Meaning An act of nature beyond human control such as a tsunami, hurricane or volcano eruption. An accepted term for such acts in legal and insurance circles. In some circles these natural events are thought of as an actual act of god, punishment for wrong-doing.
Origin The phrase, according to Gary Martin at ThePhraseFinder, “occurs in religious texts dating back to the 13th century, specifically referring to acts that God has undertaken. The ‘act of God’ referred to here is that which is used in legal and insurance circles when discussing any act which is outside human control and therefore not the responsibility of any individual or corporation. The term was first used in this way in the mid-19th century. Peter Simmonds’ Dictionary of Trade Products, 1858, uses the term:
Force-majeure, a French commercial term for unavoidable accidents in the transport of goods, from superior force, the act of God, etc.
In July 1803, The [London] Times included this legal ruling given in a court case by Lord Ellenborough, which is in terms that we are now familiar with from our own household insurance policies:
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.’”
Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, was the first candidate to suggest that last years devasting Hurricane Irene was “punishment from God.” Others said God directed Irene to New York because the State had just approved gay marriage. Of course, Vermont and Connecticut also got hit hard and they were not up to The Empire State’s “mischief” or God got careless.
The most infamous of these God acts to punish people was the controversial charge from Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson that God facilitated the 9/11 attacks as punishment for the decadence and moral decay of New York City.