Nov 8, 2008

The Theology of Tragedy

by Dan Grubbs

Tsunami, hurricane, flood, terrorist attack, mud slide, monsoon, plane crash, tornado, earthquake, drive-by shooting — all happening somewhere within a matter of days, all accompanied by tragic death and human despair. What loss. What pain. What incomprehensible sorrow. Some ask where God is in all this. It’s a question that I can understand those who do not know God intimately to ask.

In fact, it’s not a new question. It’s a question that I know was recorded more than 2,000 years ago when the same basic question was asked of Christ. How He answered reveals much about the nature of man and the nature of God. Let’s look at Luke 13:1-5.

"Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other
Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
Because of our fallen state, we have a very introspective view of justice. We assess fairness from our own point of view. Even our symbol of justice is a balance scale representing that there are equalizing forces indicating one action must follow another comparatively. There is some Biblical truth to this, but it’s usually not applied in our minds rightly.

In this passage, we read where Christ is confronted with this question of fairness and deservedness. Christ’s response is to teach those listening not to balance the tragedies with the victim’s sin. In other words, He’s telling them, and us, that the level of our righteousness does not keep us from pain, sorrow and death. Additionally, He explains that the degree or severity of our sins are not part of the equation either: “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?” Even our innocence does not protect us from tragedy and loss. It’s here where people usually ask how that is fair.

The problem arises when we ask about fairness from the perspective of man and not the perspective of God. What Christ tells them is to appeal to God’s mercy and longsuffering by repenting. In his commentary, Matthew Henry writes, “The same Jesus that bids us repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, bids us repent, for otherwise we shall perish.”

I think it’s important to understand that Christ is primarily referring to the second death. Our physical selves will die, there’s no escaping that except for the rapture. Therefore, Christ is discussing the eternal death that is the lasting and anguish-ridden separation from the Father.

From God’s perspective, there is not one human that isn’t deserving of both the first and the second death. Even our infants are subject to the first death while still in the womb. It’s this first death that is a result of original sin. And we carry that sin nature with us.

Christ is saying that those who were murdered by Pilot and those who were killed in the accident of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam are the same as all of us: “…but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” We are deserving of the same.

From God’s point of view of justice, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”; and also, “for the wages of sin is death.” That means we deserve the death we experience, horrendous or not. Our guiltiness also makes us deserving of the second death. That is, unless we repent as Christ is urging in this passage.

If man still wants to ask the question of fairness, let’s ask the question this way. How fair is it that we continue in sin when God sacrificed His Son for that very sin? How fair is it that we sinners claim a relationship with the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator and Sovereign Lord of all matter and still sin?

Where the ‘balancing’ is viewed as Biblical is the fact that there was an equalizing action that was required to justify our sins and declare us not guilty. This was Christ’s redeeming work on the cross and His victorious resurrection from the grave. Where the scales are still out of balance (to our undeserving favor) is because the sacrifice of Christ far outweighs the total accumulation of sin by man from the first Adam to the last sin committed in the future.

It is only by the mercy of God that we yet live. Do not miss this point. And it is only by the mercy of God as a response to our repentance that we will not experience the second death. Tragedy is not an indicator of our sin or our righteousness. Tragedy is not an indicator of God’s absence. But, the reverse is true. The absence of tragedy is purely by the grace of God. And should tragedy strike, God is not unjust for allowing it to happen, for each of us are sinners and deserving of death. If not for His grace (the unmerited favor God shows us), our lives should all be swept away by the forces of creation, the evil of man or the consequences of our own actions.

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