Article by Bill Muehlenberg
Whenever a major disaster or national tragedy breaks forth, a heated debate tends to arise within Christian circles. Opinions tend to be polarised, with two sets of extremes on offer. On the one hand are those who claim this is all the judgment of God, and people need to repent. On the other hand are those who argue that God would never do such things, and it is ridiculous to drag God into any of this.
From a biblical point of view, I tend to find both perspectives unhelpful. The truth is, we often simply do not know – and are not told – why a particular event happens. Are the floods in Queensland the direct and specific work of God, whether in judgment or for some other reason?
Who knows? I can’t say that it is or it is not. We simply cannot know for certain. So we need to be careful about rushing to judgment here. The truth is, when God acted in the Old Testament, he generally revealed his purposes in his actions. He would communicate his purposes to man, often through his prophets. Thus divine actions were explained by divine speech.
We now refer to this as speech acts. God acts, but he utters his intentions along with it. There are countless examples of this found in the Old Testament. For example, Yahweh says to Jeremiah, “When you tell these people all this and they ask you, ‘Why has the LORD decreed such a great disaster against us? What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the LORD our God?’ then say to them, ‘It is because your ancestors forsook me,’ declares the LORD, ‘and followed other gods and served and worshiped them. They forsook me and did not keep my law’” (Jer. 16:10-11).
Thus divine commentary accompanies divine actions. But today things are not so clear cut, so we need to proceed with caution. The problem is, we do not have that same prophetic word today. We do not now have a clear word from God every time some tragedy or disaster takes place.
But it seems the other extreme is just as bad, if not worse. These people argue that God could in no way be behind such tragedies. They think any form of divine judgment is simply not on today. As one believer put it on another site: “thats not true christianity … love love love”.
To be honest, these people are far less biblical than the first group. The first group at least has plenty of biblical precedent for their claims, while the second group is simply unbiblical. Indeed, they are little more than modern day Marcionites.
Marcion was an early church heretic who rejected the God of the Old Testament, and demanded a radical discontinuity between the Testaments. Marcionites said that Yahweh has nothing to do with Jesus and the gospel. The early church fathers rightly condemned this as unbiblical heresy.
The God we serve is the unchanging, eternal God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is just as full of grace in the OT as he is of judgment in the NT. I have written about this frequently on this site. See for example:
Just as judgment from God broke forth against a sinful and rebellious people in the OT, so too we find it in the NT. Consider just a few of the episodes recorded there, such as that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, or the judgment on Herod in Acts 12.
Jesus spoke clearly about this in many places. Consider his remarks in Luke 13:1-5. He mentions two tragedies, including a fallen tower which killed 18 people. He simply notes these cases, then twice says this: “unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Our Christian commentator who said “thats not true christianity … love love love” has obviously not read this passage, nor so many others like it. She would be the first to rebuke Jesus for his lack of compassion, and this heartless utterance of unloving words at such a difficult time.
It is amazing how some Christians think they are more loving than Jesus was. But Jesus – who was too wise to make a mistake and too loving to be unkind – knew exactly what needed to be said. He knew that judgment was imminent, and that the most loving thing he could do was to warn people to flee the wrath to come.
The truth is, a black cloud of judgment hangs over all of us. Very often God indeed does use natural and human tragedies to get our attention, to realign our priorities, and to get us right with him before it is too late. And even the Jesus of the Gospels – who we want to tame, domesticate and transform into our image – makes this clear.
Then there is the book of Revelation. Hopefully these Christian who say God would never judge us still believe that Revelation is God’s word to us, that it is still part of our inspired Scriptures. One Toowoomba resident said of the flood carnage, “The destruction is like from the Armageddon”.
Yes, believers do – or should – believe in Armegeddon, and the divine wrath unleashed as recorded in Revelation. Thus if believers can accept the judgment of God there, why is it not possible that he continues to judge according to his own plans and purposes?
Indeed, it can be argued that grace and judgments are inseparably linked with God, and we can no more speak only of his love than we can speak only of his anger and wrath against sin. Both go together and both describe who God is. His love is a holy love, and his judgments are always linked to grace.
We see that throughout Scripture. When God judged Adam and Eve by excluding them from the Garden, that was an act of grace. To live forever in a sinful, rebellious condition would have been horrible. And in that expulsion from Eden, he also provided a covering for the pair. Judgement and grace always go together.
We find this running all through the Bible. Indeed, it is such an important theme that a brand new book devotes 650 pages to this topic. I refer to James Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2010).
In it he rightly argues that God’s grace is always accompanied by God’s judgment. God cannot save without also judging. When Yahweh saved Israel, he simultaneously judged Egypt. When God delivered David and Israel, he judged Goliath and the Philistines. We find this time and again in Scripture.
And the ultimate work of grace and salvation – the death and resurrection of Christ – was also the supreme work of judgment. Jesus was judged and took upon himself the wrath of God in order that we might escape it. God’s glory is made manifest in both his salvation and his judgment.
As Hamilton says, “This glory of God is a saving and judging glory – an aroma of life to those being saved and death to those perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16), and this saving and judging glory is at the center of biblical theology.” The holiness of God and the love of God must always be kept together.
“While God’s steadfast love is seen in salvation, it is also seen in judgment. When God judges, he enforces standards he himself has set, showing steadfast love to himself and the demands of his character. Further, when God judges, he shows steadfast love to his people. They are saved from their enemies when he judges those enemies. They are saved from their sins when God judges their sins (e.g., Isa. 40:2; Rom. 8:3).”
But getting back to the floods, we are simply faced with mega-questions, such as: what is the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility? Thus in this case, can we simply say it was an act of God, or largely due to human irresponsibility (not building enough dams, etc.), or other factors, or a combination thereof?
In our fallen and finite state, we just will not have perfectly clear answers on all this, at least on this side of eternity. But if it is foolhardy to argue that every disaster is an act of God’s judgment, it is just as foolhardy to believe that God does not or cannot judge as he freely chooses.
Whatever is the actual cause of all this, as always, believers can pray for those affected, and offer tangible expressions of help and encouragement. Already believers are praying, giving and acting to help those involved. That much we can always do.