We heard this following the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11 in 2001, and again in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in August 2005. Such catastrophes, we were assured, were thunderbolts from the very hand of God, hurled to punish the evildoers who had so clearly corrupted New York and New Orleans.
But this time, nothing from the God-is-out-to-get-you crowd. Perhaps the prophetic picture was muddied in the absence of a large loss of life attributable to the storm (as though multiple deaths somehow have more “meaning” than just a few).
Or perhaps there is confusion: how is it possible that Augusta could be hit so hard, while Atlanta – surely Georgia’s own Southern-fried version of Sodom and Gomorrah – escaped the worst of it? Did the Almighty somehow miss his target?
This is not leading, however, to one of those statements along the lines of “God is love so let’s forget all this talk of judgment.” What we need to understand is the true nature of God’s judgment – which is wrapped up in his love – and its implications for us.
If God is any kind of deity worthy of the name, in his own nature he cannot tolerate evil in any form; this is the essence of holiness. Think of it as a light shining in a dark room: wherever the light shines, the darkness is obliterated; that’s just the nature of light.
While in the past, God chose to exercise judgment in particular ways in specific circumstances, all of us are now living on this side of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the cross, all the evil of the world – past, present, and future – was condemned.
The mystery of the cross is that God in Christ willingly suffered eternal judgment for our sake, so that despite our natural, in-born sinfulness, we might never need be separated from the love of God.
The righteousness of God means that one day God will indeed bring all things under his final judgment. Knowing that day is coming, and that God will set things right at last, is what gives us the strength and hope to endure in the face of oppression, injustice, and evil.
Therefore, events such as floods or earthquakes or drought are not evidence of God punishing sinners, but instead, God sending us a wake-up call. Jesus, commenting on the fall of a tower in Siloam that killed 18 people, said this “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:4-5)
What good is it to have survived a natural disaster, only to ultimately lose one’s life for all eternity? The love of God for all people is what has postponed Judgment Day so far; trusting in the cross of Christ is the only refuge, either in this life or the next.
The Rev. Ed Rees is the pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Augusta.