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WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN,
IS GOD ALWAYS RETRIBUTIVELY BEHIND THEM?


by Ong Kok Bin

 

To the general public and to the media, MH370 is slowly fading away from the focus of attention. Until and unless the wreckage or any physical debris of the plane is found, it will continue to fade away from the public eye, with only scant news of the ongoing search occupying some airtime or newsprint space. New tragedies, like the Sewol shipwreck in South Korea or the Everest avalanche have overtaken MH370 in newsworthiness. Nevertheless, the disappearance of MH370 remains a puzzle and some of the early theories will continue to circulate so long as the hard evidence of the wreckage is not found in the southern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia, where it is supposedly to repose in the ocean bed per the experts.

In the wake of its first disappearance from its scheduled flight path to Beijing, there had been many voices heard. One of them reportedly came from a professional body that has a religious colour to it as well urging Malaysia Airlines to adopt practices more in keeping with the religion of the members of the professional body. This particular professional body apparently was unhappy with the airline’s laxity in some of its practices, like crew uniforms (particularly, for the female crew) and the serving of alcoholic drinks on overseas routes. Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister and the prime founder of the professional body, gave this interpretation on his fellows’ religious take of MH370’s disappearance: “In other words, God was so angry with MAS that He made the plane disappear” (“Muslim Lawyers Can Still Play Useful Role”, The Star, 15 March 2014).

In all probability, the members of this professional body are not alone in their opinion of divine retribution behind the flight’s disappearance. Other people of other religious persuasion could very well have come to some similar opinion albeit for different reasons. After all, most, if not all, religions have the same strain of teaching: that God (or, the gods) punishes those who do not behave in accordance with his (or, their) moral and/or religious code for them.

Judeo-Christianity has this same strain too in its DNA. This strain goes all the way back to ‘the beginning’ in the fall of Adam and Eve. Precisely because the duo disobeyed God’s command to them, they were cursed ‘to dust’ amongst a host of other punishments (see Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-19). The idea of divine retribution for sin is solidly enshrined in the Mosaical Code, commonly known as the Ten Commandments (e.g., see Ex. 20:5; Dt. 5:9). But its expression is best seen in episodes like the Noahic Flood (Gen. 6-9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.19), the Exodus Disobedience (particularly after the golden calf incident, Ex. 32 (see verses 33-34; cf. Heb. 3:16-19), the destruction of the Israelite nation, first by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C., and again later, by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70 can be seen in a similar vein too (Mt. 24; Lk. 21). But perhaps the most stunning example of this exercise of divine retribution is in the instance of Ananias and Sapphira. Both were struck dead instantly for lying to God and testing his Spirit (Acts 5:1-11).

The belief in divine retribution is so entrenched in Jewish minds that it is almost always brought to the fore when bad things happen. Thus, when a man was born blind, this belief was implicitly spun into the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:1-2). Jesus’ reply to his disciples gives the lie to the belief: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (9:3). Thus, as it developed in the story, Jesus later healed the man and this led him to believe and to confess Jesus as ‘the Son of Man’ and Lord as well (read John 9 for yourself). This, in essence, was ‘the work of God’ displayed in the erstwhile blind man’s life. Certainly, it was not retribution from God that he was born blind.

We see then that the Judeo-Christian God is not all that raging, wrathful, vengeful unreasonable God that many made him out to be. Yes, he is a wrathful God (e.g., Isa. 13:13; Rom. 1:18f.; Rev. 19:15); but that is only one side of the coin. God, too, is compassionate, kind, merciful and loving. While the Mosaical Code may have underscored the retribution of God against sinners, this has to be viewed along a more insistent statement of the love of God. If God punishes sin ‘to the third and fourth generation’, he loves obedience and righteousness ‘to a thousand generations’ (Ex. 20:5-6; Dt. 5:9-10). The disparity in the numbers is Moses’ way of saying that God prefers to be loving and compassionate rather than having to show his strong wrathful hand. This is seen in episodes such as the Noahic Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where God gave room for repentance or proof of righteousness before he brought on his destructive powers. Episodes like the golden calf incident or Ananias and Sapphira are to be seen in their unique singular circumstances. In each instance, a new community under a just promulgated covenant was in the crucible of its formation. The discipline had to be rigorous. Any infraction that threatened to tear down the fabric of the community had to be dealt with immediately; otherwise, the community would be stillborn.

God’s reluctance to punish is clearly seen in Peter’s statement (relative to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ): “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). By this statement, Peter is asserting that God is being deliberate in his slowness in sending his Son Jesus Christ a second time, which unlike the first, will be a time of judgment. This deliberate slowness is to afford everyone a wider girth of opportunity and time to submit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus in repentance. Lest anyone should misunderstand this charity from God and take it with an Esau godlessness of disregard, Peter is quick to affirm, “But the day of the Lord will come.” And when this happens, the heavens and the earth and everything in it will be destroyed by fire (3:10).

This reluctance to punish is further matched by a protective concern for the life and wellbeing of the innocent. We see this in God’s readiness to accede to Father Abraham’s pleading that Sodom and Gomorrah be spared if there were some righteous people in them (see Gen. 18). We further see this in Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30. In the parable, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to ‘a man who sowed good seed in his field’. But the man’s enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. When this was discovered, the man’s servants were troubled and they asked their master, “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?” The master’s answer was a firm ‘No’ and his reasoning was “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them”. The import of this should not be lost on us. God is not a wanton destroyer. Though he hates evil (Ps. 5:4), he loves and cares for the people who love him. God will not mete out any judgment against the wicked that unnecessarily and unjustly hurts the innocent too.

If we cannot unreservedly and unequivocally invoke the name of God when bad things happen, then whom can we point the finger at?

First, let us note that God is not the sole possessor of supernatural powers and will. There is an anti-God too. His name is Satan. He is the Adversary, the Devil (which means, ‘accuser’ or ‘slanderer’). His occupation: to oppose God in every way possible. His hobby: to deceive anyone and everyone who will come into his snare (2 Tim. 2:26; Rev. 20:10). His method: to divide and rule (observe his tactics in the Temptation of Jesus, Mt. 4). His ultimate goal: to separate humankind from God, that is, to cause the spiritual death of human souls (Heb. 2:14; cf. 1 Jn. 3:8). Even though he does not possess the same measure of powers that God has, he still has very considerable might in his arsenal. He has a whole host of demons or little devils that are at his bidding. The apostle Paul calls him ‘the ruler of the kingdom of the air’ (Eph. 2:2); Peter likens him to ‘a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8); the Lord in no uncertain terms describes him as ‘a murderer’, ‘a liar’ and ‘the father of lies’ (Jn. 8:44). He is a most formidable foe for he controls ‘the powers of this dark world’ and ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Eph. 6:12). One thing that is indisputable is that he is the direct cause of human suffering, pain and death (just take a look at Job). Just as he was given liberty to afflict Job, he has the same freedom to afflict anyone even today. But do note: the Devil and his devilish works will not last forever. He will be destroyed in the final analysis (1 John 3:8; Rev. 20:10).

Then, there is man himself and woman herself. We are culpable too for the many bad things that do happen in this world. The finger should be pointed first at us. We are egoistic, proud, narcissistic, jealous, hateful, easily provoked, quick to anger, slanderous, weak in will, ignorant, cowardly, corrupt, and the list goes on. We are the authors of many of the tragedies and the wars that took so many human lives. The most recent Sewol shipwreck is a culmination of various human weaknesses. When we challenge the forces of nature, we are bound to suffer some tragedies; witness the Everest avalanche.

But when man puts himself at the disposal of the Devil, the combination becomes unimaginably toxic. Betrayal. Abuse. Rape. Murder. Genocide. MH370.

We should not then be quick to invoke the name of God for anything that is disastrous or tragic. Yes, God does punish and he does discipline (Heb. 12:7-11). Yet, God is love, first and foremost, and he does not ‘flick’ us off from this planet at the slightest hint of infraction of his divine will. He is patient and forbearing towards us: he wants us to come to him in a loving and obedient relationship with him.

On the other hand, there is this anti-God called Satan. He is God’s adversary and our enemy too. He is out to snare us; to turn us away from God; to cause us to sin and to make us into God haters through all his evil works. He wants us dead, not alive (Eph. 2:1-2).

But God, through his Son Jesus Christ, has provided us with victory over Satan and we no longer have to serve the Devil. In the final outcome, the Devil will be overthrown and cast into the lake of fire and we will be free from all pain, sorrow and death (Rev. 20:10; 21:1-4). There will only be blessing, bliss and life.

 

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