The term “act of God” has two different meanings: religious and legal. In the religious sense, an act of God is something which has been created or wrought by God, with a classic example being the tablet inscribed by God with the 10 Commandments. In a legal sense, an act of God is a natural event which could not have been predicted, controlled, or prevented, such as an earthquake which destroys a bridge. Even in secular societies, contracts often include an Act of God clause.
Various world religions have been discussing acts of God for centuries. Many societies historically believed that God or Gods played an intimate role in the lives of ordinary people, and that the activities of the deity were responsible for everything from pregnancy to catastrophic storms. Many cultures also developed beliefs about worshiping high powers to appease their wrath and plea for beneficial acts of God, such as a good harvest.
By the 13th century, discussions about acts of God were primarily confined to the Christian religion, with religious texts exploring the concept quite extensively. In the 19th century, the legal sense of the term began to appear, initially in contracts which included a clause addressing “acts of God” as a way of covering all bases in the event that a freak accident or random event occurred.
Today, the concept of an act of God is included in the legal language of many contracts. Insurance policies, loans, and other legal contracts often include a discussion of whether or not acts of God are covered, and acts of God are also addressed in courtrooms. For example, when the residents of a home sue the owner because of damage inflicted during a natural disaster, the owner may not be deemed liable if he or she can prove that the damage was caused by circumstances which could not have been controlled, such as floodwaters which filled the home.
An act of God may be a wildfire caused by lighting, a flood, an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a similar cataclysmic event. In order for something to be deemed an act of God, proof must be provided that nothing could have been done to mitigate or alter it. If a wildfire burns a house down, for example, that might be an act of God, but the owner of the home might also be brought up on negligence charges if he or she failed to comply with fire safety laws.