Many recent events have made people question if God’s judgment is coming over the world, so how do we know if this is true or not?
A writer for The Colorado Sun opened with a letter he had written to a…friend, to use that word charitably, with whom he had debated the reasons behind COVID-19.
“I really regret my lashing out at you yesterday. We both know that we disagree on matters of theology, and we have done such a good job for so long in avoiding the topic. I’m sorry that I didn’t just note our differences on the matter and move on.
“However, now that we have broached the subject, I feel compelled to investigate and try to explain my upset. Looking back, I was most upset at the idea that you seemed pleased that areas of our country (California and New York, in particular) that you regard as espousing godlessness were getting their ‘just desserts,’ that they had earned their misfortune by rejecting God’s influence. There is a meanness in that perspective that surprised me and really bothers me.
“But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that it’s true, that God does rescind his protection of places with values that differ from his own. What areas of the country seem to be enjoying his favor at present, in regard to this coronavirus?”
The article went on, naturally, and roasted this poor, unfortunate soul. The question raised and ensuing debate, though, is a serious one.
Are the many natural disasters and social upsets a result of divine judgment? Recent events are certainly not the only time that this question has been asked. Any previous spate of hurricanes or economic recessions has brought this idea back to the surface. Are we in the final days detailed at length in the book of Revelations?
God’s Judgment or Natural Events?
Over and over in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, we read prophets and Israel’s leaders describing how God has brought judgment upon their nation or the world in response to idolatry and injustice.
Some dismiss this as merely tradition or a way of speaking. God didn’t actually make the Assyrians come and capture the Israelites; they were conquering a lot of countries in this region, so it was only logical that they’d sweep through Israel too. Divine judgment was how primitive people understood natural disasters before Jesus Christ arrived and revealed the ‘real’ God who is loving and merciful and doesn’t get explosively angry. That’s all.
Unfortunately, this line of thinking doesn’t square with what the Bible reveals about God’s nature.
Pastor Sam Storms, in a podcast episode with Gary Wilkerson, explained, “There was a shift in certain circles of Christianity in which people basically said wrath is not a personal attribute of God. It's beneath his dignity for God to be angry and God venting his wrath or his judgment upon sin and sinners.
“My response to that has always been, ‘Well, if God isn't wrathful, I don't want him. I don't want anything to do with a God who doesn't get mad at sin. I don't want anything to do with a God who is of such a nature that he's not enraged at child abuse and rape and idolatry and murder and racism and all the other things that we could cite.
“Now one of the problems people have is when they hear me use that language to say that God can be enraged, they think, ‘Wait a minute. I get enraged, and I end up doing really bad things as a result.’ You got to remember God's rage, his wrath, his anger is holy and pure and always spot on accurate. He never misjudges anything or anyone.”
A God who passionately hates slavery and injustice explains passages like Exodus 1-13 where God is bringing plague after freakish plague on Egypt. If that weren’t enough, the book of Revelation is fairly explicit about the corruption of the world that bring terrible catastrophes that God has angels releasing upon the entire earth (Revelation 15). It would indeed seem like God judges and his judgment sometimes manifests in this way.
So what do we do with this knowledge?
Living in Response to Disasters
When we discuss God’s judgment, there is an important distinction to make as Ben C. Dunson, minister and theology professor, astutely notes. “When many people ask the question ‘Is this disaster God’s judgment on the world?’ what they really are asking is whether a specific disaster can be said to be a specific punishment from God for specific sins of a specific group of people.
“Despite how common it is for some to speak about judgment this way, the Bible gives us no grounds after the close of the canon of Scripture for being able to tie specific disasters closely to specific sins of specific peoples. This would require new revelation from the Lord that he has not given us.
“But there is another common way of talking about the tribulations the world faces that (perhaps in reaction to this first way of speaking) swings the pendulum in the exact opposite direction…. In this way of thinking, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, pandemics, and so on are nothing more than ‘natural disasters,’ essentially random events that have little or nothing to do with God. That is not what we see in Revelation either.”
Perhaps the most basic human instinct when we’re in trouble is either to minimize the impact or shift the blame. It started in Eden and has infected all of human history.
If we’re told that these difficulties we’re going through have come from God — and we believe that God is good and just — our first impulse will almost undoubtedly be to assume that we’re not the main cause of the problem. We haven’t done anything bad enough to warrant God being angry at us. It’s someone else. Obviously.
Realistically, though, we’re all part of the problem.
“If this pandemic is a judgment from God, our response should not be to point a sanctimonious finger at others,” Professor Todd Mangum wrote, “but to lament and repent, with prayers like unto Daniel 9:3–19, where the person of God owns and confesses ‘our sins’ and pleads for God to ‘forgive us’ (2 Chron. 6:36–39, 7:12–14). In such moments we are most in sync with prophets like Habakkuk and Jeremiah. Sharing their lamentations, we also are put in position to observe: ‘And yet, your mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness’ (Lam. 3:23).”
Stepping Forward into the Unknown
Lamenting our sins that has brought God’s discipline should never stop at grief. It shouldn’t even stop at reminding ourselves of God’s promises of healing afterward.
In a sermon, David Wilkerson preached about what we need to do next. “In the midst of Israel’s judgment, God spoke a strange word to Jeremiah. He told him that his uncle would come to visit him in prison and would ask Jeremiah to buy a parcel of land in Anathoth. The Lord then impressed upon Jeremiah to buy the field (see Jeremiah 32:6-9)….
“As this small sale took place, an epic event was happening all around. Jerusalem was being stormed, its very history being altered forever. Why would Jeremiah take time out to make a real estate deal? What was the significance of this minor transaction?
“What a glorious word [God] then gave to Jeremiah: ‘Behold, I will gather them out of all countries where I have driven them in My anger, in My fury, and in great wrath; I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely. They shall be My people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me’ (32:37-40).
“God was telling his people, ‘Jeremiah’s field is a good investment. It’s a witness to you of my mercy. I redeem with mercy even in my wrath.’”
Once we have repented of our sins and refreshed our knowledge of God’s word, then we are called to take the next step and act out our hope for God’s redemption and mercy on ourselves and our homeland.