On blaming God for swine flu
MAY 06, 2009
It was reported last week that an American priest had told a Canberra Church that swine flu was God’s punishment for sin. The report seems to have been a beat-up. The reporter’s ‘usually reliable source’ proved to be the usual tendentious and unchecked source.
But stories about preachers who attribute disaster to divine punishment for sin have been in the news lately. And they have a long history.
Danny Nalliah (pictured), of Catch the Fire Ministries, attributed the Victorian bushfires to God withdrawing protection after the passing of abortion laws. In Austria, Gerhard Wagner withdrew after being nominated Auxiliary Bishop of Linz. He had claimed in a newsletter that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for sexual permissiveness.
This line of preaching has drawn fire since Jesuit missionary Gabriel Malagrida was exiled from Portugal in the 18th century for preaching that the Lisbon earthquake was God’s punishment for sin. Voltaire famously ridiculed the argument.
For Christians the issue is complex. The idea that God might use natural disasters to punish people for general sinfulness or particular sins is repugnant. But at first glance the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, do seem to represent God as doing just that. This tension bears reflection.
On examination the Scriptures are more equivocal about attributing disasters to a punishing God than might appear. They certainly represent the popular view that God uses natural events as rewards and punishments for individuals and nations. But in their representation of God they also stand at an angle to this view.
In stories like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the great flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah, God threatens annihilation but relents and spares humanity. When it comes to bargaining, God is a soft touch.
The prophets display the same complexity. They attribute disasters like military defeat to sin and the abandonment of God. But this sin has to do with misrule that crushes and impoverishes ordinary people. The disasters suffered by the nation are not simply inflicted from without but result naturally from a corrupted polity. And within this bleak picture, God is still presented as wanting to restore the people to prosperity and happiness
Two Old Testament books, in particular, subvert the popular nexus between sin, God’s punishment and disaster. In the Book of Job, Job’s comforters press him to acknowledge that his sins caused his calamities. The reader knows that Job is correct in refusing this connection. In the book of Jonah, too, the grumpy prophet finishes up furious that yet again God has chickened out of delivering on threats of destruction.
The New Testament also subverts the popular account of a judicial God. Its central message is that God loves sinners, that in Jesus God joins and dies for sinners. This view certainly insists on the catastrophic character of human sin. But God’s response to it is anything but punitive. Jesus, too, refuses to blame the death of people in a building collapse either on their own sin or that of past generations.
The Scriptures then represent a prevailing view of a God who uses natural and military disasters to sanction bad behaviour. But they also undermine this view by describing God as concerned above all with relationships and as acting more as lover than judge. It is this image of God as lover that should control the way we speak of God’s response to sin and involvement in disasters.
By these criteria it is not only unreasonable but also doubtfully Christian to attribute disasters to sinfulness in general. It is even more questionable to attribute them to particular sins.
The principal difficulty arises from the consistent movement in Scripture to define God in terms of relationship and not in terms of abstract theories of retribution. A God whose abiding disposition is one of love, and whose consistent focus is on the individual person and on their good, could not consider disasters an appropriate recompense for evil doing. Disasters are impersonal and indiscriminate. They kill the innocent whom God loves.
This becomes clear if we imagine a God sending the plague on a nation whose parliament has legalised same sex unions. It would be impossible to believe this God had the personal and special love for the poor, sinners and excluded of the world, as does the God we know in Jesus Christ. For the plague would generally spare the wealthy legislators who were well-nourished, could buy medicines and lived in hygienic surroundings. It would target precisely the poor people for whom Jesus had a special concern and who had no say in the legislation.
Another difficulty in attributing disasters to God’s intention to punish sinners is that it assumes that you know the mind of God. The Old Testament prophets could claim this knowledge. But Christians have no warrant for making such a claim. Dreams and apparitions simply underline the point.
The more precise the knowledge claimed, the less credible becomes the claim. If a meteor struck the Sydney CBD, for example, how would you know whether it was to punish the practice of contraception, the pressure to legalise same sex marriages and abortions, galloping secularism, disregard of the environment, discrimination against asylum seekers, crass consumerism or the greed of banks?
The idea that we might know the mind of a God who sends disasters as punishment for particular sins is sub-Christian and sub-rational.
Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.