Monday, October 24, 2011

Punitive natural disasters

I’m going to comment on a post by Randal Rauser. Cutting the dead wood, this seems to be his core argument:

We can summarize Robertson’s claim like this:
(1) Haiti’s earthquake was a divine punishment for the sins of human beings living in Haiti.
But whatever we think of (1), the fact is that it depends on an underlying premise which requires its own examination:
(2) At least some natural disasters are a divine punishment for the sins of human beings.
This brings us to the nub of the problem. While Christians were virtually unified in their repudiation of (1), those same Christians widely accept (2). And that introduces the problem for in virtue of accepting (2) they leave it open, at least in principle, that (1) might turn out true as well. And this introduces a serious tension. You see,  the moral revulsion of Christians to Robertson’s claim is of the “certainly not” type (that couldn’t be true). But the actual beliefs of Christians about providence and punishment entails a “possibly so” (that may be true).
In his book Where Was God? Erwin Lutzer takes the bull by the horns by explicitly arguing that natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and floods are sometimes punishments on human populations. His first point is that all the evil and suffering of the world is a punishment for that primal sin in the garden: ”Natural disasters are judgments, for the obvious reason that all death and destruction is a judgment of God.” (Tyndale House, 2006), 63.
Consider the book of Lamentations. On the one hand the book is not directly relevant to our topic since it is dealing not with natural evil but rather with the actions of armies that defeated and decimated Jerusalem. However, that distinction is not actually that important. Whether we’re talking about the ravages of the Babylonian armies or of a string of natural disasters, the issue is the same: the residents of Jerusalem were judged en masse for the indiscretions of the population. And God was the special primary agent of that judgment.
The book begins with a clear affirmation that it is God, rather than the Babylonians, who is the primary agent of Israel’s misery: ”Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the LORD brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?” (Lamentations 1:12) Indeed, God has trampled “Virgin Daughter Judah” in the winepress of his wrath (v. 15) by summoning an army to defeat them. Remember, he could just as well have trampled them with an earthquake or flood.
Of course the very nature of these kinds of disasters is that they do not select out and target those who are immediately culpable. Many others are swept up in the dragnet of misery. Within Jerusalem the misery extends to the infants and children who cry out for food:
   They say to their mothers,
   “Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
   in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
   in their mothers’ arms. (2:12)
The severe conditions created by this direct punishment even extend to the point of women cannibalizing their own children. And it is not that these individuals are merely the collateral damage. On the contrary, the suffering of all the people, the children included, is inflicted by God as part of his punishment of Israel:
“Young and old lie together
   in the dust of the streets;
my young men and young women
   have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
   you have slaughtered them without pity.” (2:21)
 Judgment in Haiti?
If (2) is true then (1) is possibly true. And thus, if it is possible that God inflicts suffering on infants as punishment for the sins of people, then it is possible that God inflicted suffering on Hatian infants for the sins of Hatian people.

By way of comment:

i) Rauser may be right in suggesting that some critics of Robertson have failed to think through their own position. If so, that wouldn’t be a novel or profound discovery.

ii) As Rauser himself has framed the issue, the death of children doesn’t ipso facto mean their death is punitive for them. He himself says “Of course the very nature of these kinds of disasters is that they do not select out and target those who are immediately culpable. Many others are swept up in the dragnet of misery.”

So, by his own admission, mass judgment does not entail the personal guilt of all affected parties. To the contrary, the very nature of mass judgment is indiscriminate. There may be some innocent victims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Indeed, to use his own example of the Babylonian Exile, it’s safe to say that pious Jews suffered a similar fate due to the sins of their compatriots. A righteous remnant or godly minority that suffers the common fate of the apostate majority.

As social creatures, our lives our intertwined with one another in complex ways. A nexus of codependent relations. For instance, if your father is convicted of murder and punished accordingly, you will suffer the loss of your father even though you yourself are innocent of the crime.

That’s just the nature of social life in a fallen world. And that’s one reason Scripture has a doctrine of eschatological compensations.

Even Rauser’s paradigm-case from Lamentations doesn’t require the culpability of the young victims. So, yes, they’d be “collateral damage”–his denial notwithstanding.

iv) In Lamentations, loss of children is not a punitive judgment on the children, but on the complicit adults. To lose their children is a way of punishing the adults. Loss of children is an unequaled calamity for parents. Even (or especially) if the parents survive, the loss of their children is uniquely traumatic. Many parents would rather die with their kids than survive without them.

iv) Mind you, Rauser evidently rejects the viewpoint expressed in Lamentations. Of course, corporate judgment is widely attested in Scripture. So one wonders what books of the canon Rauser still includes in his Bible. It’s clearly not the 66 books of the Protestant canon.

v) It’s also true that Scripture treats death as a judicial sanction in a more roundabout way. That’s explicit in Pauline theology (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15). And that goes back to the Genesis account. When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, they lost the opportunity to acquire immortality, not only for themselves, but for their posterity. As exiles, the tree of life was not longer available to them or their posterity.

So Adam’s sin makes his posterity liable and vulnerable to death by a variety of causes. Of course, I don’t suppose Rauser believes that, in which case his canon would contract even further.

It would be more efficient if Rauser simply did a post on which books or chapters of the Bible he thinks we should still believe in, and why.

vi) BTW, Third World countries like Haiti aren’t the only regions to suffer natural disaster. The theodicean issue is no more or less an issue for US residents, viz. 1900 Galveston earthquake, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Jonestown flood, &c.

But blue ribbon liberals like Rauser always exhibit paternalistic concern for Third World residents (“Take up the white man's burden. Fill full the mouth of famine, and bid the sickness cease–for sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.”).

vi) As usual, Rauser is quick to attack, but slow to present a constructive alternative. Presumably his own God was able to prevent the Haitian earthquake. And even if his own God is unable or unwilling to prevent natural disasters, he could give always prospective victims (including their innocent kids) advance warning. So how does Rauser extricate himself from the theodicean dilemma he proposes? 


  1. Jesus....What a waste of time, thought & energy.

    I think even God may eventually lose patience with this intellectual drivel..

  2. Except that your own comment is drivel, whereas I presented a series of arguments.