Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the wrath of God...

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Note: Surrounding disasters such as Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and 9/11, there has been a vigorous debate over God's role in each tragedy; and more particularly, whether such tragedies should ever be seen as God's warning against sin? During this debate, Tony Campolo and others have been quick to deny that there was any particular lesson to be learned, other than the call to show compassion to those in need. In fact, Campolo's writing on the subject gave reason to wonder whether he'd not moved from theism to deism, and whether he no longer believed in an immanent or sovereign God?

Texts such as John 9:1-3 and Luke 13:1-5 have figured prominently in the debate, but the conclusions drawn from these texts have often done violence to their plain meaning. Here's a solid piece by Vern Poythress, a prof at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and fellow PCA elder, addressing these matters in a thoroughly biblical manner. I commend the essay to our good readers.

Incidentally, Christ the Word and Church of the Good Shepherd have both taken part in seeking the permission of Vern and John Frame to create a web site containing everything they've ever written. Since the site's creation, many works have been added and I am pleased to recommend this valuable resource to you. If you find this site valuable, please send an encouraging note to Rev. Andrew Dionne, the site's webmaster and constant gardener.

And of course, also encourage Vern and John. These men are rare treasures within the reformed church, and they take enough hits to need encouragment. For a sample of work John has done that I've found very helpful in building Church of the Good Shepherd, read this.

Do Modern People Have Room for the
Wrath of God?

by Vern Sheridan Poythress

Jan. 17, 2007

How do we think about disasters? On 9/11,
disaster struck in the form of plane hijackings, loss of lives, the
collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, and the damage to the Pentagon. A few years later, a tsunami struck in southern Asia. Hurricane
Katrina struck New Orleans. Some Christians thought that one
or more of these disasters were judgments from God. Let me
call them the doom-sayers. Other
Christians quickly rose and criticized the thought. Let me
call them the comforters. This
disagreement among Christians raises the question as to how we
will interpret the
next disaster that strikes.

I am writing as one who believes the Bible. The
Bible does indicate that God comprehensively controls the events in the
world, including disasters (Lam. 3:37-38; Eph. 1:11; Amos 3:6; Isa. 45:7).
That is not the question I wish to discuss. Rather,
I want to ask how we are supposed to interpret
these disasters.

The comforters, that is the Christians who criticize the idea of judgment, have pointed to several passages...

They have pointed out that in Job, Job's friends thought that the
disasters that fell on Job must have come on account of his sins.
Yet the ending of the Book of Job indicates that the friends
were wrong (Job 42:7-9). Jesus' disciples wanted to know
whether the man blind from birth had committed some sin that led to his
being born blind. Or was it the sin of his parents?
Jesus denied both suppositions (John 9:1-3). Some
people told Jesus "about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled
with their sacrifices." Jesus' answer is recorded in Luke

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all
the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you;
but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those
eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think
that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in
Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will
all likewise perish.

In the context of modern disasters, the comforters have appealed to
passages in order to make the
point that God's ways are inscrutible. In the Bible
God provides certain cases where he directly tells
us what his purposes were. For instance, 2 Chronicles 36:15-17
and 2 Kings
23:26-27 make it clear that the exile of Judah to Babylon took place
because of the people's sins. But unless we have such a
statement from God, we cannot see his purposes infallibly. We
must not pretend that we can. If we presume to draw quick conclusions,
we may find ourselves doing the same thing that Job's friends did.

I agree completely with the main theological point here, namely that
God is God and that we are not. His actions in his
providential rule are mysterious, and we need to realize that he may
have many purposes of which we are unaware.

But there is something peculiar about the way in which the comforters
have appealed to Luke 13:1-5. They
have appealed to it in order to turn aside the idea that God's judgment
was being manifested in the particular disaster at hand.
Whether they intended it or not, the practical effect of
their argument was largely to assure their audience that the disaster
was not after all a judgment, and that we can all be comforted and
spiritually put ourselves to rest, knowing that the whole
thing is just
unaccountable, but in any case has nothing to do with fears
concerning God and his judgments and his wrath.

The peculiarity here is that Jesus' words in Luke 13:1-5 actually point
in the
opposite direction. Jesus unsettles rather than comforts his
audience. According to customary thinking of the time, the
Galileans must have been terrible offenders to experience the
judgment that fell on them. So the audience think that they can comfort themselves that
least they
are not going to experience such a disaster. Jesus overthrows
customary thinking by saying that the Galileans were not
That is already unsettling. But then he adds an
ominous warning, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
And, to underline the point, he repeats it with a second
illustration concerning the eighteen people killed by the tower of
Siloam. Jesus uses both instances to heighten the threat of
judgment for his hearers. He accuses them of being guilty and
needing repentance, and counsels them that unless they turn to God they
will perish.

By contrast, in our modern situation the comforters appeal to
Luke 13:1-5 to dismiss judgment. Such use of Luke 13:1-5 is completely one-sided. If someone were to emphasize only the mystery of God's providence, to the point where nothing could be said about the present, then truly nothing could be said.

But in fact these comforters are not silent. They are loquacious enough in quoting Job and John 9 and Luke 13:1-5, and they are confident enough that these passages do have a lesson for the present. What lesson? A lesson only of comfort, and never of judgment. But there is plenty of evidence in Scripture that, if we are going to speak to the present at all—which we must do in order to spread the gospel—we need to be ready to speak of judgment and wrath as well as mercy and comfort. We are to do both types of speaking in a biblically-grounded manner. In particular, every disaster is a forerunner of the Last Judgment. It should be used as an occasion to reflect on the transitory character of this life (1 Cor. 7:31), on the fact that God gives us blessings that we do not deserve (Matt. 5:45), and that if we are rebels against him we ourselves deserve the worst of what the victims experienced.

So to speak only a message of comfort and to avoid thoughts of
judgment is
not only one-sided, but hypocritical. It commits the same error that it
to its opponents, namely that it presents an over-simple and unbalanced
view of how the Bible's principles apply to the present.

Why then do the comforters use Luke 13:1-5 only for comfort?
If we reflect with honesty, some of the reasons are clear
enough, but they are not comforting. Christians speak as they do partly
to counteract the effects of the doom-sayers whom they
criticize. In the context of modern American culture, the dooming-saying
brothers give Christianity a bad name. Non-Christians and
potential Christians can see their bad motives. They think they can see
that the
doom-sayers are angry and impatient at the people who do not agree with
them, and so in their bitterness the doom-sayers claim that God is on
their side. They want God to condemn their opponents or at least teach the opponents
a lesson. Or the doom-sayers are trying to scare people with
talk of judgment, wrath, and hell-fire, in the Elmer Gantry tradition,
in order to manipulate them, get them under their control, and get
their money.

Yes, such bad motives do occur, but they are not always
there among those who speak about judgment. And God's
wrath does not become unreal merely because some people's motives are bad (Rom. 1:18-32).

We must also turn our eyes
critically on the broader American
culture. The general culture has developed a strong tradition
of dismissing all language of judgment, and imputing bad motives to
anyone who dares to use such language. In other words, it has
developed excuses and spiritual barriers to avoid thinking about the
wrath of God. One of the primary barriers is in pop
psychology, which says that everyone needs to have high self esteem,
and that guilt feelings are to be avoided in order to increase self
esteem. People want to avoid thinking about the wrath of God,
because if they do they will feel guilty, and that is not only
unpleasant in itself, but bad for self esteem and mental health.
Accordingly, Christians are seen as a plague on society because they
keep bringing
up guilt and making people feel bad.

In addition, the politics of tolerance condemns as uncivil
anyone who proclaims a message of guilt (because it depreciates the
guilty), and
who proclaims an absolutist message, such as the message of coming
must be (Acts 17:31).

So the comforters who use Luke 13:1-5 to dismiss thoughts of judgment
are doing a service to mainstream culture. They are helping the
mainstream avoid thoughts of judgment and wrath. And they are
also doing a service to themselves, by assuring mainstream culture that
they, the thoughtful and sensitive Christians, are tolerant and
civil, not like those
other mean-spirited Christians. Only by befriending the mainstream
will they be able to make positive relationships grow, and at the far
end of those relationships they hope to witness to their non-Christian
friends concerning the attractiveness of Christ and of the Christian
faith. Attractive, yes. But it will be attractive
because it has conveniently dispensed with all that is offensive.
The real Jesus, by contrast, would be a total "turn-off" to
mainstream culture, not only because he speaks of hell-fire, but
he makes hard demands:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, "If
anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife
and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he
cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross
and come after me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:25-27)

In fact the gospel is two-sided,
containing attractions, promises, and benefits on the one hand
and offenses, warnings, and
serious obligations on the other. We cannot choose just the part that
we like.

I think we can draw several lessons from these reflections. First, we repeatedly confront the danger of compromising the Christian faith in an effort to match the cultural norms of tolerance and civility. Second, we are in danger of muting the note of judgment and wrath in the Christian message, because that note is not only unpopular but not tolerated. Third, biblical Christianity is deeply offensive to mainstream modern culture, and we might as well get over as quickly as possible the idea that we can make it palatable. "You will be hated by all for my name's sake" (Luke 21:17).

Copyright (c) 2007 by Vern Sheridan Poythress.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license can be found at the Free Software Foundation website.