'Slaughter, Vengeance and the Burning Wrath of God'. How ‘Christian’ is the Bible?
by Martin Kuhrt
The Bible is still the world’s most in-demand book, or more accurately, collection of books. But in Western 21st century culture the Bible is, for many, in disrepute.
Certain passages may still be popular and widely accepted as containing spiritual truth or comfort but few people believe we can completely trust everything in the Bible to faithfully reveal the truth about God, the human condition and the way we should live.
For many, human reason is seen as a better way forward. Scientific reasoning, it’s widely claimed, has proved some of the Bible’s claims false. For others, in our post-modern culture, the issue is not so much the perceived conflict between science and faith but an instinctive dislike for or mistrust of all–embracing claims to truth. The in-thing is to find out, not the ‘one big truth’ that’s ‘out there’ so to speak and to which we all have to submit to, but the truth’s that true for me, and what helps me as an individual fulfil my own sense of what life is about.
The Bible is seen by many post-modern thinkers as a rag-bag of very diverse material, reflecting the self-interests of the different people who wrote it, and giving rise to at least as many interpretations as there are people who read it.
In this culture, anything that seems uncomfortable, harsh or restrictive to me in my situation, I should feel free to reject. Bible passages can, we’re told, be ‘deconstructed’ so that when we read a portion of Scripture, we can, if we’re ‘enlightened’, look beyond the plain meaning ‘to see what is really going on’ and what power games are being played. We should then feel at liberty to pick and choose from Scripture what is helpful to us. Authority is no longer seen to be invested in a God who has revealed Himself to us through His Word. That would be an oppressive illusion. Ultimate authority to judge what is true for us and what ‘works’ for us now, we feel, rightly belong to us. The Bible is seen as only one religious document among many, which we might, if we choose, use as a resource for discovering our own truth – a truth that might as well serve our own interests and make us feel good about ourselves.
So, many people today pour scorn on the idea that the whole Bible reveals the character of the one true God we should all worship and believe in. For example, those with a superficial knowledge of the Bible caricature much of the Old Testament as portraying a primitive tribal god who enjoys “smiting” the other tribes and declaring all sorts of harmless things “abominable”. They are horrified that the Old Testament should be used for the ethical instruction of children or to underpin modern codes of morality. Stephen Fry, in a recent Channel Four programme on the Ten Commandments, described the Commandments as “the hysterical ramblings of a desert tribe”. He saw the Ten Commandments as “restrictive, oppressive, and designed to appease a totalitarian god.”
People who want to knock Christianity feel they have plenty of ammunition with which to attack the Bible. It’s heroes of faith have obvious character defects – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Samson, David were all flawed people. God is repeatedly described as “a jealous God”, brooking no rivals. He is described as a warrior God. He punishes sins “to the third and fourth generation”. He inflicts terrible judgments, hardens people’s hearts like Pharaoh’s and still blames them for rejecting Him. He commands the Israelites to slaughter the resisting Canaanite population residing in the Promised Land to make way for their occupation of it.
Today, the feeling is that one person’s religious views are as good as anyone else’s. There is huge ignorance about the Bible, despite the massive influence the Bible has in fact had on our laws, our literature, our morals and our understanding of God for many centuries. Before students arrive at University to study English literature, they are advised to read the Bible because tutors are finding that fewer and fewer students are understanding the great number of allusions to Scripture in the great classical works they have to study.
I remember once, many years ago, travelling in a train compartment full of Goths - young people who like to wear all black and be freethinkers and ‘alternative’. They were for some reason talking about the Ten Commandments, and trying to establish among themselves what they were. Well they managed I think to remember three – ‘don’t murder’, ‘don’t commit adultery’ and ‘don’t steal’, but then they got stuck. I tried to be helpful and filled them in on the remaining seven, and they looked at me as if I was a great religious oracle! But if you asked a random group of youngsters today if they could name any of the Ten Commandments, I think you might find they’d be hard pressed to name any.
Sadly many Christians feel that the Bible as a whole is too difficult, and that it’s not very important to believe everything or even most of what the Bible says. Sceptical theologians argue the Bible can’t ”say” anything definite at all, because in good post-modern fashion they see it as a collection of diverse theological, political and philosophical ideas without an underlying integrity of message. And even committed Christians who are thoughtful and know their Bibles may struggle with significant parts of the Bible – especially those that seem uncompromisingly harsh.
Let’s consider the Old Testament first. If we hold out the Old Testament is the inspired Word of God, are we not, perhaps unwittingly, promoting unworthy beliefs about the character of God? What about the ‘smiting’, the vengeance, the sacrifices, the strict laws and severe punishments?
Well a tempting solution to this problem is to believe that it is up to us in this day and age to discern somehow the errors the Bible contains regarding the character, conduct and commands of God.[i] So when Genesis tells us that God decided to drown everyone on earth except Noah and his family and two of every kind of animal, we should now see this was a mistaken, if sincere, belief and reject it as unbearably vindictive. When the same book says the LORD rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah, we should now see that this was really the Israelites giving their own somewhat biased interpretation of a purely natural disaster affecting a people they didn’t much care for. When the writer of Deuteronomy claims that God told the Israelites to ‘show no mercy’ to the Canaanites but completely annihilate them, we must surely conclude that this belief was either a sincere mistake, or a cynical religious justification the Israelites gave for their need for living space. In reality, their action was nothing other than brutal ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide. Surely God should not be implicated in this evil?
Some who take this position do so on the grounds of human reason. Our reason, they say, tells us the picture of God these passages paint can’t be true. One of the problems with this view is that how can we be so sure our human reasoning is reliable enough to assess this? Our reason, along with every part of us, has been corrupted by the fall, according to the Bible. Therefore what at first seems unfair or too harsh to us might not be, especially if we don’t even recognise our human reasoning has become seriously warped by sin. What if we, in our culpable blindness to God’s holiness and justice are claiming for ourselves, in supreme arrogance, the right to judge God – to put Him and His revealed Word in the dock, instead of recognising that it is we who stand condemned as rebellious sinners before a holy God?
Some people claim a theological and spiritual basis for rejecting large parts of the Old Testament. They say that the Old Testament demonstrates an evolving understanding of God, from a primitive understanding to a sophisticated one, a tribal one to a universal one, a violent one to peace-loving one. When Jesus came as God’s full and supreme revelation, we can, the argument goes, now see clearly in the light of his ‘gentle, loving, non-judgmental character’, those bits of the Old Testament we should reject and those which we can safely retain as spiritually helpful. The Holy Spirit, it is claimed, is our guide in separating the biblical dross from the biblical gold as He guides us into all truth.
The first problem with this view, as a careful reading of the New Testament shows, is that every book of the New Testament takes for granted the authority and trustworthiness of the Old Testament. In the Gospels it is absolutely clear that Jesus saw all the Hebrew scriptures as the inspired, authoritative Word of God.[ii] For Jesus, what the Scripture said was what God said – pure and simple. For example, when tempted by the Devil in the desert, Jesus responded each time with the words “the Scripture says…” The verses he quotes are recorded in the Old Testament as being God’s words, so Jesus might have said to the Devil “God says….”. But he didn’t need to expressly invoke God to make the quotes authoritative in the face of the Devil, because that was clearly implied when he said that Scripture said something.
Some people claim that Jesus rejected the “eye for an eye” principle of the Old Testament, and took a softer line on sexual sin, but in both these cases this view shows a deep misunderstanding.
Jesus said “You have heard that it was said ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’, but I tell you turn the other cheek.” However, what he was countermanding was not the original commandment by God. He did not say “It is written…..but I tell you something else. He said “You have heard it was said” . In other words he was challenging the current memory of the command as it had become distorted by Jesus’ day. The eye for an eye legal principle was an important Old Testament law which provided just compensation for criminal acts and forbade the escalation of blood feuds. It was also not meant to be applied literally. If a master, for instance, struck his slave and damaged his eye, then the “eye for an eye” law provided that equivalent compensation should be provided for his eye. This, in practice, usually meant the slave’s freedom had to be granted. Jesus was in no way undermining this just and wise Old Testament law (which we still follow today in our civil courts when assessing fair compensation for personal injury) but was challenging the current assumption that the principle justified a vengeful spirit towards anyone who upset you.
In the area of sexual sin, the story of ‘the woman caught in adultery’ is often trotted out with the intention of showing that Jesus thought the Old Testament too harsh and that the woman’s sin wasn’t very serious. But if we look at the story closely in John 8, we see that that’s not what Jesus said at all. The Old Testament penalty for adultery was stoning for the man and the woman. Harsh we might think, but since adultery destroys community and Israel was a fledgling and fragile community and women were extremely vulnerable if their husbands were faithless, who has the right to say God got it wrong? Also, two witnesses had to be found, and these witnesses had to show they could not have prevented the adulterous act from happening so in practice a high degree of proof was needed to convict and the death penalty would have been accordingly very rarely carried out.
In the Gospel story, the religious police drag the woman, and the woman only, who’d been caught, quite possibly in a sting operation, and so the evidence probably wouldn’t have been admissible anyway under proper Old Testament Law. “Moses commanded us to stone her”, the Pharisees and teachers of the law say; “what do you say Jesus?” Jesus said “let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.” it is important to note that Jesus did not criticise the Law of Moses, but questioned who had the right to enforce it there and then. In Jesus time, the moral state of Israel was utterly compromised. The people asking if the woman should be stoned probably knew they were not acting in a properly legal way, with God’s authority. No doubt their main motive was to put Jesus on the spot. Jesus actually says the punishment can go ahead, as long as it is initiated by someone who has never sinned and who therefore had the right in that highly compromised society to carry out this solemn act of judgment. He writes on the ground, and as he does so, the would-be executioners leave one by one, the eldest first. I wonder what Jesus was writing in the sand? Perhaps it was something to do with the sins (possibly sexual sins) of each individual, causing them to flee in terror. The eldest would have a longer list of sins and be most keen to get away.
Jesus was the only one who could have carried out the death penalty on this woman if he had wanted to. But his mission at his first coming was to save, not to condemn. And so he told the woman to go and leave her life of sin. There’s nothing ambiguous about this. There’s a strong command to her to end her sinful behaviour not least so that when Jesus returned in glory, she would not be condemned along with all those who refuse to repent.
What about the other bits of the Old Testament deemed to be un-Christian and barbaric by New Testament standards? There is the command to slaughter the Canaanites in Deuteronomy and there are the Psalms, many of which cry out for God to avenge the suffering of the righteous by hastening his judgement on the ungodly. Some people take the view that most of the psalms are unsuitable for Christian worship. Even those who believe they are inspired often shy away from their emotional intensity and raw passion.
The command to annihilate the Canaanites is probably the passage that we find hardest to stomach. But Deuteronomy teaches that God commanded the Israelites to clear away the Canaanites, whose sin, over many generations, had reached such a peak and so polluted the land they lived in, that God said the land needed to “vomit them out”. As God is God, we might be willing to accept that He had the right to send the Flood to destroy the human race which he had made, when he saw that “every inclination of the human heart was evil all the time and he was grieved and full of pain about the earth he’d created” (Gen 6 v5&6). We also perhaps accept that God causes earth’s proud empires to rise when they are strong and disciplined and fall when they are corrupt and decadent, with all the human suffering and dislocation that involves. But although the Canaanites were particularly wicked and depraved and the Israelites were smaller in number and vulnerable, and needed a land to occupy where they would not be corrupted by idol worship in their very midst, we still shudder to think that Israelite soldiers were directly commanded by God to put to death everyone in the towns that resisted them.
However, the dreadful book of Deuteronomy, containing these commands, seems to have been Jesus’ favourite book in terms of the number of verses he quoted from it. Also Jesus seemed to equally love the book of Psalms, quoting particularly from the ones that sophisticated people have a problem with, the ones that call for the slaughter of the wicked and the enemies of God’s people to get their come-uppance.
The second problem for those who say we should reject the Old Testament as sub-Christian because of its harsh commands and portrayal of a wrathful God, is that the New Testament has plenty of warnings to about the wrath of God. [iii]Furthermore, the most severe words about God’s judgement and wrath in the whole Bible, with the possible exception of certain passages in Revelation, come from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels. So Jesus talks about the Flood in the time of Noah and says that Judgment Day will have the same terrifying sudden-ness and calamity. He talks about the fiery judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah and warns that those who reject the Gospel will actually suffer a worse fate on the day of judgment. (Matthew 10 v15).
He also says it will be “more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the Day of Judgment” (Matthew 11 v22) than for the places in Israel where he did miracles only to be rejected. Tyre and Sidon were in Phoenicia, and the leading people there were wealthy and sophisticated but followed the most debased religious practices anywhere in the world. Their gods were vile, greedy and capricious; their worship - orgies of cruelty and sexual degradation. They disgusted even the pagan Greeks with their human sacrifices, mainly of children between the ages of 4 and 13, judging from the bones archaeologists have discovered. Jezebel, who married the Israelite king Ahab, and who Elijah confronted was from this region - daughter of the priest-king of Tyre. She worshipped the fertility god Baal and all the materialism, sexual perversion and abuse of power which went with that.
It was to destroy this kind of religion that God told the Israelites to totally destroy all remnants of Canaanite religion and forbade them to inter-marry with the surrounding nations. He commanded this so that the fledgling holy nation of Israel, weak and outnumbered, would not be immediately corrupted and totally unable to even begin to fulfil God’s mission to save the world. Jesus said that Judgment Day for those who reject Him will mean eternal punishment even more severe than even that meted out to Tyre and Sidon, whose civilisations were crushed by God.
So Jesus is clearly more severe in his warnings of judgment than anything in the Old Testament. Judgement in the Old Testament is almost exclusively seen as happening through earthly events. Jesus pronounced a terrible earthly judgment on Jerusalem (fulfilled in AD 70 when the ~Romans crushed Jewish rebellion) but went further than the Old Testament in warning of eternal punishment and the fires of hell. If our hands or feet cause us to sin, better to “cut them off” and leave them behind! If our eyes cause us to sin, better “gouge them out”! In other words, we should give up anything and be willing enter heaven maimed, blind or crippled rather than be thrown into hell, where the “fire is not quenched” (Mark 9 v43-49). In Matthew 25 Jesus promises he will describe as ‘cursed’ those who have rejected him by showing no compassion to “the least of his brothers” and send them into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels. Jesus spoke of weeping and gnashing of teeth as people grope about in darkness, of people being shut out of the presence of the God and all that is good.
Jesus made it clear that He will be the judge of everyone and that he will judge us on the basis of our response to him in this life. There are no more chances for those who have rejected him in this life (Luke 16 v9-31, Hebrews 9v27). According to Revelation 14 v9-11 and Matt 18 v21-35, he will condemn those who refuse to repent to a level of torment that will perfectly match their level of guilt and there will be no rest day or night. Men will have to give an account of “every careless word they have ever uttered” (Matt 12 v36). The Bible seems to indicate a totally just level of punishment followed by destruction, rather than everlasting torment which, I think, relies wrongly on the Greek pagan idea of the inherently immortal soul. However, the ‘smoke of God’s judgment’ will continue to rise for ever as an everlasting memorial of shame to those who have embraced evil and rejected God’s love. This is all spelt out clearly in the New Testament. If we don’t believe it or don’t accept it, we are choosing not to believe Jesus himself. We are also rejecting the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ as well as that of the Father. God’s wrath is very personal, just as his mercy is personal, and the person at the centre of it all is Jesus. The whole of the New Testament lays this out most clearly, most of all the words of Jesus himself.
The question I started with was, bearing the mind the severity of certain passages in the Old and New Testaments, how ‘Christian’ is the Bible? Well, if the centre of our Christianity is a Christ who is a sentimentalised projection of our own feelings of what he should be for us or if he is merely the embodiment of what we think a reasonable God should be, then the Bible is not really ‘Christian’ in this sense at all.
In fact, if our Christianity is based on a cult figure of our own making we’ll probably want as little to do with the real Jesus of the Bible as possible, except perhaps some isolated verses or passages completely ripped from their overall context.
What will our Christianity be like then if it’s not grounded in the Christ of the Bible? Well, I believe, it will inevitably be very shallow and prone to idolatry. It will be a Christianity that is ineffective and seen as irrelevant, particularly by men and young people. We’ll have nothing to ground us and guard us when the spirit of the age seeks to seduce us and the world begins to squeeze us into its mould.
When people ask us why God allows suffering, we might compromise with falsehood by denying His sovereign power and overriding concern for His own glory, an essential characteristic of God’s righteousness, holiness and love. We’ll tend to forget that suffering can be a means of God’s grace both for individuals and communities. We’ll probably lose the concept that God disciplines those He loves, and we’ll almost certainly underestimate the depths from which we need redeeming. We’ll begin to expect from God that He’ll make us happy rather than whole, comfortable rather than battle-hardened. We’ll gradually cease to truly believe in the supernatural power of God or the reality of the spiritual powers of evil. We’ll end up thinking we all ultimately deserve a place in Heaven, and we’ll recoil from any idea of God as judge. In pride we’ll no longer believe that on the cross Jesus was bearing the punishment that we ourselves deserved. Why will be slipping away from these things? – it will be because are no longer soaking ourselves in the Word of God.
Sorry to say, that the above tendencies are manifest in the Church of England. The great biblical doctrines of God’s sovereignty, holiness, election, substitutionary atonement and judgment are increasingly ignored (without even being refuted in argument) because of the ignorance of the Bible and the unwillingness of leading figures in the church risk sounding out of tune with the drift of society. Were there to be more courage shown, I believe the hunger for God’s truth would become apparent.
If we hold fast to the Jesus the Gospels reveal to us, then we’ll come to the Bible in a humble, prayerful way, and the Holy Spirit will confirm to our souls that the written Word bears faithful witness to the Living Word. We’ll know the Bible is the Word of God and the Word of God is Jesus Christ. We’ll receive comfort, correction, hope, encouragement, wisdom, insight and true knowledge. We’ll find rich resources with which to pray, meditate and worship God. We’ll understand what true love and compassion is (as opposed to mere sentimentality), and be strengthened and encouraged in our Christian journey.
We’ll see the cross as the place where God’s wrath and mercy came together. In his amazing love God the Father and God the Son bore the anguish of spiritual separation so that our sin might be atoned for. This was the worst part of the agony Jesus endured on the cross, but the result is that now every one of us, no matter what we’ve done, can be declared ‘not guilty’ anymore if we choose to identify with Christ on the cross. In Christ we are raised to life with Him and future glory. But if we reject the Son and his sacrifice for us, then there only remains a fearful expectation of the judgment to come (Hebrews 10 v27).
I think we need to admit, with sober awareness that, one of the reasons why the Bible is held in disrepute among non-believers, is that Christians have dishonoured God’s Word by manifestly not living up to the revelation of Christ and the new life we are called to live in Him. Ghandi once indicated that if he had met more Christians than genuinely lived their lives according to the Jesus of the Gospels, he would have become a Christian himself.
In history, we as Christians have even used the Bible sometimes to justify our own self-righteousness and selfishness, to reinforce our own prejudices and to create a distance from people God is calling us to show his love to. People who have claimed to be ‘good Christians’ have misused the Bible to seek to bolster their positions of wealth and power, to justify the plundering of the environment, the institution of slavery, the oppression of women, and lack of compassion for the poor. Biblical verses have been used as sticks with which to beat those who we despise, even-though the Bible no-where encourages us takes pleasure in the severity of God towards those who offend him and indeed positively warns against it (particularly in the Old Testament).
Many Christians have been selective in the parts of the Bible we notice and proclaim to others. If we’re rich we might soft-pedal what Jesus says about wealth. If we’re right-wing we might over emphasise the significance of nation states in God’s plan for mankind at the expense of the wider vision of unity in Christ. The Old Testament has been read as though it were not fulfilled in Christ, leading to a fortress mentality towards people who are different to us. If we like to see ourselves as holding the moral high ground in matters of sexuality, we’ll likely emphasise the bits of the Bible that condemn other people’s sins while overlooking the bits that might challenge us.
Probably every evil perpetrated by so-called Christian nations or groups has had its biblical text, deliberately twisted or complacently misunderstood. Thus it is no wonder the severe passages of the Bible are rejected by many, because in the hands of sinful people these parts of the Bible have wrongly been used to justify oppression, unjust wars and even torture. Sadly it is considered by many that the severe passages encourage the belief that religious aggression is justified, whereas in fact the New Testament makes it clear that the Gospel is not to be spread by coercion or intimidation. At the very least, the parts of the Bible about God’s wrath and judgment are often seen as are buttressing the smug and vindictive attitudes of self-righteous Christians.
The truth that the Bible emphasises from start to finish is that, if anyone is saved, it is purely by God’s grace and mercy, so we have nothing to boast about, save the cross of Christ in which find unmerited forgiveness. The wonder is not that anyone is judged but that anyone is saved, since we’re all part of sinful, rebellious humanity, deserving punishment by a just and holy God. Now made righteous in Christ, we are called to live out this wonderfully glorious Gospel of grace, reaching out to the lost with all the compassion of Christ, aware that all barriers of ethnicity, gender and class have been broken down by Jesus. If all of us Christians demonstrated more of God’s grace and truth more of the time, I believe the Bible would not be treated with such suspicion.
One recent example, I think of the Bible being brought into disrepute, is provided by the furore in America over the comments of Pat Robertson, one of the leading ‘religious right’ figures. Robertson is exceedingly wealthy, influential and has his own TV show. Very soon after the earthquake in Haiti, he suggested on his show that the reason why Haiti is so poor and corrupt, and has now been shattered by an earthquake is that when seeking freedom and independence from the French, one of the Haitian leaders of the slave revolt made a pact with the Devil, and thereby entrenched a voodoo culture which still enslaves the people in misery and poverty.
Now many Haitians and Americans, have recoiled from Robertson’s comments, as you can imagine. Richard Dawkins, in a withering article in The Times newspaper, rather gleefully claims that at least Pat Robertson is being consistent and preaching the Bible and everyone should now see what cruel teaching the Bible contains, thanks to Robertson’s ‘plainly repulsive’ comments. But there are many ‘Evangelical Christians’ who think that Pat Robertson could be right and that the Bible seems to support this way of looking at things.
But this is where those of us who claim to be Bible-believers have got to be so careful. It is one thing for the prophets of the Old Testament who were called by God to speak in His name to declare that nations were going to come under the judgment of God. It is however, quite another for a self-appointed ‘prophet’ who happens to have a lot of clout with certain people to declare, that millions of people who are still in the midst of suffering are being singled out for punishment by God because of the particular sins of a distant ancestor. This kind of prophetic statement must be tested. It’s not enough to think it’s genuine because superficially it sounds to us like something the biblical prophets said and therefore is probably ‘biblical’.
A truly biblical way of assessing whether Pat Robertson was speaking something genuinely prophetic, is to look at his character, the substance of what he said, and the spirit in which he spoke. Some of Robertson’s financial dealings and political associations are seriously questionable. He also has a poor track record on making prophetic statements in the wake of national catastrophes. After September 11th, he and Jerry Falwell, another ‘religious right’ figure agreed on air that their politically liberal opponents were to blame, and then retracted his comments and apologised. After Hurricane Katrina, though, he did the same thing. It seems that at least some of Robertson’s past comments have less to do with prophetic insight drawn from the Bible and more to do with political and religious point-scoring.
He also seems to home in rather selectively on an evil decision made by some slaves long ago, but how can he be so sure freedom from slavery and oppression was not sought by faithful Christians in Haiti as well as voodoo-worshipping ones? Responsibility for Haiti’s problems at least ought to be shared by the white nations that perpetrated a vile system of slavery and left a legacy of bitterness and cruelty. I rather doubt whether Robertson has much to say about that.
Finally, to speak in this way while people were still being pulled out of the rubble and the country was crying out for help from abroad, seems to indicate a lack of Christian charity. When people are still in the midst of suffering, the God of the Bible wants no judgmental gloating or theological pontificating, but God-fearing people to respond with compassionate help.
Even if he had waited till a good while later before coming to conclusions as to the reasons for Haiti’s problems, Jesus taught us in the Gospels that it was a mistake to see a simplistic link between sin and suffering. Individuals, groups or nations which suffer particular disasters are likely to be no more sinful than we are in the light of God’s holiness. Also, although no-one’s life is completely sinless of course (other than Jesus), there is such a thing as innocent suffering, in which God works in a powerful and mysterious way to further His good purposes. The Bible speaks volumes about God’s concern for the poor and oppressed, and consistently warns the rich and powerful not to be spiritually complacent but to give careful thought to their ways. A truly Christian prophet would rather rouse the rich to dig deep in their pockets to help the poor, than furnish the wealthy with tempting, ready made ‘justifications’ for ignoring their plight.
However, having said that, whenever a nation suffers a disaster, the Bible (and the Old Testament particularly speaks to nations) exhorts the people of that nation to humble themselves and repent and for everyone to see to the disaster as a kind of warning to take steps to avoid the final judgment (infinitely more terrible according to Jesus). People who cry along with the psalmist “why have you done this to us O Lord?” and turn to him in prayer and fasting (as Haiti’s president has led the country in doing) are more theologically in tune with the Bible than those (normally from a safe distance) who say what has happened has got nothing to do with any kind of judgment whatsoever and that God is rather impotent in the face of it.
Ultimately, the parts of the Bible that seem to Western Christians the most frighteningly severe are the parts that the suffering, poor and vulnerable people of this world find most comfort in and the parts that speak powerfully to nations to whom disaster has come about the need to repent of the evils that afflict society. The message Jesus speaks in the ‘Tower of Siloam’ passage in Luke 13 v1-5 is not that such disasters have nothing at all to do with God’s judgment, but that nobody else should assume they are less ripe for judgment, and that we should all take warning and repent, less we in our complacency perish as well.
Martin Kuhrt is Vicar of the Church of the Holy Spirit, Bedgrove in Aylesbury
[i] See CS Cowles in “Show Them No Mercy”
[ii] See John Wenham “Christ and the Bible”
[iii] See John Wenham “the Enigma of Evil”