Deuteronomic Theology

Why Bad Things Happen

By Christopher Schwinger

Part 1: Rewards and Punishments

With deuteronomic theology, the Israelites were able to find a direct cause and effect between their choice to keep God's Law and God's interaction with their nation — for good or bad. That doesn't necessarily mean that we, in the church age, can do the same.

It's a careful balancing act when you try to view a tragedy such as 9/11 biblically. First, are you looking at the individuals or the large-scale event and its social impact? Second, are you interested in knowing what God is specifically judging you for, or are you content with acknowledging it as a general warning call for national repentance? Third, are there other motifs which you can directly relate to something Biblical in order to make better sense of it? And fourth, is there a healthy outcome to the speculation, or are you just trying to make sense of the pain in a fruitless way?

1.) If you are looking at the individuals, you will be in a theological mess. "But this guy didn't do anything to deserve it! He was a Christian, and he perished with the unbeliever!" So that's not a good option, and the only healthy analysis is the social impact of the tragedy.

2.) If you believe God deliberately judged the nation for a specific sin, you may be right, if there's a prevailing national vice, but you may be wrong, too, because the New Testament teaches us that God uses discipline to teach us to be better instead of just punish us for what we've done wrong. He has a redemptive purpose for suffering, the New Testament teaches through the example of Jesus and in Hebrews 12:11 ("the peaceful fruit of righteousness") and other passages. If the people aren't learning from the catastrophe, maybe they're hard-hearted, or maybe it wasn't quite as simple as God choosing a disaster to inflict upon the nation. Sometimes "life happens" — bad things that are a result of being in an imperfect world, which we must not blame on God, even if we wonder about why He lets it be that way.

3.) Are there other motifs which you can directly relate to something Biblical in order to make better sense of it? I find the "harbingers" which are in Christian Rabbi Jonathan Cahn's The Harbinger and associated DVD, The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment, quite fascinating, and I don't believe they could all be coincidental. I am glad that many people have felt the need for repentance because of how his discovery of the "harbingers" warns America of what could happen to us. But there is a limit to how far we should apply these, and we should not put too much stock in numerology (spotting significance in numbers by relating them to the Bible), or signs such as blood moons. I have heard dismayed Christians look at Biblical prophecy passages and sadly remark that America is not in there, which suggests that our country is going to collapse for its sins, and God will fulfill the vital "End Times" events in the Middle East. It's not an air of resignation I detect, though, because they are really interested in redeeming America. But I think we should be careful what conclusions we come to about the way the future will look when we compare Biblical passages to our present affairs.

4.) Is there a healthy outcome to the speculation, or are you just trying to make sense of the pain in a fruitless way? There are very few times when it is unmistakably clear why God did something in a certain way at a certain time. Most of our attempts to make sense out of life are conjecture, which Google defines as "an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information." It's a lot easier to make sense of social causes and effects, like how extreme nationalism leads to horrible things like crucifying Jesus or the Holocaust, or how too much immigration leads to poverty and racial violence because of the economic effects. It's harder and more dangerous to make pronouncements about why God did something to someone. The Old Testament historical books are liberal in their pronouncements of what God was doing, often connecting a king's policy about idolatry to the larger events that happened in that era. At least, unlike the Mosaic texts, they don't claim the wrath of God is because they neglected religious rituals. The emphasis in the historical books is usually on the self-reliant pride and idolatry of the nation and king, not whether they fulfilled every specification in the Mosaic Law.

It's easy to make statements on a grandiose scale and find some sin which can be blamed for a disaster, but when that theology has been applied to a person's personal problems, it causes extraordinary damage to the person emotionally and spiritually. The writer of "It Is Well with My Soul," Horatio Spafford, was rejected, along with his wife, from their church community in Chicago because their church blamed their personal tragedies on them. (This was after the song had been written.) He was an elder in the church he had helped build, but was asked to leave because other church members believed God had cursed him and his wife for their unspecified hidden sins. He'd gone through a number of losses, after pouring out his energy on behalf of victims of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Two years later, exhausted from the work, he and his wife planned a trip to Europe to get a break, but business that came up after the trip was scheduled kept Horatio from going at the same time as his wife and four daughters. The ship collided with another, and his wife Anna survived but none of the four daughters did. Horatio wrote "It Is Well with My Soul" after being told by the captain, on his own trip, that they had just come upon the place where the collision had happened. He and Anna then returned to Chicago and had a son and another daughter, but the son died of scarlet fever at age 4. These tragedies, all of which followed their great work on behalf of victims of the Chicago fire, were, to the local church in Chicago, proof that God was punishing them. They then moved to Jerusalem in 1881 to live a simple life with few possessions and help the needy. The Spafford Children's Center still provides health care and educational support to as many as 30,000 children each year under the leadership of the Spaffords' descendants, serving Jerusalem and the West Bank. Most of the blessings have come to others rather than themselves, and few in earthly terms came to them. (I read this story in chapter 1 of What Are You Afraid Of? by David Jeremiah.) Justice depends on there being an afterlife in which the righteous, such as the Spaffords, will have eternal joy.

In summary, there are limits on Deuteronomy's application to large-scale disasters which societies experience, and Deuteronomic theology has no place in interpreting tragedies which affect individual people. Disasters should call people to repentance, but not be overanalyzed. This was Jesus' counsel in Luke 13:4-5: "Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." If there are obvious Biblical parallels, the parallels should make divine principles much more understandable and assist in calling more people to repentance, but they have their limits on predicting the future, except for general trends. The Book of Chronicles (divided into 1 and 2 Chronicles in our Bibles) sets a good example of making the past relevant to the present, instead of just speculating about why bad things happened in the past. Deuteronomy is an important foundation to our understanding of God's intervention on behalf of justice, but the teachings of Jesus are far more dependable and well-rounded.

Image Credit: Kelly Garbato; "FEMA 15440" (New Orleans, Sept. 2005, two weeks after the levees failed); Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | Current-Issues  | False-Teaching  | God-Father  | Sin-Evil
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Published 11-23-14