Response to the September 11th attacks
Was God Punishing Us?
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, many people have asked the question, “Why did God allow this to happen?” In response, some Christian leaders have suggested that God was punishing our country for reaching an all-time low in moral behavior. As one well-known evangelist put it, God was serving us a “wake up call” to get our nation right with God.
Certainly America wins no awards for its morality. And it’s true that in the Old Testament God sometimes judged nations when their iniquity had reached “full measure” (e.g. Gen 15:16). But is there any indication that this is what God was doing through the terrorists’ attacks on September 11th? Why America? Aren’t some other nations even worse off morally, and thus “more deserving” of punishment, than America? Not only this, but what are we to make of the fact that there are many indications that America is actually moving in a more conservative direction on some moral issues (e.g. premarital sex and births out of wedlock are on the decline)?
The view that God was giving us a “wake up call” on September 11th raises other questions as well. Would God carry out such a punishment in this way and expect that the majority of Americans would get the point? What good is a “wake up call” if those you’re addressing don’t know that you are calling them to “wake up”? If someone rather suggests that the point of the atrocity was simply for God to justly punish America for its sin, we have to wonder what Christ’s death accomplished. Is God still in the business of making people “pay” for their sin? And how did the 3,000 people who lost their lives in this atrocity get chosen to die? Were they all greater sinners than the rest of us? Not only this, but what are we to think of the Afghan people who have died as a result of the ensuing war? If God was punishing us through their terrorists, is God punishing them through our retaliation?
Other Christian leaders do not pretend to know what God’s purpose was in allowing the terrorists attacks, but they nevertheless insist that God must have his reasons. Somehow this atrocity fits into a grand divine plan. Nothing happens outside of God’s sovereign control, they insist, so the event must have been allowed, or even ordained, for a greater good.
The Approach of Jesus
Jesus had a very different approach to atrocities like the one we have experienced. When a multitude of Galileans were murdered by Pilate, Jesus asked a crowd, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” He answered, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:1–3). When a tower fell and killed eighteen people, Jesus asked, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” And again he answered, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Luke 13:4–5). Jesus is saying that people should not try to discern the punishing hand of God in atrocities. They should rather concern themselves with their own relationship with the Father.
This attitude characterized all of Jesus’ ministries. He spent his ministry reaching out to people who were in different ways victims of a fallen, cursed world: the marginalized, the oppressed, the deaf, the mute, the blind, the deformed, the demonized. And Jesus never suggested that their affliction was punishment for sins they or someone else committed. Indeed, never once did Jesus suggest that their affliction in any way fit into a divine plan. On the contrary, Jesus assumed that their affliction was contrary to God’s will, and Jesus expressed God’s will by coming against these afflictions. Indeed, often Jesus explicitly identified the ultimate source of their afflictions as being Satan or one of his demonic cohorts (e.g. Luke 11:14, 13:11–16; Mark 9:25; cf. Acts 10:38; 1 John 3:8).
One episode in the Gospels is often interpreted as a counter-example of this response. Jesus and his disciples came upon a blind man. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In most translations, Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:1–3). This response is considered evidence that blindness is as much the result of God’s activity as is the healing from blindness. However, the words “he was born blind so that” are not in the original Greek. The Greek simply has, “let the works of God be revealed in him.” Jesus then shows what the work of God is by healing the man (John 9:4–7). Far from suggesting that God causes blindness (as punishment or for any other reason), Jesus once again dismisses the quest to find a divine reason for misfortunes like blindness, politically motivated murders and falling towers.
The Right Question
From the perspective of Jesus’ ministry—the perspective Christians should model their own thinking on—we are asking the wrong question when we ask, “Why did God allow this or that atrocity to happen?” Like Jesus, we should rather ask, “How can we work together with God to amend this atrocity?”
God does not have a divine purpose for allowing, or ordaining, atrocities like the attack on September 11th, any more than God had a purpose for allowing Pilate to murder Galileans or allowing people to be killed in falling towers. In a cosmos populated with free agents, human and angelic, many of which have turned against God, things are going to happen that God does not will. When they do, the “why” is located in them, not God.
This is not the final word, however. God does have a purpose for what he can do with atrocities, once they occur. God is not caught off guard when terrible things happen. Because he is a God of infinite intelligence, he has from all eternity been foreknowing and preparing for every possibility, including atrocities. When tragedies which he does not will occur, he has a plan in place for how he can use these tragedy to further his purposes in the world. And usually this plan involves humans. He wants us to pray, to love, to show compassion, to sacrifice, and to do all we can do to alleviate the senseless suffering created by tragedies like the one we experienced on September 11th, and like the one many innocent Afghan people are now experiencing.
But we will not hear God’s voice calling us to respond to atrocities according to his will if we are mistakenly fixated on trying to figure out what God’s will was for allowing atrocities in the first place.