Sunday, February 15, 2009

Does God judge nations today?

Like many other Melbourne pastors I was disturbed by Danny Nalliah's press release, issued to the nation on February 10, which asserted that the Victorian Bushfires were the direct result of Victoria's abortion laws. This was based, he said, upon a dream he had last November.

It was irresponsible of Nalliah to release his message without first submitting it to church leaders for evaluation, including those of recognised prophetic insight (1 Corinthians 14:29-32). Danny states that his desire was to call the church to repentance, but by rejecting the oversight and testing of the church in Victoria, he has undermined and greatly damaged his credibility, and shut the ears of many to his voice. The timing of the message right in the middle of the most profound suffering and agony, and the idea of issuing it as a 'press release' was hurtful.

I don't disagree with Nalliah that our abortion laws are 'incendiary', nor that their passing was a dark day for our state, but such concerns do not give him the right to pour further pain and suffering upon the bushfire victims right at the time when body counts were mounting day by day. His actions have been interpreted by many as a form of spiritual grandstanding.

It is hardly surprising that atheists on the blogosphere compared Nalliah to Islamist jihadists, such as those who found in the bushfires evidence of Allah's punishment of Australia. (Local Muslims rejected these claims.)

Yet, having expressed my deep concern about Nalliah's chosen path, I was also disturbed to read respected Christian leaders, in opposing Nalliah, appear to deny God's sovereignty and justice, even to the extent that they appeared to question the possibility of judgement in this life at all.

Dr Wynand De Kock, Dr John Capper and Pastor Mark Conner all seemed to be saying that since Christ came, God no longer acts in this world to judge people for their sins.

De Kock and Capper, both of Tabor College, seem to reject the idea that any disaster can be attributed to God. Such an understanding would be "a misunderstanding of both God's purpose and God's nature." They say that the people of Israel "in the early days" had such a view – here De Kock and Capper seem to be implying that this was only what the Israelites thought, not what the Bible teaches – but today it seems we should know better. Although they allow that some Christians "may still be of this opinion", they seem to be saying that since the coming of Christ this view has become invalid.

Conner explains his views as follows:
"...we need to realise that we are in the time of God’s favour NOT of God’s judgment. ... Jesus introduced a day of grace and mercy for people, and we are still living in that time. ... That doesn’t mean that people today won’t at times suffer the consequences of their actions but this is not the day of God’s judgment."
I certainly do not support Nalliah's statements, but to deny even the possibility that God's actions might include sending judgment upon communities is a very strange claim indeed. Many atheists, responding on Barney Zwartz's blog, were incredulous that Christians might happily accept blessings as coming from God's hands, whilst fervently rejecting the possibility that God could have a hand in disasters. They found it hypocritical that Christians might thank God for rain, but reject the possibility that God withheld rain in a bushfire.

I suspect that these leaders do not fully believe what they are preaching. (Indeed Conner, in a subsequent post, seems to have retreated from his earlier statement.) Do they really wish to imply that since the time of Christ, God will not bring retribution against tyrants? That God now stands so aloof that the only judgement in this world takes the form of 'consequences of actions'.

I suspect that these Christian leaders feel themselves pushed into downplaying the sovereignty of God at this time because they are appalled at the negative pastoral impact of Nalliah's press release. This is part of the collateral damage of Nalliah's actions: he has polarized people, and shut off avenues for important discussion and theological reflection. His timing was excruciating.

The question of the character of God and the extent of his responsibility for disasters is indeed a very painful one. (Many Jews became atheists during the Holocaust.) But despite what some Christian leaders are saying in response to Nalliah, the possibility of judgment has always been at least one of the factors which Christians have considered in times of disaster. Even Christ and the apostles make references to God's judgment in this life.

Clearly the question of suffering is a deeply sensitive one. (I discuss it at greater length in my recent sermon.) I would encourage people, in this time of great sorrow and distress – a season of ashes and tears — to take the time to consider it deeply and thoroughly, taking into account the many and rich contributions which the scriptures make. Nalliah's action was unwise, but so is rushing in to provide rather-too-comforting theological assurances.

People in crisis do ask profound questions about God. They deserve Biblically-grounded answers which can provide the solace and support to sustain them through the desolation of grief. For an example of such an answer I can commend readers to Tim Anderson's opinion piece of this past week, which was published by the Herald Sun.