There’s an unsettling aspect of American evangelical Christianity (though it’s not confined to that subset of Christianity) that likes to triumphantly proclaim God’s judgment as the impetus behind the catastrophe du jour. It’s a pretty simple script that goes like this: “Such-and-such people are wicked idolaters. God couldn’t take it any longer and unleashed such-and-such disaster. Turn your hearts to this same God, please (or else).” We’ve seen it in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami last spring. We saw it following Katrina. We heard it after 9/11. Probably, someone’s already done the same since the tragedy in Indiana this weekend.
Michael J. Gorman levels his quill against this tendency in chapter 8 of Reading Revelation Responsibly. Here he is commenting on the long judgment sequences of Revelation 6-20, helping us make sense of what appears on the surface a violent and vengeful text.
It would be theologically irresponsible to interpret every earthquake or tsunami or epidemic as an act of divine judgment for at least two reasons. First of all, to do so is once again to misinterpret symbolic, apocalyptic language literally. Secondly, and more importantly, correlating specific disasters with intentional divine wrath and judgment is tantamount to claiming an intimate knowledge of the mind of God, and that is an act of incredible hubris, if not idolatry. Human beings – apart perhaps from a very few specially inspired biblical prophets and seers – have not been granted insider information about the ways of God in executing the reserved power of judgment. (152)
Now, I would quibble with Gorman about the number of people who have “intimate knowledge of the mind of God” (If God is still speaking, which I believe to be so, then what’s He saying but what’s on His mind?), but the point is important. Who am I to suggest that the Lord was the root cause of the stage collapse in Indiana? And if I did say such a thing, would I really expect people to turn to that same God in love and admiration? Delusional hubris, indeed.
Still, there is something lacking in Gorman’s statement above, for it seems that even while we could not say that God did execute a certain disaster as an act of judgment, He still may in fact be responsible. Thankfully, Gorman elsewhere makes the point that biblical judgment may be more akin to natural consequence than divine retribution. “Sometimes, at least, God’s judgment in Revelation takes the form of imperial practices themselves, or the consequences of such practices” (139). Further, “empires often eventually die of a self-inflicted wound; their subjects revolt and destroy the very thing that has empowered them, and this reversal may be seen in a real sense as the judgment of God” (146).
Does God bring judgment against wicked nations and empires? Or do they bring it on themselves, like a protagonist’s fatal flaw? And how does the body of Christ act like the body of Christ in those circumstances? I suppose that’s the question of Revelation. And the question of the 21st century church.