Whenever there is a tragedy like the terrible hurricane that struck Houston, the question “Why did this happen?” is inevitably asked. When Christians ask that question they are not simply asking for a scientific explanation of the weather patterns in the Gulf of Mexico, or how Hurricanes flood cities or Tornados destroy schools, they are asking why the God they serve did this, (or perhaps “allowed it to happen” if they don’t believe in the sovereignty of God or haven’t really wrestled sufficiently with verses like Amos 3:6b). It was to answer that question that I wrote the following in 2004, after Florida had just passed through a series of devastating hurricanes including the 2nd and 3rd costliest Hurricanes in history at the time. When I did so I particularly wanted to address the common notion that disasters and tragedies are a direct consequence of the sins of the people they affect.
NKJ Luke 13:1 There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Floridians must be some of the most wicked people in America mustn’t they? To be visited with three massive hurricanes in a row! We here in North Carolina, on the other hand are very virtuous people, because we haven’t really been hit by any of them. Oh sure, we’ve had a little rain, some flooding, and so on, but nothing like the level of destruction that the sinners of Florida have brought down on their heads. But oh, lest we think we are too good. I understand that the city of Las Vegas has suffered hardly any storm related damage this year. Obviously they have attained to a level of sanctification that we here in North Carolina can only continue to strive for.
Now obviously I’m being sarcastic, but the point is that the kind of thinking that says bad things happen to bad people is more common than you might think. You will hardly be able to find a pastor who hasn’t been asked at least once, “Do you think this bad thing happened to me because of my sin?” I’ve even fallen prey to the same kind of thinking myself on more than one occasion.
It seems that most people instinctively want to pair up good events with good behavior and bad events with sinful behavior in a flat one to one relationship. I sin, I am punished with some bad event. I am good, I am rewarded with some nice occurrence. Now while that may be true for puppies and paper training, the bible tells us that this is not the way God’s providence works itself out.
Jesus confronted that common misunderstanding on several occasions during his earthly ministry, in Luke 13:1-5 we see that misunderstanding brought out by some people in the crowd who told Christ about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, had put to death while they were in the midst of bringing sacrifices to the temple in Jerusalem.
Now we don’t know why Pilate did what he did, it is very likely that these Galileans were members of the Zealot party, revolutionaries against the Roman occupation, and Pilate, being informed that they were in town to perform their required religious duties, had them ambushed and killed. But the presumption of those who told Christ the story seems to be that if God allowed them to be killed in the midst of their act of worship, it could only be because they were guilty of some terrible sins. Thus their execution was God’s judgment upon them for profaning His worship. Presumably, had they been innocent, God would never have allowed it to happen.
Jesus then asks them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?” They would have to admit the answer was no, they knew full well that there were countless Galileans walking around who would not even have bothered to go to Jerusalem to offer up their sacrifice, men sunk low in all manner of vices, and yet who were still walking around perfectly healthy. They probably even knew of evil Galileans, notorious sinners, who had prospered and lived to a ripe old age and then died in their beds.
People throughout the bible instinctively rejected the idea that that might be possible. In fact the more common assumption was that if something bad happened to someone, it must have been on account of sins, perhaps secret sins that only God knew about.
So Job’s “ever helpful” friends spend most of the book of Job trying to convince Job to confess and repent of these secret sins for which he must be being punished, and a large part of Job’s frustration comes from the fact that he really hasn’t done any of the things his friends suspect.
On seeing a Man who was born blind the apostles simply assume that his condition was a result of sin, the only thing that they wonder – because after all the man was born blind rather than becoming blind – was summed up in their question to Jesus in John 9:2: “And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their theological conundrum was whether God made the made blind because He foresaw that he would be a sinner or if the blindness was retribution for his parent’s sin? The assumption that they never question is that the man’s blindness must have happened because of sin.
The same kind of assumption – that a disaster must be the result of being a terrible sinner – was made about the Apostle Paul by the inhabitants of Malta after he was shipwrecked on the Island:
Acts 28:3 But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. 4 So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.” (Acts 28:3-4)
Notice that they assumed that the shipwreck itself was a divine judgment and that he wasn’t supposed to have survived that. So then a snake was appointed to bite him to finish the job, but Paul survived that as well. Verse 5 tells us “But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.” [If the theology of the awful “Final Destination” series of movies applied at that point Paul would have backed away from the snake tripped over a log from the bundle and fallen into the fire.]
God’s providence does not operate that way. As Spurgeon put it so well in his sermon “Accidents not Punishments”, that would be to make what is actually an unfathomable depth into a fiery shallow pool. We could all understand God’s providence perfectly if it really simply was a one to one relationship between sin and punishment. It would also mean that you could never safely ride the bus because there would be bound to be a sinner on board deserving of death in a fiery accident.
The fact is, God is working out His redemptive ends in ways we cannot possibly fathom. His providence is like a tapestry of such immensity and complexity that we will not be able to discover the pattern until he is finished with it. The problem is that we only see a miniscule portion of that tapestry and then try vainly to connect up all the threads in ways that seem “just” to us. God however is using events in ways we could never fathom, He uses even evil events to bring about good. For instance, in the case of the man born blind, Jesus answers his Apostles frankly:
John 9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.
Ultimately, the man was born blind that in his miraculous healing, he might be an abiding testament to the Divinity of Christ! Now, who on earth would have been able to figure that out prior to the day that Christ came to heal him? NO ONE! But no doubt everyone, including the man himself, was vainly trying to figure it out! God is in control of all things, but you might not be able to figure out his purposes in doing them till the end of time. We read in the Bible that not even the prophets or the angels know God’s plans ahead of time:
1 Peter 1:10 Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven — things which angels desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:10-12)
So yes, in God’s providence, Christian Missionary Doctors engaged in self-denying works of mercy are killed by jihadis while Abortion Doctors amass tidy fortunes and retire to play golf in Florida. As Jesus taught his disciples about his father: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45)
Now here, let me briefly say that while there is no crass one to one relationship between sins and disasters, that does not mean that sins have no consequences. Of course they do! If you drink yourself silly for thirty years, you will end up with liver disease. If you pursue the life of an adulterer you will ruin your marriage, mess up the lives of your children, and deal with a host of other evil consequences. Sins have consequences. And yes, sometimes God did choose to visit evildoers with calamity as a judgment. But David and Sodom, for instance, were the exception rather than the rule. The baby killed in the car crash is most likely not being repaid for any particular sin, even the original sin of Adam that we all inherit.
Most of the time God does not keep “short accounts,” and that is a good thing, because we need to remember that the emphasis in what Jesus was saying was essentially, “Do you seriously think that the Galileans killed by Pilate, or the Jerusalemites killed by that tower collapse were far greater sinners than you?”
You assume because they came to sudden and violent ends they must have been terribly sinful, far worse than you are, and that because you haven’t yet met such an end you must be good and headed for a good end. That isn’t the case, says Jesus. Twice he says to them, for emphasis, “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
You couldn’t be more wrong, says Jesus. Do you think for a moment those people foresaw the calamity that was headed their way? Who expects to be murdered during worship? Who expects a building to fall on them? You likewise do not expect your end to come suddenly, you do not expect to be here one moment and before the judgment seat of God in the next.
Jesus tells them that unless they repent – and by repentance (metaneo in Greek) is meant conversion and a dual turning, a turning away from Sin and a turning towards Christ – they will perish. Perish there doesn’t simply mean to die. It is the Greek Apollumi the same word which is contrasted with eternal life in John 10:38. When Jesus says perish he means to die eternally.
Everyone must die once, but for believers in Jesus Christ, death is merely a passing through the veil. It is a coming into your eternal inheritance. Therefore Jesus can say to believers in Rev. 2:10-11 “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” And “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”
But the bible tells us that the unrepentant die not once, but twice. They perish eternally:
Rev. 21:8 “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
The Applications Here are Obvious:
1) To the unbelieving and unrepentant: You may not suffer any great tragedy in your lives. Buildings may not fall on you, terrorists may leave you alone, you may never be involved in a major accident, but that is because final justice is never rendered on this side of the veil of life. Hitler did not escape justice by taking his own life, Stalin did not escape justice because he died in his bed. Rather, at their last heart beat both were instantly delivered into the hands of their Judge: for “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) Both dying in an unrepentant and Christless state are now enduring a punishment that would make the greatest of earthly punishments or disasters seem trivial. Unless you repent you will likewise perish, and do not think there will be time later. “I’ll repent later” usually means “I’ll never repent in time.”
2) To the Believer who has repented and every day repents anew: You on the other hand may suffer tragedy and loss, but you know that because of your faith in Christ, even these things – although we may not understand how – will ultimately work for your good. All the evil you will ever encounter for all eternity will be during the brief span of your mortal life. And do not fear, you have your Master’s assurance that though you may die you will never perish eternally.
Therefore, as you are perhaps dismayed or downcast at what Cowper called “frowning providences,” such as the death of a loved one, the loss of health or wealth, persecution, or whatever tragedies you may encounter, never forget that these words were written for your comfort and assurance:
Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” 37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)