by John Hayward
'People no longer see natural disasters as an act of God. However, we are now reaping what we have sown. If we live in a profligate way then there are going to be consequences. We have a responsibility in this and God is exposing us to the truth of what we have done.' (Rt Rev James Jones, speaking after the British floods in 2007)
After the earthquake that hit New Zealand's south island last September, many said it was a miracle that no one died. Sadly, the same could not be said after last month's aftershock and is clearly not going to be case with today's quake in Japan and subsequent tsunami across the Pacific Basin. Twitter was understandably and rightly quickly filled with sentiments such as Dr Albert Mohler's 'Praying for the people of Japan in aftermath of huge earthquake and tsunami. May they seek Christ the Solid Rock.' Yet, besides prayerful sympathy and humanitarian aid, how else should we respond?
Throughout the history of the Church until at least the early nineteenth century, natural disasters were known as flagella dei, the scourges of God, sent to ‘awaken and affright’ sinful humanity to repentance. For instance, during an outbreak of cholera in 1865, the evangelical Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote a tract called The Hand of the Lord!, insisting that ‘cholera, like every other pestilence, is a direct visitation from God.’ However, as a result of scientific advance and what has been called ‘the ethical revolt’ against Christian orthodoxy – when Victorian Britain witnessed a growing repugnance towards concepts such as election, eternal punishment and vicarious sacrifice – the doctrine of divine retribution began to be eroded from the middle of the nineteenth century, so that today it is largely a forgotten doctrine, even within evangelical circles. It remains, however, a deeply biblical concept. As the biblical scholar Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone has written:
'For example, after Jesus healed an invalid at the Pool of Bethesda he warned the man, ‘Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you’ (John 5:14). In contrast, on a later occasion, he explained that a beggar’s blindness was not due to sin but ‘that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:3). When some speculated that two local calamities—the massacre of Galileans by Pontius Pilate and the collapse of a tower in Siloam—were God’s judgment on sin, Jesus turned the question around, warning his hearers that they were equally sinful so must repent or they too would perish (Luke 13:1–5). He went on to pronounce judgement upon the whole nation of Israel (Luke 13:6–9). Similarly, Jesus prophesied the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies, because the people had rejected the Messiah (Luke 19:41–44; 21:20–24; 23:28–31). Later in the New Testament, the early church witnessed the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5) and of King Herod Agrippa who was struck down by an angel of the Lord because he pretended to be God (Acts 12). Meanwhile, Paul taught the church in Corinth that some had fallen ill and others had died because of their scandalous approach to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:30). James also seems to link sin and sickness (James 5:14–16). If we are to recover an understanding of divine retribution which is faithful to Scripture, we must wrestle honestly and carefully with these biblical texts, not merely follow our current cultural presuppositions.'
He went on to note ten concerns raised by contemporary theologians over the doctrine:
- Would a just God bring such destruction?
- Are not natural disasters precisely that—‘natural’, not supernatural?
- Is not God’s wrath held back until the Last Day?
- Why do the innocent suffer and the guilty so often escape?
- Are we able to discern which sins God is judging?
- Is there such a category as ‘communal’ or ‘national’ sin?
- Is God’s justice remedial or retributive?
- Is this another brand of the ‘prosperity gospel’?
- What is the difference between chastisement and punishment?
- Has not all the punishment deserved by Christians already been borne by Christ on the cross?
In our 1993 Cambridge Paper Reflections on providence: can we 'read' events?, Mark Dever identified five biblical principles to help us as we seek to find meaning in the events of the world around us:
- God is sovereign, acting purposively in history
- Ultimately, God will vindicate himself; evil will be punished
- In the meantime, any adversity must be viewed in the light of the end
- In the meantime, any good must be understood as God's gracious blessing
- Full judgement and blessing will come only finally
Whatever answers we might give to our questions, we should begin by considering our own lives and allow our conversations with God to be shaped by that model prayer, 'Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.'
Read more: Atherstone, A. (2009) Divine Retribution: A Forgotten Doctrine? Themelios
Dever, M. (1993) Reflections on providence: can we 'read' events?