By Louis Sahagun and Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Times Staff Writers
"To err is human. But is punishment divine? And if God is unleashing his wrath, how do you know?
These eternal questions arose last week when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the hurricanes that devastated his city showed that "God is mad at America" and black communities. A few weeks earlier, TV evangelist Pat Robertson suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was payback for pulling out of the Gaza Strip.
The remarks raised eyebrows and prompted quick apologies, but they were nothing new. Humans have long invoked a deity — or deities — when trying to make sense of the world...."
Ask what Jonathan Edwards is best known for, and more likely than not the answer will be his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The idea that God is a vengeful God is well-entrenched in popular writings, and sad to say, among Christians who should know better.
Mark Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994, Eerdmans), suggests that Edwards "was responsible for the most God-centered as well as the most intellectualy subtle reasoning in all of American evangelical history" (Noll, p. 80). Ironically, he was also one of the driving forces behind the revival that led to the eclipse of his intellectual works. This led to "evanglicalism's most discriminating thinker [being] best known for one fairly atypical sermon, 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'." (Noll, p 81). This is unfortunate, as people who have studied Edwards' sermons see a far more compassionate God at work.
Where does the idea of a "vengeful God" come from? Where, for that matter, does the idea that there is a "Old Testament God" and a "New Testament God" come from? Thomas Cahill, in his book "The Gifts of the Jews" (1999, Random House), makes a compelling case that the divine attributes we prefer to think belong to the New Testament God are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. To be sure, there are some disturbing narratives in the Old Testament, and by focussing on those to the exclusion of the rest, one could come to the conclusion that the Old Testament God was a thoroughly unpleasant sort. But in its entirety, one is left with the realization that God is a God who protects, heals, loves, and redeems His people. and in fact keeps calling His people back in the face of constant rejection -- hardly the actions of a God of vengeance.
The Los Angeles Times article quotes Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, as saying "There is no indication that God is not vengeful — if you do awful things, awful things will happen to you," said Haggard, a pastor in Colorado who heads a congregation of 12,000. "If a guy is out at 2 a.m. in a bar with a bunch of hookers, the likelihood is greater that he'll end up with a disease than [will] a little old lady in bed at that hour."
I have to disagree with this statement. A better way to characterize the example Haggard gave would be that disease is a consequence of promiscuous sexual activity; not a punishment. Otherwise how would you characterize Haggard's guy passing his disease to his wife? How you you characterize the hemophiliac children who receieved AIDS-tainted blood? Are these secondary victims of disease being punished for someone else's sins. The clear testimony of Scripture argues otherwise (Ezekial 18; John 9:1-5). The tragedy is that they ARE bearing the consequences of sins committed by others.
This article ends with this:
But many religious leaders argue that those who search for God in calamities would do better to search for him in the aftermath — in the actions of those offering help and comfort.So -- How are we going to respond?
Rabbi Kanefsky recalled an essay on suffering by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a noted 20th century scholar, who "was very explicit in saying when a calamity occurs, 'Why?' is the wrong question."
Said Kanefsky: "The only question that we ask is … how can we help?"