Imagine you hear of a neo-Nazi rally. At this rally hate speech is directed at Jews and African Americans. People are encouraged to not patronize African-American businesses. Parents are encouraged to make sure their children do not interact with people of color. Employers are encouraged to not hire or fire African-Americans or Hispanics. Marrying a person of color is an abomination. After the speeches, in private, men discuss ways to “limit” the flow of immigrants, hurt black businesses and families, and get racist men into political office. Many of the men have been active agents in arson, vandalism, as well as petty violence against people of color. Some of them run web sites which promote hatred of African Americans. These men have pictures of Hitler on their basement walls. As the night winds down, a fire breaks out in the back of the rally hall. In the ensuing confusion 35 men are trampled or burned to death, as well as dozens of women. Was that the judgment of God?
Or you hear of two co-workers, a man and woman. Both are married with a couple of children and considered pillars in their community and churches. Behind the backs of their spouses they are having an affair. These affairs usually take place on business trips. But occasionally they steal away in the afternoon and get a hotel room on the other side of town. During one of these afternoon excursions, they are shot in their hotel room by a drug dealer and his girlfriend who wanted the man’s Lexus. They are found by the hotel manager later that day. Was that the judgment of God?
Or three male pedophiles are driving late one night to pick up a young girl who has been kidnapped and sold on the black market. They have already done this numerous times. They take the children, use them and the resell them once they are done, usually to someone overseas. They have been on police radar for a while, but nothing concrete has been gotten on them. As they are driving, a semi-truck driver falls asleep and hits them head on killing the pedophiles instantly. Was that the judgment of God?
Or a CEO of a multi-million dollar company is notoriously greedy. He lays men off as they age so he won’t have to pay pensions and hires younger workers at a lower wage. He “legally” cheats his employees out of their fair wages. He is dissolute and a womanizer with numerous divorces and he refuses to support his children. There have been accusations of him taking advantage of the college girls who work for him. He is a sleaze ball. Through various means, that usually involve bribes and money, he has been able to escape any repercussions of his actions. You find out later that a disgruntled former employee slipped him a false stock tip as well as leaked some false information about his company. His company’s stock dropped millions in one day. And the false stock tip, which he went all in on, caused him to lose millions more personally. This had a domino effect, which ended in bankruptcy and eventual suicide. Was that the judgment of God?
Imagine there are hundreds of homosexuals celebrating their homosexuality at a gay bar. A Muslim walks in and kills a bunch of them and wounds others. Was that the judgment of God?
I set up these scenarios to help us think through our reaction to tragedy in America. I understand these are not all equal. For example, one could argue that the death of the couple is a more direct result of their sin than the death of the Neo-Nazis. But the common theme in all of them is overt, flagrant sin, during which they were killed or which led to their death. Here are a few comments.
First, I can guarantee for most reading this there was little, if any, sorrow in most of the situations I described. If dozens of Neo-Nazis died in a fire or even a shooting there would not be an outpouring of grief. There would be a subtle “they got what they deserved.” Pedophiles killed head on. Again, they got what they deserved. This helps us understand, which sins in our country are the acceptable sins, at least in some way, and which ones are not. Why would there be an overflow of compassion for the shooting in Orlando and not be the same for the death of KKK members? It is possible I am wrong here and if 49 KKK members were killed instead of gays we would see the same reaction. But somehow I doubt it.
Second, why do we never ask this question about God’s judgment? Our fathers thought God acted in time and history. If there was a drought, it was because of sin. If a man got hurt working on his house is was a sign from God. John Calvin sums this up when he says if there is
weather so extreme that it seems everything must burn up from the heat: we should know that it is God punishing us for our sins, both because of our the rebellion of our father Adam, and because of the many sins we keep committing against him every day. (Sermon on I Cor. 11:2-3)
Notice that Calvin sees both God’s general curse on man as causing the heat wave, as well as the specific sins of the people in Geneva. These events were seen as acts of God which drive men to repent of their sins and turn to him. Our fathers overdid it at times. Reading providence, God’s acts in history, can be difficult. But we have made the opposite error. We have assumed that it is impossible to read providence. In fact, most Christians would be unwilling to even say, “God did it” or “God allowed it” when it comes to a tragedy. We must not try to determine God’s providence in each situation. Certainly, not every tragedy or bad thing that happens is judgment by God. That is a lopsided view of God’s providence. But there are situations where it is difficult to believe it is not God’s judgment. Imagine if at the door of the Pulse Club Omar Mateen was apprehended and no one was shot. What would we say? Many would say it was the hand of God that saved those club-goers. But when he isn’t apprehended we resort to deistic non-sense. Shall we receive good from God’s hand and not bad?
Third, the shooting in Orlando was a tragedy there is no denying that. It was a terrible thing done by a wicked man who killed people who did not deserve to die by human hands. Yet, is not the death of the pedophiles just the same? Would not dozens of Neo-Nazis being burned and trampled also be a tragedy? And if your answer is no or your gut instinct is treat one as a worse tragedy than the other, then you do not understand the image of God in man, sin, or justice.
Fourth, to ask whether or not it was God’s judgment does nor promote violence against others. God and the magistrate are the only ones who can use the sword to execute judgment in history. God can judge for sins and crimes. The magistrate can wield the sword for crimes. If I knew that Omar Mateen was going to walk into that bar and kill those gays, would I have stopped him? Absolutely. Any Christian worth his profession would have done anything they could have to prevent that tragedy. Saying it comes from God’s hand and possibly is God’s judgment does not give freedom to Christians or others to kill in a similar fashion.
Finally, whenever a Christian sees a situation like the ones above or another tragedy they should not say, “good for them” or “they had it coming.” Instead they should get on their knees and confess their sins knowing that without Christ they too rest under the temporal and eternal wrath of God. The Lord does not allow these things so our pride will run rampant. Instead tragedies such as these call us to repent and turn.