Recent “acts of God” have provoked much media coverage. For example, here’s a May 24 Globe and Mail headline, Putting a Price on Acts of God. The ensuing story deals with the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s stance on compensation for acts of God.
It’s tempting to believe God takes a hand in devastating natural disasters. He’s done it before. We can easily point out Old Testament examples of His terrifying behaviour.
We cannot deny that the God of the Old Testament is an angry deity. His easily provoked ire is usually aimed at His Chosen People where it manifests itself in dreadful happenings. As well, He never hesitates to threaten the Israelites with vengeance. In II Kings 22:16-18, He says: “Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof ... because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger. . . therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched.”
God usually carries out His threats. The Old Testament teems with the awful things God does. He turns people into pillars of salt, destroys entire cities, sends plagues and pestilence and famine, and kills first-born children. He wipes out animals and people alike. He sends a terrible flood that “prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered ... and every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground. . . and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark” (Genesis7:19-23).
No wonder we want to blame God for floods, forest fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and tornados.
But, interestingly, the term “act of God” as used today, didn’t arise from God’s fearful record, although, His vengeful nature likely influenced ancients to say certain catastrophes were like an act of God.
An act of God is a totally unexpected natural happening — natural, not divine — a happening impossible to foresee or prevent. As legal terminology, it’s used to identify events for which there’s no legal compensation.
The OED defines act of God as an action accepted legally as outside human control.
Theologically, this phrase appeared in the 13th century when it did refer to an act undertaken by God. It was a Biblical reference.
However, in law, it was first used in 1803 when English courts ruled on the impossibility to foresee, and hence insure, damages arising from natural causes. The London Times wrote: “By common law, Carriers are insurers against every loss of property entrusted to their care, except losses arising from the Act of God, or the King’s enemies (treason).”
This ruling still applies today which explains why Albertans, Saskatchewanians, Manitobans and Québecers suffering fire and flood devastation won’t have recourse to ordinary insurance benefits.
Act came into Middle English from the French acte (a thing done).
God is Old English from the Old High German Got (the invoked).