What is An Act of God?

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A Brief History

On March 28, 1920, Palm Sunday for Christians that are keeping track, a flurry of tornadoes swept across the Midwest and Southern United States, 37 of the terrible storms that left 380 Americans dead in their paths!  Some people see such tragic natural events as just nature being nature, while others see the hand of God in the event, thus describing tornados, severe hail storms, hurricanes, lightning strikes, earthquakes, floods and other nature related events as “An Act of God.”  Here is the Merriam-Webster’s online definition: “an extraordinary interruption by a natural cause (such as a flood or earthquake) of the usual course of events that experience, prescience, or care cannot reasonably foresee or prevent.”  The concept first appeared in 1611.

Digging Deeper

Many insurance companies write their policies with varying clauses regarding their definition of “Act of God.”  In some cases, any event that could have been prevented by human action is NOT an “Act of God,” for example, an electrical fire due to negligent installation of electrical systems or inadequate repair and maintenance.  A lightning caused fire on the other hand would be an “Act of God.”  Often, insurance companies do not want to pay for events and losses that could have been prevented.  This is where things get complicated.  Each company and each policy may have different definitions of “Act of God” and different coverage clauses concerning such events.  Remember, the main goal of insurance companies is to sell policies and NOT make payouts.  (We will call that trying to “beat you out of a claim” rather than “cheat you out of a claim,” because the latter is kind of accusatory…)  Losses due to negligence or intentional acts (such as vandalism or arson) may or may not be covered.  Again, study your policy!

Say a tree falls on your house during a storm.  Would your insurance company pay for what is clearly a natural event or “An Act of God?”  Maybe, maybe not.  They might claim you should have trimmed the tree back enough to keep it from being able to fall on your house.  Or they may claim the tree was rotten and the homeowner should have cut it down prior to it falling.  Perhaps you were negligent for planting the tree too close to the house.  If your house is damaged by lightning, you are probably covered.  If your neighbor’s house is put on fire by a lightning strike and catches your house on fire, you might also be covered.  Or maybe the insurance company will claim you should not have allowed brush to build up between the houses or you should not have stored flammable material between the houses.  A flooded basement?  Not covered if your gutters have not been properly installed and maintained!  The use of fine print and legal mumbo-jumbo language is clearly for the benefit of the insurance company, not for you!  It behooves any person seeking an insurance policy to read carefully such a policy in its entirety before signing up.

Then of course, there are floods.  Is a hurricane induced storm surge a “flood” for insurance purposes?  Whether it is or not may have massive consequences for the property owner, as you might be covered for either a flood or a hurricane but not both.  The insurance company is sure to interpret the event in the manner most advantageous to the insurance company!

While many of the definitions of “Act of God” discuss the preventability of the damage by foresight and preventative action by humans, just where that line is drawn is highly debatable.  Just how extraordinary do preventative measures have to be?  It might pay to find out ahead of time before you are battling your insurance company.

Consider this article a caution about insurance policies rather than a definitive treatise on “Acts of God.”  A little research and careful analysis of your current or prospective policies are highly recommended.

Another highly interesting and often contentious subject when discussing “Acts of God” is whether or not God intentionally inflicts disaster on people for some reason or another, usually defined as either a punishment for some sort of sin or lapse or as a way to test the faith and fealty of the flock.  As we have discussed in several articles, natural events and disasters often kill faithful people and destroy church related property, as do accidents.  For that matter, have religious “explanations” of natural disasters stifled the scientific understanding of such events throughout history?  Some Christians have claimed Hurricane Katrina (2005) that ravaged the US Gulf coast was an “Act of God” to punish the sinful people and their sinful ways that live along that coast.  Of course, some extremist Muslim’s quickly agreed with that analysis!

Feel free to give us your impressions on the “Act of God” subject.

Question for students (and subscribers): Does God intentionally punish people with natural disasters?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hanska, Jussi. Strategies of Sanity and Survival: Religious Responses to Natural Disasters in the Middle Ages. Finnish Literature Society, 2002.

Lutzer, Erwin. Where Was God?: Answers to Tough Questions about God and Natural Disasters. Tyndale House Publishers, 2011.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of tornado damage along the Fox River in Elgin, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.