released into the atmosphere the energy that plants and algae captured from the sun over millions of years. Coal, oil, and gas have fueled industrial, technological, and digital revolutions. Yet these fossil fuel-powered revolutions have enabled the expansion of the ego and of consumer society.
The next stage in human evolution is a consciousness revolution. It can now spread around the world just like a viral YouTube video. It could be downright messianic. Its dominant features will be spirituality, altruism toward other people, and care for our common home and all species.
What is the first Biblical source for an 'end of days'? It is Genesis 49:1, when Jacob gathered his sons and said, "Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days." According to the simple meaning of the verse, the end of days Jacob is referring to is a positive time after his death when his descendants reenter the land of Israel and return to being subsistence farmers. In the 3,500 years since then, many people have declared that the end of days are upon us. About 1,900 years ago, Bar Kochba made such a proclamation. He incited a Jewish revolt against the Romans. However, the Romans triumphed and a million Jews were killed. He was proven wrong.
The danger of these proclamations is that if they are wrong, the consequences can be disastrous. It can be convenient to blame an unstable planet on the apocalypse. It means we have no power and it is right to continue with our out-of-balance lifestyles and not change anything. As Dr. Christiana Zenner Peppard, an associate professor of Christian Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University, said "To pretend that it's such a tragedy is to pretend that there's no social and collective responsibility for the outcome."
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi Ashlag, a leading kabbalist of the twentieth century, wrote that God established the laws of nature in the world, and a person or society that transgresses one of these laws will be punished through nature. He likens nature to a judge that God created to punish those who violate the laws of nature.
How does this relate to people burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere? Today, we have an very complex understanding of how the earth’s systems work, and how we impact them. According to many climate scientists, there needs to be less than 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere for human society and most other species to be able to live on this planet. Prior to the industrial revolution, there were 180 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. We are currently past 400 ppm of CO2, with the concentration rising every year. As NASA scientists explain, these are “higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years.”
Earth scientists explain with increasing precision that this is why monster storms like Hurricane Irma and Harvey have come back to back. They broke records for storm size, rainfall and wind speed. It's the first time on record that two hurricanes of category 4 strength or higher have struck America in one season, let alone one right after the other. According to evangelical climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, climate change has raised the water temperature of the oceans and increased moisture in the atmosphere. Warm water and high moisture are the lifeblood of hurricanes.
This mess is an opportunity. Call me an apocaloptimist. I believe we are headed for a period of time when our spiritual awareness and physical living on this planet will be elevated. We will live at a higher level of soul awareness. For that to happen, we need to listen to what Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia are saying as messengers of God's creation, planet earth. Something is out of balance in the way we are living, and the need to change is hitting us in the face. The Greek root of the word ‘apocalypse’ means awakening, and a great spiritual awakening is imminent.
So to answer the question, only God knows if these hurricanes herald the apocalypse. Yet, religion and science tell us that our fate is in our hands. In his final teaching in the Hebrew Bible, Moses repeats time and again the importance of living righteously in order to merit 'length of days'—what we would call ‘sustainability’. Our wisdom, humility, and foresight can enable our children to inherit a livable planet. That is worth changing for.