Harnessing the Lightning
Tesla’s 3,000-Year Backstory
University of California, Berkeley | Berkeley
Today I get to share with you the 3,000-year backstory to Tesla electric cars. But the story doesn’t start here in Silicon Valley. For that story we need to cross the country to America’s epicenter of innovation in the 1740s, to New England, and to the time of Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod, for an electrifying story filled with lightning and thunder.
The Lightning Rod Arrives
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, churches built steeples high into the sky. And within those steeples they installed bells. And on those bells was often inscribed some form of the Latin phrase fulgura frango — translated, “I break up the lightning flashes.” Church bells did many things, including suppressing thunderstorms. It became a common practice, beginning in the medieval age and extending into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during a major thunderstorm, for local bellringers to climb up into the church’s steeple and ring the church bells loudly. By doing so they could — perhaps, perhaps — ward off the divine wrath and the devilish invasion in the skies.
That was the theory. But that theory was plagued by two design fails. First, the bells were cast metal. And second, those cast metal bells hung in the steeple, usually the town’s high-point. So, you can imagine how well this worked out for bell ringers! In France and Belgium alone, over the span of just three decades, nearly 400 bell towers were hit by lightning. Many of them burned down, killing more than 100 bell ringers (Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries, 341). In a twist of irony, during thunderstorms, townspeople were encouraged to keep their distance from churches — while the town’s pubs and shadier establishments almost always escaped untouched from the divine displeasure in the tempest.
So bell ringers were not fans of steeples in thunderstorms. But one man loved them. Benjamin Franklin. For him, the steeple was the perfect focal point for his lightning experiments. Franklin came to understand that “storm clouds contained electrical charges, notwithstanding their heavy loads of water.” Even though electricity was a fire, he theorized, “it was a different kind of fire, one that could coexist with water.” So, he developed the concept of a lightning rod to protect structures from fire by drawing off the electrical charge from lightning.
By 1750, he was proving his theory. He made little miniature houses and put gunpowder in them. Then, he’d strike the little house with a spark from a battery, and the mini-house would explode. On a second little house he installed a replica lightning rod, a wire, then struck the house with another spark. The house didn’t explode.
Theological Alarm Bells
But even as the evidence became indisputable, Franklin’s invention raised theological alarm bells. One pastor in Boston proposed that if you diverted God’s wrath of lightning into the earth, it would simply supercharge future earthquakes (Benjamin Franklin, 173). In fact, a major earthquake hit New England soon after Franklin began diverting bolts into the ground, seemingly proving this fear to be true.
John Adams, a future president, summarized what he was hearing from leaders in New England, that the lightning rod was “an impious attempt to rob the Almighty of his thunder, to wrest the bolt of vengeance out of his hand” (Stealing God’s Thunder, 111).
Across the Atlantic Ocean, the French, who loved Franklin, more eagerly adopted his lightning rod. But even there, the French pastor and famous physicist, Jean-Antoine Nollet, who bought in 100% to the rod’s effectiveness, refused to adopt it, saying the rod was, quote, “as impious to ward off heaven’s lightnings as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father” (Stealing God’s Thunder, 96).
To his dismay, Benjamin Franklin found himself locked inside a theology debate. “The more scientists knew about the workings of lightning and electricity, the less mysterious those phenomena appeared. The more one could control lightning’s fury, the less vulnerable the world seemed before God’s wrath” (Benjamin Franklin, 176). Franklin, it seemed, was stealing God’s thunder.
His lightning rods sparked a debate that split the eighteenth century. Is a lightning rod on a church steeple an act of faith? Or an act of God-thwarting unbelief? That’s the debate I want to settle today. Because if we can answer this, I think we will get clarity on electric cars and resolve one key tension Christians face here inside Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the most highly advanced technological society the world has ever known. And to understand our latest tech, we turn to an old book: the book of Job.
Where Is God in the Thunderstorm?
Job is an ancient book, perhaps the oldest book in the Bible. It’s about the sufferings of a man named Job — a kingly figure, a wealthy man, perhaps a local ruler. Then his life was upended, partly due to a major storm brought by Satan and permitted by God.
In Job we find the longest and most vivid sermon in the Bible on thunderstorms, from a young man named Elihu, the youngest of Job’s friends. Because he’s one of Job’s friends, we can put an asterisk on everything he says, though he seems especially trustworthy. But Elihu is not an infallible prophet. He’s not a professional theologian. He’s just a relatively trustworthy guy who affirms God’s sovereignty as he tries to figure out how weather patterns work. Elihu is a forerunner to Ben Franklin.
“Elihu is a forerunner to Ben Franklin.”
And so thunderstorms are a major theme in the book of Job. At the start, Job had 7,000 sheep and “very many servants,” but then a lightning storm hit, “the fire of God fell from heaven,” and it “burned up” his 7,000 sheep and “consumed” his many servants (Job 1:3, 16). So a storm of huge magnitude shatters Job’s life at the start of the book. And now we jump into the story at the end of the book. A second storm is brewing.
God’s Greatness from Afar
God will soon speak from this second thunderstorm, beginning in chapter 38. But in chapters 36 and 37 this thunderstorm is still gathering in the background. So imagine Elihu, the final human voice in Job, in the last speech of the book, setting up God’s dramatic entrance. That’s our scene. So, we find Elihu preaching on lightning as a thunderstorm brews behind him. Distant thunder is growling, the winds are picking up, the sun is shrouded, and lightning marches closer to Job. The storm is brewing. And God will speak from this storm, directly to Job. So this is the dramatic context of Elihu’s sermon we will study now in Job 36:24 and following.
In this thunderstorm we marvel at God, exult over his power, and witness his direct actions in creation. We pick up Elihu’s sermon here, as he speaks to his friend Job in Job 36:24–26:
“Remember to extol his work [thunderstorms],
of which men have sung.
All mankind has looked on it;
man beholds it from afar.
Behold, God is great, and we know him not;
the number of his years is unsearchable.”
So we meet the theme of this text: storms and God. God is eternal Spirit, wholly other than us. Ancient. Wise. A mystery beyond our understanding. But storms and natural laws are different. We can learn from them — within limits, Elihu says. The natural world is hard to understand, not because it cannot be known, but because it’s all happening from “afar” — far away, far up in the sky. Elihu wants to investigate God’s works in nature, but he can only see nature from a distance. We can understand the natural world today because we can zoom in closer. Weather balloons, drones, satellites, telescopes, microscopes — proximity is our scientific advantage. We can get close to storms. Elihu has none of these advantages.
God Is Invisible, Yet Present
And yet, this distance doesn’t stop Elihu from investigating God’s work over nature.
For he draws up the drops of water;
they distill his mist in rain,
which the skies pour down
and drop on mankind abundantly. (Job 36:27–28)
This is amazing! Elihu delivers a “proto-scientific description of the formation of rain”(Job 21–37, 869). It’s primitive, but he’s on to atmospheric water cycles. He does not understand evaporation as we now understand it, but he’s pressing into a natural phenomenon with the scientific curiosity that will eventually lead to the discovery of evaporation — a law set in place by the Creator. So he’s inquiring into the atmospheric phenomena at play.
And as Elihu works to figure out storms, notice that he clings to two truths: God is invisible, but majestically present in his creation. That’s what I want you to see all over this text. We can’t see God; but we can see his acts.
So Elihu investigates nature, far off and full of mystery. But he knows this much: Every lightning strike is fired directly by God and is aimed at a specific target. That’s what we see next.
Present in Every Lightning Bolt
Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,
the thunderings of his pavilion? [There’s natural mystery here.]
Behold, he scatters his lightning about him [where lightning bolts are, there God is]
and covers the roots of the sea. [More literally, he uncovers the roots of the sea — a lightning strike hits the sea and illuminates that underworld for a flash of a moment.]
For by these [bolts] he judges peoples;
[and] he gives food in abundance. (Job 36:29–31)
So Elihu doesn’t fully understand the weather patterns. But he knows enough to see that rain gives food to all creatures — and that blessing is connected to lightning, and that lightning is connected to God. So on one hand, yes, the lightning expresses God’s displeasure. But lightning also expresses God’s love. Lightning judges. Lightning feeds. Lightning is complex, as we will see in a moment. But in every bolt, God is present, according to this incredible statement:
He [God] covers his hands with the lightning
and commands it to strike the mark. (Job 36:32)
God’s hands are charged with crackling lightning. You can’t help but think of Zeus and his thunderbolt — the most powerful, unrivaled weapon feared among all the pagan gods. Or the storm gods of Elihu’s age, who held lightning bolts in their hands (Job, 358). Those fictional characters are one-dimensional. But the living God of the universe truly holds thunderbolts in his hands. And not only does he hold them, he shoots them. And not only does he shoot them, he aims them. And not only does he aim them, this forked, zigzagging fire from heaven nails its bullseye every single time (The Book of Job, 480).
God never misses. And this is what led to the utter confusion of Bible-believing Christians in New England. The town bar is never tasered. But the church bells are bullseyes. What gives?
God Speaks Through Lightning
Whatever else lightning is, it’s never less than the presence of God shown to us in the natural world. God is here. He is speaking.
Its crashing declares his presence;
the cattle also declare that he rises.
At this also my heart trembles
and leaps out of its place. (Job 36:33–37:1)
Thunder from the skies triggers a thunder inside Elihu’s chest. It does for us, too, right? This past summer we were driving home late in the desert, watching cloud-to-cloud strikes of a huge thunderstorm west of Phoenix — 20-mile-long bolts of lightning flashing like silent strobe lights across the black sky. And my son said, “Every time I see that, something inside of me moves.” Yes! Same for Elihu. Lightning sets off an internal thunder inside us.
Keep listening to the thunder of his voice
and the rumbling that comes from his mouth [that deep growl you hear in the distant storm as it marches close].
[Until] Under the whole heaven he [God] lets it go,
and his lightning to the corners of the earth. (Job 37:2–3)
Ever felt that? Lightning hitting in every direction around you? North, south, east, west. And when a bolt flashes and hits especially close — what do we do? We count. One one-thousand, two one-thousand . . . boom!
After it [after the bolt] his voice roars;
he thunders with his majestic voice,
and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend. (Job 37:4–5)
“Whatever else lightning is, it’s never less than the presence of God shown to us in the natural world.”
Again, Elihu is not saying that we cannot understand nature. He’s saying that we cannot fully understand God’s purposes in nature. And we certainly cannot stop God’s fire from the sky. We sense our powerlessness (The Book of Job, 480). And yet every peal of thunder is the voice of God speaking.
God’s Purposes in the Storm
Back to Job, who is suffering in dust and ashes. Job’s “bitter” complaint was that God had left him in the dark and disappeared (Job 23:1–9). But Elihu corrects Job. God didn’t abandon Job. He is no absentee Creator. God is here. God’s closeness echoes in the skies in every peal of thunder — a point made in all four seasons.
For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’
likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.
He seals up the hand of every man,
that all men whom he made may know it.
Then the beasts go into their lairs,
and remain in their dens. (Job 37:6–8)
By inclement weather, God seals the hand of every man. With his storms, he zip-ties our hands and places us under house arrest. Or as the NIV says: “he stops all people from their labor.” Blizzards and monsoons shut people inside their homes and beasts inside their caves.
Guiding Creatures Where He Wants Them
So God commands dumps of snow and torrents of rain. Why? Because he is positioning (and repositioning) each of his creatures as on a chessboard. In all four seasons, God uses his creation to guide the work of man. Major weather disruptions are one of God’s means to guide his creatures to where he wants them (The Book of Job, 480–481).
Delayed flights. Cancelled meetings. Viruses. If God chose to keep us all shut inside in 2020, it was no hard thing for him to pull off. God governs the business of his creatures through his created order — and very often through weather patterns. He governs our travels through snow, ice, lightning storms, power outages, flooding — you name it. All the seasons are included here. But winter especially.
From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast. (Job 37:9–10)
Showing His Presence and Control
And then of course, again, God wields lightning.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning. (Job 37:11)
Again, we’ve seen this. Elihu is on to evaporation. Water goes up, makes clouds thicken, and then lightning strikes, and that same water pours back down (Job 36:27–28). Elihu gets that. The NIV translates this verse, God “loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them.” So God shoots lightning from his hands. And he shoots them through an atmospheric channel (Job 38:26). Elihu is doing something remarkable here by making two points at the same time. (1) The unseen God is here. (2) His presence is mediated in the natural laws that govern the skies. He’s here. He’s in charge. And he’s leading storms like a leashed dog.
They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world. (Job 37:12)
Bolts of Correction, Blessing, and Love
God harnesses the storm — leads it, directs it, so that every lightning bolt fulfills his will for creation. So what is his will? Three things, in verse 13.
Whether for correction
or for his land
or for love [ḥesed],
he causes it to happen. (Job 37:13)
So beyond God’s repositioning of his creatures, lightning fulfills his will in three other ways.
One, he uses bolts to chasten and correct sinners.
Two, he shoots bolts to rain down blessings on the thirsty land to feed all his creatures, including us.
“Lightning expresses God’s ‘hesed’ — his loyal love.”
Three, he sends bolts “for love.” Lightning expresses God’s ḥesed — his loyal love. Undying covenant love. So, if you can only imagine God and lightning in a one-dimensional context — like Zeus, some angry god firing off a pistol of lightning to whomever aggravates him — you’ll miss the love of God.
None of this means that it’s easy to interpret what each storm means, says Elihu. We know that God sends the storms. But we don’t know exactly why. And trying to figure out God’s intent in providence is a dangerous task. God’s will is complex. So Elihu is throwing serious side-eye to Job’s older friends who tried to draw definite conclusions from Job’s misfortunes.
Realigning Human Attitudes
Now, finally, as the storm builds up to God’s speech, Elihu makes eye contact with his suffering friend Job.
Hear this, O Job;
stop and consider the wondrous works of God.
Do you know how God lays his command upon them
and causes the lightning of his cloud to shine? (Job 37:14–15)
Job desperately needs to realign his attitude. But what can change Job’s attitude in suffering? Consider the wonders of God in the natural world. Here’s a preview of what God is about to unleash in Job 38–42. He will speak to Job from a storm to remind Job of wonder after wonder after wonder in creation.
Traveling from Job to Tesla
But we end Job’s story here. Elihu is trying to understand lightning. He’s an observant man of faith. He trusts God. He marvels at the patterns in the atmosphere. He’s the Bible’s Ben Franklin, but with better theology. And he’s asking his friend Job, “Job, do you know how lightning works? Do you know about the electricity in the clouds, like batteries that hold a charge until it’s time to fire a bolt? Can you explain how water and fire coexist in the sky? No.”
For Job these are great mysteries. But for us? Not anymore. We understand how a lot of it works. And that’s where the tension with science arises. And so we need to move from Elihu to Ben Franklin to Nichola Tesla and down to the Tesla Model X and to the brand new F-150 EV truck, fittingly called the “Lightning.” Let me do that with six brief takeaways.
1. God fires every lightning bolt. He never misses.
God shoots lightning from his hands to a bullseye every time. Elihu makes this clear, and his words are confirmed by other Old Testament texts — namely Psalm 135 and Jeremiah 10. For some, this is news to you — a missing piece of your theology. God is present in lightning bolts. That’s not pagan superstition. That’s biblical orthodoxy.
2. God fires every lightning bolt through atmospheric channels. He ordains the means.
God shoots lightning from his hands to a bullseye every time, but this sovereign marvel does not stop Elihu’s curiosity. He still searches for the atmospheric means God uses in thunderstorms. Providence drives him into natural science, not away from it. Elihu is both trying to unriddle the mystery of God’s providence in the storm, and he’s trying to unriddle the atmospheric mechanics of a storm. And he’s doing both at the same time.
You can pursue science and believe in God without contradiction. So Elihu is simultaneously seeking to decipher the voice of God and atmospheric physics; the invisible world and the visible world; the spirit realm and the physical realm; the laws of providence and the laws of nature. He’s modeling faith-filled science, because these two worlds work in tandem.
3. God governs every natural law. We ignore them to our peril.
God governs his creation “by certain fixed laws.” Do those laws bend “and make allowance for” our mistakes? No, says the nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon: “Every violation of them is avenged,” Spurgeon says of the laws of lightning, offering this grisly example.
“The simple countryman, in his ignorance of the laws of electricity, is overtaken by a pelting storm, and to escape from the drenching rain he runs beneath some lofty tree to screen himself beneath its spreading branches. It is a law of nature that elevated points should attract the lightning: the man does not know this, he does not intend to defy his Maker’s natural law, but for all that, when the death-dealing fluid splits the tree it leaves a senseless corpse. The law does not suspend its operations though that man may be the husband upon whose life the bread of many children may depend, though he may have been one of the most guileless and prayerful of mankind, though he may have been utterly unconscious of having exposed himself to the force of a physical law of God, yet still he dies, for he has placed himself in the way of a settled law of nature, and it takes its course.”
The natural law is fixed. Be dumb with lightning and it will cost you — perhaps your life (MTPS, 22:13–15). Don’t be dumb with the fixed natural laws. That’s dangerous and deadly. Fear nature. Fear God.
4. Fear drives our inventors.
Necessity is the mother of invention. And so is fear. One way God ignites science and innovation is through fear. He uses all sorts of human desires to motivate our discoveries of creation, but fear is a biggie. Our fear drives us to understand, and understanding leads to discovery. So why do we understand electricity today? Because humans faced the sheer power of lightning, and were motivated to engineer. Fear drives man into God’s created patterns. And that fear is how you end up with the lightning rod.
5. Lightning rod strikes obey God.
So if God commands each bolt, it would be an act of unbelief to divert that bolt with a lightning rod, right? That’s the question we are back to.
And the answer is, no. Actually, God teaches us to make lightning rods. To divert the lightning is not an act of unbelief — but one that can be made in faith. This is because, as theologian Abraham Kuyper writes,
“When God accumulates electricity in the clouds and the possibility increases of a lightning strike that might endanger the lives of a family or their property, we are not only permitted but obligated to apply every means available to avert or at least mitigate this danger. It is none other than God himself who has included within nature this means to divert the lightning.… And when a dangerous bolt of lightning travels down along the metal rod and terminates in the ground, it is God himself who guides the lightning along that rod and who smothers the enormous spark in the earth. Humankind does not do this, and Satan does not do this; it is God. And whoever honors God’s majesty in the lightning that flashes, yet does not honor the majesty with which God draws this flashing lightning to the rod, grounding and guiding it away, takes from God half the honor due him” (Common Grace, 2:596)
Realize this: No bolt travels harmlessly down a lightning rod unless God directs it that way, through the innovation of man. When the bolt travels down the rod, God guides it there. This is the key theological point missing from 1750 New England, and for many Christians today — who fear that human innovation strongarms God, or makes him look weaker. No. That’s a myth. New tech never bullies our sovereign God. It reveals more of him, his patterns in creation, and his generosity to us. Leading to point 6.
6. No one sees God’s love in lightning like we do.
Once Ben Franklin proved decisively with a kite that clouds hold an electric charge, like a huge battery in the sky, he opened a floodgate of new human innovation. We could make battery farms. We could envision man-made lightning bolts to power cities. And “the power we now recognize in electricity God had already hidden in nature from the very hour of paradise.” The electrified age was hidden by God in the lightning bolt from the beginning of time. “In due time,” innovators were ordained to discover electricity, and to electrify cities and industries, although in doing so we “actually added nothing new to creation as such” (Pro Rege, 3:34).
The power was there all along. And if we had failed to harness electricity, we would have deprived God of the honor due to him. Electricity was hidden for millennia in the lightning bolt, a harnessed power that changed the world forever. In electricity we give God glory for lightning in ways that lightning alone cannot accomplish. Human innovation, the harnessing of this creation, magnifies the Creator’s brilliance more than a simple lightning storm. That’s the highest value and purpose possible for human tech — to disclose more of the Creator’s brilliance.
So Ben Franklin didn’t steal God’s thunder. No. He discovered lightning — diverted it — and introduced the world to electricity at the scale of what could eventually power cities. Electricity was not invented by Ben Franklin. Nor did it originate by inventors with the last names of Watts, Ampere, Volta, Faraday, Ohm, or Tesla. No. These innovators were raised up by God, at the right time, to discover and to divert and to harness what was hidden in plain sight from the beginning of creation. God was hiding electricity all along in lightning. Electricity was hidden in the bolt, awaiting discovery. And once we did, the age of electrification began — a watershed moment in human history — the electrified age — and it added nothing new to God’s creation! It was there all along. God used the fear of lightning to drive us to discover what now powers this room.
The natural lightning bolt that tears through the sky, and the artificial lightning bolt in the power plant that causes our lights to work right now, are equally from God. Yes, he uses means. Yes, he uses clouds. Yes, he uses power plants. But if Elihu were here today, he would say: Behold the love of God in the lightning bolt coursing through the wires of Silicon Valley, a power hidden in creation from day one in the lightning bolt. So why does your smartphone have power right now? The loyal love of God — his ḥesed.
God Over Lightning and Electricity
Let me attempt to summarize it all — and it’s a lot. Human fear of God in lightning drives us to discover the love of God in electricity. Elihu had no idea how much of God’s love to us was charged into the lightning bolt. He could never have predicted God’s love to thousands of COVID sufferers whose lives would be saved by ventilators. He could not have imagined God’s love in millions of heart defibrillators and pacemakers. Or in lights, air conditioning, dishwashers, computers, smartphones, televisions, electric cars—all the electrified things we take for granted every single day. All of them originated in the first cause of the electrified age—in the lightning bolt.
Elihu could never have imagined that the electricity hidden in lightning is animation, a life force, an invisible force coursing through wires to power farms, cities, homes, tools, industries. And now it’s nearly impossible for us to imagine life on this planet without electricity. Most of our jobs and hobbies and ministries are only possible because of it.
So, the challenge for us is this: Don’t ignore the God of the lightning bolt. Don’t take electricity from creation without giving your awe to the Creator who created every bolt of energy. Don’t hear the voice of God in lightning and then grow deaf to his glory and his love to us in the electricity powering our lives every day. As we see in Elihu himself, the utter transcendence and all-sufficiency of God does not stop us from investigating natural causes. It pushes us into the science of understanding how the means work. So we study physics and quantum physics. We study atmospheric phenomena, we harness those powers, then we use them to disclose the glory of God.
So don’t be dumb with electricity. Don’t stand under a tree in a lightning storm. And don’t use electricity to ignore the God who patterned electricity and who gave you this gift from his kindness. Put lightning rods on your steeples. Redirect the lightning. Harness its power. Make electric cars. And use every watt of power to do what lightning has always intended to do: to showcase the majesty and uniqueness and beauty of the Creator, who loves us lavishly with good gifts.