Saturday, March 05, 2005

“Do you think that they were worse sinners because they suffered in this way?”

The other day, when I was traveling home from my visit to Audi, my new fiancée, I overheard part of a conversation next to me in the airport that caught my attention. A man was commenting on the recent tsunamis and earthquakes in Southeast Asia. Describing himself as a Christian, he went on to explain to the person that he was talking to, that if you looked at the natural disaster there in Southeast Asia “Biblically,” you would have to conclude that those people must really have p****d someone off for God to punish them with this tsunami (I assume by ‘someone’ he was probably implying God). He assumed, I suppose, that since the Bible does forecast great disasters at the end of times, then these people were getting their due punishment for their sins. I couldn’t help but think to myself that he had a serious misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about such things, and also that his comment put forward a very poor representation of Christianity.

This whole question of why God allows such awful things to happen is an important theological question that touches every person’s life at one point or another. The 9/11 attacks and now this tsunami disaster bring this question all the more to the forefront, as the reality of death is magnified so greatly by the sudden loss of so many lives. It’s not as if suffering and death aren’t already a daily reality on a much smaller scale for the sick, the dying, the murdered, suicides, accidental deaths, etc. But most of the time we can try to avoid facing this reality of death. However, when these tsunamis struck, the reality of death was thrust in our faces again, and we could not ignore it. So it is important that we Christians know how to look at death and disaster “Biblically”; but we must do so in a correct way.

The man in the airport was not wrong in pointing out that the Bible prophesies great natural disasters for the end times. Here are some passages that say as much: “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28). Jesus also said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:7-8). Also in Revelation, the parallel visions of the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls each give accounts of the destruction that will come in the end times.

So we know that these disasters are in fact in keeping with what the Bible prophesies about the end times. But a very important point to notice is that the End Times began when Christ ascended and continue till He returns. They didn’t just begin now; the Christians in the first century A.D. had the same prophecies and warnings, and witnessed similar disasters in their lifetimes as they waited in expectation for Christ’s return.

But now to address the error in this man at the airport’s thinking. Is it right for us as Christians to assume that those people in Southeast Asia were worse sinners because they suffered in this way? Was God dealing out a specific punishment on those people in response to some certain sins? The first place I remembered to look in my Bible when considering this question, was Luke 13:1-5. There two tragic events were discussed that could easily be paralleled to the 9/11 attacks and the tsunami disaster. Here’s the text, “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, “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 of 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.”

The murder of the Galileans by Pilate is similar to the 9/11 murders, and the accidental collapse of the tower of Siloam is much like the disaster that killed well over 150,000 unsuspecting people. The point is not the scale of the disasters, but the question Jesus asks, “Do you think they were worse sinners?” Were those in the towers at 9/11, or the people of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, etc, worse sinners than all the others in this world? “No,” Jesus answers, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” No, they were not worse sinners, and no they weren’t punished—as the man at the airport supposed—because they had really p****d somebody off.

This man had made one of the most common mistakes that believers have made throughout the ages: to make a one-to-one correlation between suffering or disaster with God dealing out punishment for some specific sin. And the accompanying mistake is to believe that if you are a good person and a good Christian, therefore you shouldn’t encounter such suffering or disaster. There were indeed times when God did punish sin directly, such as the Flood, but in those instances God clearly announced beforehand a warning of the disaster to come. However, by and large throughout all history, God has not dealt with us in that way. Rather, good and evil things seem to come upon believers and unbelievers alike, regardless. (cf. Matt 5:45)

The book of Job is a prime example of this, where Job is a righteous believer who suffers the enormous loss of his possessions, his children, and his health. Yet amid this suffering he still had faith in his Redeemer, and showed remarkable humility in saying, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Job’s friends, like the man in the airport, tried to explain Job’s suffering by saying that he had committed some specific sin that God was punishing him for; but in the end, God rebuked those ‘friends’ of Job, saying to them “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, and my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). They were wrong to entirely equate good fortune here on earth with God’s favor and ill fortune with God’s punishment. Suffering came on Job to test his faith, not as a punishment for sin. Likewise believers today are told by Jesus to expect sufferings and trials and persecutions for their faith. It is certainly not true that bad things only happen to bad people.

So what should we learn then, from the tsunamis and other disasters, or even the day-to-day death and suffering that may touch us at different times? We learn what Jesus said in the passage I quoted above, that they were not worse sinners, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5). They were sinners, just like us—not worse. But these disasters, like the Tower of Siloam in Luke 13, and like the death that is a daily reality for humankind all around, these are warnings for us to repent, lest we perish in our sins. God does not desire to lose anyone to their sins, because He sent His only Son Jesus to die for the sins of the whole world. After paying so much, He longs passionately for every lost sinner. That is why He has delayed Christ’s return for so long, because “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God does not desire to lose anyone, so don’t think that He doesn’t mourn the loss of every sinner who died without knowing their Savior. God has mourned the death of men from disasters and wars and famines that have happened throughout history, that we never even knew. God says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).

The correct Biblical view of such death, of all death, is that God wants us to realize the shortness of our existence on earth, and how sudden death can be. Therefore He wants us to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus for our salvation, so that when death takes us from this vale of sorrows that Christ would carry us to eternal life. And He has given us His Word that we might also share this warning with others, and point them to the One True God Jesus Christ, who has taken away the sting of death.


Keith A. said...

As well, there is no way to know for certain how many Christians died in the disaster; that knowledge simply isn't there. And for them, though we mourn their passing, we rejoice that they have been called home to their Lord.

And we should truly grieve for those who died outside the Grace of God, but in the hope that many will come to faith by such a disaster.

As it is, in God's timing we live, and in God's timing we die.

No doubt that man at the airport ridiculed the lost and lonely souls and proclaimed, whether in the silence of his own mind or vocally to the annoyance of everyone, his own grandeur. But I merely hypothesize.

Good stuff from you; I look forward to more!

Josh Schneider said...

Yes, his words did have a ring of boasting to them. I also find it disturbing that some Christians rejoice at the fact that the tsunamis came and wreaked destruction, because they view it as one of the tell-tale signs that the millenia of Christ's reign draws near. While I certainly believe it to be an eschatological sign, these things are not new, nor is there a dispensationalist timeline counting down, written in hidden code in Revelation. You said it well, Keith, in God's timing we live, and in God's timing we die.

Keith A. said...

I merely paraphrase the wisest man, by God's grace, ever to live. That is, Ecc. 3:2.

Jason said...

OK, this is going to get a flame war started, but I carest not.

Have you ever thought, rather than blaming God for such things, looking at a God who saw His creation subverted by a fallen angel? This same God then created a plan (not a plan for my life), this plan was specifically for the relcamation of that creation - and that plan would involve entering the creation itself. In doing these things, God was doing the best He could with what He had - working through the means that were available (and hearing some guys preach these days, He's got more/less to work with in some cases).

Rather than focusing on who does(n't) deserve such things, or for that matter, who caused it to happen, why don't we look at the thought of the countless who were saved by being in the right place at the time, and those who were sustained as they floated in the water for as many as two weeks? How come we suddenly have a God that has fangs and horns? Doesn't saying that the God who loves us inflicts pain purposefully on His creation make Him a deceiver? I only know one great deceiver in the Holy Scriptures... and it isn't God.

Rant concluded, flame away.