Monday, September 12, 2005

Katrina Reprise-- And Now for Something Completely Different

Well it was bound to happen. We now have the ultimate answer to the trivia question--- What do the fundamentalist Christian TV preacher and the head of Al Quaeda in Iraq have in common? Answer--- they both think that Hurricane Katrina is a judgment of God on American sin!

Yes, I kid you not, today Mssr. Al Zarqawi was on the news claiming that Hurricane Katrina was not only an act of God's judgment on American sin, a reprisal for the destruction we have wreaked on Afghanistan and Iraq, but in fact he claims that the hurricane is an answer to prayer--- namely the prayers of those who are part of Al Quaeda. When fundamentalist preachers and Al Quaeda operatives agree on something it is time to ask--- What's wrong with this picture?

Perhaps, we have forgotten entirely about the story of Abraham praying for Sodom and bargaining with God to spare the city (Gen. 18.16-33). Notice that in that story God spares Sodom if there are even ten righteous persons in the whole city. Abraham is persuasive in the story based on the rhetorical question "Will God sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" The answer to the question is no. God has better aim than that for one thing, and secondly the God of the Bible is compassionate over and over again even on recalitrant sinners (see e.g. Hosea 11.8-11--- thank goodness God is not like us in this regard). One can surely make the case that Biloxi, Gulport, New Orleans had more than ten righteous believers in them. Consideration of this sort of text should have eliminated some of the flippant rhetoric we have heard on Christian TV of late.

Or we could consider the brief story of Jesus' disciples asking whether they should call down fire from heaven on a village in Samaria that had not provided hospitality to the disciples (Lk. 9.54-55). Jesus' response is to rebuke the disciples for seeking judgment for those who reject them.

For the Christian person, the bottom line in this sort of discussion, however trite it may sound, is--- Would Jesus have suggested that the devastation that hit the gulf coast was a judgment of God? Or, would he perhaps have said of those cities what he says elsewhere about Sodom and Gomorrah, Korazin and Bethsaida--- that divine judgment of such places will not arrive until the Day of Judgment (Lk. 10.13-15). Judgment of that sort awaits the eschatological conclusion of history. Such texts ought at the very least to make us reticent to make snap judgments on why devastation fell on the Gulf Coast.


opinionated said...

Preach it, Brother1

philosapologist said...

Solid again Dr. Witherington. Here's a question for everyone: We've had these types of problems with these TV guys for quite a long time. So, what can be done in response or even to prevent future blunders which consistently embarrass and defame the church?

lycaphim said...

That's exactly what I've been trying to tell my more fundie acquaintances who say God was trying to wreck the homosexuals' party...

Matt said...

many refer to God's use of assyria to judge Israel as a possible precedent for 9/11, and this line of thinking has also been extended to katrina, though oviously katrina was impersonal (i have even considered it myself).

but if we reject such a line of thinking, as dr. witherington suggests we should do, would a strong reason for doing so be that while israel was a divine nation, the elect people of God, the U.S.A. is no such thing (though many seem to think that it is)?

by this i guess i mean that there cannot be a one-to-one correlation between biblical Israel and modern America.

or, to put it in the terms of stanley hauerwas, when American Christians say "we," do they mean Christians or Americans or both? and if both, which takes precedence over the other? or are the two so conflated at this point that they are inseperable?

matt varnell

Ben Witherington said...

Some good responses here. What we can do to prevent bad Christian witnesses on TV is to not support them of course. Don't watch their programs, don't buy their tapes, and make clear to those who ask you that they do not represent most Christians in this country.

As for Assyria's judgment on Israel, Matt has answered his own question--- America is in no way parallel to Israel. Even the modern secular Zionistic Israeli government is not Biblical Israel, so why should we assume America is?

And while we are at it, the primary group that American Christians should be identifying with, are Christians worldwide, rather than Americans, though of course there is nothing wrong with being concerned about and helping out our fellow Americans. That indeed is a good witness.

FellowServant said...

While I agree that Katrina and 9/11 are not judgments of God in the sense of Sodom and Gomorrah, it disturbs me to see so many take such a flippant attitude towards sin's curse.

Even a very casual reading of God's Word instructs that God is not to be toyed with. How could anyone really believe that suffering has nothing to do with sin? Look around - do you see a Garden of Eden? This world is cursed because of sin and disobedience to God. There is a flood of consequences for sin.

Perhaps it would be best to just read my post at:

Bad people - with a capital B

J said...

Fellowservant, I'm not exactly sure what you meant by the earth being cursed. How should Christians understand this? It's seems that life and nature is not always so ugly. Would you clarify?


Sharad Yadav said...

I don't think fellowservant was commenting on the aesthetic nature of the created world as much as he was pointing to the reason for which new creation is necessary - namely that the old one has gone wrong and groans for reclamation. That's not to say that nothing divine can be seen in our world any more than our depravity eclipses the image of God stamped upon our souls. Sin has broken God's creation, not obliterated it. I think its a point well taken, if I understand him correctly (though I agree with Dr. Ben's reticence to pronounce specific prophetic judgments with these sorts of catastrophes).

Kristan said...

I agree with what you have to say Ben. It is a scary slippery slope that preachers head down when they begin to pinpoint particular disasters or current affairs and line them up carelessly with scripture in this way.

I think it is right to respond to tragedies and wars the same way Jesus does in Luke 13 in response to the collapsed tower and Pilate's murders.

Jesus points them to the coming judgment and uses these events to show them that all will face the final judgment and that therefore repentance is necessary. Those who perished were no more or less righteous or sinners than those who escaped. But all will face a worse fate if repentance does not follow.

This is the same kind of warning given in the book of Joel also. Joel wanders through the streets of Jerusalem calling the people to account, to realise that the locust plague destruction heralds of a greater one to come, a more fearsome one, a great and terrible Day of the Lord - and that all should therefore repent, tearing their hearts and not their clothing.

As Christians I think we should weep with those who weep, those who've lost family and loved ones, those who overseas are persecuted or killed in mindless violence. We are to love our brothers and sisters and show compassion. But we should always have one eye fixed on eternity, and point others to consider the eternal also.

It helps as Christians in the midst of tragedy also to know that our God is completely in control and will one day redeem the earth and all His people.

Suzanna said...

The talking heads of religion serve to get the conversation going. We always ask these questions, thinking that we are spared disaster because we deserve it, and given disaster because someone else deserves it. Jesus reminds us to ask ourselves the question "Am I turned to God?" (Luke 13:2-5)
He is coming to spare us from death that really counts. There is a consequence for sin. The sin of ignoring the poor leads to suffering of the poor. The sin of ignoring civil responsibilities lead to the suffering of those one serves. At this time in eschatology, it is not a matter of judgment, but of consequence. Christ invites us to be a solution, not a problem. The rain falls on the just and the unjust.

Brett Berger said...

I agree with you completely theologically; however, I spent last weekend at the Astrodome providing pastoral care to the survivors. There were more than a few taking comfort in the fact that God used this to purify their corrupt city. Many were grateful for the fact that it enabled them to get out of there. I just thought it was interesting.

Ben Witherington said...

Actually, Bab, your comment perfectly illustrates my point. God can work all things together for good, but this does not mean that all things in themselves or by themselves are good or are from God. God of course knew this hurricane was coming, and knew in advance what its effects would be. There is no problem with concluding God has used this catastrophe to work for the purification of a city which has more than its share of corruption.

TheGoodWord said...

I agree somewhat with Fellowservant on this one. Why are we so quick to throw out the concept that God may use things like storms to judge people?

Though there are instances in the NT where there is a direct disconnection established between suffering and sin, that disconnection is not necessary.

In John ch. 5, there is a story of a healing. Later, Jesus sees the man in the temple and says "Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14b). There seems to be a connection in this case between sin and punishment, so why do we have a hard time saying that God may be punishing New Orleans?

I suggest that it is reactionary to the image that we fear we might have in the public eye. These people who make these comments publicly are generally disliked, and we want Christianity to look cool and acceptable. So we condemn tham as harsh. If we are going to throw out those who speak the truth and thereby offend, we'd better show Jesus the door too.

God punishes because God loves! And He does so because He is God and He has that right! And He does so because it is for our betterment.

Ben's argument is entrely ad hominem--so what if Al Zarqawi said it too?! That doesn't make it false. We do a disservice by not at least asking ourselves if this may have been God's punishment.

I mean, come on--New Orleans is a cesspool! Maybe God used the hurricane to punish and awaken that city. MAYBE...

J said...


“If we are going to throw out those who speak the truth and thereby offend, we'd better show Jesus the door too.”

Well… I just don’t understand this comment.

I hope you’re not suggesting those who speak are necessarily speaking the truth. That's a bit of an assumption don't you think? And… how is it that Jesus is related to these “speakers of truth?"

I find it incredible that someone would know, without a doubt, that it was God’s direct involvement that explains Katrina. That’s a bit too much to swallow for me!

“Why are we so quick to throw out the concept that God may use things like storms to judge people?”

I think there is a bit of confusion here. No ones rejecting how it's possible that God is directly involved with Katrina. What were saying is that we have no sure way of knowing this. It could be that God is directly involved, but it’s possible he’s only passively involved. Insofar as it’s possible that he’s only passively involved it seems any objection to this is undermined. Further, I think it’s arrogant to speak with such assurance on this matter. Do the scriptures explicitly speak to this? I hardly think so.


philosapologist said...

“If we are going to throw out those who speak the truth and thereby offend, we'd better show Jesus the door too.”

While this may have some emotional appeal, upon closer examination it is not as earth shattering as it may first appear. There is a fundamental difference between Jesus and these TV guys. Jesus is God! He can speak infallibly about what God is doing. We do not have the same luxury. Granted it may be possible that God used this hurricane to judge. But there is no way for us to know for sure. And even if we believe this to be the case, it is reckless for these TV guys to go around condemning people. Remember, Jesus did not come to condemn but to save!

Anonymous said...

Once again Dr. Ben you have hit the nail on the head! Preach ON!

Unknown said...

John 9:1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.
2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
3 "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.

Steven Ingino said...

Some questions for Dr. W.

1. Does America have to be exactly parallel to Israel for God to judge it? God judged other nations, such as Edom and Ninevah. To say that God will not judge America because it's not a theocracy/Israel is a non-sequitor.

2. How much more sinful does a place have to be to deserve God's judgment? I was born and raised in NY city, and went to college, majoring in religious studies at NYU before seminary. I saw the most disgusting sins everyday, in the dorm, on the streets, in the village, and through students and professors who were so anti-Christian, etc. Did the rampant sin in New Orleans bother God? I.e. occultism, witch-craft, prostitution, every 3rd store being a strip club and so forth? I'm not trying to be judgmental nor say it was God's judgment, only that He would be justified if He did.

3. The argument you make that judgment awaits the end time does not hold well with Scripture. Yes, Jesus says much about final judgment, but God certainly judged many peoples and nations (Sodom, Egypt, before the end times. If you're saying that since the coming of Christ that God will never judge until the final judgment, I think that would be difficult to prove. Most scholars believe the destruction of Israel in 70 A.D. was God's judgment for rejection of Messiah, which Jesus may allude to in Matt. 24-25. We see God's hand of judgment against Israel numerous times, and against other nations all throughout the Old Testament (not to mention the conquest). While we have no revelation after the closing of the NT canon to tell us if God judged other nations after Christ, I see no statement in Scripture that would have us to believe that God has stopped operating the way he did in the OT since the advent of Christ (I'm not talking about various continuity, discontinuity issues with Israel, the Church, covenant, etc., I mean God's general dealings in terms of judging sin, having the right to judge a nation other than Israel as He did with Edom and Tyre, etc.)
In essence, just because Jesus and Paul say there will be a final judgment, does that prove there will never be any discipline, judgment, etc. before then?
Your thoughts?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve: I don't say God never judges since the NT era, but I do say we have no infallible way to tell if he has done so. I would have expected a major judgment to fall on Germany after WWII for killing 6 million Jews, if I were just guessing how God would react to hideous sin, but in fact they nation got the Marshall plan from us, and recoved quite nicely. It even survived being divided into two halves. And while we are at it, do we really want to argue that 9/11 was the judgment of God on the NY sin you were referring to? Or would it be wiser to say it was the act of horrible terrorism which Jesus would never endorse? I vote for the latter. Whatever temporal judgments God may exercise short of the final judgments, the situations will always be ambiguous enough that we cannot be sure that is what is going on. There are no infallible prophets or interpreters in our day and age.

J said...

Well... you dropped it once again Dr. Witherington. I appreciate your clear thinking. Stay close to the Lord. I love this blog!


Matt said...

there may be no infallible prophets now, but then have there ever been? just b/c certain people in the history of the church and israel penned scripture, were they infallible all the time? in luke 5, luke seems to me to be making a judgment that God was at least heavily involved in the death of Ananias and Sapphira. being that acts is in our canon as Christians, we judge luke's judgment to have been correct.

a similar thing could be said about paul's words in 1 corinthians 11:29-32 - "For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world."

i know this raises questions about prophetic authority, but what would we do if a generally respected, current prophet of the church (if there are any of those) said that the Lord revealed to him/her that katrina was a specific judgment on new orleans by God? would we at least test the word? or would we rule it out even as a possibility a priori on other grounds?

just asking...

matt varnell

J said...

"just asking..."

Quit asking! ;-) hehe


Steven Ingino said...

Dr. W.

I hear what you are saying regarding your comment:
And while we are at it, do we really want to argue that 9/11 was the judgment of God on the NY sin you were referring to? Or would it be wiser to say it was the act of horrible terrorism which Jesus would never endorse? I vote for the latter.

while you may be right....
we learn from Habbakuk that God may raise up/use evil, cruel nations or people to discipline other nations. Habbakuk couldn't believe that God would use the evil Babylonians (Chaldeans) to judge Israel, God's elect. In the same way, it is not out of the realm of possibility that God would use terrorists to judge America. It is hard to believe that God would use terrorists to discipline a nation which is certainly more "Christian" than the nations from which terorists come, but it is certainly possible... I'm not equating America with Isreal, nor am I saying that America is a Christian nation. However, there are many believers here compared to Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. The same could be said about God using Babylon in 586 or Assyria in 721/22 to judge Israel. In the Bible, God uses evil people to judge people who are sometimes less evil (i.e. Israel was idolatrous, etc. but none would claim that Babylon was more righteous than Israel or contained more believers). Just a thought...