On Sabbath afternoon, December 28, 2013, in a Malawi SDA church, lightning killed eight worshippers, and injured 40 more. A few samples from the online forum in the Nyasa Times demonstrates how individuals attach significance to a natural tragedy, taking it as a sign of how God thinks and making Him into a culturally-constructed supernatural agent.
Very tragic, may God be with their families (sic) during this time of sorrow. Nobody can indeed understand God’s plan. It’s ironical these people died in church, where one would expect God to be there and protecting them.
My apologies Seventh family but the question is? Out of all places, why in a church? I thought its (sic) a dwelling place for God? This is a lesson to everyone that being in church doesn’t mean you are protected and holy.
While most people believe that their God is a loving personality, evidently on occasion this same God allows bad things to happen, to bring people to their knees. In the process, humans try to get into God’s head using their own theories. They tend to see a natural event like other people’s surface behaviors. God’s brand of punishment is distinctively symbolic, thereby arising from innate or perhaps “from a belief instinct,” without connection to reality. It is alleged that Einstein once remarked to a friend, “God is slick, but he ain’t mean.”
Psychologists are developing stronger grounds to establish that humans, unlike other animals, “need to feel like there’s something bigger out there; to have a sense of purpose in their lives, to take comfort in religion; to reduce uncertainty; something to believe in.” Consequently, in the event of a natural disaster, people’s minds naturally gravitate toward something more powerful than themselves and in the process are prone to make mistakes or adopt superstitious thinking, such as seeing causal relationships where in fact none exist.
Of course not everyone on the forum was blind to this confusing temperament of God’s dual character. A few were actually more scientific or logical in looking for a cause of the tragedy.
When it comes to building churches it is the local members of the church that takes all of the burden despite returning to the church their tithes and offerings faithfully. The fact that the church building work is always left in the hands of the local church members it means that most church are built with no consideration for safety features, for example, lightening (sic) rods or protection. One wonders where all the money that its faithful members give to the church goes.
Some people are soundly convinced that God shares their opinions and points of view. From this perspective it simply makes sense that God would be devoted to giving hints here and there of wrongdoing, in the form of natural tragedies. For instance, through a bizarre twist of logic some liken the tsunami in Japan to a giant broom that reached down from the heavens because of the nation’s relaxing moral attitudes or for some other misbehavior(s). Whittling this down, all that is required is what psychologists call a theory of mind — there must be some intentional purpose in the humanlike God for the natural event to take place. Such a theory of mind “strongly favors the purposeful design framework.”
This brings us to a unique event in Adventist history that few people know about. Ellen White was in declining health for several years before she passed away on Friday July 16, 1915. Several years in advance of her death son William reported to the General Conference that numerous church members were claiming to be his mother’s successor. A few had even made their way to her home in Elmshaven, California seeking Mrs. White endorsement. She had not been given any information from God as to whether there would be a successor or not. So during her funeral there was a heightened anticipation that perhaps God might step out and reveal Himself somehow through the mysterious workings of Providence. Around this time The Review and Herald was running a series of articles about the fulfillment of signs and the soon coming of Jesus.
A very peculiar thing happened on Monday, July 19, 1915, at about the same time that Mrs. White’s casket was conveyed to the railroad in Oakland, California, to be transported to Battle Creek, Michigan, for burial. Her remains were accompanied by William White and her long time secretary-nurse Miss Sara MacEnterfer. This was around 1pm in the afternoon, Pacific Coast Time.
On the East Coast a heavy storm passed through Takoma Park, Maryland, where the Adventist church’s headquarters were. During the storm a lightning bolt hit a large beautiful Oak tree standing in the Triangle Park across from the Review and the General Conference offices. The lightning was followed by tremendous thunder and the crash of breaking wood. It tore off the bark and stripped two wide furrows down the tree.
When the worst of the storm seemed to have passed, the General Conference president A. G. Daniells, office secretary T. E. Bowen, assistant secretary of the Medical Missionary Department L. A. Hansen, and Review associated editor C. M. Snow stepped out of the building to examine the damaged tree. After a few minutes they turned to go back in the office building.
Moments after Daniells and the other three entered the General Conference building, three other individuals came out to see the destruction.
One was Alexander J. S. Bourdeau, the son of the legendary missionary pioneer, Elder Daniel. T. Bourdeau. Alexander Bourdeau had served in various leadership capacities in the church, including recently the manager of the magazine department for the Review and Herald Publishing Association. In a few weeks he was planning to leave Washington to become the chair of the English and Literature department of South Lancaster Academy.
His daughter, ten-year-old Marguerite, also accompanied him out of the building, along with Edwin Andrews, the fifteen-year-old grandson of J. N. Andrews.
Without warning the tree was struck a second time by lightning, and all three were knocked to the ground. Elder Bourdeau and Edwin Andrews were killed instantly. Efforts by physicians to revive them were unsuccessful. Marguerite was temporarily paralyzed and suffered extensive burns over her body. She remained conscious throughout, was hospitalized and eventually recovered. (Later she married William Gilbert who studied medicine at the College of Medical Evangelists, now Loma Linda University. Marguerite lived more than 80 years.)
It is quite likely that this double tragedy at the General Conference headquarters was superseded by the events surrounding the burial of Ellen White at Battle Creek. Locally, the Review accentuated the plaintive mystery by saying the short-tempered lightning tragedy was beyond explanation: “We pray that if there be a lesson for this people in this sorrowful occurrence, God will help us to understand it, and to order our lives in harmony with its admonition.” The goodness of God was just something Review editors believed because it was always done the exact same way. Still it was difficult to reconcile this natural event with God’s goodness in the face of this double tragedy. President Daniells spoke words of comfort at Edwin Andrews’ burial.
Daniells also attended the funeral of Ellen White later in the week, taking the train to Battle Creek. His recent experience surely made an impression on him — he had been spared by inches while he watched a faithful church leader and two children struck down by lightning. A few weeks after Ellen White’s funeral President Daniells and his wife checked into the New England Sanitarium for a week to “secure a little rest.”
When something strange and powerful like this happens biblical literalists often say that God is “sending a message” — what the Review referred to as an “admonition.”
In 2004 The Solid Rock Church near Monroe, Ohio, built a colossal 62-foot statute of the “King of Kings” (better known as the Touchdown Jesus) outside their church near the Interstate freeway. On June 15, 2010, one of the outstretched arms was struck by lightning and the half million dollar statute was destroyed by fire. Trying to piece this destruction together, some passersby felt that the statute was destroyed because the Ten Commandments say not to make any graven images of God.
The origin for ideas like this can be traced back to the Greeks who believed Zeus punished wayward mortals and miscreants by hurling thunderbolts at them. Maybe we shouldn’t report about the superstitions associated with the frequent lightning strikes on church property—except the Bible says: “His lightnings enlightened the world: the earth saw, and trembled.”
Whether you believe in the wrath of God through lightning or not, it is most unlikely you will meet your end by a bolt of sky electricity. According to the National Weather Service there are on average 57 deaths and 300 injuries in the United States each year from lightning strikes. And of course there are well-known precautions you can take to avoid getting hit by lightning.
When Benjamin Franklin introduced the lightning rod in 1752 there were many who believed that Satan was behind the arrows flung at earth from the clouds. So it was thought that by ringing church bells during a storm, demons could be exorcized. (A large number of bell-ringers were electrocuted as a result of holding on to wet bell ropes.) Others thought it was a lack of faith to bypass the protection of the Almighty by installing lightning rods recommended by Franklin on church steeples. Both Catholic and Protestants Christians opposed the scientific theories of Franklin. The Review and Herald opined that the “evidence adduced has always been largely in favor of not incurring one dollar of expenses for a conductor.” It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that lightning rods began to achieve acceptance.
Eventually, after enduring many strikes, the Vatican in Rome installed lightning rod. An odd coincidence occurred on December 8, 1869, when the first reading of the Episcopal voting of the new dogma of Papal Infallibility was presented, as lightning hit St. Peters simultaneously. As the votes were taken the following year, on July 18, 1870, a second strike occurred at the Vatican when the proclamation was read amid flashes of lightning and loud claps of thunder and “a thick envelope of darkness overcame St. Peter’s Basilica to the point where the Pope found it difficult to read the Proclamation without the artificial light of a candle.” Lightning struck the Basilica again in 2013, the same day that Pope Benedict announced his resignation.
Lightning occurs somewhere on the earth approximately forty times a second or nearly 1.4 billion flashes per year. While some aspects of lightning are still unknown, research has provided evidence that lightning primarily occurs when warm air is mixed with colder air masses, resulting in atmospheric disturbances to polarize the clouds. Lightning can also occur during dust storms, forest fires, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and in the winter, where the lightning is known as thundersnow. In general, cloud-to-ground lightning flashes account for only 25 percent of all total lightning flashes worldwide.
Lightning with its massive arms of high voltage should be feared, but it is only lingering medieval superstitions to attribute its discharge to either God’s or Satan’s wrath. The column of air where the electricity follows the path of least resistance hops and dances around, blown by the wind. Its “meanness” is inside normal physical and statistical conjunctures, which has nothing to do with the voice of God or the demonic passion of a devil.
Image: Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro hit by lightning last week. AFP Photo.
Pam Dietrich. A Lightning Strike Killed Eight Worshippers. Spectrum. January 3, 2014. See also another example “Lightning Kills Youth Volunteer.” Alexander Williams, a Maranatha Volunteer participating in a church building project was killed by lightning in Dominican Republic. InterAmerican Division Number 433. September, 1992.
Phillimon. Nyasa Times. December 28, 2013.
Jesse Bering. The Belief Instinct. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co. 2011. p. 4.
Jesse Bering. p. 5.
Malawi VP, Chakwera Mourn with SDA After Lightning Deaths. December 30, 2013.
Jesse Bering. p. 59.
Gilbert M. Valentine. The Prophet and the Presidents. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publ. Assoc. 2011. p. 298.
The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. August 5, 1915. The Takoma Park Church now stands where this tree was standing when struck by lightning.
Eugene F. Durand. When Lightning Struck Twice. Adventist Review. September 28, 1989.
A Double Tragedy. The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. July 29, 1915.
The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. August 19, 1915.
Touchdown Jesus statue at Solid Rock Church on I-75 destroyed by lightning, fire. http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20100615/NEWS01/306150004/-Touchdown-Jesus-statue-Solid-Rock-Church-75-destroyed-by-lightning-fire.
Psalms 97:4. (See Daniel J. Robinson. References to Lightning in the Holy Bible. http://www.ira.usf.edu/cam/exhibitions/1998_12_McCollum/supplemental_didactics/19.Bible.pdf.)
Lightning Rods. The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. August 23, 1864. p. 101.
John Sanidopoulos. Lightning Strikes the Vatican…Again. Mystagogy. February 12, 2013.
Oliver, John E. (2005).