By James Heine
Katrina, Rita, and now Wilma. Tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes. Lives swept away and communities destroyed. New concerns about a catastrophic worldwide outbreak of the flu.
Our daily ration of news is almost universally grim, and it is made even more so by our 24/7 exposure to it.
What are we to make of all this, and how are we to live in the face of it?
Are these disasters, so fresh in our minds, signs of the end times, as some Christians believe? Are they divine retribution visited on especially sinful people, or on unbelievers? Where, by the way, do we find God in all this devastation?
These questions are always present in the midst of tragedy, observes Dr. Paul Raabe, professor of exegetical theology and a department chair at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
“The story of tragedy ultimately goes back to Genesis 3, when because of Adam’s rebellion, God cursed the earth,” notes Raabe. “That curse involves much more than thorns and thistles; it includes tsunamis, hurricanes, and epidemics. When you think about it, there is no safe place on earth. Wherever you live, you are in danger, if not from tsunamis or hurricanes, then from earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, floods, mudslides, drought, forest fires — or even epidemics. There is no completely safe place on planet earth.”
For our modern, technologically advanced, and increasingly secular society, that reality is hard to comprehend, Raabe says, but it is a good reminder that we are not masters of our own destiny. We are all at the mercy of God — literally.
Are the disasters we’ve experienced recently signs of the end times?
Well, in a broad sense, yes. According to the New Testament, the end times began with Christ’s death and resurrection, Raabe says. “So we’ve been living in the end times for 2,000 years now.
“What some people mean by that question is this: Are we getting closer to the second coming of Christ? The answer is yes. Every day gets us closer. But what I would say is this: That every disaster is a harbinger, a foretaste, of final judgment to come. And that final judgment, the Scriptures say, will be a day of darkness and deep despair and agony and the wrath of God.
“For all sinners, the good news is that while there is no escaping the final judgment, our Creator has provided a refuge, a fortress,” Raabe notes. “Our Judge is also our Savior,” whose suffering, death, and resurrection won for us salvation. For Christians, the Judgment, then, is also a day of victory. That is a hope we should broadcast to all people.
“Disasters,” says Raabe, “give us a good opportunity, on the one hand, to serve our neighbors in love with acts of mercy, and on the other to lay before them the Gospel promises of God and to preach faith into their hearts by laying before them these promises.”
No, our recent disasters are not retribution visited on especially sinful people. The tsunami did not sweep away Asian communities because they were full of Buddhists or Muslims or unbelievers. God does not have a particular beef against New Orleans or Biloxi, Miss., or against the people of Azad Kashmir. Remember, Raabe says, all creation is under the curse of the Law.
It groans under that curse, as Romans 8 notes. Earthquakes leveled cities in Old Testament times. Vesuvius buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. Jacob faced famine in Canaan. Storms shipwrecked Paul, not once, but three times.
“Ultimately, all suffering goes back to the fall into sin,” Raabe says. “But suffering is not evenly distributed. Some people with original sin suffer much more than others with original sin. Why did Job suffer but Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar did not? We learn the full story from the opening narrative, but Job never finds out. God does some inscrutable things that remain beyond us.”
In the language of Lutherans, we call God’s inscrutable acts His alien works, Raabe explains. “The question is not so much why but how do we respond?” he adds.
“Here again we present for people the Gospel promises of God in Christ Jesus. We flee to the mercy of God shown in Jesus. When we experience the strange, inscrutable, destructive deeds of God, we flee to the Lord’s Supper. We flee to Absolution. We flee to our own Baptism. And that’s where we see God for us. In Lutheran language, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we see the love of God. Apart from the Gospel we see the wrath of God, or the inscrutability of God.”
Given the increasing plurality of our religious landscape, Raabe believes that Lutherans want to emphasize two themes in any discussion of disasters. First, that death, both spiritual and physical, is bad, an alien intrusion into the Creator’s good creation, an enemy that needs to be defeated.
Second, that disasters ultimately impress upon all of us how we stand before our almighty Creator and Judge. “Every disaster is kind of the Creator’s call for all of us to repent, to realize that the whole human race is in rebellion against its Creator.”
Finding God in the Cross
In a very real sense, disasters remind us that as Lutheran Christians, we view all of life through the cross, and that we are, in fact, Easter Christians who believe in the resurrection, says Rev. Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief/ Human Care. Easter Christians, yes, most certainly, but in this life we most often don’t see anything past Good Friday, he adds.
“But because of the cross, we know that this is the way God works,” says Harrison. “And just as He used the cross for His good purposes, He uses the difficulties in our lives for His own good ends. Just as the women stared at Jesus dying on the cross and said this is hopeless — it’s pointless, it’s over, God hates us — so often we in this life feel the same way. And yet, right there, on Calvary, God was in charge and bringing about the best — for the entire world.
“Nevertheless, in this life, we stand on this side of Good Friday. We have the promise of a future, but we look through the lens of Good Friday.”
“Nevertheless” is a word that resonates with Raabe also. As Christians, we are not blind optimists, he says. We face reali