Every time a major tragedy grips the conscience of America, some prominent Christians will offer unhelpful explanations. I’d like to look at some of the most embarrassing examples, consider a few reasons why this happens, and then contrast their perspective with the teaching of Jesus.
As we’ll see, there is a stark difference between how some Christian leaders and Jesus respond to tragedy.
Some Bad “Christian” Explanations of Tragedy:
1. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Mike Huckabee said, “We ask why there’s violence in our school but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”
2. After the Aurora shooting, Mike Huckabee said, “We don’t have a crime problem, a gun problem or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem. And since we’ve ordered God out of our schools, and communities, the military and public conversations, you know we really shouldn’t act so surprised… when all hell breaks loose.”
- Implication: A turn away from God is directly responsible for mass murderers killing people.
3. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed the attacks on the removal of God from society:
Jerry Falwell: But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen’.
Pat Robertson: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government.
- Implication: Because some people worked to “throw God out of the public square,” etc., God became so angry that He ordered terrorists to carry out the 9/11 attacks on America.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of other, similar examples.
It seems that these ‘leaders’ believe themselves to be modern-day Old Testament prophets, in the style of Jeremiah or Obadiah.
What’s Wrong With the Old Testament Prophet Role?
There are actually many deeper, more fundamental problems to how these ‘leaders’ are thinking and acting. The self-righteous donning of the Old Testament prophet role is but the most visible symptom of the deeper illness.
Here are three contributing factors that can lead Christians to misapply the Old Testament:
- A belief that America is basically the Second Israel, leading to quick replacements of “America” for “Israel” when reading the Old Testament. Related to this is the belief that the United States is “God’s special nation,” uniquely under His authority and blessing.
- A decision to interpret the Bible like it is an Encyclopedia of God Facts, rather than understanding that the Bible is a true narrative with a start, various plot developments, and an end.
- A willingness to identify hunches and intuitions as “the Spirit’s leading.”
With these background beliefs, when a terrible misfortune occurs, it is much easier to interpret this bad event as a repeat of God’s judgments upon ancient Israel for their sin. And then, when there is a sense of ‘being led,’ it makes sense to courageously proclaim that this particular misfortune is evidence that God is currently judging America.
So the “you are suffering this judgment because of your sin” explanation depends upon some very faulty assumptions.
(In criticizing this particular misunderstanding, please understand that I am not criticizing what the Old Testament actually says. Critics of Christianity are delighted to have Christians grossly caricature the Bible for them. But there’s no need to do this. If you want to think about this more, three good resources are According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts, or The Mission of God by Christopher Wright).
Comparing These Leaders with Jesus
Let’s compare these terrible responses with how wisely Jesus commented on similar public events. For instance, the historian Luke recorded a story of Jesus responding to two very bad tragedies (see Luke 13:1-5, ESV):
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he 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 in 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.
These are pretty bad tragedies. There were eighteen people just going about their lives and a tower fell down, and they all died.
Far worse is the state deliberately executing people who are just trying to worship God. But Pilate didn’t think that was enough. He made sure the soldiers mixed the blood of the dead worshipers in with the blood of their dead animals.
How does Jesus respond? Does he say, “well, those people wanted God out of the public square, and that made God angry, so he ordered Pilate to send in his soldiers to massacre them”?
No, he doesn’t. For one, these people were trying to worship God when they were brutally murdered. But somehow, as we can tell from Jesus’ response, the people who brought this situation up still wondered if the dead people were worse sinners than all the other Galileans.
So, duly noted: for thousands of years, people have been trying to explain away barbaric evil by blaming the victims.
And when Jesus encounters this broken part of the human condition, he doesn’t go along with it.
Instead, he challenges it.
Jesus clearly denies that the suffering from both accidental misfortune (the tower falling) and great wickedness (Pilate’s murders) is God’s judgment for particularly egregious sinfulness.
Remember, this is actually Jesus in actual Israel, presumably with access to God’s actual intentions. And he rejects explaining away these terrible misfortunes in the way that Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson explain them.
So my hope is that Christians will no longer attribute hurricanes, terrorist attacks, personal trouble finding a parking spot, violent rampages, or any other kind of suffering as evidence that “God is judging America.” That’s just not true. And even if it was true, there’s very little reason to think that anyone I’ve mentioned so far is the prophet God has ordained to tell us these hyperbolic doomsday reports, especially while we’re at home watching TV.
The Bigger Picture: Sin and Grace
But perhaps the most important reason to speak against these misguided statements is that they obscure the bigger and more important picture. They distract us from the real issue. They point us in the wrong direction.
What we need to reflect upon, as Jesus teaches, is that we are all sinners. And so all of us are ultimately accountable to God.
That message does not sound so great, does it? It is so much easier to self-righteously judge other people for their sin (atheists, Mike Huckabee, Muslims, Christians, you name it) than it is to acknowledge I am a sinner under God’s judgment.
Only one story, one truth, and one event helps me make sense of that agonizingly convicting statement.
That is the fact that Jesus, though he was God, though he could rightly judge us, though he was perfect… made this statement true of himself as well.
The worst tragedy in all of human history was the crowd shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” as the greedy, insecure religious leaders egged on the flames of hatred, and the corrupt, power-hungry politicians gave in to the bloodthirsty mob, and Jesus was crucified for all the sins of all humanity, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
On the cross, Jesus also could say “I am a sinner under God’s judgment.” And then he perished, suffering God’s judgment for our sins.
It is because Jesus identified the real issue – our sin – that we are freed from judging others for their sin.
It is because Jesus died for our sin that we are freed from the guilt and shame that comes from acknowledging our moral failures.
And it is because Jesus rose from the dead that we can hope for justice for the perpetrators of evil and restoration for the victims.
It is this story, and these truths, that lead to an experience of profound forgiveness. Because of what he has done for us, Jesus can uniquely inspire us to oppose evil through our own lives of sacrificial love.
He tells us the truth about our problems. He becomes, at great cost to himself, the solution that we need. And he empowers us to love like we have never loved before.
And so when tragedy strikes, it is painful to see how badly we can miss the point by offering tidy little explanations that amount to we know that God is judging them. How convenient. And how false. In fact, there is a lot that needs to be unsaid and never said in times of tragedy.
Jesus was not distracted. Instead, he pointed to the bigger issue of human sin. When we understand that message, we will understand why Jesus lived as he did, why he died as he did, and why ever since, billions have come to revere Jesus as Savior and Lord, living new lives, in new communities, that are a daily reminder of hope, of justice, of love, and of grace.
May we continue to mourn with all those who mourn, offering our presence, our love, and our service to them, as needed and as requested. And as we search for truth and hope in the hard times of life, may God give us sufficient grace to see clearly, that we might love God and our neighbors in a way that imitates the example of Christ.