On Wild Fires and Other Tragedies
With Australia’s greatest fire tragedy still unfolding, (not to mention terrible flooding in the north of the country), all sorts of questions arise. Attempting to answer them may be the height of foolishness. What new or original insights can anyone offer in the face of such suffering and misery?
Indeed, for as long as humans have been on the scene, questions about suffering have been asked. At least three millennia ago Job was asking some hard questions about suffering. For those at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it should be somewhat comforting to note that God takes the issue of suffering seriously. Devoting an entire book (of 42 chapters no less) to the question is evidence of this.
While any answers one can provide will be unoriginal, tentative and far from complete, it seems some answers nonetheless can be offered. Indeed, some answers appear to be better than others. Let me begin by mentioning some answers which I think do not get us very far at all. At least seven come to mind:
One. Evil is an illusion. This response is found in some eastern religions, in Christian Science, in the writings of Spinoza, and some New Age thinking. But it really is a non-starter. Try telling the bush fire victims (or rape victims, or the 9/11 victims) that evil is really an illusion and does not exist.
Two. Monism. Found in most eastern religions and much of the New Age Movement, this is the idea that all is one. Thus good and evil are seen as one, with no real distinctions existing in reality. But any worldview which cannot make a qualitative moral distinction between say Hitler and Mother Teresa also seems to fail the reality test.
Three. Dualism. This reply says that good and evil are co-equal and co-eternal. Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Marcionism are forms of dualistic philosophies. But this is a pretty defeatist worldview, arguing that we can never overcome evil, and that this struggle will always be with us.
Four. Deism. In this system it is argued that God set up the world, but let it go its merry way. God is viewed as a watchmaker or an absentee landlord. He got the whole ball rolling, but he is not interested in our petty details, and takes no personal interest in, or interaction with, the affairs of men.
Five. Determinism. This is the belief in fatalism which says, ‘that’s just the way it is’. We must simply accept what we are handed in life – no questions asked. Islam, Darwinism, and hyper-Calvinism are some of the deterministic worldviews in operation today.
Six. Finitism. In this response it is argued that God is not powerful enough to stop evil. God may not like our suffering, but he is not in a position to do much about it. Plato, Whitehead, Brightman, Rabbi Kushman and others opted for this view. But it certainly does not offer much comfort, as we are simply left to our own devices.
Seven. Naturalism. This is the view that there is no God or any other non-material reality. There is no supernatural or metaphysical dimension to life. Thus there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to life. Crap just happens, and that is all there is to it, so we might as well get used to it.
Other unhelpful answers could be mentioned, including those made by some Christians. For example, some believers argue that all suffering is a result of sin. But this is only partly true. Sure, sin is what brought death and suffering into the world in the first place. But not every individual case of suffering is directly due to some specific sin. The book of Job makes this clear, as do such passages as Luke 13:1-5 and John 9:1-3.
So what can be said?
While some unhelpful responses can be rejected, there still remains the task of offering some positive contributions to the debate. But this has been going on for thousands of years now. Sure, we can benefit greatly from the wisdom and insights of those who have gone before. And Scripture itself gives us much material to ponder here. But mystery will always be part of any discussion of evil and suffering.
Many questions can be raised about the current devastating fires raging across southern Australia. For example, some might ask, could they be the judgment of God? One always needs to be careful about issues like this. Yes, it is possible they could be. In one sense all tragedies and disasters can be seen as judgment, or the general result of sin. We live in a fallen, cursed world, where tragedies are commonplace. Was 9/11 God’s judgment? It could have been. It could also have just been the results of militant Muslims who hate the West. And these fires could be the result of dry weather, of arsonists, etc. Multiple causes come to mind.
While in the Old Testament God could raise up a prophet who could speak about a given situation and say, “This is happening because…,” we really do not have that occurring today, at least in the same fashion. So we really do not always know why tragedies strike. Again, a combination of factors can be at play.
Of course all this raises much bigger theological questions about how much God is in control of things. Does God cause all things to happen? Or does he simply allow things to happen? Is he sovereign over every human action? What role do humans play in all this? How much genuine freedom and responsibility do we have? What about demonic aspects to all this? And how do all these factors interplay with one another?
These are questions which have filled entire libraries. So I am not about to seek to sort them all out here. Suffice it to say that God is very much concerned about what happens on planet earth, and is at work in various ways. But our free choices also contribute to the overall mix. And this being a fallen, sin-affected world, we can unfortunately expect to see suffering and tragedies as the norm. This was not part of God’s original intentions, and one day all suffering and death will end, and all tears will stop flowing.
And this also raises questions of theodicy – of why God allows suffering. It is a huge topic and very complex. And it is not new. As mentioned, Job wrestled with these very issues. All of human history has been taken up with such questions.
For example, during the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which levelled the city and killed tens of thousands of people, hard questions were being asked as well. The sceptic Voltaire could ask, “Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices than London or Paris immersed in their pleasures? Lisbon is destroyed and they dance in Paris.”
The idea of God’s judgement is certainly a biblical theme, but we must be very careful in seeking to apply it to specific tragedies today. For example, we know that in these fires, like most tragedies, there is no discrimination. Everyone is affected. The ‘good’ and ‘evil’ alike suffer.
In some places one house was burnt to the ground while the house next door was completely spared. One television news report was mentioning this and quoted a young woman: “It’s like God put a ring around the house and saved it.” That comment of course raises even more questions. If it is true, it means he did not put a ring around nearby houses.
And we know that some homes and ministries of believers were destroyed in the fires. So why spare some and take others? As I said, we simply do not have a lot of specific answers to these sorts of specific questions. Indeed, the ‘why’ questions may be impossible to fully answer – at least in this life.
But we do know as believers that God is not immune from suffering or indifferent to it. We may talk all we like about why the innocent suffer, but God personally knows this more than any of us ever will. God suffered exceedingly when his own son was killed for our sins. Jesus was the only true innocent sufferer. He was certainly the only sin-free sufferer.
Yet he entered our world of suffering and death, and took upon himself our iniquities, and the just punishment for them. Thus he knows all about suffering. And we also have the comfort of knowing that one day all suffering will end, and death will be no more.
Philosophers may speculate as to whether this is the best of all possible worlds. It may not seem like it is. But we may be able to say more accurately that this may be the best possible way to the best possible world – to God’s goal of the greatest good. In order to allow for genuine human freedom, the risk of wrong choices must exist. Loving relationships cannot take place among robots. Only really free people can love. But free people can also spurn their creator, make bad choices, and bring the world down in devastation, suffering and evil.
But our loving God has not left things alone. He has decisively entered into human history, suffering on our behalf, so that we no longer have to suffer. And one day every right will be acknowledged and every evil punished.
Such remarks merely provide the briefest of outlines of the Christian hope. They will not satisfy many. They are not really meant to. And they may or may not offer much to grieving families in Australia right now. But they are answers that can be added to the overall discussion. I believe they make for better answers than many of the alternatives. And they do offer hope, which many of the other answers cannot give.
But we remain stunned with sadness and with many questions. Mystery will always be part of the response to suffering and evil. But God is not silent. He has spoken. And he has acted. For many, that is a tremendously comforting response in the face of such tragedy.
Whether any worthwhile answers are forthcoming in this time of horrible devastation, we all can pray, and offer practical help for those suffering victims.
51 Replies to “On Wild Fires and Other Tragedies”
The recent terrifying fate of a litle girl on West Gate Bridge, and these terrible fires: we anguish rightly. Remembering Gilbert Chesterton’s, “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice”, we observe our own community’s chosen newly-approved atrocities: partial-birth abortion, destruction of babies born alive in abortion procedures, and the fascist enforced complicity of all licenced medical personnel, ie. doctors, nurses, pharmacists etc.
I have felt very sad on hearing of the loss of life and homes, in the devastating fires in Victoria. Channel 10 extended its 5pm news to 90 minutes tonight. News that these fires were started by an arsonist or arsonists would make sorrow turn to anger. It’s to be hoped if the culprit or culprits are caught, some judge doesn’t decide that 12 months jail and a “good” talking to, is sufficient punishment.
What annoyed me no end, was the allocation of a pathetic 90 seconds in the 90 minute news bulletin to the criticism of Greenies’ policy – policies taken on board by cowards in Cowards’ castle, terrified of losing preferences, that rotting undergrowth and rotting timber lying on the ground, may not be removed, as some of this rubbish is home to some lizards. What about the people’s homes and more importantly their precious lives?
Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld
It is natural, almost instinctive, to ask “why?”, but is that the most appropriate question for Christians to be asking? Perhaps we could ask, “God, what do you want us (your church in Australia) to do in response to this devastation (fires and floods)?” How can all of us show the love of Christ to those who suffer, to those who have lost so much, and to our fellow Australians at this time of crisis?
Thank you, Bill. I appreciate your sincerity & discretion in your writings. We do not know the answers to these horrible tragedies, and may never know them in this life – but we trust in Someone who does. What a comfort it is to have Him leading us through these dark days than to have to warily tread them alone…
Frank, don’t forget that Greenies are basically pantheists: they believe (i) that the world and Nature (capital ‘N’), and ‘god’ (Gaia) are one, and no-one may interfere with the functioning, placement, and the ordering of anything in Nature. Such would be an affront to the sacred Earth. So lizards must be left as they are; their habitat must not be destroyed or in any way interfered with. Needless to say, there is no ultimate distinction between a lizard and human: one cannot say that the one is made in the image of God and the other not. For them, everything is sacred (except perhaps humans!). One thinks here of sacred cows wandering at will through market places and dwellings in Hindu countries.
Green philosophy is very similar to Hindusim: it is intensely religious; it’s just not in any way Christian. I think people in this country fail to see this religious agenda of the Green movement, but just regard them as a bunch of kooks and loons. The distressing factor is that being religious, by their relentless agitation and lobbying of politicians they want the state to ‘establish’ their religion.
Surely, with the recent change of governments in the U.S. and Australia and consequently, the amount of evil laws passed recently, the extreme nature of the financial crisis, the extreme drought and resulting horror this week, we have to ask, are we still the ‘lucky country’ or more accurately, ‘blessed country’. The more we sin and tolerate sin, and even legislste sin, the less blessed we seem to be. We are reluctant to talk about judgement but is it rather a case of God being rejected more and more by society and the rise of idolatry and foreign gods being worshipped where, as in the Old Testament with Israel, God gave them over to their evil desires and disaster struck. What will it take for Australians to turn back to God? What will it take for the church to get fair dinkum about prayer? A sensitive and well presented view Bill. Such a terrible situation beyond our capacity to rationalise. Especially that people could actually deliberately start fires. Imagine those who don’t believe in God, how do they cope? Let us pray that God’s blessing has not been removed from our nation. Bless you Bill, you always bring a good balance to things.
Ryan Foley, Melbourne.
Thank you for a good variety of views on suffering. Though I am more comfortable to to think that there is not a diety that claims to have all power, knowledge (past, present and future), and love. I’d rather not have to go through mental gymnastics to believe that such diety exist in the constant suffering that many people face while I sit in my sheltered and still standing home.
As I offer burns victims the treatment they need and access to resources to re-build their lives, I see the appreciation in their eyes and words. There is no cold comfort in what I offer. If i was to give hope in the way of religion and that a diety has everthing planned for the better, then I would be compelled to put down my stethascope and walk away. I cannot offer genuine hope, knowing that a diety has known about the fire and could have done something about it. It’s just a lie.
Your ability to help people through medicine is itself a gift of God. It certainly does not arise out of mere selfish genes, and a worldview that claims there is no meaning or purpose to life. Choosing the path of being a medical doctor only makes sense if a personal, caring God exists, and we are made in his image. It makes no sense whatsoever in the atheist worldview. Thus your very career path gives lie to your atheistic reductionism.
You are right that in the end you offer no genuine hope to your patients. Healing their bodies is important, but even more important is healing their souls. Your impoverished atheism cannot offer this healing to people. Nor can it offer them any hope beyond the grave. All your atheism can tell these people is that crap simply happens, so get used to it.
Fellow atheist Richard Dawkins admitted as much: “Theologians worry away at the `problem of evil’ and a related ‘problem of suffering.’ … On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. 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.”
I think most people who have just lost a loved one would prefer the Christian version of events to the barren and ugly non-answers of atheism.
As to God preventing the fires, what do you suggest Tzu-yen? Would you have God instantly kill the arsonist as he is about to strike his match? Do you think God should intervene every time someone is about to do something evil? In which case, should he not strike down you and me, since we all commit evil in thought, word and deed?
It is the grace of God that allows every one of us to exist. It is the grace of God to allow atheists to mock him and ridicule him, thinking they can do a better job of running the universe. But I implore you not to presume upon the grace of God. You will stand before your creator and judge one day soon, and all your glib and lame objections that you now so easily dish out will dry up in an instant then.
But we have been through these issues before with you Tzu-yen. Those who have already made up their minds and think they have everything figured out need not worry about me and my replies. It is the God of the universe that they need to be very concerned about.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
In the preamble to our constitution we agreed to unite as a federation “humbly relying on the blessings of Almighty God”. This was a legal statement and a covenant with the God of the Bible as understood by Christians. It assumed that we would pass our laws in accordance with His law, thus securing a blessing for the present and future generations. The converse of this is that at some point if we were to do the opposite – pass laws that were against His will – we could expect to no longer be covered by His blessings and begin to see the cursing that comes from disobeying Him. Now whether we see this as God removing His special protective hand of grace from a nation or actively bringing about acts of destruction (the insurers “acts of God”) to humble his people once again is probably a point of debate among the various Christian doctrinal positions. None of this detracts of course from the fact that if God is God and His Word can be believed then the blatant disregard of the things he holds precious is going to have consequences. Are the fires, floods and droughts part of this? I don’t know, but until we reconnect with the clearly humble and Christ centered roots of our nation’s covenant we probably won’t learn a thing. The healing of the land in 2 Chronicle 7:14 had a big “if” attached to it. Let’s hope that those of us who claim to be God’s people will lead the way in something or real import this time around.
The fact that the Bible describes great highs and lows is testament to its timeless value to the human race. Even the apparent senselessness and terror of an event like these fires is not without the opportunity for redemption and hope by remembering that ultimately this is not our home anyway. I just wish (in vain very probably) that all who died had their eternal destination secured so that their deaths just marked the beginning of eternal life where no pain or fear exists. Sadly this will likely not be the case for a number of them. I wish it was.
All of us will die one day (unless Jesus returns first) so it is sensible to consider what happens at that moment. Without God, that moment renders everything meaningless. I hope many move toward and even reach out to Him in the midst of this situation, rather than rejecting and even scorning the only hope of full restoration that exists. Tzu-Yen’s response is no doubt typical of some, but this kind of reaction is empty and hopeless. Reading his post, I’m tempted to ask what he would say to those affected. “Cold comfort” indeed. I think Kathryn conveys a far better approach.
Meanwhile there are matters in this world to deal with. Sadly, I already know of several tragedies (and a few close calls) only one or two degrees of separation from me. It is all kind of surreal to listen to stories like these: being unable to contact relatives or friends since Saturday (presumed dead), or camps burnt down, or flames a few houses down the road… I go to a church on the outer eastern edge of Melbourne, and the mood on Sunday was quite sombre. Many knew people in the thick of it, if they weren’t themselves affected.
…and Murray, with respect, as much as I agree with what you’re writing about the Greens core beliefs, I don’t believe it is the time to articulate those kind of sentiments to quite that level. Keep it simple, mainly because trying to score political points beyond strictly relevant topics in a disaster may be counter-productive. People involved and affected in this tragedy directly may very likely consider that pretty cynical, even if your motivations are good.
The following article was a good start of the kind of thing that should be made loud and clear:
…and this one should be panned outright:
Hmmmm, a bushfire expert of 50 years vs someone in a philosophy department in suburbia. LOL! It would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that people lose their houses and lives… This writer actually seems to imply that the government can do something about the weather!
Sure enough, if certain policies limit the ability to reduce these kind of fires, then the connection must be made and the buck should stop with those responsible, but don’t let’s go off on a tangent worrying about why they do this when communicating to the general population. Point is, the policies are bad. ‘Greens policies make for worse bushfires’ is enough for most Aussies to hear for now. And let them hear it often. Maybe further skepticism to the rest of their extremist agenda may begin to seep into the general population and they can diminish in power and influence. We can only hope.
Meanwhile let us pray and act as best we can to help. I know many churches have already mobilized, and contrary to what I saw reported (albeit briefly) on Sunday night, communities generally welcome people back sooner rather than later to help in whatever way they can.
…btw, Bill, your heritage is showing, I’m afraid – in Australia – generally – we call them bushfires!
Yes Bill, it is the God of the Universe that we need to be worried about, not Man. Bad things happen to good people and we ask the question why is this so “God”. I am thankful that “God” is in charge of his Universe. I am also thankful that he has my 24yr old Daughters life in his hands whilst she is going through a tragedy of her own with a Brain Tumor and her Husband is a Doctor.
I really believe with all of my heart that this is another test to challenge her faith.
Rae Wallace, Devonport
God has provided everyone, who is without mental disability, free will. If we were robots, we couldn’t earn a place in heaven. We earn that by choosing to do good and with God’s grace try as much as we can not to do evil.
Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld
I’d like to see the papers quoting Richard Dawkins on this immense suffering:
‘ ‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that 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.’
First of all I want to thank you for the help and genuine concern you have for the victims of the fire. You have a gift and it’s wonderful that you’re using it to help people in need.
Secondly, I agree with you. the ‘mental gymnastics’ of understanding how a loving God could allow such tragedies to happen is daunting, but just consider the flip side for one minute.
If you don’t believe in a God who has created, may I ask if you would believe in evolution and consider humans to be a highly advanced product of the ape family? If the evolutionary process is true and we are in fact, beings who evolved by chance from humble beginnings as slime in the bottom of a pond- why should we care so much when other people are hurt or killed in tragedies such as the recent bushfires? Isn’t it just nature doing it’s job and part of the process of natural selection?
If we really are products of chance, anyone who has suffered or feels torn by witnessing the sufering of others is far more in need of your advice to “grow skin” than Bill. you say that you cannot offer genuine hope from religion to those you see suffering but can you personally offer genuine hope apart from religion? It seems to me there is much less hope to be found in the view that we are purposeless products of chance, than in the view that humans have been designed and lovingly created in the image of God.
When it comes to understanding how He could allow tragedies to happen, I can only say that if God exists, He is so much more intelligent and outside our understanding than we could ever imagine and it would be the height of arrogance to think that we-with our small, finite reasoning, could tell Him how to do his job.
I’m not saying anything different to Bill – in fact it’s pretty much exactly the same but I did want to say thank you for your work and I hope you continue to explore these issues in a constructive way.
I do pray these discussions may be of true benefit.
Tzu-yen also needs to recognise that there is a worse fate that people can suffer than physical death. We are all going to die one day so in one sense what does it matter the circumstances of that death, whether it be under tragic circumstances such as through a natural disaster, or not so tragic (although all death is tragic) such as quietly in a nursing home at the end of a long life and surrounded by a loving family? To a dead person standing before a Holy God, it matters not to them how their physical death came about, what matters then is their eternal destiny.
As Jesus tells us in Luke 12, it is not those who can “kill the body and after that can do no more”, whom we should fear, but “the one who after killing the body has the power to throw you into hell.” As Bill said, atheism is no help here.
Ryan above makes a good point. How can we as a nation expect the blessing and protection of God when our society has rejected Him in so many ways? As Ryan points out, our State and Federal governments have been passing evil law after evil law, culminating recently in the full legalisation of baby killing, or ‘child sacrifice’ if you want to use a more biblical term. What irks me most is when politicians piously say to disaster victims something like ‘our thoughts and prayers are with you’. Often the politicians saying such things are the very same ones who recently voted to legalise abortion. There is only one word for such people – hypocrites.
My sincere condolences to all those effected by the recent fires. Your article is a good discussion of answers to the question ‘Why does God allow evil’ and this, as you rightly point out, is the question many will be asking.
It is, however, entirely the wrong question. It shows our culture has completely removed the fall and the consequences of sin from its thinking. It shows our thinking is underpinned by a belief that we actually are decent and deserving people and God owes us good things.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible makes clear that because of our sin God would be perfectly just to throw all of us into Hell where the suffering would be far worse than any earthly calamity yet experienced. That, due his love, he sustains the earth, restraining the corruption that otherwise would come about is amazing – and all of us, even those who reject Him share in this great blessing. Furthermore, that He saves some from the fires from Hell to come is even more extraordinary.
That is why the reformers insisted that God’s blessings were all about grace. If God was obligated to give us good things then it wouldn’t be grace.
The question we should be asking, even in the midst of the worst tragedy is ‘Why is God giving us so many more good things than we deserve’.
To do otherwise is to succumb to the poisonous post-Christian view that breeds the false sense of personal entitlement, constant covetousness and dissatisfaction, and leads directly to our current western culture of victimhood.
What I have said may not seem like comfort to those suffering, but in fact it is. It may be bitter medicine, but what heals is having a true picture of the world: we deserve judgement, but instead God blesses us. That is a great reason to thank and praise God.
Mansel Rogerson, Melbourne
I looked at the two articles that Mark referred to and was totally struck by the lack of compassion for people in the article by the philospher from Latrobe. It showed the thinking of those who have Green views and the adherence to climate change political correctness was clearly evident. I hope the article by the bushfire scientist is read by a wider audience and that perhaps politicians will take on board what he says rather than be captive to the “latte conservationists” he refers to.
Our concern should not focus on arguing whether God should have struck the arsonist dead before he lit the fire or the theological arguments of the ‘whys’. Our concern should be why we don’t have stringent enough laws that will punish and deter anyone contemplating arson and murder and for that matter many other serious crimes.Is God not concern? Of course He is. That’s why we have the 10 commandments and other moral laws that should be the basis of all earthly laws to maintain peace,law and order. But these biblical moral standards are being discarded as out of date and irrelevant to todays society in favour of extreme human rights philosophy where the rights of the criminals are paramount and that of the victims or potential victims of little consequence and where deterent punishment is regarded as an abuse and uncivilised.Where the bible says ‘spare the rod and hate your child’, the modern society has corrupted it to ‘spank your child and you’ll get hauled up’. Murder is changed to manslaughter and prisons are made as comfortable as possible. God has done His work. It’s we who refuse to do ours because we disagree with His ways. If we continue with status quo, we will continue to see many more arsons and mass murder. Laws need to change towards stringent punishment for all serious crimes.
We were at home in Melbourne on Saturday and we were struck by how eerie it was. This was before we knew the extent of the damage and loss that was occuring. OUtside it felt like you were in a fan-forced oven and everything was silent and smoky. There was a really strange feeling to the day. We have since found out that a work colleague, his wife and son died in the tragedy, trying to save their home. I feel so sad for these people.
I think it is very interesting to note that those who are basically doing everything to help the survivors and support the firemen are two originally Christian organisations – the Red Cross and the Salvation ARmy. God bless them.
I have had the privilege of working with students from atheistic backgrounds in the past few years in Monash Uni and I struggled with trying to answer many of their questions. So I tried to read Y-origin and introduce the whole concept of intelligent design. Both I and the students who are asking the questions about natural selection and evolution have no idea what we are really talking about except scientists trying to use existing principles in science to proof their hypothesis. I have watched how both sides have torn each other apart. I was also taught Norman Giezler’s work using the laws of logic and reason to proof the existence of God. I used that on seekers and after 45 minutes into it both students and me were worn out. They were asking relevant questions but they and I can’t handle the answers. While those training and info I received greatly helped my faith as a Christian, I have seen very few turn to Christ as result of those presentations. I believe in apologetics and how you, Ravi Z, Josh Mcdowell and others have led many to Christ. I guess I am not cut out for that.
I know of many others who were ready straight away and have been waiting to hear the gospel and accept Christ as Savior and Lord straight away. I have been crying out to the Lord to help me introduce Him (who cannot be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard) to a generation or a people group who know no other way to believe.
On Dec 20th, 2007 my house in Wheelers Hill got flooded. My family lost half our possession and we were displaced. Within days and the following weeks ahead, my fellow Christian missionaries, friends and the church housed us, fed us, provided for us in every way possible even financed us above and beyond what the the insurance company reluctantly finally released to us months later.
That day I tasted the Lord through the food that they fed us. I touched Jesus when the Body of Christ hugged my family and received us into their homes. If Jesus was the visible expression of the invisible God then to me today, the Body of Christ is the visible expression of the invisible Christ working and responding as the Spirit leads us.
Just as we collected the last material possession back from the insurance company, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We cried before the Lord, this time He spoke to both my wife and I personally through the words in the Bible which God has chosen to communicate to mankind His plan and love in a distilled form and again the Body of Christ came alongside us to help us cope with the trial. They begged us to allow them to cook meals for us, clean our house, do the laundry and help work on the gardens. And take care of our little child. No doubt it was not perfect but God worked through the imperfection of the fallen world to work out his perfect plan.
I think this is the “time of the Church” to respond to the people around, to live out the gospel and then if needed, preach it. She has been doing it and I am a recipient of it.
Some comments on the David Packham article in the Australian I linked to above have claimed his motivation as a cheap political shot. They might do well to read the following he co-authored last year:
There appears to be a very strong link between the policies of the so-called environmentalists and the bushfires that we in SE Australia seem to be experiencing in ever increasing waves every few years. A bit like socialism, these ideas superficially appear to be laudable, but in the end cause untold misery and death, including, ironically, increased disruption of animal habitats.
Dear Bill, Thankyou for your thoughts on suffering especially those who are suffering in the Victorian bushfires. Now I have never believed in a vengeful God for one minute.To me God is pure Love but He is also a God of justice and if we keep insisting on choosing evil before good we are going to suffer the consequences because He won’t take away our free will. Once He has given us a gift He will not take it back. Our parliamentary representatives it seems are constantly making evil choices on our behalf. Last year 23 politicans voted in the Victorian parliament to de -criminalise abortion and the Bill passed. Archbishop Hart called it a betrayal of humanity. Just as unwisely in 2007 the Victorian parliament had an inquiry into bushfires and found that prescribed burning had been insufficient for decades and recommended a trebling of the annual targets but it wasn’t done. That was also a betrayal of humanity considering the tragedy which has just ocurred.
There could of course be other reasons why proscribed burning was not increased but I suspect that one reason was a pandering to the policies of the leftist political parties which are largely godless except for a few brave souls within their ranks. The majority like lemmings, fell for their arguments, which never put the well being of human beings at the centre of their policies.Consequently Victoria has seen some horrific fires Hellish in their intensity and whole towns and communities have been lost and people have died in what must have been terrifying circumstances.
The other holocaust of abortion, however, goes largely unseen but it is just as tragic and caused through evil choices. It is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ but until Australia sees abortion it will continue to tolerate it. For instance, the forty eight babies who were aborted in Victoria in 2007 after 20 weeks gestation did not have the benefit of being shown on the nightly television news dying in a kidney dish, unloved and uncared for in the dressing rooms of theatres in Victorian hospitals. If they had there would be a public outcry such as we have never heard before because unless they see it many people will never give the abortion issue so much as a passing thought let alone be active against it.
I was fortunate to be a nurse in the fifties where unborn babies at all stages of development could be miscarried and nurses saw with their own eyes the humanity of the foetus. One day as a seventeen year old cadet nurse I was working in the dressing room when a senior nurse rushed in with a foetus, a little girl, in a kidney dish covered over with a towel.This little baby filled the dish and she was opening and shutting her mouth as if trying to cry.I was taking instructions to be a Catholic then and the priest had told me the week before that anyone could baptise in an emergency.This I did and this experience has stayed with me ever since inspiring me in the pro-life cause.Others, even nurses have not always had the benefit of seeing and touching the unborn child.Even ultra sounds do not allow this.Only through the grace of God could this have happened because I could have been anywhere when that baby was brought in but her little life,short as it was, had a purpose to provide me with a unique educational experience in my youth.Even her mother didn’t have the privilege I had because hospital ‘policy’ was different then and she was not allowed to see or hold her baby.
We have some way to go before the consequences of the culture of death are fully recognised and accepted. Like the bushfire policy which cared more for the habitats of animals than it did about the well being of human beings it will be just as destructive of human happiness and well being.We reap what we sow in this world and evil choices have within them the seeds of our own destruction. God Bless Always
re abortion: ” …there would be a public outcry such as we have never heard before because unless they see it….” Sadly, general experience teaches the opposite. The subsequent betrayal by good people is more culpable than the atrocities of our opponents.
I thank God for you Bill, and all the other precious contributors, athiests included; I value you all, and your thoughts, at this time of national mourning and deep reflection. We need to grapple with this problem of human suffering. In Deuteronomy 30.15, Father God spells out the deal (read from ch 28 on) “I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil” to the nation of Israel and later to all who would “hear His voice and do what is pleasing in His sight”. Note how many times the little word “if” is used – if you will do this, if you will keep from this. Free will – our choice. Also, who set in front of us evil? The devil? Our choice, and the consequences are automatic. In Job 1:10, the devil says to Father God about Job “have you not put a hedge about him and all that he has on every side?” In Isaiah 5:5 the Lord says He will take away His hedge from His people if they won’t walk in His ways and bring forth the fruit He expects of them. I personally think Isaiah 5 describes Australia at present in many ways. In many ways Australia at the present time is like Germany under Hitler in the 1930s – many reforms are being brought in that we know are dismantling the hedge around our nation, because we have the advantage of being able to observe this first-hand in the UK. We (the Church) know where this stuff is all leading. And the last thing they will do, is probably to remove the Bible as the book you and I have to swear on (even though this itself is not Biblical), and probably to replace it with something like “I promise to tell the whole truth”, just as Jon Stanhope has removed opening prayers from the ACT Legislative Assembly, and replaced it with “a minute to pause and reflect in silence”. That famous passage in 2 Chronicles 7:14 is properly quoted in situations like this – “if My people, who are called by My name…….”. We the Church have some work to do. Unless we can reverse the trend in our nation, Christians will become hunted and silenced, whether in the media and classrooms and lecture halls, or literally, as has happened in so many countries. And this in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit, with such a wonderful Christian heritage. I was amazed to find so many of my Christian friends didn’t even know about the sinister legislation re religious freedoms coming up in Victoria, which would then flow on to the rest of our nation. Interestingly, the Isaiah 28 passage speaks of drought, or more specifically rain just happening to arrive when we need it, if we will walk in His ways. Surely the ongoing drought and general upset to what we have come to regard as “normal” weather in the driest habitable continent on Earth, is a big contributing factor to the bushfires. A precious man of God told us that the Lord had given him a warning of the Canberra fires 2 weeks before it happened. At that time I said to the Lord “Lord, why do you do this stuff when the people just don’t get it?” He said to me “I’m not wasting My time”. Salinity is another problem biblically linked to godlessness in the land.
Thanks Bill for your comments on this situation, which I believe is the wisdom of God. I have had another email regarding the “WHY” this has happened due to the passing of the Abortion Bill in Victoria. I am saddened by this one particular view point. Man has an innate question burning inside of him with everything, that question is “WHY”, we have to make sense out of everything. Sometimes there are no answers and things don’t make sense. My only concern is that well-intentioned Christians will go about saying this is God’s judgment. I personally have friends who have been affected by these fires. One of who is a 16 year old girl who lost her best friend. Could you imagine telling a 16 year old who believes and has faith in God that this God’s judgment? How would this affect how she views her God? I think we need to as believers of the loving, merciful God who sent His own Son to die for us, who is slow to anger (Psalm 103), tread very carefully, so very carefully in what we put across as to “WHY”. The question is not why but “WHAT?” What can we do to help heal a state of Australia who needs us to be the hands and feet of the One to whom we devote our lives to? It’s time for the Body of Christ to show these hurting ones that God is there for them.
Kevin Rudd says arsonists should rot in prison. Rightly so but before that, give them the cane as in Singapore and they will think twice before attempting to repeat their crimes again. It won’t stop arson completely but it will drastically reduce it and other serious crimes. Education alone, as is the style now, don’t work.
Well said, Francesca Collard, we must of course tread very carefully in this, especially with the unsaved and the young, but it struck me the other day – I had been watching the Christian Channel, when an American guy said of the Boxing Day Tsunami – “God’s judgment, when 45% of the victims were only children – I think not”. How many children were there in Nineveh? My bible tells me 120,000 very young (Jonah 4:10) Would God kill them off? Yes. Did He want them to be spared? Yes. Did He want the whole city to repent of their evil? Yes. Did God give us our lives in the first place? Yes. Does God take any delight in killing people? No, He is amazingly patient and gracious, giving us so many chances to repent, but there does come a time when He decides “enough”. How many “innocent” children do you suppose lived in Sodom and Gomorrah? We can learn so much of these vital issues by studying the Word, and listening to the Holy Spirit which He has given us to guide us through this troubled world. God bless you Francesca.
Incredibly, if not expectedly, there was a letter by a social worker in today’s Age saying we must be sympathetic to these poor arsonists, and try to understand them! http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/letters/ultimately-arsonists-need-our-help-20090210-83jo.html?page=-1
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Hi Ian, and before Nineveh, and Sodom and Gomorra came the Flood of Noah. How many ‘innocent’ children died in that event? People often rule out God’s judgment as an explanation for any disaster on the basis of pointing to the perceived injustice of it, but the same could have been said for any of the judgments recorded in the Bible. As Bill and others have already said, these days we can never be sure why events such as the Victorian bushfires happen, but to simply say that it can’t possibly be due to God’s hand because some ‘innocent’ people were killed is poor theology.
Having said that, I certainly agree that this is a subject that needs to be treated with the utmost sensitivity and the Christian ministry that put out a media release yesterday that links the fire to judgment due to the legalisation of abortion in Victoria, has I think shown bad timing and a lack of wisdom even though in broad terms I can agree with the theology.
Your exclamation mark is quite right, Bill. As a Christian, I know that Jesus was all fire and brimstone and would never have tried to “understand” or help someone as despised as an arsonist. He would have smited them! Good on you for mocking someone who works with the disadvantaged for their foolish perspective.
I take up this issue further in the newest article on my site: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/02/11/on-social-workers-and-arsonists/
You will obviously disapprove of that one as well, as the exclamation marks continue big time. I think his letter was appalling to be honest.
I do not deal too much with biblical issues in this new article, although I do raise them a bit more here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/12/19/on-lenient-sentencing/
In both articles, I point out the terrible social consequences of abandoning the notions of sin and personal responsibility. There is nothing biblical or Christlike about going down this path.
Of course Christians can and should be compassionate, and seek to understand where people are coming from. But that is quite different from making excuses for criminal behaviour, and seeking to turn criminals into victims. Arsonists are indeed, as the Prime Minister recently stated, guilty of mass murder, and should be treated accordingly.
And I know nothing about where you are coming from. But if you think Jesus has nothing to do with “smiting”, you have not read the gospels carefully, including his many warnings about judgment to come and the reality of hell. And you certainly have not read the book of Revelation, which is all about “smiting,” and the “smiter” is Jesus himself.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Who are we to speak against the Lord’s anointed? You or I have not have had a prophetic “word from the Lord.” But if the Lord raises up one who will speak from Him, we need to let that voice be heard.
The prophet who has spoken has earned his place as a prophet. May God keep using him to turn us all back to God.
How can the Lord pour out a spirit of repentance and revival in the churches, if we refuse to accept blame for our wrong attitudes before God? We need a spirit of prayers of repentance in the churches at the moment, because it has to start with us. And us pleading on behalf of the hearts of he nation and politicians who have lost their way. And pray for the unelected people who wield untold power against godliness. We need to repent on their behalf that they may be improved or removed for the sake of godliness in the Land.
There is no fear in coming to God. There is only fear in running away from God, as we have been doing as a nation. Calling people back to God is only for good, not for ill. For their good and for the good of our national community. God’s ways are the beautiful, healthy ways.
These are indeed sad and tragic times and it is inspiring to see the community all pulling together. I live up in north east corner of Melbourne and have had friends directly effected by the fire. Thanks goodness no one was hurt!
What does bother me is when someone like Danny Nalliah makes comments like “Victorian bushfires are a punishment for decriminalising abortion”. This was in the age this morning.
I know this is not the view of he vast majority of Christians but I am puzzled how anyone could make this conclusion. I always thought God was about love and caring not about burning people and kids in cars?? In all honesty, I was sad when I read this article this morning. I really have pity for Mr Danny Nalliah and his world view.
For what it is worth, Pastor Danny never anywhere said the fires were the judgment or punishment of God. But my position – as fallible and tentative as it may be – is given in the above article, so it is apparent that Christians may see things somewhat differently here.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I believe the fires are a direct consequence of human evil, greed and above all negligence. We have known how to build fire proof houses for 30 years. We have known how to build fire bunkers since the 1930’s. We have built neither. We have books that out line these designs. “Fire in Australia” has a chapter on design for fire. It was published by the CSIRO in the 1970’s.
We build European style houses in a country where they should never be built. If you flipped Australia upside down into the northern hemisphere we end up in the same latitude as the Sahara desert and the middle east. Wooden frames and loosely tiled gable roofs are rare. Yes the middle east has fires but they aren’t lethal.
The architecture we need includes sealed metal or concrete roofs (it can be made to look like tiles if you want). No wood in the structure or window and door frames. No wooden verandas: try tile on a concrete beam and panel deck. No storage under the verandas. Closed gables. Debris shedding gutters. Fire shutters on the windows. All these things are available but because we don’t think safety we don’t mass produce them so they are still expensive. They need to be mandated and zoned for.
Yes some of the buildings that burned were a hundred years old but most were recent constructions. That they ignited so easily is not an act of God, or nature. Man is their architect, some man built them badly. Men opposed the calls for sound fireproof design in the 1930’s, the 1950’s, the 1970’sand again in 1980’s.
Ever disaster fire, flood, drought, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, tsunami, etc can be countered by systematic and careful design. Some of the solutions are hundreds of years old and all would be very cheap if modernized. In a sinful world we put short term pleasure, artistic style, scenic views before common sense and then cry when people die.
Jesus said ‘build upon the rock and not upon the sand’. That saved lives in an Indian church when the tsunami hit. They preyed, read that passage and listened when they built their church.
If fire prone buildings designs are used to rebuild these town some people will be shouting foul loudly and possibly suing to halt construction.
Fire bugs, arsonists are very difficult to catch and deal with. Most are children under the age of 15. You simply can’t throw kids in jail for years. The few adult fire lighters I know of were all intellectually disabled. Brain damaged from birth. They were far from able to grasp the consequences of their action and suffered very heavy abuse in jail.
There is also the problem that the lighting of bush fires is on the terrorist list of tactics in Australia. We found documents a few years ago. However they also ensure that they cover their tracks and have many sympathisers that are willing to give them a solid alibi. Expect more fires soon if it was a cheap terrorist attack. It worked quite well. However we have seen no demands or claims of responsibility. But then no one I know of is looking for such claims. Would the Victorian government go public with such information if it had such a message? I think not.
I am certainly no authority on arsonists, so you could be right. However a somewhat different picture emerged in today’s Weekend Australian:
“The modest available evidence says the average offender is a 28-year-old man. One-third have a prior conviction for a violent offence. Most have limited education and poor social skills, and are single. There is a strong correlation with cruelty to animals. . . . Muller says: ‘A lot of people want to believe there’s something fundamentally psychologically wrong with an arsonist, and that they can’t help it. But actually, most can help it: they’re not mentally ill’.”
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I’m probably what you might call a failed Christian. I once had a strong faith but the older I get the less I believe there is a God. I have read some books on the question of God and suffering but like you I was unable to find any truly satisfactory answers. I regard it as the greatest stumbling block to faith.
Your summary of the main worldviews or explanations of suffering was most useful. However, you seem to dismiss a naturalistic explanation in favour of the Christian one purely on the basis that the latter is more comforting and hopeful than the idea of nature being blind and pitiless towards human suffering.
Sure, we’d all prefer to think that there is a God behind everything but you would have to admit that the universe appears to behave exactly as it would if events were driven purely by natural forces with no rhyme or reason behind disasters. Does Christian hope help anybody if it is false hope, or are we better to accept that bad things happen for no reason and simply make the best of the limited lifespan that we have?
Bob Hughes, Brisbane
I am glad you put it the way you did. It is not that God has failed you, but that you have failed him. The good news is, he remains waiting with open arms if and when you decide to return to him. There really are no other comparable options in life.
And my piece was not intended to suggest that there are no “truly satisfactory answers,” but that often we just don’t know why particular evils arise. I do believe that some very good general answers do exist to these difficult issues.
And my preference for Christianity is not purely because of the comfort it offers. I have chosen Christianity (after exploring most of the other options) because it is true. That is ultimately what matters. But it also certainly provides overwhelming comfort.
Knowing that every right will one day be rewarded, and every wrong one day judged, helps a lot. One day Hitler will get his just deserts. As will all of us.
God has, as you suggest, made the universe to more or less operate along laws of cause and effect, and there is some basic uniformity to nature. But because God exists, he is free to enter into our world. Thus the miracle of the Incarnation, and of changed lives, and of answered prayer. But this you should know about from your former days of faith.
But there is no reason why we must embrace the despair and hopelessness of naturalism. I already cited Dawkins in a comment above. Some other atheists have also been honest about the implications of their worldview. For example, Francis Crick put it this way: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrases it ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.”
Or as Bertrand Russell said, “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”
What a bleak and dead-end worldview this is. But Christianity is preferred not just because it offers hope, answers, purpose and meaning. It is preferred because it is true. But you have been there and done that – maybe. (Ask yourself what was your Christian commitment. Was it just a nominal church upbringing that you have rejected, or have you had a real, life-changing encounter of the risen Christ, and known the joy of sins forgiven and a love relationship with God through Christ?)
Suffering and evil are tough issues, but there are some good solid answers out there. I can suggest some titles if you are interested. But the ultimate answer is Jesus Christ. He entered into our world, took our suffering and sin upon himself, so that we can be reconciled to God, and live in relationship with him – now, on this earth, with suffering and hardship, but one day, with him forever, when no more pain, sorrow or death will prevail, and where every tear will be wiped away.
If you don’t mind, I have prayed for you and will continue to do so Bob. Jesus really is the answer.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thanks Bill, but you haven’t really addressed my questions. You say that God “made the universe to more or less operate along laws of cause and effect”, but that is really little different from the deism or naturalism that you deride. The claimed examples of God’s intervention in the world could be illusions. Prayer itself is always hit and miss – some prayers seem to get answered but many don’t. The outcome of a particular prayer appears to be no different from random chance, i.e. sometimes we are lucky, sometimes we aren’t.
Your response still comes back to the proposition that the possibility of an afterlife is less bleak than the alternative, and few could disagree with that. But the theology also brings with it the threat of eternal hellfire if we worship God in the wrong way, or don’t worship at all, or are unlucky enough to be born into the wrong religious culture. Frankly I find the prospect of death being final less alarming than the consequences of picking the wrong horse (belief) in the ultimate race.
And to get back to the topic at hand, you seem to be avoiding a tough examination of the central issue. If God exists, and loves us, and can intervene in the world, why would he let over 200 people, including many children, die an unimaginably agonising death by fire? Seems to be there can only be two rational possibilities, that God exists but takes no interest in the natural world, or that there is no God at all. The “hope” that God avoids intervention in nature for reasons we can’t understand seems to be a rather illogical and futile cop-out to me, yet that is the only explanation that Christianity seems to offer.
Bob Hughes, Brisbane
Actually I did address your questions; it’s just that you were not happy with my answers! God does operate the world much as a deist or naturalist would say he does, but… And this is a huge but: The Christian believes (and I am not here arguing the case for this, just assuming it now for the sake of argument) that a God outside of the natural order exists, he is the creator of the universe, and as such is quite capable of breaking in or intervening in this ordinary world of cause and effect. This is what we refer to as miracles.
And of course by definition a miracle is something which is both extraordinary and rare. If miracles occurred all the time, then they would not be miracles. But again, I am just stating the Christian truth claims: if God is big enough to create the whole universe, then it is certainly no problem for God to break into the natural world on occasion and do that which we would regard as miraculous.
As to arguing for miracles, two quick things can be said. If one is a naturalist, then of course miracles are ruled out a priori. If one already assumes naturalism, then no amount of arguments will seem convincing for miracles, because they have already been ruled out ahead of time. But that is not following the evidence where it leads – that is just making up one’s mind beforehand and refusing to allow for any competing options.
Also, each miracle has to be assessed on its own merits. For example, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be accounted for. The idea that there is a transcendent God who can intervene in the natural order is one plausible – and perhaps the best –explanation for the data we have on the story of Jesus.
As to the afterlife, you are free to feel this life is all there is. Of course you can now feel that way, being still of somewhat good health with some years left (I assume). But most people as they near death let reality sink in a bit more, and it is not very comforting for many to know that this is it – it is all over. But of course the truth or falsity of the claim of an afterlife is not based on our feelings.
As to hell, the biblical understanding is simply this: God does not send people to hell, we send ourselves there. If people all their lives insist that they want nothing to do with God and want to be their own boss, then God respects their freedom and choices, and allows them to do this forever.
God has done everything possible to prevent people going to hell. But if people reject God’s only provision for heaven, then there is no option left. Hell is populated by people who chose to be there.
As to the fires, you provide a false dilemma. There is in fact a third – and biblical – alterative, namely that God may have good reasons for allowing suffering to exist. And the blame for the fires really lies in much more mundane things than blaming God. Arsonists and lousy government/green policies of not allowing burn offs and proper management of fuel accumulations, etc., are there actual immediate causes of the fires.
But if you are concerned about God intervening every time someone is about to do evil, you really do not know what you are asking for. If God were to put an end to all evil at midnight, ask yourself this: would you or I or anyone else be around at a minute past midnight?
We are all sinful, selfish and capable of doing many evils. It is the grace, mercy and forbearance of God that allows all of us to get away with our rebellion, our sin and our defiance of God. But this will not go on forever. The biblical teaching is that one day Christ will return as the judge of all mankind.
In the meantime God has acted in the person of His son. He is concerned and he does intervene. The ultimate demonstration of his care for us and his personal involvement in suffering is allowing an innocent Jesus to suffer and die in our place, so that we can avoid the consequences of our actions.
These are all parts of the biblical answer which you claim to have once known and rejected. I again ask you two things. Were you really a true follower of Jesus, and familiar with biblical truth claims, or did you in fact renounce a nominal Christian upbringing and/or church experience? There is a huge difference between the two.
Also, can your atheism really provide better answers for all this? In your worldview crap just happens, and that’s the way it is. Tough luck. I would much rather rest in the biblical worldview, which offers genuine hope, meaning, purpose and answers – albeit not exhaustive answers at this point – than the utter despair and nihilism of naturalism.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I couldn’t let this pass without question:
“As to hell, the biblical understanding is simply this: God does not send people to hell, we send ourselves there. If people all their lives insist that they want nothing to do with God and want to be their own boss, then God respects their freedom and choices, and allows them to do this forever.
God has done everything possible to prevent people going to hell. But if people reject God’s only provision for heaven, then there is no option left. Hell is populated by people who chose to be there.”
So Bill, people who throughout time have grown up in distant tribes, and have never, ever had the chance to have even heard of Jesus, let alone believe in him, do they go to hell or heaven?
Several replies. The Bible makes it clear that all genuine seekers will be found by God. God knows our hearts, and he will make a way for those who seriously seek him. And those who have had not heard of Christ will be judged by the light that they had, and how they responded to it.
This is why so many Muslims are now becoming Christians around the world. Many live in closed countries where the gospel is not allowed to be preached. But those Muslims who are really seeking God are being rewarded for their honest searching. Many are having dreams and visions of Christ, and many are becoming followers of Jesus. God always has a way of reaching those who seriously seek after him.
Also, another part of the response would be that an omniscient God would also know how a person would have responded to the Gospel had he or she heard it. That is, an all-knowing God not only knows all actualities, but all potentialities.
But there is more: the last command of Christ before ascending into heaven was the command to his followers to preach the gospel to all nations. That is why Christian mission exists. Believers are doing their best to let all people everywhere know the good news of the Christian gospel.
Those people who ask such a question in all honesty and sincerity have a very clear answer: they need to make sure they are first reconciled to God through Christ, and then they need to make sure as many people as possible get a chance to hear the gospel.
But an atheist such as yourself asks this question in the hopes of tripping up the believer. You are hoping for a “gotcha!”. So I must call your bluff. The question is not difficult to answer, but the real issue is this: how sincere is the person who asks such a question? Is it just to shoot another atheist bullet at believers, hoping to score more debate points? Or is it based on a genuine desire to know the truth? The good news is, God always rewards the diligent seeker, and he always gives grace to the humble. But he resists the proud, and will not be found by those who are not serious about these most important of questions.
So the real question falls back on to you Chris. Which camp are you in? Your honest answer to that question will very much determine your eternal destiny. Thus as I said, hell is populated by those who want to be there. Or as C.S. Lewis once put it, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.”
To be honest Chris, I would worry less about those who have not heard the gospel, and worry much more about yourself. You see, you have heard the gospel. What you do with it is entirely up to you. And your response will determine your fate. So choose wisely. As usual, I continue to keep you in prayer, that you do indeed choose wisely and humbly.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I appreciate you taking the time with a detailed response. I honestly don’t ask ‘gotcha’ questions, in the sense that I am trying to ‘trip you up’, but if I myself find a question difficult, and can’t imagine exactly how one such as yourself would respond, the best way to find out is to ask it.
This question is one that has always troubled me in trying to understand the believer’s position. You have made that position more clear for me, so thank you for that.
Thanks for that Chris
I hope indeed that these are not mere rhetorical questions (as they are for many atheists who frequent my site). I too had many questions as a non-Christian. For me they were part of a determined and desperate search for truth and answers. My quest involved a number of years in dead ends and blind alleys, including many of the seven options I mention in the article above.
But when a clear presentation of the gospel was given to me, I jumped at what I knew to be that which I was searching for. That was some decades ago, and I have not turned back since then.
As I said, it is one thing for those in remote parts of the world who do not have easy access to the gospel. It is another thing for Westerners who have many means of accessing it, including a website such as this. We have gone back and forth on many of your questions over the past few years. I hope it is part of a genuine journey after truth.
As I keep saying, I am always happy to answer honest questions. But as I said in my previous post, God holds us responsible for the light (or knowledge, or revelation) that we have, and in a sense there can be danger in this. That is, the more one hears the Christian truth claims, the more responsible and accountable one becomes in terms of what one does with them.
My concern is that even some honest questioners may just be after satisfying intellectual curiosity alone. It is good to be asking hard questions, and to seek to engage intellectually with these issues. But it is not an end in itself. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me”. Therefore truth is more than just propositions to be thought about or assented to. Truth is ultimately a person, and biblical faith is about taking these truth claims and making a personal commitment based on this truth.
So can I gently remind you that with all the understanding you might be getting as you ask these questions, bear in mind the reasons you are asking them. Hopefully this is a genuine journey in the search for truth. People prayed for me while I was on my journey. I will do the same for you.
Keep those questions coming.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
If I were to go down the same path as Bob (i.e. to apostatise), I would need to see some “truly satisfactory answers” from the philosophical naturalists to explain the following:
The existence of the cosmos. The big bang paradigm has failed to provide a credible explanation for the evolution of the cosmos. It was from its beginning based on naturalistic assumptions and would have collapsed already if it were not for the invocation of fudge factors such as dark matter and dark energy which are entirely unobserved. The only reason the BB theory survives is because there aren’t very many credible alternative cosmologies acceptable to naturalistic cosmologists.
The existence of life. This is a big one. Both the lack of any credible naturalistic explanation for the spontaneous generation of life, combined with the fact that so much scientific knowledge is weighted against the possibility of life ever arising by chance.
The existence of good and evil. Bill has many articles on this blog pointing out the fact that within a naturalistic worldview there can be no objective standard of morality by which to judge right or wrong, good or bad. So the argument that goes along the lines of ‘how can a good God allow suffering?’ misses the point that how is it that we can even say that suffering is bad if there is no God?
It would seem then that only deistic worldviews are credible since the naturalistic one requires so many giant leaps of faith. But Bob seems to favour the naturalistic explanations so I would have to observe that he has not given up religion for some kind of scientific rationalism as he may think, rather he has given up a credible religion for an entirely incredible one.
In considering why God would allow 200+ tragic deaths here, thousands there, and millions elsewhere and in other times and places, it is important to keep in mind the broader context of what Christianity claims: neither birth nor death is natural.
There is a reason we can’t shake the term “miracle” when it comes to childbirth. The symphonic confluence of causes in a newborn life is aptly so described. Human life and flourishing is simply a wonderful, wonderful thing. That’s precisely the basis for our dismay at its loss. We’re quick to invoke God, to question Him about lost life, but where is our celebration and gratitude for the gift of life in the first place — for billions of living, breathing people? One would assume from its absence that most people don’t really believe in God, and yet they seem ready to prop up an effigy whenever they wish to question Him.
Would it really be so absurd to have newspaper HEADLINES say, “Little Tamara was born today in a local hospital, as well as thousands more precious lives around the country. Australians everywhere are celebrating their arrival, and are pledging to do their utmost to ensure these children have the best care and upbringing. It happens every day, and if it’s just happened in your family, chances are you won’t be tired of hearing such good news.”
We have a similar presumption about death from the so-called natural cause of old age. All death is a tragedy. All death, even after 100 years of life, should be sad. Yet because it is inevitable we have come to accept it, and see only dying “before our time” as tragic. Blaming God just for deaths below a certain age seems arbitrary – why not blame Him for all? Couldn’t the all-powerful author of life sustain it indefinitely?
I wonder, do we overlook both glaring facts because we have some sense that we, personally, don’t live life as we should, and therefore don’t really deserve it, much less to live forever?
Peter Grice, Think Christianity
Dear Peter, Bill and readers,
Thanks a miilion, Peter! truly brilliant commonsense, showing how uncommon it is. It mirrors the genius of GK Chesterton who, in considering ‘thanks before meals’, went on to extravagantly praise the astonishing miracle of his human existence.
Without meaning to diminish the scale of this tragedy or the very real grief it has caused, I want to make an observation. I note that many churches have commendably held joint services in response to the disaster and that Rudd has said that February 7 is now going to be an annual commemoration for the bushfire victims when flags will be flown at half mast and a minute’s silence will be observed.
What I want to know is, when is Rudd the professing Christian going to call a national and annual day of mourning for the victims of abortion who number almost 100,000 every year? And when are the churches going to come together in like manner to pray for the victims and the tragedy of abortion? I won’t be holding my breath.
On the question of God’s wrath and “natural” disaster, the elephant in the room is huddled atop Luke 13. I’m amazed at how often the old testament is quoted by Christian leaders in the media in support of God’s wrath being poured out, for some particular national sin or abominable legislation. That might be appropriate were it not for the definitive, clarifying teaching of Jesus himself. What part of “no” do they not understand?
Teacher, were the Galileans just slaughtered by Herod worse sinners than the rest?
Jesus: “No.” (verse 3a)
Teacher, surely those eighteen people crushed by that tower in Siloam were getting some sort of divine retribution, weren’t they?
Jesus: “No.” (verse 5a)
If it is a trustworthy saying that I am the chief of sinners, and if all of us fall short, one might think that self-righteousness pride is what causes Christians to claim some are more deserving of God’s wrath than others.
Jesus taught in Luke 13 that the bushfires are about you and me.
Luke 13:1-5, like John 9:1-3, teach us that we are not to see every case of suffering as due to some particular sin, or the result of a particular judgment of God. Jesus does go on to say that everyone is under threat of divine judgment, and repentance is necessary. As I mention in my article, God can and does judge, including using natural calamity as part of his judgment. It’s just that we do not always have a sure word from the Lord about these things today.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch