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Christian Rugby player Israel Folau sparked outrage recently for linking Australia's bushfires to the nation’s liberalisation of marriage and abortion laws. Theologian David Instone-Brewer investigates whether natural disasters are ever God's punishment for sin
Are the fires in Australia a foretaste of God's judgement? Jesus would say: “Yes.”
Are they sent by God in response to certain sins or sinners? Jesus would say: “No.”
We can be certain of this because he was asked an equivalent question about two disasters in his own time, one that was natural and one that was caused by political unrest. His answers tell us how we should react to disasters in our own time.
Disasters in the New Testament
The disasters Jesus was questioned about concerned two incidents: the collapse of a tower in Siloam that had killed 18 people, and the killing of innocent bystanders by soldiers in the Temple (Luke 13 1–2). Although the second example wasn’t exactly ‘natural’, it was another of those tragic events outside ordinary people’s control that cause them to question whether God is behind it. But the victims of both incidents didn’t appear to have done anything especially wrong, so why were they killed? Was God punishing them for secret sins?
Jesus gave an emphatic denial: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!”
However, he did not say that the disasters had not happened because of sin. In fact, his message was less than comforting: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13.3).
Disasters in the Old Testament
We can come to the same conclusions in the Old Testament. The prophets used disasters to bring home God's message of judgement, but this didn't mean that God sent the disasters in order to punish particular sinners.
When he gave Amos a prophecy of disaster two years before an earthquake shook the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in about 760 BC, God got their complete attention by showing his foreknowledge. He used this event to present his timeless message in a way that would be remembered and acted upon.
Amos’ generation wasn’t worse than others – King Uzziah was generally good (except after the quake), and the people weren’t worse than previous generations (2 Kings 15.3-4). However, they received and listened to a warning which we should all heed.
When Jesus answered the questions about the disasters in his time, he was pointing out that these comparatively small tragedies were nothing compared to the judgment that will come to everyone. He wasn’t surprised that people were killed in these disasters – in a wicked and fallen world we should expect this kind of thing to happen.
We no longer live in the good and sinless world that God planned for humanity. Jesus suggested that the surprising – and amazing – thing is that we sinners should experience any goodin this world.
Jesus taught that we are all evil, and he didn’t want anyone to think that our occasional goodness nullifies our underlying evil nature. He said: “You don’t give a stone to your children when they ask for bread, even though you are evil” (Matthew 7.9–11). In other words, “You might do good things, but you are still sinful.”
Another time, when someone politely called him “Good teacher” (Mark 10. 17–18), he reminded them that only God can really be called “good”. He didn’t want anyone to forget that compared to God, we are all fundamentally evil. We all need God’s forgiveness, even if we do good things a lot of the time.
The real shock is that despite this, he offers us God’s forgiveness (Mark 2.5–11) and Jesus tells us that God’s longing to give us good things is much more than our longing to give our own children good things (Matthew 7.9–11).
The reason for natural disasters is not to punish or warn especially sinful people. If they were punishing sin, we would all experience them all the time. The real mystery is that God allows us to suffer so little. We experience so much undeserved good that we complain when things go wrong.
In our fallen world, there will always be disasters and relatively good people will suffer alongside relatively bad people. But those who listen to Jesus will find a salutary warning in those disasters. Every disaster reminds us that a real judgment is coming which will be totally just, and that God offers an eternity without evil for those who turn to him in repentance.
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