CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God, Judgment, and this World

Mar 12, 2007

Most media outlets carried the story over the weekend of the radical Muslim cleric who told his followers that the nation’s drought was caused by Australians’ lack of faith in Allah. His comments were quickly condemned by many, including politicians and religious figures.

However, his remarks provide a good platform in which to contrast the Judeo-Christian worldview with that of Islam. There may be a small hint of truth in his remarks, but they are largely at odds with the biblical Christian understanding of things.

Let me pencil in a bit of theological background here first, however. There are three world religions which comprise what we call the monotheistic tradition. These are opposed to other types of theism, such as polytheism, pantheism and of course anti-theism.

All three religions believe in one God, who interacts with the world which he has created. And all three, but especially Judaism and Christianity, reject the belief known as deism. This is the idea that God created the world and everything there is, but he has basically left it alone since doing so. He is not involved in any personal way with the created order. Instead, he is like a watch maker, who, having wound up the watch, allows it to unwind by itself, with no outside interaction or intervention.

Certainly the Judeo-Christian concept of God is radically different from deism. God is a God who acts in history, who acts in the world, and has an ongoing, personal relationship with it. The Old Testament is full of the personal involvement of Yahweh in the affairs of not just Israel, but also of the nations. And of course he interacts with individuals as well.

The New Testament takes this even further, arguing that God has come in the flesh (the doctrine of the Incarnation), and physically and personally dwelt on planet earth for some thirty years. Here the immanence and transcendence of God come together in a powerful way. That is, God is both with us and near us, in a very real sense, while also remaining distinct and separate from us. The creator of the entire universe also happened to be born of a woman; and he died on a wooden cross, made from the very trees he had helped to create.

The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is both creator and sustainer of this world: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16, 17)

That’s what Christians mean by the doctrine of providence, the idea that God is continuously involved in maintaining and sustaining the created order. God is not aloof from his creation, like some absentee landlord, but is at all times actively involved in it.

More specifically, the biblical doctrine of providence means God is constantly guiding, directing, preserving, sustaining and upholding his creation. God is at all times present and active in our lives. God is personally involved in every aspect of human life and the world around us. The world is not ruled by chance or fate, but by a personal God intimately involved in it.

So how does all this tie in with the cleric’s remarks? Both atheists and secularists of course do not even believe in God or the supernatural. But many liberal theologians and non-biblical Christians act as if God does not exist either. This is because they really doubt that he interacts with this world in any ongoing basis. For many lukewarm believers, the events of this world are just natural cause and effect events, in no way connected with the hand of God.

But biblical faith affirms the constant involvement of God with his creation. And part of that interaction comes in the form of judgment. God does indeed use physical forces such as storms and floods and earthquakes as forms of judgment. That is the clear message of the Old Testament.

Of course today it is not our job, generally speaking, to say that a given natural calamity is a specific act of God, dealing with a specific situation, or is just the ongoing process of events in a fallen world. Thus believers today must be very careful about claiming a certain natural event is a specific judgment of God.

Recall that until recently, insurance companies could speak of such events as “acts of God”. Since biblical Christians are not deists, that description is accurate. But again, any specific act of nature may or may not be seen as some specific act of God, and we need to take care in making such claims.

But the main point I wish to make about the cleric’s comments is this: there is a big difference between the Judeo-Christian position, and his. He assumes it is the faithlessness of the infidels of the West (in this case, scientists and others) which is bringing about the judgment of God.

While Jews and Christians certainly do not doubt that God exercises judgment on unbelievers, they just as importantly believe that he also does so on his own people. “Judgment must first begin with the household of God” we are told in 1 Peter 4:17. God is often more concerned about those who claim to be his people, insisting that they get their own act together.

Thus the classic passage on God’s dealing in physical judgment with the world reverses the order of the cleric: “If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:13, 14)

There is no talk here about the infidel, or the faithless pagan. It is God’s people that this word is addressed to. They need to get their act together, if they want to see God’s blessing released in his world.

Interestingly, the same weekend that the cleric made his remarks, hundreds of Christians were meeting in Parliament House in Canberra as part of a “National Solemn Assembly”. The focus was prayer for the nation, and especially for the drought. But instead of blaming unbelievers, the Christians who were assembled there prayed for forgiveness, and confessed their own sins before God.

One day every person will appear before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10). But in the meantime, believers are exhorted to get their own house in order, and walk humbly before their God. I do not know if the Melbourne Muslim cleric told his followers that they too should repent and humbly bow before their God. But those are certainly the marching orders for followers of Jesus.

While secularists and liberal religionists will find all of the above just too much to handle (it is foolishness to them, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14), for those of Biblical faith, it may help to explain some of the key differences between Christianity, and other world religions, especially Islam.

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10 Responses to God, Judgment, and this World

  • I wonder what that same cleric would say when natural calamaties cause devistation in Muslim lands.

    I wonder if the decline of Australia is not so much the fault of the secularist/athiest or even the liberal church as it is the believing protestant churches that have retreated into anti-intellectualism, postmodernism and emotionalism. The trend of the modern church has allowed itself to become marginalised and ceases to engage the public square on intellectual levels. Surely this is one of the main tragedies of the modern day.

    Damien Spillane

  • The God of the Bible governs those who follow Him – but never commands His children to wage a personal war or Jihad. If my neighbor steals I have a responsibility as a Christian to do what is right (i.e. inform authorities and/or dialogue with the person to try and persuade them to change their ways). The Judeo-Christian bible never commands me to strike a person or physically prevent them from sinning unless it is to protect someone else from violence. Whereas the extreme Islamic belief is that each Muslim has the authority to physically intervene and force people to obey Allah or kill them if they refuse, even if that person is not under Islamic law and even if they are half way around the world!
    The God of the Bible commands capital punishment for crimes when the Israelites are under the rule of God – but when the Christian believer is under the rule of any Earthly government – the Christian must submit to the ruling authority and use the commands of God to govern their own behavior, leaving the Earthly government to worry about the criminal. Today the believer of God has no Biblical authority to take justice into their own hands and exact punishment on any sinner.

    Rev 22:10,11 – And he said to me, “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand. He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still.”

    Many people say and believe that the Christian God and the Islamic god are the same – but that could not be further from the truth.

    Joshua Ferrara

  • The sheik’s argument has a few problems. Most Islamic states I can think of aren’t exactly rain forests!

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • Damien Spillane 12.3.07 / 9pm asked:

    I wonder what that same cleric would say when natural calamaties cause devistation in Muslim lands.

    Well, Damien, I think it is particularly instructive that the cleric had nothing to say, that we have heard, regarding the multiple disasters which have struck Indonesia – the most populous Muslim nation on the planet, and especially in the very region where Muslims have been fighting a large civil/religious war against the Christians. (I know that Aceh isn’t a one-sided problem, but we’re not debating that issue just now).

    John Angelico

  • Bill,

    To put your views in simple terms:
    1. God sometimes gets mad with us and inflicts his wrath upon the human race.
    2. We are supposed to somehow differentiate between “natural” disasters and “acts of God”.
    3. If we conclude a particular disaster is an act of God, we are supposed to figure out what we might have done to deserve God’s wrath and mend our ways.
    4. You are not a real Christian unless you believe all of the above.

    In the light of all this doubt, uncertainty and guesswork, how can you be so certain that your opinion is correct?

    Daniel Farrelly, Sydney

  • Thanks Daniel

    As I said, my article was in a sense an in-house theological discussion, one which would be sensible to believers, but not necessarily to unbelievers. Thus I can answer you in two ways. First, I can try to explain the theological nuances here, if you are genuinely interested, and not just asking rhetorical questions.

    As I tried to suggest, such acts are found frequently in the Old Testament. But a prophet sent by God would usually be there to inform people if something was a judgment of God. For the most part we do not have such prophetic voices to help us discern such things today.

    A Christian believes that in one sense God has set up a cause and effect world, in which things happen in a more or less predictable fashion. But the Christian worldview also claims that God is involved in this world, and can and does intervene, interact and relate to us and our world. God can allow things to take their natural course, or he can enter in, and make changes, in response to the prayers of his people, or the choices we make. (And Christians disagree amongst themselves as to just how much God is in control, depending on their theological persuasions.)

    God’s personal involvement in our world may take the form of judgment (something a holy and just God would and should do) but it may also take the form of grace and kindness. Given how we have all basically told God to drop dead, he remains remarkably patient, merciful and forgiving in the face of such belligerent rebellion against him. Thus the doctrine of common grace: he makes the sun to shine on the good and evil (Matt. 5:45). We seldom get what we deserve. Instead, every day we are alive is another day of grace. And as Paul says, it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 4:2)

    Peter, in speaking about a future day of judgment, puts it this way: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

    The real question to ask is, why has God been so forbearing and gracious with us rebels, when he would be perfectly just and entitled to wipe the lot of us out today? We all should make good use of this window of opportunity, this period of grace, and not make light of the just punishment we all deserve for our willful rebellion against our creator and boss.

    But you are right in one aspect: God does want us to “mend our ways”. Thus acts of judgment are not so much punishment because God is mad, as you say, but acts of a loving father hoping to draw his wayward children back to himself. In this sense, pain can have a purpose: just as a toothache tells us we need to urgently deal with our dental hygiene, or things will only get worse, so God in his love and kindness will sometimes allow hardships to come our way, to get our attention, to help us get our priorities right, putting him back into the picture, and so on. That is the act of a loving Father, not a vengeful ogre. Seen in this light, such acts of judgment are instead really acts of grace.

    But our response makes all the difference. We can choose to ignore these warnings and go our own rebellious way. Or we can recognize that we are the created, not the creator, and let God be God. The choice is ours.

    But my second way to respond to you is this: As a non-believer, it seems you do not have a lot going for you in terms of seeking to explain natural evil. If a physical calamity happens, it just happens. There is no rhyme or reason for it. Crap just happens.

    I take more comfort from the fact that there is purpose and meaning in the world, even though it may not always be fully explicable at the moment, than believing I am just a meaningless nothing in a meaningless universe. The fact that there is a God who is concerned about history, concerned about nations, and concerned about you and me, is far more reassuring than living in a purposeless, random and ultimately arbitrary universe.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    You must have a different definition of evil from mine, if you consider natural disasters to be evil. My understanding of evil is that it is the product of a sentient being.

    As for your view that non-believers have problems trying to find meaning in the world, on the contrary I find it far more satisfying to be able to understand the causes of natural events. You say that “crap just happens”, but in fact that’s not the case. Take the tsunami for instance. The natural forces that caused it are relatively well understood, and such events can be predicted to be most likely in particular regions, even though we are not able to predict exactly when. But we gain knowledge from such events, and we can take measures to provide warning systems to reduce the loss of life next time. All “natural” disasters are the result of the laws of physics and the properties of matter, which are blind to any resultant human misery.

    On the other hand, your belief system seems deeply disturbing to me. Instead of looking for a natural cause, you believe that everything happens because God has a reason for it. In the case of a natural disaster that destroys hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, it’s almost impossible to understand why a loving God would sanction such an event. Similarly with Hurricane Katrina. In both these cases, some of the poorest most down-trodden people on the planet lost their lives, loved ones, homes or livelihoods. Such disasters don’t discriminate between Christian, Muslim, Hindu or atheist.

    I simply don’t understand how you can “take comfort” from a belief that unbearable pain, anguish and human suffering are the acts of a “loving Father”. A non-theistic explanation can account for such things and can encourage us to take action to minimise the resultant human misery. The theistic explanation raises inexplicable questions, and must surely give rise to a sense of hopelessness in the face of a supernatural force beyond human understanding. Isn’t this sense of helplessness in the face of the mighty forces of nature very reason why ancient humans assumed there must be gods?

    My questions are not rhetorical, by the way. I find this area of theistic belief to be puzzling in the extreme.

    Daniel Farrelly, Sydney

  • Good comment Bill. I was at the Solemn Assembly in Canberra, and considered it a great privilege to be part of it. The Assembly was called after months of seeking God about the drought by various groups of intercessors and many responses which were sent in, collated and discerned, pointing to sins that needed to be repented of, personally, and in the body of Christ. These sins, in particular categories, were repented of over the three days.
    We will humbly wait to see if God accepted our repentance.
    If there is a break in the drought and a return to the seasonal cycles, we may say that He has. But the unbelievers will still doubt that it was God. There is as much a problem with blessings as there is with judgements for the unbeliever. Ahab never acknowledged the rain came after Elijah’s prayer for the curse to be lifted.
    Kon Michailidis

  • Thanks Daniel

    Both theologians and secular philosophers have traditionally distinguished between moral evil (resulting from human choices) and natural evil (calamities due to nature). This is standard terminology used by moral philosophers.

    Thanks for your take on “life”. But you are not offering meaning, only mechanism. It does no good to say that if a person’s baby girl is run over and killed in an accident, it simply has to do with the velocity of the car, the force of impact, and various “laws of physics” as you put it. What most people crave is an existential, personal understanding, a sense of meaning and purpose. Why did this happen? Is there any sense to it? How am I to understand this event?

    If one is content to live in a merely mechanistic and reductionistic world in which the only concerns are at the level of the laws of physics, then it will be a very narrow and shallow world indeed. Most people want more than scientific description: they crave understanding, meaning, purpose, telos, and so on.

    In a similar fashion, one can reduce a Mona Lisa to mere daubs of paint on a piece of canvas, which we process by chemical reactions in the brain, and so on. However, such soul-less reductionism satisfies almost no one.

    While a theist may not have an explanation for every minute detail of life, he has a meta-narrative in which to put these in to. He has a big picture story which helps to make sense of the little pictures.

    In the secular worldview, one is left with no satisfying rhyme or reason for anything, just bare physics or chemistry. At least the more honest secularists admit as much. As but one representative quote, Dawkins put it this way, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

    No wonder our suicide rates are so high nowadays. With such goo-to-you reductionism, despair and hopelessness seem like the only obvious response.

    As to, “you believe that everything happens because God has a reason for it:’ I didn’t quite say that. I did say that there is a God who is involved in this world. But there are at least two other variables in the equation. They both involve the rejection of God and the assertion of will in defiance of him. Both spiritual beings (an angelic world), and human individuals, make an impact in this world.

    If the plans of God for this world are only for its good, it is understandable that these can be frustrated if he has created us with genuine freedom of choice. As God is a relational being within himself, (the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity), so too he desires relationship with us. But relationship depends on freedom to enter into, or reject, that relationship. (Of course free will has no real place in a worldview that says only matter matters.)

    Thus the bad choices we make explain much of the evil in the world. So the biblical worldview helps to account for the anomalies of life. The greatness and grandeur of man is fully explicable because we are made in the divine image, while the atrocious things we do is attributable to our rejection of a good God, and our descent into selfishness, known as sin.

    And God does not leave us there, but has provided a way out of our predicament, because of the sacrificial suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf.

    In the biblical version of events, then, human choices will have a real impact on not just ourselves, but on the natural world as well (eg., poor environmental decisions made by us may result in unwanted weather patterns, and so on). So there is an interplay between God and his created order in what happens in life.

    That there is still much that is hard to understand when seeking to hold these variables together, no thinking Christian denies. I do not have all the answers for all the world’s particular evils, or suffering. But I do have a reasonable and ethically satisfying framework with which to think about them. And at least in such a worldview one can speak about meaning and purpose. The more consistent secularists deny that there even are such things as meaning or purpose.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Fantastic response, Bill. I agree with all you have said. I would like to add – there is far too much rationality/ psychological thinking & preaching creeping into the church…i.e. if it feels good – do it!! instead of making sure we know what God’s word says – meaning ..read the bible – not some one else’s comments )although this can help at times). Making sure each one of us is making the time in our busy schedules to take time & listen to what God & His word tells us every day -then have God confirm each course of action we are about to take not allowing the enemy to give us a false direction with rationale, etc. In addition, and although I did not attend The National w/end of Prayer, I believe from others who did attend, said it was also very much about Malacai – ‘turning the hearts of the fathers to the children & children turning the hearts to their fathers’. Malacai also states God hates divorce – how many ‘people are perishing’ because this lack of knowledge not being confronted in the churches with pastors/teachers actually going to ‘troubled marriages’ & spelling out what God’s word says concerning marriage/divorce.
    Eli’s sons are another good example of how Eli the father of these two men failed to discipline them & ultimately brought disaster to the whole family I’m sure yu wi agree we have a wnderfu Gd wh has given us many gd egs.
    Robyn Degenhardt

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