Thus far in this segment:
God and Catastrophes 1
God and Disabilities 2
Now Catastrophes and God's Judgment 3
We have to reckon with similar ambiguity when it comes to events as God's judgment. To be sure, a significant stream of biblical thought--especially in the Old Testament--sees a direct correlation between sin and event. For example, the books of Joshua and Judges assume that defeat of Israel in battle or its enslavement to foreign powers must imply that someone, somewhere has sinned. When Israel loses in battle to Ai, it must be because someone in Israel has sinned--a man named Achan, as it turns out.
This way of thinking is called "deuteronomistic theology." In the light of all Scripture, however, it is clearly only a partial picture. In the thinking of Deuteronomy 28, the righteous do not suffer in the service of God. Certainly people like Jesus do not get crucified. Those today who preach a prosperity gospel do so from Old Testament passages that make a direct correlation between serving God and material blessing and ignore the New Testament sense that those who serve God should not be surprised if they suffer in this world.
The fuller revelation of Scripture thus points to some serious refinements to deuteronomistic theology. For example, Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31 give one: "In those days they shall no longer say: 'The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.' But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge" (Jer. 31:29-30, NRSV). Jeremiah goes on to give important verses on the new covenant God is going to make with his people, verses that Hebrews 8 quote extensively.
In deuteronomistic theology, the individual sinner may not be the one who gets punished--it could be his or her grandchildren. Jeremiah and Ezekiel point to individual punishment in the future, with whole groups not suffering for the sins of others. In other words, Jeremiah and Ezekiel raise questions about the idea that an earthquake might kill a lot of people because of the sins someone else did somewhere else.
It is also important to remember that Deuteronomy and the other historical books of the Old Testament do not yet know of a significant life after death. At this point in the flow of revelation, they understand that there is reward and punishment to come, but they think of it only taking place in the land of the living. Thus sin must be punished in this world, either to the sinner or to the sinner's children. These are instances where the New Testament significantly refines and clarifies matters.
The point is that the model of Christian thinking that connects catastrophic events with God's judgment faces serious questions in the light of all Scripture. For example, those who see in the 9-11 tragedy God's judgment on America must face Jeremiah 31:30 above. Such thinking, in effect, is saying that those people in the towers did not die for their own sins but for the sins of others. Someone else ate sour grapes but their teeth were set on edge.
A better model is to see God's instructions to humanity as indications of lives that are more likely to prosper and involve fulfillment, while sin is a path more likely to bring pain and suffering. It is not that God is a cowboy sheriff waiting to blow you away when you mess up, but God has given you ample warning of what happens when you follow a certain path. Bad things happen. And, yes, there usually is collateral damage for your sins. Your children usually do pay for the bad choices you make and the sins of the fathers are passed down to the third and fourth generation (e.g., Deut. 5:9).
Certainly we cannot say that God never causes cataclysmic events in judgment on a group of people. We are saying that great caution must be exercised with these verses from the Old Testament because they are not yet "fully cooked." And the dynamics of thinking this way can hide a heart of hate toward others, when Christ has commanded us to love our enemies. It is interesting that people were ready to attribute the 2011 tsunami in Japan to the fact that Japan is not a nation with many Christians. But we did not hear this explanation later in the year when tornadoes ripped through the Bible belt of Missouri.
God does have a plan for the world, and God may have very specific plans for you. His plan for the world is to see as many reconciled to him as will, although he forces no one. And sometimes God does have a very specific plan for a Moses--a plan that God would have allowed Moses to nullify if he had so chosen. God does not make us slaves to his will, however. He walks with us and interacts with us. If we fail to get into a relationship with someone, we have not missed "the one" he had planned for us to marry for life.
God does not micromanage the creation, but he has created it with freedom to choose wisely and to choose poorly. He has created it with natural laws that run on their own. Our pain and suffering is often a result of our own choices or the choices of others. When he steps into the chain of self-running cause and effects is a mystery. Surely he does. But the question of pain and suffering is more about why he allows it, not why he directly causes it.
Next week: Why does God allow suffering?