The first comes from Adam Young, writing on the Church Society blog. He begins with an event cited to prove that God does not exercise meticulous control over disastrous events:
Earlier this year the house of American politician Tony Perkins was destroyed in a flood. This would be hardly worthy of hitting the news, were it not for the fact that he had previously said that natural disasters were God’s judgement on America for supporting same sex marriage. Newspapers love a good bit of irony. It does rather beg the question though—was he right? As Anglicans how should we view the sovereignty of God in relation to weather, famine, disease, or plagues?
Young then reviews some of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, petitioning God in time of disaster, and notes the way that these prayers, reflecting on biblical episodes, link the disasters with sin, judgment and punishment.
Nearly every one of these ten prayers links the natural disaster in view to sin and rightly-deserved judgement. These natural disasters are something that “we for our iniquities have worthily deserved” and that “we do most justly suffer for our iniquity.” They are instruments of a God of “wrath” through which we are “for our sins punished” and “justly humbled.”
Young moves quite quickly on to summarise a position known as ‘meticulous providence’ in which the world is understood to be under the complete control and sovereignty of God.
The God portrayed in the Bible and shown in the doctrine contained in these prayers is a God who is absolutely and totally sovereign over everything. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge and His say-so. Weather is completely under His control, as is disease and sickness. If we are to ever give thanks that someone survived safely during an earthquake or hurricane, or a flood missed our church, we must accept God was in control of every aspect of the earthquake, hurricane, or flood.
The first problem with this article is that Young does not answer the question that he sets up. If God is in ‘absolute and sovereign control’ of disasters, then God must indeed have wanted to flood the house of Tony Perkins, presumably because Perkins was sinning and in error—in his view that God used natural disasters to punish sinners! Unsurprisingly, this is nothing new as a challenge to Christian thinking in this area. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 took place on All Saints’ Day, which meant that many people were gathered in churches, and many more died as a result of church buildings collapsing on them. Was this God’s will? In the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–19, the Bishop of Zamora in Spain called people to defy health warnings, and pray and attend mass for nine days ‘to placate God’s legitimate anger’. This included kissing a relic of Saint Rocco (the saint of plague and pestilence) leading to massive cross-infection, and it resulted in the highest mortality rate in Spain (12.1% compared with 3.8%). Was this God’s will?
This questions are raised for us acutely at a personal level too. A friend online commented to me:
I’ve looked at this subject a lot – I was born as the result of rape…was that God? Was it in ‘his plan’? I believe He redeemed it. I had a childhood from hell – was that ordained by God? I was a neonatal nurse – I worked with many babies who died….some ‘allowed’ to die: God’s plan or man’s design? I work with kids asking if God caused their disability – if he did, they don’t want to know him. Now, I have bright autistic children (who don’t read) asking why God ‘allowed’ the virus – not good for their mental health.
These are age-old questions, and they defy a simplistic answer.
A second example of this position is articulated by Peter Saunders in a CMF blog post.
We know that God is utterly sovereign over everything that happens in the universe. As the book of Daniel reminds us, kings cannot rule, lions cannot bite and fire cannot burn without his permission. God is sovereign over all things human, biological and physical and especially the rise and fall of nations (Daniel 2:21, 4:25, 5:21). God was the author of the plagues of Egypt in Exodus 7-12 and is equally the author of the plagues described in the book of Revelation.
Saunders looks at the plagues described in the Old Testament and notes that they are described as being caused by God:
He then extrapolates from that to infer that all disasters must therefore be directly inflicted by God, and for the purpose of punishment and calling to repentance. Saunders then relates that to who is being judged:
It is interesting that this epidemic seems to be hurting rich Western countries the most. That, in general terms the oldest and most wealthy of us on the planet are currently being hit the hardest.
In this I think he is completely mistaken: it is uniformly the poor who are always affected more by these disasters—even if the rich perceive themselves to be the most affected, simply because they focus on their own concerns. There is no doubt that those who rushed to the supermarkets and hoarded food will be the last to run out if there are food shortages. So is God encouraging this behaviour, and judging those who are slow to follow their example?
What I find strange in both these approaches is the lack of attention to what the rest of Scripture says about the relationship between events in the real world and the will of God—and for the biblical writers, as much as for us, this was a taxing subject with which they constantly wrestled. Even the conservative evangelical site The Gospel Coalition blog manages to point this out:
However, the Scriptures do not always connect sickness to specific personal or corporate transgressions. For example, the great prophet Elisha who raised the Shunammite’s son and healed Naaman of leprosy himself fell sick with a terminal illness (2 Kings 13:14). In the New Testament (NT), Jesus corrects his disciples’ neat-and-tidy cause-and-effect reasoning that ties physical sufferings to personal sins (Luke 13:1–5; John 9:1–3).
But we can go further: there is a massive theme within the biblical text that wrestle with the question of why the world is not the way God intends it to be:
I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. (Ps 73.3–5)
If we reverse that psalm’s numerals and look at Psalm 37, we are offered an answer—but the answer is not that God exercises meticulous control over all events, it is that God exercises ultimate control. His intention will be exercised and fulfilled, at some pointing the future, and human mortality ultimately brings judgement to us all. Thus our response to this disparity is to wait in patience for God’s will to be revealed.
The ultimate example of this is the Book of Job, relating to us the theological and philosophical wrestlings of a man who was righteous and yet afflicted, apparently by God. It is Job’s comforters, who offered a direct connection between Job’s sin and his suffering, who are rebuked by God specifically because they had not spoken truly. Yet, frustratingly, the story of Job doesn’t offer a neat resolution, and we are left with a mystery. As another friend of mine reflected:
I think ultimately we can’t fully fathom the mystery, because we are “in time” and of limited and finite minds whereas God is outside time and of infinite mind… So I’m happy to come to a point where I say “This much I know…” and trust that is all I need to know for now, from God’s point of view – because he hasn’t told us everything…
Scripture does tell us some things quite clearly, but that doesn’t mean it offers us packaged answers to these difficult questions. I don’t think we need to conclude that Scripture is contradictory here either; there are different theological traditions within Scripture which sit together, and as we form our understanding of biblical theology, we need to take all these strands together (reading canonically, that is, with the whole of scripture in view). The paradoxes and tensions are rather neatly summed up in Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew. The Jesus who tells us that ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father knowing it’ (Matt 10.29) is the same Jesus who reminds us that God ‘makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust’. In other words, you cannot measure sin and righteousness by the events of life!
I commented last year on this very question when it came up in the lectionary reading of Luke 13. In reply to the assumption that the Galileans ‘deserved’ their fate at the hands of wicked Pilate, or that the Jerusalemites ‘deserved’ their deaths at the hands of whimsical fate, his answer is the same: an emphatic ‘No, I tell you!’ twice over. We see the same dynamic in the other episode mentioning Siloam, John 9, the episode of the man born blind:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.1)
Jesus’ answer there is emphatic: ‘Neither!’ Joel Green puts it like this:
It is true that Deut 28–30 (to name only one example) insists that judgement will overtake those whose lives are characterised by disobedience, but this is not the same thing as arguing that disasters come only to those who are disobedient. In fact, Jesus’ reply does not deny sins its consequences, nor that sin leads to judgement; instead, he rejects the theory that those who encounter calamity have necessarily been marked out by God as more deserving of judgement that those who do not. (NICNT p 514)
In doing this, Jesus is both acknowledging the unpredictability of disaster—but at the same time refusing to let go of the notion that we are morally responsible agents.
Holding these two themes together raises some big theological issues. One is the question of the ‘openness’ of God to events in the world. Does God predetermine everything, and exercise meticulous control over everything that happens? Or is God relationally engaged in the world and human affairs, and working with us to determine its course? Roger Olson has commented that open theism triggered the “most significant controversy about the doctrine of God in evangelical thought” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries—and the Wikipedia article on this is surprisingly good. For a biblical defence of the ‘openness’ position, I attach here a chapter expounding it by Richard Rice—but might well return to this in a future post, as it is such a large and important subject.
But it also connects with our undertaking of eschatology and the kingdom of God. In his provocatively-titled article, ‘God is not in control’, Tim Gombis expounds the New Testament understanding well:
While God remains sovereign king, God’s sovereign kingship is not being manifested in the creation that is his temple, because his image-bearers are not manifesting it. As Paul says in Romans 8, creation has been subjected to futility in the hope that it will also be released from the slavery of corruption when God also transforms his people into complete image-bears that manifest his rule. Until then, creation groans and suffers pain (Rom 8:20-22). And we do, too.
God was not content with this situation so he came into his world, took Sin and Death into himself and broke their enslaving grip over his world. And God has promised that he is bringing about a future new creation that will be completely free of the devastation and chaos caused by Sin and Death. All those who call upon God in Christ will inhabit that future world and enjoy a reality characterized by shalom and blessing—the wonder of universal flourishing.
We do not have guarantees in this world, except that God will one day transform his creation. There are no guarantees that everything will work out as we want it to. We will experience suffering, pain and loss.
In Hebrews 2:5-9, the writer portrays this situation. Humanity was created with glory and honor—God’s image—and God subjected the creation to humanity. But we do not currently see everything subjected. This means that creation is in a condition that is out of control. Humanity is not fulfilling its charge to subdue creation and to bring about its flourishing.
“Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him (i.e., Jesus, the true human)” (Heb 2:8)
But in Christ, God has provided a future hope. The future world is one that is purified of Sin and Death because Christ is already ruling over it. That future world is the new creation that this world will one day become. By faith, Christians are to see this reality and hope in it.
I think this is exactly what we find in the Book of Revelation. The visions John has are not of some series of future judgements that God will, in the ‘end times’, ruthlessly inflict on the world, but a vision of the future in the light of present reality. John is already, in Jesus, experiencing both ‘kingdom’ but also ‘tribulation’, and that demands that he lives with ‘patient endurance’, something he encourages in his readers (Rev 1.9). If you think the four horsemen of Rev 6 are only going to gallop out in the ‘end times’ at the climax of history, then you cannot be reading the newspapers or known anything about history! The figures of conquest, warfare, disease, famine and death are ones that John’s readers would have known well, living in a world where life was brutish and short, and in a part of the world where earthquakes were common and plagues frequent.
John is very careful about the way he describes these disasters. God is indeed the de jure sovereign of the world. And so the four horsemen ride, ultimately, at his command. But John is reluctant to describe these as meticulously commanded or controlled by God. The are released when the lamb on the throne breaks a seal on the scroll, and one of the living creatures around the throne calls out ‘Come!’ to summon them. The moment when God does exercise meticulous control is at the time of the coming of the New Jerusalem, in chapter 21, when, without any intermediaries, God ‘wipes every tear’ from our eyes (Rev 21.4).
And this tension, between ultimate control and penultimate suffering, is seen throughout the book, and most sharply in the central chapters of Rev 12 and 13. In chapter 12, Jesus wins the decisive victory over Satan, expelling him from heaven and freeing his followers from any accusation or ultimate suffering. And yet in chapter 13, immediately following, Satan stands on the earth, exercising his ‘short time’ of power, and making the beasts who serve him trample the saints, something that, once again, calls for ‘endurance’.
God is sovereign de jure, but he is not yet sovereign de facto, in that much of the world does not recognise or submit to his demanding yet gracious rule. That is why Jesus describes Satan as the ‘ruler of this world’ who is ‘cast out’ by Jesus’ death on the cross (John 12.31, using language very similar to Rev 12), and Paul calls him the ‘prince of power of the air’ in Eph 2.2. That is why it is our daily prayer that ‘You name be honoured, your kingdom come, your will be done’. This future orientation to the reign of God, present in our lives, but not yet manifest in the world, is central to Christian discipleship.
So is there any sense in which God is bringing judgement to us, to the world, in the spread of this pandemic? Yes indeed—as Paul depicts in Romans 1.18, God’s wrath is being revealed in our reaping the consequences of our decisions. The coronavirus raises the question of our own fragility and mortality so that we might consider what is truly important. When life does return to ‘normal’, we will do well to have evaluated which parts of ‘normal’ are worth retaining.
Proximity to death always has this judging, sifting and evaluating effect on us. (The NT Greek word for ‘judgement’ is krisis, from which we get our work ‘crisis’. The proximity of death, and the realisation of our mortality, does indeed provoke in us an existential crisis.) The ‘Last Word’ column in Friday’s The Week tells the story of Claire Nelson, a travel writer who fell and was stranded in the Joshua Tree desert in California, and was rescued at the point of death after four days.
‘I was writing travel articles and living in London, which had always been the dream,’ she says. She had spent years striving for this, but it didn’t make her happy. She felt lonely, and under constant pressure to show everyone—friends, family, colleagues—she was living her very best life. ‘I ended up in an awful cycle where I became depressed,’ she says. Thanks to social media Nelson was able to keep her depression hidden. She could ‘put on a mask’ and present an image of her life as perfect. ‘I was very lonely and suffering, and those weren’t things I was admitting to anybody. So my Instagram was a way of hiding that. You can put out the best version of you, even if it is not the full version.’
After her close brush with death…
…her Instagram is now more open and honest, and she finds she has more perspective on life. ‘I’ve got this second chance at life. So, how much of it do I want to give over to worrying about things that don’t matter?’
More than 520,000 people die each year in the UK, which is nearly 1,500 a day—and yet we mostly ignore this reality. With the reporting of Coronavirus deaths (which are very small by comparison), we are being made more aware of our mortality. Would that this will make us think about ‘the things that do matter’—and even come to trust in the one who has triumphed over death by his resurrection?
Individually, it brings judgement to our own personal responses: will we respond with love for neighbour, even if that involves self sacrifice, as the saints before us have done; or at the other extreme will we abandon others to a lonely death, as has happened already at least once.
In the UK, the virus is forcing us to confront the reality of how much we have valued our health service—and how much we have valued those who provide our essential services of basic medical provision and food supply.
In the West more widely, the pandemic is bringing judgement on our self-centred culture, where our decisions are based on what we want, rather than on social solidarity.
Globally, the virus is bringing judgement on our assumptions of interconnection and the right to travel, despite the cost to the environment. Ironically, it will force us to adopt the measure that climate campaigners have been urging on us which we have listened to with reluctance.
C S Lewis commented on the importance of pain, without attributing to God the cause of our pain:
We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
We would do well to listen.
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