Thursday, January 12, 2006

Is God in the Retribution Business?

Last week during an airing of "The 700 Club" the Reverend Pat Robertson, quoting the Book of Joel, made remarks that implied he thought Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was God's way of telling Sharon not to "divide my land" (Israel).  The founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network seemed to make a connection between Sharon's August pullout from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, and the idea that Sharon was "“dividing God's land," actions which he said invited "God'’s enmity."”  Robertson added, "“I would say woe to any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course."”

Mr. Robertson made these statements in his usual friendly sort of way; his tone of voice did not sound malicious.  However, "retribution" has now come Robertson's way, as Israel cancelled a potentially lucrative agreement with Robertson's organization, and many in the evangelical community and even the White House decried his statements.  The tentative agreement with Israel had involved Robertson's organization funding the building of a Christian Heritage Center near key historic Christian sites such as Capernaum and the Mount of the Beatitudes; Israel was to have provided both the land and the infrastructure.

Explaining the decision to cancel the agreement, Ido Hartuv, spokesman for Israel's tourism minister, said that Israeli officials were outraged by Robertson's statements. "We will do business with other evangelical leaders, friends of Israel, but not with him."*

Is God in the retribution business?  Was Hurricane Katrina an act of God designed to punish a wayward region?  Was Sharon inflicted with a stroke for acting against God's will for the nation of Israel? The knee-jerk reaction of many is to say "No".  The thought is that such acts of retribution on the part of God would portray Him as petty, childish, and vengeful.  It is true that the God the Bible portrays is neither capricious nor mean, but rather, "slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion (Numbers 14:18, NIV)".  But this same verse goes on to say, "Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."  The God of the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New, is indeed seen to be a God of love.  At the same time, he is shown to be a God of perfect holiness and righteousness, who, by virtue of being our Creator, demands that we conform to the standard of holiness He originally designed us to have, and which corresponds with His own nature ("be holy, as I am holy").  When mankind does not conform to this standard, but rather, rebels against God in acts of wickedness, we see time and again the wrath of God being stirred to action.  Mr. Robertson is not completely off in the notion that the God of Scripture is not to be trifled with, and that His vengeance is connected with the affairs of "His people":

Deuteronomy 32:43, ESV
"Rejoice with him, O heavens; bow down to him, all gods, for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries.  He repays those who hate him and cleanses his people's land."

The issue is interpretation of such verses.  Some, like Mr. Robertson, see modern-day Israel as having an important role in God's plan, of being the heir to historic Israel.  My friend and fellow blogger Mark Daniels calls this idea "whacked":  

"You must understand that Pat operates from a notion that modern Israel is the heir of historic Israel.  Most Christians, myself included, think that's whacked.  In the Christian view, historic Israel fulfilled its critical role in history--to be a light to the nations--in the Person of Jesus Christ.  The first believers in Christ, Jews themselves, even called the Church, "the new Israel."”

Others (such as the late Derek Prince) hold a stance that sees a role in God's plans both for the "New Israel", made up of all who have come into the family of God through Jesus Christ, and also, for the modern-day nation of Israel. Individuals have the right to their own interpretations, but I think where many take offense with Mr. Robertson is in his presentation.  His statements have sometimes come across as being those of one who see himself as the spokesman for the Bible's view, and even for God himself.  There's nothing wrong with Mr. Robertson having his own private opinion about the significance of world events in light of his particular understanding of the Bible, but someone of his influence in the evangelical Christian community-- and even on the world stage-- ought to be more measured in his public statements.  As many in the blogosphere have noted, the credibility of the Christian message is negatively impacted when the statements and actions of Christian leaders are incompatible with the true message of Christianity.  But what is the true message?

I would venture to say that the harshness in some reactions towards Robertson's statements could stem from a view of God that does not want to attribute any sort of retributory actions to Him, but this is not entirely accurate either, as noted in the Scripture quote earlier, which is just one of many examples in Scripture that God is by nature One who takes justice very seriously, and will someday judge the world. Yet, it seems the Bible would also caution us from being too quick to interpret particular events as being acts of divine punishment/judgment.  

Job's friends, for example, were quite certain that Job must have sinned in some way for him to have been inflicted by God with such harsh events as happened to him.  Of course, the book of Job shows they were all wrong.  Job was being tested by God, to see if he would be faithful in his devotion to God despite the calamities which hit him, and Job passed the test. When asked by his disciples about a blind man who had been blind since birth, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?", Jesus gave this enigmatic reply:

"It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (John 9: 1-4)."

What does this mean? It seems that what Jesus is saying this: in this world, there are situations which ought not to be, such as people born blind, and it is the work of God to restore such people to the original wholeness God intended for them.  Jesus calls his followers to participate in this ministry with Him ("we must work the works of him who sent me"), and implies that there is a limited time in which our works may be accomplished ("night is coming, when no one can work). I'm not sure what Jesus means in the latter part of this statement.  But His statements about bringing light to the eyes of a blind man represent the heart of God, the prophetically predicted purpose of His mission:

"the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned(Matthew 4:16, Isaiah 9:2)"

As He healed the blind man, Jesus acted in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and the physical healing He brought to this one man was symbolic of the spiritual healing He was bringing to all who would embrace His purpose. Is God in the retribution business? The answer seems to be no... and yes.   What do we see in Jesus, the one who is supposed to most fully represent God to us?  Let us look at a familiar passage:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God (John 3: 16-20, ESV)."

The passage states that God does not come to condemn the world, but to save it.  We condemn ourselves however, if we reject the only One who can save us.  Politically correct? No.  The politically correct message woould be to say that God is love, and that everyone who lives a life of love, regardless of religious orientation, will be accepted.  But the One who claimed to represent God in His very person, saying "whoever has seen me has seen the Father", also said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)."  

The Scriptures teach that He came to us first as Savior, but that someday He will return as our King and Judge.  Let us be careful then, of judging the hearts of our fellow men and women, and cautious in making declarations about God's intentions based on our interpretation of current events.  If you are a follower of Christ, you are called to live in such a way that "people may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:12)."

May we never do anything that will make it more difficult for others to receive the saving message of the gospel, but rather, may we by our lives make its message attractive to others.

For further reading: Jollyblogger David Wayne has written about Pat Robertson's attempt to explain his statements about Sharon, and how they reveal a "spurious view of eschatology". He also points readers to another document, "An Open Letter to Evangelicals and Other Interested Parties: The People of God, the Land of Israel, and the Impartiality of the Gospel" that presents a theological response to this topic on the part of a large group of evangelicals. HT: Mark Daniels.

*Source: some of the information in this article was taken from CBS News reports.

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