Okay, I know Pat Robertson really didn't say he was stuck in a quandary trying to figure out why God sent flooding to my home state. Snopes is a wonderful tool to help wade through some of the garbage which surfaces on the www. But Robertson and others have, in their history, made comments about natural disasters and God's wrath being administered through those disasters. There are those who both cheer and jeer such pronouncements, and with good reason.
At the heart of such matters is the question of why such disasters happen. From a atheistic perspective, the question is irrelevant. Such flooding is simply part of the way the world works. There is no rhyme or reason for the randomness. It just happens. Deal with it. Cope with it. Get over it. If you lost loved ones or property, grieve--we will help you get back on your feet, but don't ask about any greater purpose or reason behind such matters. There is none. This answer is satisfactory for some.
For people of faith, the rejection of a "why" answer is not satisfactory. We wrestle with the nature of such events. We want to know if there is a purpose behind them. We want to know whether or not hope springs eternal. For in the atheist answer, you have resolved the problem of suffering, but you have removed hope. What hope is there for those who lost loved ones in this flooding? What hope is there for those who have lost everything to flood damage--who believed they needed no insurance because they were high enough above the flood plain? Those seeking hope want and need answers.
They are not always easy to find.
The Punishment Answer
Robertson and others have used the punishment answer in regards to natural disasters numerous times. The idea is that society in general or some people in particular have committed grievous sin, and God is extending His wrath upon society with such disaster.
This answer is not without precedent. In fact, it is found in Scripture on numerous occasion. The great flood recorded in the Bible is one instance of divine punishment upon the evil of humanity. An earthquake swallowing up a great deal many Israelites for betraying the covenant is another instance. Venomous serpents in the desert is another. In all occasions, God punishes sin by natural occurrences.
This does raise a bit of a quandary for those of us who believe God is a God of love. Why would God punish people in such a manner--even "innocent" women and children? Sometimes, the response leaves one scratching one's head. "That's the God of the Old Testament, not the God of the New Testament." (That argument was rejected by the early Church long ago and was deemed heresy.) "God didn't really do those things. Those things just happened, and the bibilcal writers just theologized the event." (Well, you could do that to every single event in Scripture then. That would make the Bible just a bunch of human events that people projected onto God. Hello Freud.)
Punishment is a very effective tool for changing behavior. Just ask any parent. We use it all the time. "If you don't stop hitting your brother, you will get a spanking!" "If you don't clean your room, you will lose your ipod." "If you do not eat your food, you will not be allowed to go outside and play." And so on and so forth. The threat of punishment, and the subsequent follow through is still used by the legal system today. This is why we have speed limit signs, anti-discriminatory laws, and the like. There are behaviors which must be curbed.
Throughout the Old Testament, God effectively uses punishment to change the behaviors of people who are failing to follow His commands and live according to His will and His way. When people commit idolatry: God punishes. When people fail to live justly, God punishes. When people abuse the poor and downtrodden, God punishes. God cannot stand the sight of sin, and to get people back on the right path, He sent punishment.
One can effectively argue that with each and every disaster, natural and otherwise, that God is punishing society and individuals for their sin. For no one is innocent.
There are those who might dispute that last comment, but I would like to remind you of the biblical nature of sin. Sin is not simply the things that we do--it goes beyond that. It is the condition of the human heart, and the human heart is naturally turned toward itself. It naturally seeks self-preservation. It naturally seeks self-gain. It naturally seeks its own self-interests. As Nietzsche once put it: we all seek our own will to power. In this light, no one can escape guilt. As the reformer Martin Luther put it: we are in bondage to sin. It is the condition of our hearts. Therefore, God is justified in punishing such sin.
The Problem with Punishment
But there is a problem with simply punishing. For while punishment changes behavior, it does not change hearts. What do I mean by that?
Whenever the threat of punishment disappears, people go right back to doing whatever it was they were doing to begin with. Kids will wreck havoc when parents go away because the threat is gone. Their fear is gone. Therefore, they push through boundaries thinking they will not get caught. Behavioral change was only temporary. It was not lasting.
On the other hand, if someone loves and respects the ruling authorities, then following the rules is a joy. Following the law is a delight. Why? Because one knows that in following the rules, one is bringing delight to one's superiors.
But how do you get another person to love you? How do you get another person to see how much you care for them?
Jesus gave us the ultimate answer to that one, "No one has greater life than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." Jesus wasn't the first one to say that. Others had said it before, but this was the first time in history when God took on human flesh and not only said such a thing, but did it. Every other time the gods came down to earth, it was to wreck destruction and mayhem or because they were interested in satisfying some sort of perverse desire. Jesus took on flesh to die--not only for His friends but for His enemies as well. No greater love has ever been shown.
And, of course, that death took place on a cross. It was the worst sort of death. The Romans had perfected the art of killing someone so that a person not only died but died without dignity and in massive amounts of pain. This was the death that Jesus experienced--the same Jesus who did not deserve to die; who was completely and utterly innocent; whose heart was perfectly attuned to His Father's will.
There is a bastardized understanding of Christianity that flows around the world these days. It's the proclamation that if one just believes in Jesus and seeks to follow Him and has enough faith, then one will experience healing of every sort. One will be completely whole in finances, health, and relationships. God will grant victory in bank accounts, bedrooms, social relationships, and hospitals if one simply begins believing.
The cross destroys such ideology. Jesus' lived the perfect life, and He was crucified. The earliest disciples--who saw Jesus raised from the dead, met their demise in persecution, suffering, exile, and imprisonment. Christianity does not promise a life without suffering, but it does offer eternal hope. It offers consolation when suffering occurs. It offers the knowledge that when the worst happens, God will have the last say.
For the cross was not the end of the story. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead and proclaimed that all who trust in His work will share with Him in this resurrection. Two things are important: the work of Jesus and the future hope.
The Work of Jesus
The cross for Christians is not only the result of humanity's worst. It is not simply a man being hanged because He dared challenge the power structures of the day. Jesus certainly did that; however there was more to it; much more.
In the context of the Jewish sacrificial system, Jesus became the perfect sacrifice--the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world. Theological jargon, I know, but let's try and break it down a little. Mind you, there have been books written about this. I'm trying to get it done in a blog post.
Whenever sin occurred, one had to justify oneself toward God. Atonement had to be made. This isn't as foreign as it might seem to us living so far removed from the situation. How so? Well, whenever someone wrongs you, you demand justice. You demand recompense. You demand that things be made right. Whenever you pay for goods, and those goods do not meet specifications, you demand your money back or that the goods be fixed. Things must be made right. In relationships, if you are hurt by another person, you demand an apology. You demand that the person fix the pain caused.
Yet, if you forgive another person, you bear the cost of that forgiveness. You bear the cost of the broken goods. You bear the pain of broken relationships. On the cross, Jesus bore the cost of our brokenness with God. He bore the cost of our hearts being focused on ourselves. He bore the cost of our actions that break God's laws and commands. He took the punishment so that we do not have to fear it, and instead of fearing God's wrath, we can look toward God's love and promise.
The Future Hope
Being assured of God's love and freed from worry about His wrath, we can now live lives honoring God. We can be free of fear of death and destruction. We know Who holds our future, and our lives are built upon Him.
The reformer Martin Luther summarized this in one of the stanzas to the hymn "A Mighty Fortress:"
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be swept away,
They cannot win the day,
The Kingdom's ours forever.
Wrapped up in this verse is the knowledge that suffering will occur. There is the knowledge that it is not God who brings such suffering upon us. We still don't have the answer for that; however, just because we don't have the answer to "why", we are free to ask the question, and we are free to know what the ultimate solution will be. We are free to know the ultimate and final say will be a new heaven and a new earth where all bad things will be undone. This is the promise of the cross and the resurrection.
As flood victims are striving to put their lives together, the outpouring of support and love will do wonders to bring healing. It is my hope that well intentioned people will not try to solve the why question, but instead will point to the God who suffers with and then turns mourning into dancing--the God who took suffering upon Himself and then transformed death into life.