Robbie v. City of Miami
469 So.2d 1384 (Fla. 1985)

Because of a National Football League players strike in 1982, the Miami Dolphins (owned by Joe Robbie) did not play all its scheduled games at the Orange Bowl, owned by the city of Miami. Thus the city did not receive its contracted user fee for those games, and it sued. On the way to trial, the franchise and Miami reached an agreement—that an extra home game would be tacked on to both the 1985 and 1986 seasons, with $30,000 in rent due for each of the additional games. The team wanted a rider saying that they were not obliged to pay should these two games be cancelled due to an “act of God.” Miami rejected this escape clause, and the courts had to sort things out.

Back in 1997, Mike Huckabee, then governor of Arkansas, objected to the wording of a bill designed to bar insurance companies from cancelling coverage on the basis of claims filed for storm damage. He didn’t appreciate their construing ”a destructive and deadly force” as “an act of God.”  Though the expression was common in the insurance industry, Huckabee countered, ”I feel that I have indeed witnessed many ‘acts of God,’ but I see his actions in the miraculous sparing of life, the sacrifice and selfless spirit in which so many responded to the pain of others.” He suggested, instead, that they substitute the expression, ‘natural disasters.’ In the end, the legislators simply added his wording as option.

The expression, ‘act of God,’ was meant to capture something not foreseeable or controllable, for which men were not accountable. For instance, you wouldn’t use the phrase to describe a fatal accident where the driver was drunk and speeding in a rain storm. Still, it does seem a bit unfair to give the Creator credit for tsunamis but none for an unseasonably heavy snow storm that saved the ski industry in Vermont. I suppose we reserve the term ‘miracle’ for the good developments (thereby, giving God credit), using ‘act of God’ for the bad ones, where financial settlements are in play. Besides, we don’t sell insurance to East Coast municipalities to cover their business losses if the snows are so good in Vermont that New Yorkers and Bostonians take their discretionary dollars to the slopes.

Be that as it may, we still have the question of God’s sovereignty. Is he, in fact, responsible for all that happens and fails to happen on earth? Did he cause the 100 mph winds that cancelled the NFL game? Or did he at least have the power to stop them, yet didn’t? If either of these is the case, how might we still call him a good God, what with all the destruction? After all, don’t we say he’s all powerful and all-good? Skeptics push this question rhetorically as a challenge to Christian orthodoxy, asking, “How can you presume to hold on to your notion of an omnipotent/omnibenevolent god when there is so much evidence to the contrary, so much pointless suffering?” The quandary is called the Problem of Evil.

A variety of answers have been put forth. A popular one came from the pen of Rabbi Harold Kushner in his 1981 book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, written in the wake of his teenaged son’s death. Kushiner’s simply tossed aside God’s omnipotence, saying the Lord was doing the best he could, and, so, we’re fellow soldiers with our Creator in the struggle against the darkness. It made quite a splash, comforting some, but most believers in Yahweh, both Christian and Jewish, found it lacking, and not surprisingly so.

Among the more typical responses (some overlapping others) are the free will defense, which lays blame at the feet of man, whom God has endowed with the ability to choose wrongly and to harm others (though natural disasters are harder to accommodate on this model, even though a man can be faulted for building his house in a flood plain or “tornado alley”); the soul making theodicy, which defends the moral rectitude/justice of God (theos + dikaios) by arguing that it takes trials and dangers to develop such virtues as faith, patience, prudence, and courage; the downgrading evil strategy, which either describes evil as the absence or diminution of God’s good work (Augustine) or as an illusion (Christian Science’s Mary Baker Eddy); the focus on God’s own suffering, as in Christ’s torture on the cross, thereby deflating our justification for holding him responsible for aloofness as we endure dire straits; universalism, which argues that all will be saved unto eternal glory and blessedness, and that present sufferings are relatively trivial;  the charge of self-contradiction, in that the critic obviously approves of his own life, which is the result of many tragedies, such as the death of his grandmother’s sweetheart in WWI, putting his grandfather at the head of her courtship line); the best of all possible worlds approach, which “bites the bullet,” arguing that if anything were different, the universe would be less wonderful than it is; the way of divine-will metaethics asserting that whatever God does is morally right, by definition, since he simply is the standard for such judgments.

Of course, one might construct a God-excusing scenario for this or that catastrophe. For instance, what if the Lord knew that terrorists were prepared to detonate a nuclear device at the Orange Bowl, killing 10,000 outright and consigning another 10,000 to lingering, often-fatal illness from severe burns and radiation poisoning? Might we then let God off the hook for sending a great storm their way, with the loss of fewer than a hundred lives and a few million dollars in damage? We may never know what he did for us in that case, but we either trust him or we don’t to get it right. It’s a faith thing. After all, it can be as hard to prove that there was no reason as that there was some reason.

The atheist’s onslaught has been fierce, most notably in the person of David Hume, whose eighteenth-century Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion said the evidence against God’s innocence was compelling. Two centuries later, John Wisdom mocked believers through a parable about an imaginary gardener, implying that Christians were immune to counter-evidence and thus were not intellectually respectable on this matter. (Actually, I can think of several things that could falsify our goodness-of-God claim, including an eschatological shock where we found that faith in Christ had no effect upon a slide into hell. I’m persuaded this won’t happen, but if it did, I would be prepared to say the goodness of God was a fraud.)

Another critic, William Rowe constructed the case of a fawn trapped in a forest fire, one who endures several days of horrible suffering to die. He then asks how that incident could make the universe a better place, and, on the other hand, what would be lost if God intervened to free the fawn to outrun the fire. For you see, if there is even a single case of indifference or inaction on his part when he could have staved off torture, then he is not morally perfect.

Of course, this raises the question of what sort of world the skeptic is prescribing. One in which natural laws are suspended and combustion stops in proximity to little animals? (Then perhaps California residents should tether fawns in their yards to neutralize wildfires.) One in which it’s better to have the fawn escape, only to spend an agonizing month later on dying from the effects of a brain parasite? Farfetched? Well, we just don’t know, and it’s not at all clear we could run things better. (One thinks of the movie Bruce Almighty, where Morgan Freeman as God turns his powers over to Jim Carrey as Bruce, with chaotic results.)

This is just scratching the surface, but it’s worthwhile to extend the challenge a bit. Hurricanes are one thing, but what about NLF labor strikes and management’s pushback? Regardless of who was in the right, was the work stoppage an act of God? And how about its resolution? Were these ultimately acts of men, or even of the devil, with men as his puppets?

Now we’ve gone deeper into theology, with questions about the sovereignty of God over the wills of men. Yes, they’re free in that they do what they please, but are they really free to please what they please? (Compatibilists work with this distinction.) Are they victims of greed, or are they greed in the flesh?

Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” What about the heart of Dolphins owner, Joe Robbie? of Miami mayor Maurice Ferré? of NFL Players Association executive director, Ed Garvey? In whose hands were their hearts?

That’s the way it goes with philosophy and theology. You start with football and contracts, and you soon find yourself in metaphysics (the study of ultimate reality).