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Disasters and Divine Retribution: Beware the Rush to Judgment

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In North America, many will remember 2017 as the year of calamity. Catastrophic storms, massive earthquakes, devastating fires and a horrific mass-shooting have wreaked death and destruction. Amid the public response to these large-scale tragedies, some commentators—typically professing Christians—declare that the hand of God is punishing people and nations.

Similar claims, one may recall, were advanced in attempts to make sense of 9/11 in 2001, the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Haitian earthquake of 2010, and West Africa’s Ebola outbreak in 2014. Collectively, they suggest a particular approach to explaining horrific evil that we might call the “calamity-must-be-punishment” thesis—the notion that wherever we find horrific suffering and mass tragedy, God is in the mix exercising judgment in response to specific sin (individual or collective). In response, then, we must ask, “Do large-scale calamities necessarily signal divine punishment being meted out against its victims?”

Yet a careful examination of Scripture not only fails to support the calamity-must-be-punishment thesis, but it also exposes such thinking as spiritually shallow and, at least in some cases, downright sinful. In particular, there are three concrete examples in Scripture where this interpretation of evil is offered and then met with divine correction.

Better to say nothing than to bear false witness against God Almighty.

Calamities in Scripture

First, in Luke 13:1–5, Jesus mentions two tragedies—a brutal mass murder of Galileans ordered by Pontius Pilate and a tower collapse in Jerusalem that claimed eighteen lives. Jesus first refutes the notion that the victims of these tragedies suffered on account of being worse sinners. He then exhorts His judgmental audience to recognize their own sinfulness and need for true repentance.

Second, in John 9:2, Jesus’ disciples advance the calamity-must-be-punishment proposal to explain a man’s severe birth defect. Speaking to Jesus, they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (NIV). In response, Jesus, who would next heal the man, dispels their presumption of guilt in proclaiming, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (9:3). It would be an error to extrapolate from this example to say that God always brings about good from every instance of evil or that He is obligated to do so. But at the very least, we may conclude that in some cases, He ordains suffering for good purpose.

Third, Scripture’s most recognizable case of intense suffering is that of Job. In the book that bears his name, we learn that Job was a godly man who suffered greatly, losing all that he had save his very life. Job’s suffering was so great that he and the few friends who had gathered to console him were left speechless for a week. After Job broke his silence, however, his friends let loose a verbal barrage that supposed Job’s suffering to be God’s punishment for unconfessed sin. Eliphaz, for example, declared, “Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed?” (Job 4:7, NASB). And Zophar delivered this more lengthy, but equally judgmental, refrain:

If you would direct your heart right and spread out your hand to Him, If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness dwell in your tents; Then, indeed, you could lift up your face without moral defect, and you would be steadfast and not fear. (Job 11:13–15)

The truth of Job’s circumstance was that, unbeknownst to him and his friends, God allowed Satan to afflict him. Satan had launched the accusation that Job only worshipped God on account of the material blessings he enjoyed in life, but God knew differently. He allowed Job’s faithfulness to be demonstrated through a time of testing.

As the story comes to its conclusion, it becomes clear that Job’s friends would have done well to remain silent for their “calamity-must-be-punishment” approach earned for them God’s harsh rebuke. Importantly, their chief error was not the shabby treatment of their ailing friend, bad as it was, but rather that they spoke wrongly of God. As God told Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, NIV).

What We Learn

As we seek to process our own large-scale calamities, we can learn and apply much.

  1. God demands truthfulness of any who would attempt to speak on His behalf. Better to say nothing than to bear false witness against God Almighty.
  2. We must reject as false the notion that the occurrence of a terrible disaster or other horrific evil necessarily implies divine punishment against the victims. No doubt, the two may be connected at times—Sodom and Gomorrah is but one example in Scripture—but as we have seen from the examples above, such is not always the case.
  3. We must be ever mindful of the limitations of human knowledge. In judging Job, his friends assumed for themselves knowledge accessible only to God. That error has been repeated many times over in recent history in the knee-jerk judgments of disaster victims. Though easy to assert, these claims are simply beyond human ability to prove.

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Erik Clary

Erik M. Clary, PhD, is an ethicist presently serving as Research Fellow in the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith & Culture in Wake Forest, NC.

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