Tragedy or Trial???

That the God of the Christian religion very often and severely punishes his creatures is almost an understatement.

Try something. Just flip open the bible to any page at random. Chances are you will find on one of the two pages staring at you a gruesome description of divine judgment on someone or some people. Yes, God makes it clear over and over in his holy book that he uses all manner of natural disasters and calamities to punish his sinful people...

"15. But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: 16. Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. 17. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. 18. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep....20. The LORD shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me. 21. The LORD shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it. 22. The LORD shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. 23. And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. 24. The LORD shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed." (Deuteronomy 28:15-24)

So if these Old Testament passages reveal anything about the principle nature of the God of the bible, they reveal to us that God may very well have been responsible for that financial lapse of debt you fell into last month. God may have intended to take the life of a beloved family member of yours to punish you for that indiscriminate lustful thought, or your willfully missing services last Sunday. God may be the one responsible for giving your mother-in-law cancer, or allowing the aquifer in your neck of the woods to fall below the optimum level because not enough people flattered him with prayers. Don't believe me? Here the word of the Lord...

"And it shall be, that whoso will not come up of all the families of the earth unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, even upon them shall be no rain." (Zechariah 14:17)

There you have it! Now this would be an open/shut case: sickness, drought, death, or any misfortune = God is not pleased with you, but it's not quite that simple! It would be simple were it not for a conflicting message we get from the New Testament...

"That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:45)

Now this throws a monkey wrench in everything! Whereas before we thought anytime something bad happened, it was God punishing you, from this we learn that it might not be! God says here he allows blessings to filter down to the just and the unjust, leaving us to spend our lives, wracking our brains trying to figure out exactly when we are suffering for our sins, and when we are suffering merely from sporadic natural calamities and accidents. The mental agony believers go through even today, wondering ceaselessly whether or not their trials and afflictions are God-sent is not nearly as bad as actually being cursed by God to go through these things, but who can deny that being left without answers is painful in it's own right?

At the first church I ministered at, I sat at a potluck luncheon and began a discussion that lasted several hours on the subject of divine providence. One of our elders was debating me on whether or not the Titanic was given to tragedy because of the pride people took in it. He argued that God was offended at people's attitudes towards the ship, so loving Jesus decided to make the graves of over 1,500 people in the frigid waters of the Atlantic. I disagreed with this brother in the Lord, but little did I know that according to the scriptures, we were both right!

It's awfully interesting how sophisticated and well-cultured believers of today will very seldom make claims about God unleashing his wrath in the catastrophes of the world. Those few who dare make such claims are usually of the ultra-fundamentalist variety, like Pat Robertson, who thinks 911 happened because of the abortionists and homosexuals in America. But this is too strong a stand for many Christians. Instead, they seem more interested in devoting themselves to disassociating their God from acts of causality in nature. They want you to know that if you lose an eye, a kidney fails, or you get attacked by a flesh-eating virus, Jesus had nothing to do with it! They seem adamant about reiterating what Jesus said regarding tragedy befalling the godly and ungodly. They would rather have you believe that Jesus' words are more applicable today than those spoken by Moses. I truly believe if they could, modern believers would erase most of the Old Testament's content, certainly anything that makes their god seem barbaric and cruel. Lucky for us, they can't.

The God of the Bible may have the morals and temperament of a spoiled-rotten 13 year old, but theists will defend him to the end nonetheless. They must try to harmonize everything biblically written about him and accept it all as true. This is what makes it impossible to determine whether we are suffering because of reckless tragedy, or a trial from a chastising God who wants to save us from damnation.

So the debate continues! The next time you see on the news another seaport business or church demolished by a hurricane, or an industrious city, ripped apart by an earthquake, bringing down highways, an economy, and taking countless lives, it may well be because that city offended the almighty in some way! But we will never know for sure!

(JH)

12 comments:

Daddy Cool said...

We will never no for sure? Yet you know for sure God is to blame.

Rich said...

A very difficult concept to understand this is. The one constant seems to be that if you don't follow ods commandments, there are consequences. While some may seem more harsh to us then others, that's where the "I don't knows begin".
Daddy cool, I think he is trying to point out that It is God sending these calamities upon us, meaning that he is to blame. So while we may ot know for sure wether such calamities are because of sinfullness or trial, they both come from the same source, God.

Mattie said...

The idea that God punishes the wicked by use of natural disaster is ridiculous. If that were the case, Denmark would have fallen into the ocean - or God would smite some of these 'other' countries whose governments use torture and rape.
The Titanic didn't sink because God decided to stick an iceburg in front of the ship, thereby sinking it and punishing those on board with a slow drowning. They were sailing in the Atlantic where iceburgs are known to be. They had received numerous warnings which they ignored. They were not properly equipped with binoculars, life boats etc. They were arrogant, and it was their arrogance that caused that ship to sink. It reminds me of Hurricane Katrina. God didn't create the hurricane to destroy New Orleans because it was sinful. That area gets hurricanes every year. There were advanced warnings of the hurricane, plenty of time to evacuate, warnings about the levies and the implications of their breaking. These warnings were ignored. It was arrogance in that case too.
After the Titanic sunk, there were many reforms regarding safety on ships, and an international effort was made to monitor iceburgs. This tragedy brought about positive change. This is why there have been fewer such 'punishments'. It isn't because God determines we are no longer worthy of his punishment, or because he's found a better way to exact it. Likewise, Katrina brought the Global Warming issue to light - more people are taking it seriously as the prophecies the scientists made decades ago are being fulfilled.
As far as what the Bible says regarding these bad things and natural disasters, they are neither punishment nor trial, rather they are both depending on whether you are a righteous man or an unrighteous man.
When something bad happens to a righteous man (Job), then it's a trial from God.
When something bad happens to an unrighteous man (Soddom), then it's a punishment.
But, everything good comes from God even if you don't deserve it, such is the nature of goodness and good things.

Rich said...

When something bad happens to a righteous man (Job), then it's a trial from God.
When something bad happens to an unrighteous man (Soddom), then it's a punishment.
But, everything good comes from God even if you don't deserve it, such is the nature of goodness and good things.

That doesn't really help clear anything up here. How do I know wether something then is happening to be a trial to rightious or punishment to the unrightious?
Which also conflicts with your statement that God doesn't use natural disasters to punish the wicked. That something could be a natural disaster.

John W. Loftus said...

People in Biblical times defended God against the problem of evil by blaming themselves and their own sins for the natural disasters that God sent on them. They believed God controls all natural happenings (Ex. 12:23,29,30; 32:35; Num. 11:33; 16:46-50; 25:18; 2 Sam. 24:15-16). Why don’t very many Christians today use this same response to exonerate God for natural disasters?

In ancient times, disasters were usually explained in only one way: God was upset with people because of their sins. And that’s the explanation we find most often in the Bible, although there are a few notable exceptions (Job; Luke 13; John 9). But even here we see a God who could do anything with the world of nature that he wanted to do without regard for the ordered world and laws of nature.

In Job for instance, we see the Biblical answer for the problem of evil in the first two chapters. The answer was that God is testing us with disasters and he allows Satan to do us harm so that he might be glorified from our actions. That is a sick answer to the problem of evil, and here’s why: Medical ethics will not allow us to experiment on human beings with life threatening procedures, nor with procedures that might cause other serious complications. And they certainly don’t allow us to experiment on anyone involuntarily. But this is what we find God doing to Job, presumably because he’s God.

In Luke 13:1-5 we find Jesus commenting on why a couple of disasters took place. Were these people worse sinners than those who escaped the particular disasters? Jesus’ answer is an emphatic, “No!” His point says nothing at all against the culturally accepted view that our sins cause disasters. He only says that these people were no more guilty than those who didn’t suffer these disasters. So apparently everyone deserves the disasters that occur, it’s just that some do not experience what their sins deserve.

In John 9 Jesus’ disciples asked him who sinned that a particular man was born blind. His answer was that neither he nor his parents sinned. But even so, his being born blind still had a purpose, “that the work of God might be displayed in him,” and then it says Jesus healed him. So his “purpose” in being born blind was for him to later be healed by Jesus.

Many Christians would agree with Rabbi Daniel Lapin who tried to explain God’s goodness in light the Indonesian tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people. In the process of arguing his case he said: “God runs this world with as little supernatural interference as possible.” Now how does he know that? Such a belief was not shared by most all ancient people before the rise of the repeatable results of modern science. So why don’t they argue the way Biblical writers would argue? Let me suggest that it’s because they are modern people after all! And let me also suggest that early Christians would have condemned modern Christians who simply say, “bad things just happen.” For them, even the very dice cast from a man’s hand is controlled by God. (Pr. 16:33).

But surely, the punishment for sin by God cannot account for everyone who ever died from a tornado, a hurricane, a fire, a flood, an epidemic, or a famine. Many innocent people have died. The distribution of disease and pain is not related to the virtue of those punished. Besides, I simply cannot understand that even if many people today are sexually immoral, for instance, that such sins deserve such punishments. Can you hear God saying this: “Oh, you had an affair, so your punishment is to lose your children as a result of Katrina.” What did these children do wrong? “Or, you are a homosexual, so I will make you a paraplegic the rest of your life, and later cast you into hell.” And so on. The so-called punishments simply do not fit the “crimes.” Just look at our own “selfish” system of punishments, and compare that with the kind, caring father/God’s punishments. Our punishments are kinder and gentler. They’re civil. The punishments of God in the Bible are barbaric.

Joe Otten said...

And, John, we make some attempt to separate the guilty from the innocent. God's natural disasters are indiscriminate.

Are we supposed to believe it is beyond God's power to punish only the wicked?

Indiscriminate justice is no justice at all. Not by any possible stretch of the meaning of the word justice.

Shape up, God, or ship out.

Rich said...

"Just look at our own “selfish” system of punishments, and compare that with the kind, caring father/God’s punishments. Our punishments are kinder and gentler. They’re civil. The punishments of God in the Bible are barbaric."

Our system of punishments have also changed over the many years to be less drastic and some places still use very barbaric punishments for crime. We don't like punishment at all, we continually want to be given more choices. Ususally first offenses are dealt with very liniently, but repetative crime is also dealt with pretty leniently. Face it you don't want to be punished for mistakes, no one does, we would rather be left with endless choices to make to avoid punishment. While punishments don't seem to fit the crime from our point of view, maybe they do from Gods. Even the "civil" nature of our punishments differ by perspective.
If God makes the rules and you don't like the punishment, don't do the crime to avoid it.

"Are we supposed to believe it is beyond God's power to punish only the wicked?"

Absolutely not, but like someone said earlier, what may be a punishment to a wicked person could also be a trial for the righteous. If Just a few righteous had been found within the walls of sodom and Gamorah, the cities would have been spared because of them.

David said...

First off, let me say that I respect your position and your response to difficult questions regarding Christianity. I've only recently come across your site and have been intrigued by it and appreciate the lack of any bitterness towards the Christian community; at least, in the few posts I've read thusfar, that's what I sense. I also appreciate the intellectualism cultivated here.

In response to this post, I think it's unfair to compare Zech 14:17 with Matt 5:45. The reason is b/c Zechariah refers to a fulfilled Kingdom while Jesus in the gospels preaches an inaugurated Kingdom -- the concept of "already but not yet." I'm sure you're familiar with this given the list of authors you've read. If not, George Ladd's "The Presence of the Future" is prolly the best place to go. I'm no expert on OT prophecy, but if Zech refers to the realized Kingdom, why wouldn't God still be the God who brings rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike when his Kingdom has been inaugurated but not totally realized in Jesus?

Additionally, to quote Calvin (I'm rather new to reading him, but his Institutes have offered me a wealth of material to ponder and consider): "God's providence does not excuse us from due prudence...'Man's heart plans his way, but the Lord will direct his steps' [Prov 16:9]. This means that we are not at all hindered by God's eternal decrees either from looking ahead for ourselves or from putting all our affairs in order, but always in submission to his will...God's providence does not always meet us in its naked form, but God in a sense clothes it with the means employed."(I.XVII.4) In other words, we are still responsible for the future that we can control as long as we understand that God's will is primary, though even then, God's will and providence may come about by our responsibility. Wasn't this the case with the Titanic, that they ignored significant warning signs and didn't take appropriate action?

On the other hand, we can be assured that nothing happens except by God's decree, something that should be of great solace to believers, as Matt 10:29-31 state (another of Calvin's favorite proof-texts). For those who have lost loved ones in both avoidable and unavoidable circumstances, they can rest assured that even through the irresponsibility of leadership, nothing happens except God allows it to for his grand, albeit secret purposes. It's all part of God working in-cognito, making the "stone the builders rejected" into the "capstone" (Psa 118:22).

I have a hard time believing that the God of the Bible is always ruthlessly punishing people for their sins as if he were a power-crazed 13 year-old. God has established a New Covenant thru Christ, which has made the Old Covenant that you quoted from Dt 28, obselete. Even still, it was Israel with whom he made this covenant and thus them who stood to be blessed for obedience and cursed for disobedience. Regarding the rest of the world, wasn't his plan to show them the light thru Israel? So perhaps it's true that all along, God has provided rain for the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Thanks for your time.

Daniel said...

david,

Thanks for your comment:

God has established a New Covenant thru Christ, which has made the Old Covenant that you quoted from Dt 28, obselete. Even still, it was Israel with whom he made this covenant and thus them who stood to be blessed for obedience and cursed for disobedience.

But does that original covenant still exist? And if so, does God not have to honor it?

"I have not come to destoy the Law, but to fulfill It." (Jesus)

I have a hard time (and had one as a Christian) understanding the concept of how one covenant can be made with one small and exclusive group people, and a "new one" with all people [that will supersede the old one for the small group] -- and how this exemplifies the ideas and attributes that are always ascribed to God: constancy, fairness, bringing about perfection in perfect time...etc

I brought up this same point, but from the angle of, "Did God make a covenant with Israel to heal them?" in an older post on here. How ad hoc is it when we look back through the lens of history and science and try to explain why miracles/disasters did happen then, but don't now (or do, but didn't then), even though God (supposedly) hasn't changed, and the covenant itself had terms without any specific time limitations?

God's promises to Israel just got stale and old? God knew beforehand that they wouldn't fulfill the bargain, so why not implement the "more perfect" way in the first place? Why instill so much confusion and contradiction?

Think about the rebellions of the OT, versus how Peter was treated by Jesus for forsaking him.

God just gets impatient when some threshold number of persons disobey? Why not smite the leader of the rebellions before the rebellion occurs? A more intelligent and merciful way to stop them, yes?

From my perspective, it is much more reasonable to conclude that the reason God and God's covenants seem to change and evolve and contradict themselves is because people made God, not the other way around.

David said...

Thanks for the response, Daniel. Being still somewhat new to the Blogosphere myself (www.bacsaxi.typepad.com) I must say that your link to your blog regarding the Covenant made me think I should be writing longer posts on my site =D

I'm making my way thru that and some of the other material on this site as it presents some good mental-exercising. I have personally been having nagging questions myself about Christianity (some of my blogs will detail that) which is why and how I came across this site. Part of me is tempted, like a hung-jury or a court mistrial, to flirt with agnosticism while another huge part of me, the part that has grown up Christian, attended Bible College, participates in Christian ministry and loves my Bible, just cannot so easily give up my faith.

I don't have time right now to make a more detailed response except to ask a few related questions. If Christianity is false and God is made up, how did it happen? How did the early Church continue to believe in the Gospel if it made promises that it never fulfilled? Wouldn't it have quickly fizzled out? Why did this Messiah catch on when dozens of other would-be's did not (referring to N.T. Wright)? Refer to the text in James (I'm quoting from memory here), "If anyone has a sickness, let him call upon the elders of the church, anoint him with oil, lay hands on him and the prayer of faith will make him well." Why would someone make this up and expect people to still believe it when it was empirically false?

Ultimately, if it is all false, where did it all come from and who was/were the mastermind(s) behind it all?

David said...

((

Link to the nagging questions I referenced above, if you're interested.

David

))

Rich said...

"But does that original covenant still exist? And if so, does God not have to honor it?

"I have not come to destoy the Law, but to fulfill It." (Jesus)"

The original covenant had to do with the law of sacrifice, which was fulfilled by Christ. So they original covenant has been fulfilled and we are left with the new covenant. It was completed with the sacrifice of Christ. the reason the law of sacrifice was given in the first place by Moses is because they couldn't observe the higher law they were given.