Struck by Lightning

Did You Know…?

  • …that a streak of lightning (a lightning channel) is only 1/2 to 1 inch thick when it short-circuits to the ground?
  • …that the length of a cloud-to-ground lightning channel may be as much as 10 miles long?
  • …that the Empire State building, a favorite attraction for lightning, is struck on average 8 times per year?
  • …that the Kennedy space center in Florida is in the hottest State in the US for lightning?
  • …that lightning travels at 100,000 miles per second?
  • …that dust and gases from erupting volcanoes can cause lightning?
  • …that one lightning stroke can have enough energy to lift 2000 pounds 62 miles high?
  • …that lightning can strike as many as 40 times in the same channel?
  • …that the temperature of a lightning channel is about 50,000° F.?
  • …that a commercial jet plane is hit with lightning on average of once per year?
  • …that an electrical spark, such as lightning, across a non-conductive material will likely cause it to be conductive?
  • …that the deadliest known lightning strike killed 81 people when a Boeing 707 was struck, resulting in a crash near Elkton, Maryland, on December 8, 1963?

Struck By Lightning

Walk across the floor on a wintry day, dragging your feet on the carpet as you go. Now reach out and touch a doorknob. You have just experienced lightning in miniature.

Did you know that God is responsible for the laws that caused that miniature lightning strike? God alone is responsible for the laws which govern our lives, and the whole universe of which we are a part. It is by these laws of nature that He demonstrates His power. The Psalmist said, “The clouds poured down their rain. The sky thundered. Your lightning flashed back and forth like arrows” (Ps. 77:17 NCV). Lightning and words of like meaning occur more than 30 times in the Bible.

Lightning is only one small way in which we see the power of God at work through His laws. And that power is as many times beyond ours as the awesome lightning strike is beyond that little miniature strike you just experienced. And far more. He is all-powerful. “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power,…and in thine hand is power and might” (1 Chron. 29:11-12). Understanding a little about the power of lightning may deepen our appreciation for the handiwork of our Great Creator.

Sounds in the Sky

When there is either cloud-to-cloud lightning or cloud-to-ground lightning at a great distance, you hear a soft rumble. But when lightning strikes just outside, the sound is deafening.

Why are there different types of sound, some like an explosion, others like crackling or hissing? A bolt of lightning has spikes and streamers coming off the main channel in different directions, something like the branches of a tree. When a strike occurs only a hundred yards or so away, you first hear a crackling sound. These are the branches off the channel nearest you. Next you hear a loud explosion as the channel bursts through the air at 100,000 miles per second! Then you hear another crash as it rebounds so quickly it seems the two strokes are only one. This is called a return stroke. The lightning, with its many branches, may extend up and away for several miles. Since sound travels at about 1/5 mile per second, you may hear rumbling from these distant branches for several seconds after the strike has occurred. Hear how the author of Job describes it: “He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven and sends it to the ends of the earth. After that comes the sound of his roar; he thunders with his majestic voice. When his voice resounds, he holds nothing back. God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding” (Job 37:3-5 NIV).

Of course, thunder is not literally the voice of God but a demonstration of power for which He is responsible. Nor does He order every strike or direct it through the sky. He set laws in motion, and everything happens according to these laws. At the same time He can use these laws to carry out His will. The Bible has several examples where He used the laws governing weather to bring about His purpose.*

You can learn about strikes by understanding a little about the sounds of lightning. The above example is what you hear if the strike is near. What does a strike sound like if it is five miles away, for example, and if the cloud from which it originated is perhaps one mile up and directly overhead? After about five seconds you hear a rumble overhead, then after another 25 seconds you hear a loud boom when the return stroke meets the channel from the cloud. If the cloud was closer to the ground you might even hear some crackling noise, then a rumble, and finally the loud strike. It seems that Job had this last example in mind when he described it in Job 37.

The Anatomy of a Lightning Strike

Every object, from the earth itself to the smallest particle, even the air we breathe, contains positive and negative charges. The smallest of these particles we call atoms. Each atom consists of a positively charged nucleus with negatively charged electrons revolving around the center. For every positive charge in the nucleus there is an equal number of negative electrons. When an electron is removed the atom becomes positively charged because it has less electrons. (Did this intricate, finely balanced system come about by chance?)

Generally, the top of a cloud becomes positively charged as the electrons are stripped away from ice crystals or water droplets by wind currents, falling hail, or a rapid change in rising air temperature (no one knows for sure). As the top becomes positively charged, the electrons move into the lower clouds, which then become negatively charged. How this occurs so rapidly is not understood. But when the potential difference2 between cloud-to-cloud, or cloud-to-ground, or even cloud to clear-blue-sky, becomes great enough, sparks fly which we call lightning, as the negative and positive charges seek to equalize again.

The almost soothing rumble you hear and perhaps think is lightning miles away may, in fact, be cloud-to-cloud lightning directly overhead. Chances are, you will not see it but will see the clouds glow with each flash.

Six types of strikes have been identified: cloud-to-cloud, negative cloud-to-air, negative cloud-to-ground, positive cloud-to-ground, negative ground-to-cloud, and positive ground-to-cloud.

Some scientists believe that areas receiving a large amount of rain are greater producers of lightning. But this is not necessarily true. As a matter of fact, lightning sometimes can seem to come from nowhere, and yet be very destructive. (Isn’t this also characteristic of God’s power?)

Thunderclouds are not the only source of lightning. It can come from other types of clouds, as well as snowstorms, dust storms, and, on occasion, from the dust and gases of erupting volcanoes—even from a doorknob.

As the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also will [the coming of] the Son of Man will be in His day. —Luke 17:24

When Lightning Strikes

Lightning can do strange things. While plowing one dry, hot, near cloudless afternoon, I looked up and saw a very tiny cloud, hardly big enough to cast a shadow. No one would have given it a second thought. Yet, only minutes later, there was a bright flash and a loud blast as that tiny cloud unleashed its awesome power. Within minutes, our neighbor’s house was a blazing inferno. The barn also was hit.

There is a saying that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Don’t believe it. It usually strikes at least two times in the same channel.

A cloud-to-ground strike begins when a pulsating channel called a stepped leader starts its journey to earth. The positive charges of the earth are pulled upward (a return stroke) by magnetic attraction (unlike charges attract each other). A flash (lightning) occurs where two opposite charges meet, usually between 165 and 330 feet up. At that point the stroke is short circuited to the ground with about 20,000 amps and as much as 1 billion volts. It has been calculated that one stroke has about 250 kilowatt-hours—enough energy to lift 2000 pounds 62 miles high. A few strokes, very common in what appears as one strike, have enough power to launch your car into outer space!

The entire process of a lightning strike is very fast. It takes only about 20 thousandths of a second for the leader from the cloud to reach the ground (or junction point), and only about 70 millionths of a second for the return stroke to reach the cloud.

What makes thunder? It is thought that the channel, about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter when it reaches earth, has a temperature of about 50,000° F. As the surrounding air is heated it expands at supersonic speed, creating a shockwave which rapidly decays into a sound wave within about 3 to 6 feet.

Have you ever seen lightning appear to flicker? The flicker is actually a series of power filled strikes—as many as 40 in a couple of seconds. (Who but God can display such power!) It seems incredible that strikes can occur so rapidly (each strike requires a recharge, and scientists cannot understand how a recharge can happen so quickly)—it is only one more reason to bow in awe before our great Creator!

Why does lightning traverse the same path, turn after turn? The heat from the lightning channel ionizes (gives an electric charge to) the air through which it travels, and the ionized air is a better conductor than the surrounding air. Also, hot air can contain more moisture than the cold air surrounding, making it a better conductor of electricity.

There can also be more than one return stroke from a single lightning strike. For example, a strike may hit a tree hundreds of feet away from a power line or antenna. Return strokes may spark into the air from each of these objects, or even from the ground. Says Dan Lanken, writing for the Canadian Geographic, “In all, it’s the wildest son et lumiere (sound and light) show on earth.”

The Dangers of Lightning

Cloud-to-cloud lightning is a constant danger to aircraft. On an average, one commercial jet plane is hit every year. Special design protects the delicate electrical circuitry, fuel lines and tanks. Shielding diverts the lightning around them, and, as a result, only minor damage is sustained at the points where the lightning strike enters and exits the aircraft. Other planes constructed of plastics are particularly vulnerable. Lightning can burn holes through the outer surface and damage other components which could result in a crash.

How dangerous is lightning to people on the ground? It is estimated that for every 600,000 strikes, one person is struck. Ground-strikes hit from 500 to 1,000 people in the U.S. each year. Can one survive a lightning strike which can have as much as 1 billion volts at a temperature of 50,000° F? Make no mistake about it; lightning can kill and cause serious injury. But actually, about 70% survive. How is this possible? Because 1) a lightning strike lasts only a fraction of a second and 2) it often travels around the body. It seems that lightning is a flow of energy pulsating at a very high frequency-which could explain why it often travels around the body (high frequency currents, over a million volts, like those from a Tesla coil, will do this without harm).

Some of the most dangerous places one can be during a lightning storm are in an open grassy area like a golf course, in a lake, in a swimming pool, or under a tree. Lightning will strike any object that provides the shortest path to ground such as a tall tree, or a person standing in a large open area. Other areas to avoid are near metal pipes, appliances, electrical wiring, or a phone. It is also said that lightning can travel through a room. If you happen to be standing in its path, you will be struck.

First aid has saved many victims’ lives, and it is believed that more could have been saved had first aid been immediately available.

Cardiac arrest is the main cause of death from a lightning strike, but injuries vary. Some of the most common complaints are memory loss, confusion, irregular heartbeat and, of course, tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Serious burns, despite the tremendous temperature, are uncommon. The most common after effect, for the more fortunate, is a healthy fear of severe storms.

Without some type of device to divert a lightning strike to ground, it can enter your home through the electrical wiring. In rural areas of our country, a number of homes often used to be connected to one transformer that was perhaps hundreds of yards away. It could get pretty exciting if you happened to be in one of those homes when lightning struck. On such a long stretch of wire a bolt of lightning often found a path on which to travel into the homes. The first indication of a lightning strike in your home might be a loud noise, like an explosion, a flash of blinding light, and a receptacle cover popping off the wall. (All these things happen at once.) Only one such experience and you never forget it. When a bolt of lightning traveling along a wire comes to a sharp bend, it will sometimes jump off the wire at that point—and, yes, pop off your receptacle cover!

Strange as it may seem, it is possible to be struck with lightning from a storm that is perhaps 5 or 10 miles away if the potential difference** is great enough between the thunderstorm and the ground where you stand. One day while in the basement of my home, I kept hearing an arcing sound like an electrical spark. After turning off the lights and looking in the direction of the noise, I saw an electrical arc between a metal shield over the top of the concrete blocks and a metal plate that was about 1/4 inch above it. After watching the spark and listening very carefully I discovered what was causing it. Several seconds after each spark I could barely hear thunder several miles away. Each time there was an electrical discharge in the sky, there was a return stroke from the termite shield to the plate that formed part of the structure of my house—only this return stroke extended up 1/4 inch instead of 165 to 330 feet.

Can you lift your voice to the clouds…? Can you send out lightnings, that they may go, and say to you, “Here we are!”? —Job 38:34-35

Struck By Lightning

It is said that as a young law student Martin Luther was walking outside on a steamy July evening in 1505, when a lightning bolt hit so close it knocked him over. At that moment, seized with terror, he vowed to become a monk. He quit his legal studies and checked into a monastery. He later became one of the most well known leaders of the Great Reformation.

In the New Testament we learn of another young man, perhaps a little older than Luther, who had a life-changing experience even more dramatic. Having finished his studies in law, this zealous Jew was leading a wave of persecution against the Church. Saul (later known as Paul), “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Having obtained these letters, he was en route to Damascus to accomplish his ruthless mission when he was struck, as it were, with a bolt of lightning. This was no random strike but a personal meeting with Jesus Christ, the future King of all the earth. The splendor of this encounter was so bright, that Saul fell to the ground blinded (Acts 26:13-14).

Then Saul heard a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
“Who are you Lord?”, Saul replied.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

His life was changed from that moment forward. No longer would he be Saul the persecutor of the Christian Church but Paul, chosen by Jesus Christ as His Apostle to the Gentiles.

Had it not been for this “bolt of lightning” from the portals of heaven, Paul would only have been another persecutor. But Christ knew Paul’s heart. Paul believed he was doing God a great service by ridding the earth of the followers of this Jesus, but that most powerful bolt of lightning turned him 180 degrees, and he began almost immediately to promote the Cause he had formerly hated.

If you listen carefully, you can still hear the rumbling from that lightning bolt. And if you will let it, you can be struck, too. The power of it can set your heart ablaze with faith. Like Paul, you will fight a good fight against the carnal nature, routing every sin until you have put on the character likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 13: 13-14).

Have you been struck by this lightning? Are you, like the Apostle Paul, all out for Christ? It is the only way to eternal safety.

* For examples of times when God used the laws ofweather for His purposes, see Mark 4:27-40; 2 Sam. 5:23-25;1 Sam. 12:16-18; Judges 4:14-15; 1 Kings 18:41-46;1 Kings 19:11-12.

** “Potential difference” is an electrical termthat describes the difference in charge between two bodies, in this casethe earth and the cloud. One will be positively charged while the otheris negatively charged in relation to each other. When the differencebetween these two changes is significant, arcing (lightning) occurs.


  • Encyclopedia Britannica CD © 94-99
  • West Virginia Lightning
  • The Exploratorium
  • National Geographic (Lightning: Nature’s High-Voltage Spectacle) July 93
  • Canadian Geographic (Struck by Lightning), July/Aug 00, pg. 20F.