Divine Retribution? Japan Quake, Tsunami Resurface God Debate

Tokyo governor, U.S. commentators say God punished humans with disaster.

ByABC News
March 18, 2011, 2:14 PM

March 18, 2011— -- The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last week has renewed an age-old debate over God's role in a natural disaster.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said Monday that the calamity that hit his country was "tenbatsu," or divine punishment, for the wickedness of the Japanese people.

"We need a tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time," he said. "I think the disaster is a kind of divine punishment, although I feel sorry for disaster victims." He later apologized.

U.S. political commentator Glenn Beck said the same day that the natural disaster was God's work, imbued with a "message."

"I'm not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes," he said on his radio show. But he added that he's "not not saying that either."

On Tuesday, fellow conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh went further, suggesting Japanese environmentalism may have backfired.

"The Japanese have done so much to save the planet," Limbaugh said. "Even now, refugees are still recycling their garbage, and yet Gaia [Greek for Mother Nature] levels them, just wipes them out. Wipes out their nuclear plants, all kinds of radiation. What kind of payback is this?"

And in some right-wing religious circles, leaders have called the disaster a prophecy about the need for more Japanese to turn to God.

"Because the Japanese people shun God in terms of their faith and follow idol worship, atheism, and materialism, it makes me wonder if this was not God's warning to them," Rev. David Yonggi Cho of South Korea's Yoido Full Gospel Church, considered to be the world's largest single congregation, told the online newspaper News Mission.

Religious experts say that while the comments blaming humans for natural disasters are not unusual, they reflect a misplaced desire by some leaders to promote adherence to certain beliefs and behaviors.

"Personal or communal suffering often elicits questions -- why me, why us? That's understandable," said University of Virginia religious studies professor James F. Childress. "Religious perspectives offer ways to help explain or give meaning to such suffering."

"However, it is one thing to use suffering as the occasion for self reflection on personal or communal relations to the divine; it is another to blame the victims of an earthquake, for example, for provoking divine wrath," he said.

"It's mean spirited," said Dartmouth College religion professor Ronald Green. "These 'prophets' contend they know God's will, and that's just arrogant. It's a way of putting others down and elevating yourself."