This is an issue that garners special scorn for extremist Christians, and rightfully so. It comes up in a big way every time there’s a natural disaster somewhere in the world, or a catastrophic (read: successful) attack on Americans. It is the view that suffering, whether mass or individual, is God’s judgment on those who suffer, because of their sin. When it happens en masse, it must be because of institutional or corporate sin (usually not related to corporations, mind you), and when it happens to individuals it is usually because of personal sin – but may also be because of corporate sin. So when an American soldier gets killed in Iraq, our good friends from the Westboro Baptist Church show up at his funeral and claim that it was because America has let homosexuals into the army. And when there’s an earthquake in Haiti, high-profile Evangelical Fundamentalists (i.e. Pat Robertson) claim that it’s because the Haitians sold their souls to the devil over a hundred years ago (see a response to it here).
I’m sorry if a Christian has ever told you that all of your problems in life, and natural disasters around the world as well, are the just punishment for your sins. That’s rude, insensitive, lacking compassion, and completely wrong besides.
What makes it worse is that this is entirely related to bad theology – bad theology that existed, and was refuted, in biblical times. This is actually the central issue of the entire book of Job: Job experienced incredible suffering, so his three “friends” urged him to repent from all of the awful sin he must have been doing in order to bring such suffering upon himself. In the end, Job’s friends (and Job himself) are all rebuked by God, and they never find out why Job suffered – but they knew it wasn’t because of his sin. The same thing comes up in the New Testament: Jesus and his disciples come across a man born blind, and so the disciples ask Jesus “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus basically said “neither”; the man was born blind so that God could be glorified when the man was healed (which Jesus proceeded to do, and God was glorified). The point of that particular incident was not that God inflicts suffering upon people just so that their healing will be all the sweeter, or so that it will call more attention to God; the point was that God can use anything, even someone’s suffering, to bring some measure of good.
So if the Old and New Testaments both seem to refute this doctrine of divine retribution (that is, human suffering as God’s just judgment), then why do some people continue to spout off about it? Sadly, like so many other false doctrines, it comes because someone spent way too much time reading the Prophets and taking them out of context.
In the Old Testament, God establishes a covenant with Israel. This covenant, or contract, followed the basic structure of contracts in that setting, including blessings and curses for the parties involved (i.e. consequences for if and when they honour or break their contract). If Israel honoured their contract with God, they would be blessed according to the terms of the covenant; but if they broke their contract, they would be cursed – with the curses including being invaded by foreign armies, and ultimately, exiled. This all happened in the first five books of the Old Testament, and most of the rest of the OT is about all of the ways that God kept his side of the contract even while Israel repeatedly broke it.
The Prophets were people who spoke for God, and at a certain point many of them showed up to tell Israel that, according to the terms of their covenant with God, they were going to face judgment. So the prophets talk a lot about all of Israel’s sins, and how God will punish them for those sins using famines, natural disasters, foreign armies, and ultimately, exile. Basically, the prophets are all about God saying “it’s time to pay the piper”, so if you spend all of your time reading prophecy, it would be easy to have a doctrine of divine retribution. It’s almost like a cause-and-effect relationship: you sin, God punishes.
The problem is, you really need to forget about the context of the Prophets in order to get these kinds of doctrines. First of all, God isn’t all about punishing people: the other two-thirds of the OT are about him showing grace. And there are legitimate grounds for punishment in the Prophets: the covenant laid it out very, very clearly long before. Secondly, if you want to apply such doctrines of retribution to people today, the only people that you could apply it to would be Jews, because they’re the only ones that made the covenant with God. But if you did that, you’d have to forget the fact that God made a New Covenant (or Testament) with the Jews (and extended it to include the Gentiles) that said that he wouldn’t punish them like that anymore (and there are references to this new covenant in OT prophets as well!).
They might argue that the Old Testament still stands – and they’re right, Jesus affirmed and fulfilled the OT completely. But that leaves you back at only being able to apply divine retribution to the Jews. Interestingly enough, some Evangelicals have a doctrine that says that the Church has replaced the Jews as God’s covenant people, and so really the only people they could say are subject to God’s divine retribution would be…themselves. I can’t recall the last time someone stepped up and said “that natural disaster was because of MY sin.”
Now, the problem of pain and suffering has been central to Christian apologetics for centuries, so I can’t claim to solve it in a blog post, but I do know this: God doesn’t kill people because of other people’s sin, or even because of their own sin. God doesn’t cause natural disasters because we tolerate “the gays”, and God doesn’t make nations lose wars because national Church attendance rates are down. God does not cause our suffering to get back at us, nor does he hold us to the terms of a covenant that we Gentiles never made (nor does he hold the Jews to it anymore either). Quite the opposite, in fact: rather than causing our suffering and saying that it is just, God made himself into a human being so that he could share in our unjust suffering. When we actually should be suffering because of our sins, God has taken that suffering on himself – and he shares in the unjust suffering with us.
Suffering is recognized by human beings, and by God, as being unjust. Rather than blaming people for their own suffering, or even for other people’s suffering, let’s work with God in showing solidarity with those who suffer and working to relieve suffering wherever we find it. Because sitting back and blaming Haitians for selling their souls to the devil doesn’t help anyone, ever.